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I've been thinking about how and why we learn to draw for a few years now.  I started self-analazing my own drawing and character design thought process when I began writing my first art instruction book, "Creating Characters with Personality".  It was harder than I thought to verbalize how I've learned and how I process drawing.  This has led me to start looking back at my artistic life and how I learned art.  What made me learn the most?  What drove me to draw and stick with it?  What led to others I knew as a child to stop drawing?  I think I'm ready to present some of those thoughts here on DA and hear what you think.  This is part 2 of three in a series.  I'm not sure where this is leading, but step one is my establishing an online art instruction school called Taught ByA PRO ( that will (in phase one) concentrate on drawing instruction for all forms of media.  Here we go:

I believe there are THREE major problems in the way we learn art instruction in the United States. PROBLEM #1: Well-meaning adults kill a children's joy for drawing (can be read here:… ) and PROBLEM #2:  Artists are not training artists (can be read here:… )

PROBLEM #3: Weve been taught incorrectly- we need to know WHY and WHAT we are drawing.

This one may be the most controversial in this series.  

In the mid- 70s one of the most popular art instruction book series were the Draw 50 (airplanes, prehistoric animals, caricatures, aliens, cartoon character, etc, etc.) by Lee Ames.  They are still in wide use at schools and libraries the world over.  In the 70s and 80s these books were the obligatory gift at Christmas or birthdays for any child that liked to draw.  The premise of these books was to create a step-by step way to draw a certain subject by breaking it down into simple lines and shapes.  Step 1: Draw a circle, Step 2: draw a triangle below it, Step 3: add a curved line from the bottom of the triangle to the top of the circle, etc., etc. until you had a drawing of a beautiful OWL!  For myself, as a young artist, I couldnt help being drawn to being able to create a drawing of an owl that looked like a professional artist had done it!  I still remember showing my mother drawings from the Draw 50 series and her not believing I drew it.  Surely, you traced it, right? she would say.  There was a reward in that feeling.  I wasnt as frustrated as if I were looking at a photo of an owl and tried to recreate it.  Those drawings never looked right.  Now I had an art book were I could find a drawing of an owl that an artist had ALREADY simplified for me.  I was piggybacking off of his training already by copying his version of an owl.  In addition to that, the way I LEARNED to draw that pre-made Owl was through a geometric approach of following a formula.  If one of my friends asked me to draw my new owl character from a different angle, a different pose, a different expression- I would be lost.  This is because I didnt know HOW I created that drawing.  I really didnt learn how to draw that owl; I learned how to replicate lines that in 7 easy steps BECAME the owl. 

To back up a little, I do want to say that Mr. Lee Ames (who died a little over a year ago) WAS a classically trained artist in his own right.  He had worked for 18 years at Walt Disney Studios and illustrated many paperback novels and illustrations for magazines.  I dont know how the Draw 50 series came about but the step- by- step drawing approach he used had been around long before he created his books.   I assume Mr. Ames had very good intentions in sparking kids desires to draw. In many ways, he was successful in that, and I include myself in that group.  My point with using the Draw 50 book series as an example is because its such a well-know series that has spun off many similar books on drawing horses, manga, comic book characters, etc. that are very popular today.  This step-by-step approach DOES have some value.  For children at an early age, it can give you some confidence and help you understand the most basic principles of drawing:  shapes and lines, put together in the right way, can create a recognizable character, person, animal, or object.  This is the most basic element of drawing and where we, as artists, gain our first successes.   It's ALSO a way we, as animation artists especially, can replicate the same character from different angles, expressions, etc.- by breaking it down into basic shapes.  THAT part of the art instruction WORKS.  The point I'm trying to make is that there was a whole bunch of OTHER information that was not mentioned in those books (and books like them) that we needed to know to really grow to the next level.  To be able to create that owl from the SIDE view, for example, I needed to know how that triangle and circle shapes turned in perspective.  How do those shapes change when the owl is now flying?  Its a huge leap for a child to do anything with that system of 7 steps and understand how to make ANOTHER, different owl.  You have only learned THAT owl, from THAT view, with THAT expression, and in THAT style.  

