Getting rid of the “I can’t draw”s

In a comment, The Average Jane said that she can’t draw to save her life. I want to say something about that, because I keep hearing self-put-downs like that from people. I realized that I’ve got very few “I can’ts” in my life. Maybe I can nudge people towards that kind of feeling, too.

So. Drawing. Forget all the pretty pictures that other people can make. Can you draw as well as a 3-year-old kid draws? For reference, here are some typical developmental stages:

You can probably draw at least as well as a typical 3-year-old child. It’s not hard. A circle, a few lines, and your imagination can fill in the rest. That’s drawing. Drawing doesn’t have to be amazing. You can start wherever you are. You can even get better if you want.

imageWhen I feel stuck, I draw the most stereotypically kid-like drawings I can think of in order to get me past the “I can’t draw”s. I celebrate the fact that I can draw something recognizable. This makes me realize my challenge is more about “I can’t draw as well as I’d like to.” That’s manageable. That’s just about time and attention and practice. It doesn’t matter if I have years of catching up to do. I can draw, and I can get better. Differentiating between my “I can’t”s helps me stay motivated.

Do you tell yourself that you can’t draw? What happens if you tweak your expectations?

  • Andrea

    Very nice post, Sacha!

    It has made me want to try drawing again (I haven’t for 8 years, or so!)

    It is a pleasure reading you. Take care,


  • Ha! That’s exactly how I view music! I’ve always claimed that I can’t play or carry a tune to save my life. One of the things I realized is, I don’t have enough motivation to try and improve. On the other hand, I can claim to be able to draw as well as my 5 year old daughter, and that’s a good thing! :D

  • Thanks so much for the posts on drawing, I love it! I loved your blog first for emacs and org-mode tips, then for your positive posts and fun writing style. And now I’ve just started drawing, too, so it has been great to read about your parallel experiences (described far more eloquently than I ever could).
    It is such a great break from writing code or working through math – I think that doing something creative must be complementary to all of those left-brained activities. I was shy for the first few months, and I’ve just recently worked up the courage to share what I’m doing on my blog (, and I’ve even had some positive feedback, even for my crude drawings – which makes it all worth it!

  • Beverley Eyre

    Did you ever read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?” It’s basically about the same point you made here. It’s about a guy who knows nothing about motorcycles, cars, engines, or really anything related, who decides to ride around the country on a motorcycle. He’s been studying Zen and decides that the only thing holding him back is his idea that he is incompetent to fix his motorcycle if it breaks down with no help around. He thinks about it and comes up with the notion of ‘learned ignorance” whereby you convince yourself that you can’t do something for any number of popular reasons.

    Needless to say, he discards his ideas of his own limits and learns about motorcycles.

    “Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they’re yours.” – Richard Bach

  • Beverley Eyre

    Oh, I forgot to say what prompted my desire to comment here. I’ve taught many people to draw, and it’s easier than most people think. Here’s how —
    First define what you mean by ‘draw’. For many people it means the ability to sit down and create an image with a pencil totally out of your head with no visual aids. This is not the place the start.

    You need to develop 2 skills first:
    1) you need to develop an ‘draftsman’s eye’
    2) you need to strengthen the necessary muscles in your drawing hand.

    A ‘draftsman’s eye’ is the ability to look at something and see it as a draftsman sees it: i.e. as a collection of lines and, later on, shades of gray. The fastest way to do this is to make a ‘windowed drawing pad’ (don’t google, it’s my term). This is a surface (mine is wooden) the size of 2 pieces of paper next to each other. One side will hold paper (by some method, tape or a clamp) and the other side is a piece of glass. If you’re a total beginner, you take a thin-tip marker capable of drawing on glass and, looking through the glass at an object, trace it’s outline. Then, draw the object on the paper using both the object and the tracing for reference.

    After you get good at this, draw the object on the paper 1st, and if it’s not good enough, use the window to trace the object and see where you went wrong. Very quickly you’ll learn to look at an object and see it as lines in their proper relationship.

    Developing your drawing hand, obviously, just takes time and work. You need fine control over the pencil, and you don’t have it yet if you haven’t drawn a lot.

    After you can draw from life well, you can learn to draw from your head. That’s also not hard, but it takes another skill you will need to develop. This post is too long already. so I’ll skip that here.

    Lastly here’s a tip. Many novices like to ‘find’ the right line by the ‘scratch’ method, i.e. back and forth and again and again until the ‘line’ looks like the right shape. But it’s not one line at that point, it’s many lines. My drawing teacher told me, \only draw one line, but make sure it’s the right line.\ Start out with a very light, feather touch on the pencil to create very faint lines at first. Then you won’t have to erase so much.

    Good luck! Drawing is fun!

  • I recommend Betty Edwards’ book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. She has some excellent techniques to help you draw what you see – the ‘draftsman’s eye’ described in Beverley’s comment.

  • Wonderful tips! I’m looking forward to practising them. I wonder if tracing pictures using my tablet will give me a portable (although not 3D) way to practise looking at things as tones and lines and shapes. =D

    Michelle: I like how you have fun with your drawings as a visual journal! I’m going to try doing that too. =)

    Thanks for the encouragement and the recommendations!

  • Beverley Eyre

    I’ve never drawn with a tablet, so I can’t answer your question. Actually, I don’t really see what you mean. Do you mean having some picture on your screen and, using a program that enables you to draw over an image, ‘trace’ the lines in the image?

    If that’s it, then I’m not sure that will work. The tracing part is just so that you’ll be able to see what the proper line and its relationship to other lines is. But you need to be able to compare it to your attempt to draw something *without* tracing it.

    Maybe you could do it this way. Put a shoe-box on a table in front of you. Take a picture of it with your tablet. Then, before you load the image into your ‘draw’ program, try to draw the box into a new, blank image. Then, on a new layer, load the picture you took of the shoe-box and compare. Then rotate the box and try it again.

    You rotate the box in order to change the ‘corner’ angles. You should be able to look a corner and ‘see’ the way the lines join to make the correct angle. It’s harder than you think (for a novice). You can also try a cooking pot and try to make the correct oval (ellipse actually) representing the top (with the correct foci).

    If you do this, tell me how it went, ok?

  • Beverley Eyre

    Oh, and, Sacha, draftsmen never look and see ‘shapes’. That’s what non-draftsmen see. Draftsmen only see lines and tones and (if appropriate) colors. IRL, you see things with 2 eyes so you have binocular vision which simulates 3d in your brain. But you draw onto a 2d surface, so you have to deliberately reject the illusion of 3d your brain simulates and draw what you’re *actually* seeing, which is 2d (2 2d images – the image your ‘master eye’ receives and the ‘tweaking’ done by your other eye to provide the additional info your brain needs to simulate 3d)