How to Keep Drawing When All Your Drawings Suck

I don't think being a good artist involves much talent.  It just takes keeping going.  Not everybody finishes Bad Drawing #1,000 and thinks I'll just go ahead and make one more drawing.  Most people think I don't have talent and move on to something else. Well, fair play!  To keep drawing after that first moment when you realize you suck and your last 5 or 100 or 1,000 drawings all sucked, you have to have some mix of love, obsession, habit, confidence, and determination.  Additionally, the need to face this problem doesn't go away as you get better - it keeps coming back as sudden drop-offs in apparent ability.  Maybe your vision has improved, and your hand needs to catch up to be able to capture your vision.  It can take a lot of drawings to get through these times, before you get to another satisfying piece, another moment when you think I'm doing alright.  I'm getting better.

I used to take those moments very hard.  If I made 10 bad drawings I'd give up for awhile, a week, a month, sometimes a year, crushed by the idea that I didn't have that magical "talent" everybody was talking about.  I'd think, could I ever draw?  Will I ever draw well again? Maybe I should go into science instead. But I'd come back, eventually.  When it comes down to it, drawing is important.  It's a way of interacting with the world, of honing your attention, of perceiving and translating beauty.  I will always come back.

In recent times those bad moments have been passing more quickly for me, because I don't stop drawing for a month when it happens.  None of my last 20 drawings felt very satisfying and the last 10 look pretty bad, but instead of stopping I barreled right on through - even increasing my drawing frequency.

The skill of keeping going is as important as any other artistic skill.  Maybe it's the most important artistic skill! Here are my techniques and ideas for keeping going when you're work isn't meeting your expectations and there's no sense of reward coming out of your sketchbook.

  1. Push your bad drawings farther.  Take them as an opportunity to experiment without any sense of preciousness!  If an area can't be salvaged, paint over it with color acrylics.  You can redraw over the top of that, or add geometric figures or a brand new drawing.  Try out an experimental color scheme that you wouldn't want to risk on a drawing you like better.  My figure drawing instructor at college, Jane Rosen , used to say she'd much rather we pushed too far with a drawing and destroyed it but learned something, than stopped early out of fear of ruining it.  It's much easier to conduct important experiments when your drawing is already crappy!
  2. Switch to an entirely different medium.  From pencils to watercolors, from color tools to monochrome, from a pad of bristol to that weird water-media linen board you picked up at a sale a while back.  Anything to derail you entirely so that you will approach the page in a new way.
  3. Switch to entirely different content. If you've been drawing people, draw a landscape.  If you've been drawing from pictures, draw from life.
  4. Copy something. Not something impossible, not a Mona Lisa, but something that's more about style than accuracy and in a simple medium like pen or charcoal. Perhaps this image by Van Gogh, or any of the study images in a Robert Beverly Hale book. Find a decent tool for replicating the look (the Van Gogh would probably want a bamboo dip pen with walnut ink), and copy it, trying to emulate the way the artist made the strokes.  It's good to get out of your own own head for awhile and experiment with thinking like someone else.
  5. Work small. Switch to a mini sketchbook, maybe 3.5x5.  This'll help push the focus to composition, and also make it faster to finish each bad drawing - all the better to move on to the next, with one less bad drawing in the way of the next good drawing.

In the end, this is just about finding a way to keep going - to bring yourself to the sketchbook without it driving you away from artmaking and without going in endless circles waiting for the rut to pass.  The important part is just - keep going!

Addendum.

I finally got past this particular glut of unsatisfying drawings yesterday by attending the regular sketchcrawl and behaving normally.  Prior to that, I'd used techniques #1-3 and do think they helped. What a relief to have a made a drawing that rewards me for the work!  I'll be posting the new drawings soon.