Once again, to be clear, THESE books are great for getting young kids interested in drawing.  As children, we learn by copying.  We also learn best by creating "known" things from simple shapes.   The "Draw 50" books do those two basic things well.  And with little to now text, so they books are easy for very young children to use.  Someone asked me if she should tell her child to stop copying pictures (from comic books, comic strips, manga comics, etc.) and create his/her own characters. Ultimately, the question was: "Is copying bad?"  My answer to this question is: No, not if they are young.  We ALL first learn from copying.  (Understand, I do not mean tracing.  There is very little value in that.)  Copying a professional's artwork gives a child the ability to make their work look ALMOST as nice as a professionals.  It gives them some confidence, it gives them a little added knowledge, and it gives them practice drawing.  Its a challenge to make your work look as CLOSE to the professional artwork as possible.  Its good to give kids some challenges.  And there are some drawing lessons/principles they will pick up through osmosis.  Some.  I used to draw Don Martin drawings, just to try a different style.  His hands and feet-especially- were wonderfully odd and I remember even at a young age, thinking about how could I do that with my hand and feet.  Did he add joints to get into those positions?  I was comparing his very cartoony drawings/style to real anatomy and picking up some knowledge along the way.  We learn from EVERYTHING we draw.  So, at a young age, let them copy.  We have to go through it.  But, watch out, what comes next is what separates "doodlers for fun" from kids that might make a career of art.  

It's the blank piece of paper.  I still remember when I started creating my own characters/drawings.  When I started drawing scenes out of my head.  When I stopped copying.  It was HORRIBLE.  My artwork took about 100 steps backward and suddenly I felt like I couldn't draw.  I had leaned too much on copying other peoples artwork (probably for longer than I should have) and, most of all, I had gotten used to some drawing success because of it.  I was horrified how bad I drew when I wasn't looking at someone else's picture/art.  I didn't know what to draw either.  I was uninspired and lacked real knowledge of any real artistic principles.  This is the point I stopped drawing.  Not for too long, but I remember thinking maybe I wasn't an "artist" like I thought I was.  The kids at school still said I was, it was my label at school and I was proud of it.  It was what made me different.  I was the guy the kids went to if they wanted a drawing.  But now I was stripped of that ability, or so I thought.  Slowly, though, I started back at it.  Like a smoker trying to break a cigarette addiction, I decided I shouldn't go cold turkey.  When I designed a new cartoon character of my own (back then I wanted to be a comic strip artist), I surrounded myself with art books of artists I liked and styles I wanted to emulate (today, you would call this the internet).  I would try an nose from one character, mix in eyes i liked from another character, a body shape from another, etc.  Pretty soon, I had an "original" character but with the help of the pros.  It looked a little "Frankensteined", but it at least looked semi-professional.  AND, the more I did it, the more some of those elements became my own.  I started "Frankensteining" a style, you could say.  After a while, I didn't need those books around me so much.  Maybe just for inspiration, but I started figuring some things out for myself.  AND, I was simultaneously, getting books on anatomy, perspective, techniques, tools, etc.  During that time I was experimenting and learning drawing basics and applying that to my "research" into the artists that I loved and how they drew.  BOTH were paying off and soon I felt like I was an "artist" again.  But this time, I was drawing with a blank piece of paper in front of me.  I was able to CREATE art.  Not just copy it.  It would be years (15 -20 years) before I felt I could CONSISTENTLY create art I liked or felt was working pretty well.  I still make mistakes to this day.  I still have drawings that don't come out correctly and I don't like.  I always will.  We never stop learning and growing in our art.  

And, by the way, COPYING isn't bad later in life.  We call it research then.  Looking at photos of people in poses and "using" that pose for an illustration of a DIFFERENT character is great.  It looks better, it has a natural sense to it- its based on reality so it has added believability.  Win-win.  Again, TRACING is always bad.  Copying, when you get older, is about HOW you use the research in front of you.  Its gaining knowledge through research on a given subject.  We drew real lions and watched video after video of lions running, playing, etc. for our animation in "The Lion King", but none of it was traced from film of lions.  No, we just wanted to gain some believability and knowledge from the real thing so our caricatured lions (after all ours talked and gestured with their paws as if they were hands) could feel more real.  Sorry, this was a slight tangent from the main point.  

