Nsio's Four Tools for a Successful Drawing
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Published: September 10, 2014

Nsio's Four Tools for a Successful Drawing

Let's face it, drawing is hard. Especially for a beginner, learning to draw seem dauntingly challenging. Even more experienced artists have it hard and I'm not anyway different from that. At the same time, weirdly enough, drawing is surprisingly simple and straightforward thing to do. But that's when you know what you are doing.

In fact, drawing is probably hard for you just because you don't know how it's done. And if you ask an artist how it's done, you will likely get rather vague answer. They know how to do it, but they don't know how to explain it for you. Drawing is full of concepts that simply don't translate well for an average Joe. Also, even if a great artists gives you a tip how to draw something, you probably still have troubles at executing it. You just don't see things the way the artist does., so you might even end up using the tip wrong, but believing in it so hard that you can't correct yourself. Not to mention the actual drawing part: transferring the image from your mind on the canvas via your hand.

Although there are many things about drawing that needs to be learned, I find that there are four things you should focus on. I call these “The Four Tools for a Successful Drawing”. They are:

  1. Knowledge

  2. Perception

  3. Insight

  4. Muscle Memory

At first glance, these don't seem to yield any specific tool to achieve anything. However, in my opinion these are the most basic and essential building blocks for drawing a successful drawing. Or rather, these are the prerequisites for taking full advantage of everything else. I'll try to cover every tool briefly.

1.Knowledge

You just can't get over this. You need to know what you are doing. Not only you need to know the subject you are drawing, you need to know what means you have to recreate with your chosen medium. Knowledge is something you gain only by doing research and studies about everything, although you need to focus only on few things at first.

Of the four tools, knowledge is the most straightforward to acquire. Gaining knowledge can be hard for various reasons. This is because there are at least three kind of knowledge available for you: true knowledge, false knowledge and transmuted knowledge. At first, when you lack even the initial knowledge to tell these apart, you don't know which kind of knowledge you are gaining.

The good thing is that most of the time you are fed with true knowledge trough your eyes. However, without proper insight and perception, you have no way to tap into this knowledge (which is why those tools are invaluable). You simply don't understand it. This leads into assumptions or believing in something that's not quite the truth, making you rely on false knowledge. Also, if we don't get to apply that knowledge, we tend to forget it fairly quickly. When we recall something we have forgotten, the knowledge may get transmuted in the process, which again leads into possible accumulation of false knowledge.

Another good thing is that you can acquire new knowledge trough trial and error. If you have the insight and perception, you can learn whether your knowledge is true or false and filter the knowledge that you will need. You may also come up with assumptions which will eventually lead into true knowledge, even though you aren't putting any conscious efforts in it.

2. Perception

Although you can't draw anything with just your eyes, your perception is the greatest tool for acquiring true knowledge and insight, so you will want to make sure you see things the right way.

An artist sees things in whole different way when compared to an average Joe. To put it short, nothing is as it seems. The reason a beginner can't see things the way artist does is the fact that they rely too much on false knowledge. Even though they are seeing exactly the same thing as the artist, their assumptions about the subject leads them astray. This holds true especially with colors. For example, we know that leaves of tree are green. However, if you paint it with green color, it will end up wrong. A leaf is anything but green, so the artists use all manner of colors you might not have even thought, and the leaf may end up looking more real than the reality itself. Using really dark blue or purple instead of true black can make the black look even more black.

The reason for this is that in normal circumstances, we don't need such information. The amount of data flooding our retinas is so great that our brains just don't bother to process it all, when simple reactions will get the job done. For example, it's enough that we know that the leafs are green, so the additional information is discarded right away. You need to learn seeing things the way they are, not the way you think they are. You will need to learn bypass the filtering your brain does to get access into true knowledge. This is the requirement for seeing and understanding the three dimensional nature of our world and many other visual distortions that make things look so real.

