Many students have the idea that you don’t really need to know how to draw in order to paint. I disagree with this. There is nothing quicker to peg a painting as amateurish than a bad ellipse or missed proportion on a figure. I think that there are two kinds of drawing; drawing for the sake of drawing and drawing as the foundation for painting. Drawing is of course an art in of itself. But when I was in art school, you had to complete all the drawing courses, head drawing, figure drawing, perspective etc. before you were allowed to touch a brush! We drew from plaster casts and from the model to learn how to render form in black and white. This allowed us to really see and learn value without all the distraction of color.

When I’m in the drawing stage of a painting, I’m using it as a sort of armature for the painting, a map if you will. I might use only a few marks or lines to place the major elements of my piece. But believe me, my foundation skills in drawing serve me very well, far beyond these few marks. In the preliminary stages of a painting, it’s very important to get the composition and the scale of all the elements worked out. I frequently do a thumbnail sketch and then scale it up to my larger piece, being sure to keep the proportion consistent. Any unresolved areas in a thumbnail will be magnified in the larger version, so it’s best to work it out from the get go! It’s kind of a pay me now, or pay me later sort of thing!

I was recently working with a long time student that really wants to tackle a new body of work that involves some drawing. She was very resistant to the idea. She’s not alone! So she and I talked about some ways to engage in drawing that doesn’t feel so intimidating. There is something about drawing that we think it has to look just like the object or subject that we are drawing and if we can’t get it right, we revert back to the worn out phrase, “I can’t draw a straight line”. Well guess what? Neither can I!

Nobody can draw a perfectly straight line, but everyone can draw! Everyone! It’s really a matter of seeing, not so much drawing. We have to learn to draw what we see, not what our brain is filling in for us. Visual perception is mostly in the brain and our brain sort of makes a symbol or facsimile of what we see. We have to counter this by spending more time observing and thus circumventing our brain’s tendency to fill in the gaps. This also can be said about color perception. Remember that tricky thing called color constancy?

I think that the single best thing you can do to improve your paintings is to acquire some drawing skills. Go out today and buy a sketchbook! Draw in it every day, even if it’s just for five or ten minutes. Get a small one that fits easily in your purse or backpack and bring along a couple different kinds of drawing tools. My favorite is a ballpoint pen; it makes a terrific gradation and you can find them virtually everywhere and most places for free! You never need to be at a loss for something to draw! You can always draw your hands or just plop yourself down anywhere and start in. If you draw every day, you will definitely improve really quickly.

One of the key aspects of drawing that I use in almost every painting is rendering the negative spaces. It’s much easier to see the negative spaces than the positive ones. Through the practice of drawing, I’m sharpening my skills of observation and comparison. This leads to better composition and design of my paintings.

Try out some drawing techniques such as contour drawing and blind contour drawing. Turn your reference photo upside down and keep it that way until you are finished with you drawing. Draw with your non-dominant hand. Hold your drawing tool like a brush, not a writing pencil. Practice drawing the negative shapes. For lots more suggestions on techniques to improve, check out the wonderful book by Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

Here are a few more suggestions for amping up your drawing skills FAST!

  • Buy a sketchbook and FILL it.
  • Seek out local life drawing sessions even if it’s intimidating. Nobody cares but you!
  • Copy old master drawings and drawings you admire
  • Try out a variety of drawing implements to find your favorites

The primary thing for me with regards to drawing is that I don’t want my drawing skill, or lack of drawing skill to hold me back creatively. I don’t want any limits on my ideas. With strong drawing skills I can move in any direction that attracts me!
Here are a few of my favorite books on drawing:

Dynamic Figure Drawing by Burne Hogarth

Drawing the Human Head by Burne Hogarth

Drawing the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm

A Foundation for Expressive Drawing by E.J. Tomasch (out of print)

Successful Drawing by Andrew Loomis

Drawing the Head and Hands by Andrew Loomis

An Illustrated Life by Danny Gregory

Sketchbook Confidential 2 by Pamela Wissman (I’m in this book!)

With Warmest Regards,


Painting Minilessons
with Marla Baggetta

My free online minilessons in art are a fantastic way to learn more about your craft, regardless of your skill level. There are lessons available on everything from basic drawing techniques to complex painting methods, and no matter what your interests are, you’re sure to find something that appeals to you. Whether you’re a beginner who’s just starting out, or a seasoned artist who wants to brush up on your skills, these minilessons are a great resource. These lessons are available anytime, anywhere. So whether you’re looking for a quick refresher or want to explore something new, be sure to check out some of my minilessons at Painting Lessons with Marla.

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