HERE's THE POINT:  I believe once we are ready to move past copying pictures from books, comics, photos, etc. and want to advance to creating a drawing from a blank piece of paper, we need to change the way we are taught.  Its at this point, an artist needs to start thinking through their drawings more.  Knowing WHY and WHAT they are drawing become the two MOST IMPORTANT questions to answer as they progress as an artist.   From the "Draw 50" books I didn't learn to ask myself why I was drawing those lines, I was just copying them as I was told.  I wasn't really learning how to draw.  What came after that was a very disheartening search for real drawing principles.  Some of that was going to come through lots of practice, but some of it, I needed to find other books on more advanced subjects so I could grow.  I had to ask the questions in why I was drawing what I was drawing.  I had to start having a purpose behind what I was sketching.  Why do I draw a ball shape for the cranium of the head, then add construction lines too it?  It means nothing if its not explained to you.  Real art instruction is a lost art.  Most of the great books on art instruction are from the 40s because art schools- not just elementary school art programs- have stopped teaching art instruction and they just put a life drawing model on a stand and say, "GO".  


Ultimately, artists need some help getting through the transition from the copying phase to the blank piece of paper phase.  This is the point we need REAL guidance and I believe its the point where we are most lacking in art instruction in the U. S. 

I guess I just wish the talented Mr. Ames would have had some more advanced books so that the kids he got drawing with the "Draw 50" series could use that seed and start really learning drawing concepts so they could grow past the 7 steps to draw A OWL.  He started a fire for many of us, but we are left to fan that flame on our own.    

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HaloPrime Featured By Owner Jan 10, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I DEFINITELY get stuck on the blank paper phase. I can draw something close to good with a reference in front of me, but without it, my sketches are just horrible. I hope I can get past that some day.
frazamm Featured By Owner Dec 17, 2013
I'm a fan of tracing. Don't get me wrong. It is how I started along with copying pictures I liked. At that early stage, before I started adapting the tracings, they were good for me to learn what I was not able to get right. I learnt a lot from it, when art instruction books were not yet available. I didn't even know they existed, let alone asking someone to buy some for me. That came later. Quite a while later, and I had grown up by then, I could buy them myself. I still think that tracing is part of research, in a little way. I think the whole point of it is context--what do you mean to get out of it? Are you tracing just because you are not able to do anything else?

Otherwise, the 'Draw 50' series is as you said a great way to start, especially for the young artist. I've been trying to teach my sons how to draw, with varying degrees of success. At that age they want to see they have accomplished something and they compare with what I do and keep asking me how I am able to do it. I patiently explain that there have been a lot of years since the time I first started out because I got on my Dad's nerves for 'criticising' his drawing skills!
shshankjuvekar Featured By Owner Dec 8, 2013
Hello Sir! I am 26 now and learning 3d animation at Animschool. I am just reading your character mentor book. Thanks for such nice books. I still wonder whether I have same capacity of learning to draw or not. I was never fortunate enough to learn about cartooning or even good drawing. I remember once I shown my drawing of mickey mouse to my art teacher and he told me its useless, rather he want me to focus on drawing rainy season painting. I demotivated but carried on drawing. I took management degree b'coz people told me art is not going to take me anywhere. Fortunately 2 year back I get some hands on Maya software basics and started learning about animation. Now I am continuing my animation studies at Animschool. So do u think that learning all these is still possible at this age? thanks a lot.
tombancroft Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2013  Professional Filmographer
Thanks for the kind words.  Its ALWAYS possible to grow as an artist.  Keep at it.  Animschool is a great online school, also, so you are doing the right thing with them.  Good luck!
Boyann Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2013
Splendid explanations, wonderful guidelines. Thank you for inspiring us and sharing your experiences.
Sleepingseeker Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
As someone trying to teach myself to draw, I want to say that I appreciate this journal so very much. I want to continue improving and besides practicing like mad, I needed to learn what I've been doing wrong. And NOT using references was step one, lol I felt kind of guilty for looking at a picture and 'copying' the lines I saw. But you're so right in that there is a mighty leap between referencing and going right from your mind to that blank sheet of paper. Thank you.
FreakieGeekie Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
It's a great article but this jumped out at me:
I surrounded myself with art books of artists I liked and styles I wanted to immolate...
The word you're looking for is "emulate". Immolate means to destroy by fire. 
tombancroft Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2013  Professional Filmographer
Thanks for the correction, I knew that didn't seem correct.  Autocorrect said it was so I went with it.  I'll fix it. 
FreakieGeekie Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
You're welcome. I hate autocorrect. It does some crazy things sometimes.
towknee Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Just means you are a smart and logical person.