One good way to train your perceptions is to take a look at optical illusions. They will make your brains go in limbo, when it tries its best to make sense of the image. Optical illusions make you aware of the true state of things, which allows you to gain invaluable insight. Once you have the understanding, you can have very accurate visual images in your mind, which are much more easier to put on canvas. That said, I find that perception is as much about the ability of imagining things visually in mind as it's about seeing the physical subject.

Perception works in tandem with insight, because it's the tool that decipher the constant data stream that floods your eyes. Simultaneously your perception gives your insight feedback about the subject so that you can learn more about it. These two tools augment each other so greatly that you might be able to draw decently even without doing comprehensive studies about the subject.

3. Insight

In my opinion, insight is the most valuable tool of the four. You could treat insight as the bridge between other tools. Insight filter knowledge you need, decipher visual feedback into new insight and knowledge, steer your perception with help of knowledge, guides your hand for gaining more accurate muscle memory. In fact, even if you don't have any skills on any of the tree other tools, your insight will help you to gain them. I'm telling this from my own experience, as my drawing skills went trough a drastic change once I started to focus on gaining the insight.

Although drawing seems very complicated, many things are actually very simple. Many of these things can be considered as rules which when followed almost always guarantee a successful drawing. There are a lot of these so called rules. Some of them work alone, some work together with other rules, while some even override certain rules. For example, humans generally have quite symmetric face, with two eyes. Even if you see the face from any other angle than front, the symmetry is still there. Then it's just about thinking how you will see the eyes from the chosen viewing angle. As already mentioned, perception augments insight greatly.

The way our minds work is quite fascinating. We all have our own views about things, which can also make us too inflexible to adjust on another way of thinking.With right mindset, you can learn to draw anything. You need to accept that your point of view or way of doing things aren't always the optimal or desirable. You shouldn't be afraid of making changes in yourself and in your values if it will prove beneficial for you in the long run. With open mind, many doors will be unlocked for you to explore and you can see yourself which paths will work for your particular needs the best.

To gain insight, you need to question your actions constantly. Is this really the way I want to draw? Am I satisfied with this drawing and if I'm not, why? You also need to be honest with yourself. With help of perception, you should be able to tell if your drawing is wonky. It's then about using your insight to figure out what's the cause and take proper actions to correct yourself. For example, if your drawing constantly end up looking flat and two dimensional, you need to focus on gaining insight about three dimensional shapes and learning to see the mass and volume. If you have a habit of drawing hairy lines, you need to focus on drawing techniques more.

My insight focus mostly on perspective, dynamism and proportions, as I found them most essential in my needs. For quite some time, I have been relying almost entirely on my insight to come up with everything I know about drawing, thought my perception has also played important part in that.

4. Muscle memory

Simply put, muscle memory is all about the physical skills of your hand to accurately transfer your image from your mind on the canvas. This is the hardest tool to master, and sadly it's the only tool that actually makes your drawing visible for others. There are no shortcuts here. No matter how much knowledge you gain, how great your insight or perception is, you can learn drawing only by physically doing it it. Theory alone just won't do it.

The reason I named the fourth tool “muscle memory” is that it's the thing that makes it possible for us to master skills that require the utmost precision. As you practice, the muscles of your hand will become better at utilizing the pen accurately. When you have been drawing long enough, your hand just knows how to draw the things you want. At this point, you don't need to put conscious effort in drawing, you can focus only on creating art.

Gaining muscle memory takes patience and determination. Basically that means drawing same things over and over again. You also need to do that regularly, otherwise you get rusty (your perception and hand go out of sync). However, getting rusty isn't completely bad thing. In fact, overcoming the rust will help you gain even better muscle memory since you need to recall the forgotten things. For example, every time I start a practice, I always draw a general standing pose first, so it comes almost automatically without too much of effort, even if I haven't been drawing for weeks.

