How Can I Improve at Drawing and Painting? + An Artist's Year in Review

April 2017: Every detail was researched from the anatomy down to the scales on the mermaids tails.

April 2017: Every detail was researched from the anatomy down to the scales on the mermaids tails.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

It really bothers me when people say that they can't draw. Forgive me if I sound like a broken record. I have talked about this before. I recently read an article about how mindset influences success. Specifically, it discusses the benefits of having a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. So, what does that mean exactly? 

A fixed mindset means you believe talent or intelligence are fixed qualities you are born with, and if you're not born with a specific talent, you will never be good at it. You believe success is a result of talent, not effort. Example: I don't draw because I'm not good at it. I'm just not as talented as you are.

A growth mindset means that you believe talent and intelligence can be developed with hard work and deliberate practice. You see failures as learning opportunities. They are stepping stones along the path to achieving your goals. Example: I'm not good at drawing faces. I'm going to draw 100 of them and when I finish I'll be much better at it.

Practicing Growth Mindset

If you need help with your growth mindset, a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle puts this theory to good use and dives into the concept of what deliberate practice looks like. I have not read it myself, but heard it recommended in an interview on Stories Unbound with children's book author Mike Sundy. It's on my list of books to read very soon.

If you need proof of this theory in action, illustrator Kelley McMorris created a Tumblr called Anyone Can Improve at Drawing where you can find an endless list of real life examples of how artists can improve with practice. Check them out and submit your own!

A Year In Review

With the SCBWI Austin conference approaching I wanted to look back on where I was at this time last year when I registered for my first conference. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing. I had a 5-month-old baby who didn't take naps and needed me to hold him all day long. Always the multitasker, I decided that if my hands were occupied, my brain needed to be busy too, so I spent that time watching the entire SVS Learn course library in preparation.

I arrived at the conference with a portfolio that was bursting at the seams with every children's book illustration I had ever created – all five of them! – and walked away with my very own mentor. Having Marsha available to me has been invaluable. I still cannot believe my luck.

I have spent this year blogging, reading art books, co-working with my mentor, taking online illustration and storytelling classes, listening to kidlit podcasts, attending SCBWI meetings and open critiques (even if I have nothing to be critiqued), and most importantly making art daily while my toddler naps. It has been a lot of work, but I have learned so much and I couldn't be more excited about this year's conference.

The Big Secret to Improving at Art

Reflecting on the last year, I think the most valuable lesson I learned from my mentor was to make art every day. The images at the top of this post were each done about a year apart. Pretty crazy huh?

So here's the big secret:

The only way to improve at art is to make a volume of work. Experiment. Make mistakes. Challenge yourself. Solve problems.

That is basically it. If you make the commitment to work on your art daily (or whatever it is you want to improve at), you may not see obvious changes from day to day, but over time the improvement will be clear.

This is good news and bad news. It's bad news because it takes time, effort and dedication. But it's also good news because making art is what we love to do. If you are already doing it, just keep doing your thing and know that you are on the right path.

April 2016: Note the forced stylization to compensate for lack of anatomical structure. Everything is generic (trees, grass, road, sky, clothing, bike) because nothing was researched except for the helmet because we have one of those. I opted not to include the rest of the bike because drawing bikes is hard!

April 2016: Note the forced stylization to compensate for lack of anatomical structure. Everything is generic (trees, grass, road, sky, clothing, bike) because nothing was researched except for the helmet because we have one of those. I opted not to include the rest of the bike because drawing bikes is hard!

Sketching with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

For Christmas I was very lucky to get an iPad Pro AND the new Apple Pencil as a joint gift from my sweet husband (don't tell him I called him sweet) and father-in-law. The hubs is probably already regretting this gift choice because it's been pretty difficult to get me to put either one down. 

The pencil was backordered and I didn't actually get my hands on it until a few weeks after Christmas, but now that I've been playing with it for a couple of weeks, I'm really starting to get the hang of it. I have been wanting to refine my comic further, so I have been thinking about the feedback I got from Christine Fleming, which was to work on the backgrounds and make the house at the top look like a specific house rather than just any old house. I also have been watching classes on Because I am obsessive compulsive about feeling like I haven't missed anything important, I can't start anything in the middle (I seriously will rewind 20 minutes of a TV show if I feel like I missed even a few lines) and I watched the entire fundamentals series before doing anything else. 

The fundamentals classes were really helpful because I don't feel like I've ever been taught a complete perspective class and I definitely get hung up on details rather than the structure and basic shapes when I'm drawing, so it was nice to have a refresher on how to draw and how to draw from all different angles. I frequently find myself trying to draw things from the easiest angle because I don't know how to work it out from a different perspective. The easiest angle also typically is the most boring one.

Once I finished how to draw, perspective, color, and light and shadow I dove into composition and was anxious to apply the principles to my one page comic. Here is a new sketch which is just a screenshot of the Procreate app on my iPad.


Compared to the one from this post, I feel like the comic improved quite a bit. I have found that drawing with the Apple Pencil has become easier than drawing with a real pencil and have been so absorbed in what I'm working on that I have occasionally tried to brush away non-existent eraser and pencil dust.

I think the coolest thing about drawing digitally is that you can zoom in and work on things in much greater detail than you can with pencil and paper. I also feel like it's easier to get really nice smooth gradients with the Apple Pencil than with a real pencil. And it goes without saying that every Pencil should come with an undo feature.

I have always been most in my element doing plain old black and white pencil sketches, but there are so many possibilities with colors and textures using Procreate and there's a Painting with iPad Pro class that I'm anxious to watch on I'm excited to see what kinds of results I can get when I start moving into digital painting.

One-Page Comic: Skillshare Class by Christine Fleming

I have been a big fan of Skillshare since I first discovered it a few years ago. It's a fun place to go for inspiration, although I do find that I watch more classes than I actively participate in. It was Christine Fleming's series of classes on Skillshare that first gave me the idea that I could actually write or illustrate my own children's picture book. I have watched her class on picture book writing and illustration and any time she posts new illustration classes I'm always interested to hear what she has to say.

So over the holidays I joined a two-week Drawing Comics Challenge to go along with Christine's class "Drawing Comics: Storytelling with Words and Pictures." The challenge was to create a one page comic of a childhood memory. As expected, I didn't make it all the way through the challenge over the two week period. I knew that the holidays would get in the way, but I thought it was worth doing even if I had to do it on my own schedule. It turns out my schedule is more in line with the two month track and I'm still working on my comic. But, I have had a lot of fun going through the steps of designing the layout and then choosing which moments to illustrate and how to frame them to best tell the story.

One Page Comic Process

The first step was to choose a childhood memory. I chose to base my comic on a memory of a close encounter I had with an alligator while fishing with my grandpa. The second step was to write down what happened in the memory and choose only the parts of the story that are most important since those parts will become the panels of your comic.

Next the panels were laid out based on the content that will be needed using the story as a guide.

With the layout and story all mapped out it was time to move forward with sketching. I did several thumbnail sketches to try to determine what illustrations would go in each panel. This thumbnail was my favorite:

Once I was happy with the content of the panels in my thumbnails I moved forward with doing a full-sized sketch with my panels drawn on 8.5 x 11 in paper.

The last steps of the project are to do a refined sketch and then ink and color if you would like to. I haven't gotten to those yet and I obviously still need to add my text, but stay tuned. I'll post the finished product soon. If this looks like fun, head over to Skillshare and take Christine Fleming's class to learn her process for making your own one page comic.