I always tell others that English is my second language.

When they ask what is my first language I reply "HICK".

I taught my Daughter how to read and during the process I was surprised how confusing the rules are for English.. and how many exceptions there are.

Really enjoying this article series. Thank you!
MichaelCrichlow Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013
Wow. I hear ya with this one. I feel like I'm right there. Trying to shift from the 'copying' phase to the 'blank-piece-of-paper' phase has been a struggle for me for a long time. I think that's why I keep going back to look at reference. I just draw so much better with it. With just my mind - not having 'a goal to work towards' to show me how off/wrong each line is - I feel kind of lost and my work is just awful. I guess you're saying I should stay there until I start to build myself up from there. Wow. I have so much work to do... and I gotta cry in the corner. >_<
Clayhouse Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013
First your comments are too general, as the needs of children changes. Are you talking about 6 year olds or 18 years olds? What is appropriate at one age, say 5 or 6 is different from the 10 to 13 year old. The primary student needs to be just given the opportunity to draw and paint. If instruction is given it should be in use of the medium, such as mixing paints. So no "how to draw" books.

Junior and intermediate kids (the 10 to 13 year olds) would benefit from the how to draw books especially since the alternatives is even worse. What kids are taught in most classrooms and what most kids do if left to themselves is a version of the contour method of drawing. They start with one part of the body and draw the rest resulting in all kinds of problems with proportions. Using the construction method is a revelation to them and their drawing quickly improve.

Most teachers have no art training and assume the contour method to be correct. Many even discourage the use of reference materials as they see this as copying. Many junior kids paint once or twice a year and art time is more craft than art. The grade eight art teacher next to me never used paints, paper mâché or clay as they were too messy (I taught science and geography but ran an art club). So the grade 4 to 8 student shouldn't be discouraged from using "how to draw" books. If they are very lucky they will also have some instruction from a teacher who has drawing skills.

Older kids- teenagers draw no differently than they did in grade 8 (or in many case grade 4) and don't take art anyway. It's only the few who want art in grade 9 and above who should be encourage to explore a variety of drawing techniques. So these teens have less need of "how to draw" books and should be encouraged to use different drawing techniques and have instruction from a trained art teacher.
tombancroft Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2013  Professional Filmographer
Really great thoughts, thanks for sharing them
Green-Roc Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
This is my favorite Journal of your three. This helps show me where I am in the development of my art skills.

I am still in the copying phase. I have a taste for coloring and inking, not for drawing from scratch. Blank papers with no reference often go blank. I haven't grown much beyond that... but next step for me to try is the Frankenstein monster step. I hadn't put too much effort into that method, but now, I shall put some more effort into making some.

Whenever I look for how-to-draw books, I look for the ones that show how to draw the subject from different angles. I avoid books with instructions like the owl.

Thank you for this journal Tom, thank you very much.
PugWizer Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
You know what gets me about these? How well they are written haha, not only are you a talented artist but you're a good writer too.
tombancroft Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2013  Professional Filmographer
Thanks for that.  I really appreciate it. 
PugWizer Featured By Owner Dec 8, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
maxwestart Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
There nothing wrong with the Draw 50 series - I have some of the books and they make for great practice.  