Similar to knowledge, you can also gain harmful muscle memory. You need to get rid of tendencies that won't contribute to the art and aim for fine control of your hand. This is where drawing techniques come handy. Techniques aren't something you should need to think about while creating art. It's important to practice art and techniques separately, so that you can channel your mind only on few things at time. If you have seen the beginnings of my livestreams, you have seen me drawing just seemingly random lines and circles. Drawing quick shapes and lines repeatedly is great way to warm up and to train the accuracy of the muscles. Gesture drawings are another way to train muscle memory while applying the techniques on art creation. It's also much faster than trying to draw full and detailed human figures.


I know that everything I say here is very general and debatable, but unfortunately it's not possible to go trough things in greater details without writing a complete book, but I do hope that reading this will help you to gain new insight and knowledge about drawing, so that you can perceive things more like an artist and start training your hand vigorously. Try to ignore the innuendo there.


Nsio of the Hermit Mystics

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anonymous's avatar
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Utrilus's avatar
UtrilusStudent Traditional Artist
On the fifth page of google search: "drawing "bad for you""
Good job nsio!
Pretty much my own assumpions are pretty similar to your conclusions.

And as I pay attention to these things, I must inform you that you are using negative words in your language. As in words difficult and "sadly its the way it is". I do not fall pray to these parasitic nocebos. :D
KemikLy's avatar
KemikLyProfessional General Artist
You hit the nail on the head. And for the record, if you ever do a book I will want to read it! :P
palowsky's avatar
palowskyHobbyist General Artist
I have the same beliefs about these things. But I think you have explained it better than I. 
I too am a firm believer of having your mind and your hand as the only 2 tools you ever need no matter what medium you use.
R3dTyrant's avatar
R3dTyrantHobbyist Digital Artist
I have to say I enjoy reading this journal, it serves as great reference material and a pep talk to supplement my regular practice schedule. :D

For me it's always been a problem trying to push myself. I've meandered around art for years, with a mixed bag of results. I don't have the luxury to attend figure drawing classes, rather I observe and study drawings by many other people to gain more insight into how they perceive mass and volume and apply it to my own work. I rise to the challenge to test my limits and push myself further everyday. It's actually pretty common these days for me to log ~4 hours of "self-aware" art study and another 2-4 hours of fun time almost everyday! I believe actions speak louder than words, to the point that it's my personal mantra. Talk is cheap, y'know? :lol:
Nsio's avatar
NsioHobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks :D

I myself find all the classes, courses and exercises suffocating. Although obviously they are useful as they guide the artists forward, basically they still need to do things on their own. Thanks to all the tutorials and tips online, there is plenty of material to study independently.

Conversations with fellow artists are quite fruitful, but your own actions speak the loudest indeed :)
R3dTyrant's avatar
R3dTyrantHobbyist Digital Artist
I agree, the startling amount of visual and artistic information we have at our disposal today is inspiring! Although a
great deal of this material can be helpful, I tend to avoid the "step-by-step" format of many tutorials and look for
more conceptually informative tutorials such as your fantastic series, Loomis, Mattesi, etc.

Step-based tutorials are structured to allow someone with little or no artistic knowledge to able to compose a piece
in a relatively short period of time. The problem with this approach is that it only teaches the artist how to draw
with a limited understanding of the subject. As you so eloquently put it:
"We aren't drawing 2D objects. Although we are drawing on a two-dimensional surface, the world we live in is 3D.":D

Furthermore, I believe it isn't enough to be aware of what we are drawing. We must understand that our dreams
are unreachable when they are passing whimsies of our idle minds. A goal is a dream that has a blueprint for success,
if that makes sense. ^^;

