I used to think art required natural talent. Then I taught myself to draw

·4-min read

After a lifetime of scribbling on scrap paper, a few years ago I finally started taking drawing seriously. I was backpacking and bought a tin of crayons. I loved it instantly. I spent the rest of the trip sitting in gutters and scribbling wonky buildings; in pubs drawing malformed fellow patrons.

Many who see me scribbling say they’d be afraid to do the same. They have no talent for drawing, they say. But neither do I. And I’m really enjoying learning how to do it.

When I was a kid, my grandma took me to visit Senaka Senanayake, a famous Sri Lankan artist. I gazed up at the walls of his house in central Colombo, plastered with his colourful drawings and paintings. Many of them were decades old, from when Senaka was a child prodigy.

For years I thought all artists were like that – imbued with some gift the rest of us were denied. But I’ve come to realise that while I may never become Senaka, I can always get closer.

My early drawings were flat objects plonked on the page, with little internal relation or coherence. They were also a mashup of what I was trying to draw and my preconceived notions. A tree became a weird mixture of the tree in front of me and every other tree I’d ever seen.

It’s easy to get discouraged when that’s all you’re pumping out.

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But drawing isn’t purely mechanical. It’s as much about process and approach. This means you can learn – you can teach yourself – to get better. My terrible drawings were, and are, plagued by a lack of understanding of the subject and a tendency to rush. There’s probably also a bunch of other issues that I don’t yet know to look for.

Through practice, I’ve gotten better at forcing myself slow down (though still much less than I should), to closely observe and measure. To “construct” the drawing rather than just letting fly.

When I took my sketchpad on holiday two years later, I had learned more about perspective. I was still using crayons and the finer details aren’t there, but I appreciate these drawings a lot more.

Here’s a very bad view of Angkor Thom in Cambodia. I still remember sitting on the rock and drawing this.

I hate how obsessed the online art world is with brands and tools, but you really do need to pick the right tool for what you’re trying to accomplish. More recently I’ve moved on to painting with watercolours and drawing with fineliners. The smaller lines allow me to capture greater detail than the thick crayons. The colour brings life to pictures in ways my old scribbles lacked.

You can see some of this in a sketch from a recent walk around the Rocks in Sydney. The perspective is wonky, but the details of the building are coming out, and I’m starting to achieve some depth.

Practising is still the hardest part of learning to draw (or learning anything). It’s hard not only to find the motivation, but guidance on how to practise effectively. It probably doesn’t help that I keep switching mediums.

Faces are my still favourite thing to scribble. My portraits used to looked like aliens – short foreheads, gigantic eyes, lopsided ears. Just see this drawing of my now-wife from when we were dating a few years ago.

I’ve worked a lot on my portraits. I borrowed all the books my library had, and have watched countless hours of YouTube tutorials. I understand better the theory behind creating values and form in images. It’s mostly just about practice now.

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Progress is slow, but here’s another attempt from about two years in. I’m still messing up the proportions of the face, but its a little closer and looks more three dimensional than the older drawings.

Here’s a recent effort. It still doesn’t look quite like her, but at least now the facial recognition on my camera is starting to think there’s someone there.

I whipped out my sketchbook to pass the time at a recent family lunch. I was immediately crowded by tiny cousins asking me to draw them. I really tried, but none were a good likeness, and I was quickly abandoned.

I still have a long way to go. But I’ve made progress and enjoyed the journey. Yes, I still make mistakes all the time, but they aren’t the same ones I used to make.