[Editor’s Note: Guest Post and Illustration by Dave Arcade.]
Ever since we were kids we’ve heard the adage “practice makes perfect” and this is true if you don’t have access to command Z or in other words, what you do can’t be undone.
However, for illustrators working in the digital format this means we don’t have to be perfect. It also means we have way more options for how to travel from point A to B. Thank goodness for that because let’s be honest, with social media taking a noticeable slice of our time, among the many other plates we have to spin to make it in the freelance game, one could argue that we don’t have as much time to practice our craft as our predecessors.
Furthermore, is sketching even the best use of our time? Is that the only avenue by which we elevate our work and tap into our true potential? I don’t think so. At least not for me. Not in the time we live in and the tools we have access to. Not to mention one of the more underutilized arrows in our quiver, our brains. You don’t need to practice drawing to make better drawings.
I know this sounds paradoxical but my body of work is proof of this contradictory statement. I don’t spend much of my free time sketching. I rarely sketch at all. This is not to say I rarely do personal work. I spend a lot of time on personal work. I spend very little time sketching. More time executing digital pieces. However, where this begins isn’t with the muscle memory in my drawing hand. It’s the muscle in my head. Specifically the practice of coming up with ideas.
You don’t need to practice drawing to make better drawings.
I’ve learned my pieces are better when I spend more time upfront ideating my way through a rough rather than practicing my craft so that I can get through roughs more quickly. Plus it only takes a few seconds to jot down an idea. It can take an hour to draw one. Every artist begs, borrows, and steals. It’s in our process and our innate desperation to execute at a certain level. Below is a list of tools, practices, and approaches that have helped develop my style and it has nothing to do with sketching.
Ideas first, sketching second: Take a full day or two typing up ideas. Go through a reference. Make a new Pinterest board. But, write down every idea before you draw anything.
Know the specs: Get the aspect ratio, the PPI (or DPI), and or the document size from the producer on the project first. Ask for it. Demand it. How can you build a composition if you don’t know the dimensions of the frame?
Use a Perspective grid: This is your crystal ball. We visualize better when we have a sense of space. Start plotting out where to put all those ideas you came up with.
Use reference for hell sakes: Remember, you don’t practice drawing things so you need to look at those things while you draw. This is fine. You’re not allowed to trace but you’re allowed to look.
You’re allowed to trace: Don’t trace somebody else’s work. Let me be clear I don’t condone stealing. But I do support tracing things you suck at drawing. Luckily drawing is hard which means there are tools for everything hard to draw. Programs that let you manipulate posture, hand gestures, feet (I hate drawing feet), scenes in perspective, 3D assets you can scale and rotate. Use these tools sparingly but use them. I mean, some of your time should be dedicated to the actual craft, right?
Watch Tutorials: Remember we’re trying to prove that you don’t need to practice to make better drawings, so don’t spend all your time on YouTube. We want to save time, not practice as much and yet somehow make better drawings. So If you can’t draw a nose, watch a quick video by someone who can.
Use the best app for the job: Don’t waste time in photoshop drawing and undoing a long curvature of an object over and over until it’s not wobbly anymore. Drag it out with the pen tool in illustrator and copy and paste that sucker into your photoshop doc. Sounds stupid right? So is wasting 13 minutes on a curve. This goes for everything. Know in the planning phase which program will most likely be used for which task within the composition.
Use the best gear for the job: Are you using an iPad when you should be using a Wacom tablet? There’s a difference and it’s a huge one. Are you limited because you’re using the wrong gear for your style? Focus on what you do best first and commit to the gear that will best support your process and the final execution second. Even if it means you can’t be mobile because you use a desktop tablet the size of a doormat.
When in doubt, sketch: You will need to sketch when part of the composition isn’t working. Go back to step one. Plan and ideate for 10 minutes. Sketch quickly. Then use the right tools to execute flawlessly.
Design while you illustrate: Are you creating balance in your composition or did you zoom in to the upper right corner for three hours and go to town? Are you using scale to your advantage or is everything the same size? This should mostly take care of itself in the planning phase but manage it as you go. Don’t let the final composition act like it’s better than the rough. The rough knows what it’s talking about. Listen to it. Finish the piece. Stop noodling.
Making better drawings doesn’t need to be dictated by the time you’ve previously spent sketching. Especially if you’re like me and you don’t like sketching or it’s not as useful as other tools that help you do what you do best. If sketching does help you execute at a higher level, more power to you. I’m not proposing that you ditch it. I’m only proposing you should ditch it if you don’t like sketching.
Above is an alternate method that has personally made all the difference in the level at which I execute. If you’re a freelance illustrator you will be drawing a lot no matter what. Why not try to make the time you spend on the clock more predictable and productive by shifting time away from what you’re already good at, to sharpen skills and employ new methods in your process that could potentially or even greatly improve your work?