You can pardon my exuberance if you wish. The last month has been a roller coaster ride of ellipses and poorly drawn
chest cavities. When I'm feeling particularly motivated, I like to pour my thoughts into haikus. It's a fun way to document
your growth as you understand your inner purpose. :)

tl;dr Art is fun, and I learn more about it everyday. :giggle:
AliceSacco's avatar
AliceSacco Digital Artist
I'm practicing hard on my weak points (at the moment I'm working on perspective - 1, 2 and 3 point, and basic shapes, trying to re-learn to draw and while doing so studying deeper actual anatomy (trying to learn to draw it from memory).
Keiboxy2's avatar
Keiboxy2Hobbyist Digital Artist
Good read,i'll try and apply these into future drawings
mochichama's avatar
mochichamaHobbyist Digital Artist
agree to all,
i just realized this recently draw and memorize, i stop for several month before,
it takes a while to get used to draw again,
still struggle with perception and insight and thats when discussion with other artists really help
fishupantsu's avatar
Although I don't really understand insight and perception very well, I still found the muscle memory part really helpful ^^
I guess its time to look for bad habits and get rid of them..
fludd108's avatar
I truley feel enlightened after reading this. Thank you for taking the time to write it all down. These tools can be applied to more than just drawing. Much more.
Drgig's avatar
DrgigStudent General Artist
very nice 
principiantebaldosa's avatar
principiantebaldosaHobbyist Artist
Thanks for taking the time into writing this. It's very helpful as it may not be full detail it invites to greater reflection about drawing and how to improve.

Reading this reminded me how I was lazying around some details at drawing and then asked myself why I couldn't draw any better. Being lazy is realy dangearous at drawing, and overcoming it means using these tools
Nsio's avatar
NsioHobbyist Digital Artist
Yes. One needs to know the fundamentals in order to keep improving constantly, even though it's so tempting just to start drawing right away.

Yeah, that kind of laziness is harmful. However, there is this so called "artistic laziness" which is worth aiming for. In short, it's about getting over the drawing process with as less effort as possible and always seeking for more efficient ways of doing that :D Less is more as they say xD
principiantebaldosa's avatar
principiantebaldosaHobbyist Artist
"artistic laziness" sounds like cheating xD, well I might end up doing that.
Nsio's avatar
NsioHobbyist Digital Artist
It may sound like that, but it's really a good thing. Especially if you plan on making money with your art, the less you need to do, the better. For example, why spending 40 hours on details, when you can make an illusion of a detailed work within one hour, and it will end up looking even more detailed than the work where you would waste a lot of effort. This is the concept, figuring out how much exactly you need to do to to achieve results that is on par or better with more refined works.
principiantebaldosa's avatar
principiantebaldosaHobbyist Artist
It's true, I guess it doesn't matter how detailed you want something if not many people are going to take a look at that.

Well those might be two different aproaches to one task, you just pick the one that is needed, whether you like it or not.

I may just be in a narrow minded phase where I want things detailed and complicated still I will have to admit that there are many works that have caught my like and were done in that efficient way.
Draxonis-LupusVI's avatar
Draxonis-LupusVIHobbyist Digital Artist
thank you for this, I'll be sure to work on all 4 of these aspects in my work
Magra123's avatar
Magra123Professional Digital Artist
very interesting and quite informative, i really liked the part about the muscular memory and rust, ive gone throught that a few times and it always seems to help me get better at what im doing xD
Nsio's avatar
NsioHobbyist Digital Artist
Yes I like that part as well. It helped me to get over the rust a lot because I knew how useful it would be in long run. :D
Magra123's avatar
Magra123Professional Digital Artist
yeah, its funny how after a while of not drawing it seems to get easier to clean the rust xD, last time i just happened to some how got a grip on perspective and before that i couldnt do that for the life of me xD.
Chirutai's avatar
That was a good read. Almost makes me want to seriously pick up drawing ahah
Well, if life wasn't so busy that I gave up on it, you would be the best teacher!
Nsio's avatar
NsioHobbyist Digital Artist
Right? xD But it's very understandable that the we are always so busy that it's hard to dedicate any time on drawing. It's such a shame
Chirutai's avatar
Too many cat videos to watch on Youtube... And let's not talk about the pokémon to catch.
anonymous's avatar
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