But you are right.  You need to learn drawing from other sources too.  There are many great books and videos out there with other methods of learning how to draw.  I find "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" (the book, the workbook, and the DVD) to be the best teaching method for drawing.  A drawing class can also help round out skills, plus a live instructor can tell you things that a book or video can't.
sparkpaw Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
This one, I 100% agree with.

As to the Draw 50 books - I have several of those. And I hated them as a kid, and I hate them now. I've literally taught myself to draw (maybe not via the best methods) by tracing styles/art I liked of others (but never did I claim it was mine) or photos. Then I began drawing on my own.

and then this:

"It's the blank piece of paper.  I still remember when I started creating my own characters/drawings.  When I started drawing scenes out of my head.  When I stopped copying.  It was HORRIBLE.  My artwork took about 100 steps backward and suddenly I felt like I couldn't draw.  I had leaned too much on copying other peoples artwork (probably for longer than I should have) and, most of all, I had gotten used to some drawing success because of it.  I was horrified how bad I drew when I wasn't looking at someone else's picture/art.  I didn't know what to draw either.  I was uninspired and lacked real knowledge of any real artistic principles.  This is the point I stopped drawing.  Not for too long, but I remember thinking maybe I wasn't an "artist" like I thought I was."

That's where I was three years ago with horses. I thought I SUCKED. Then I realized I HAD to stop tracing. So I did - I still use references because I prefer my realistic style. But I can sketch a horse on blank paper. However, this is still the same spot I'm at with humans and anything other than horses. It's terrifying, but one day (hopefully soon) I'll regather my courage and tackle the blank pages of non-equine artistry. :D

Thanks again for posting these!!! <3
RedRodent Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013   Digital Artist
Thanks for sharing this. I think your discussion about considering a character's motives was most helpful. I totally agree with you.

Putting thought into my drawings has been an off and on struggle for me. Sometimes I want to draw just to draw, but unfailingly when I don't think about what I'm drawing and why characters are doing what they're doing, my drawing comes out wrong. It's all about thought and planning.
RabidDog008 Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I've never been able to get the hang of books like the Draw 50 you mention here, but I could and still see how greatly helpful it could be with drawing and have even used it to explain how my own drawings came to be. Two main references I had from ten years ago was Australian cartoonist/illustrator Terry Denton and New Zealand artist Murray Ball and his comic Footrot Flats, and with a multitude of round (or oval) eyed dog and cat characters I'd drawn you could see that clearly. I was looking through some of my art from about 8 years ago and I was surprised by the amount of character I had given these little guys, who looked like the humanoid canine versions of Don Knotts. The blank canvas for me was great, especially when I had my fine line pen and an A3 or A2, and I could just sit a build this entire scene from my head. Worldbuilding has always been my thing, seeing things in real life and putting them on page, not from reference but memory, and I guess taking the time to think this through now has uncovered why I love rich and open world suburban video games and why I want to do that too.

Reading through this series it's made me realise many of these things have happened in the past and why people I've known have given up on drawing or listened to the demands and requests put on them when younger. The best thing for young artists or aspiring artists of any age is to encourage them and let them discover in their own way how they can translate what they see to the page so they can learn to do it themselves from scratch.
SormiPoro Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
There are some diploma courses that teach through fundamentals, like FZD, but that takes money, and some crazy effort.
StarWarsmaniac Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013
I wish l could understand this but it dosen't sink in.
BerylliumArt Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Student
Thank you for this series.
Cyclops-Cat Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Student General Artist
You mean "why" as in, "why am I making this line darker than the other", for example? The hypothetical answer being "because it emphasizes depth", let's say.. Not, "why do I draw?", or, "why am I drawing owls"? I see a lot of artists, especially illustrators, not know why they like to draw what they do.. or not past "because I like it." which results in stale pieces. It's something I struggle with immensely. I think that type of why is just as important as the technical approach to it.
kuabci Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Professional General Artist
I actually did draw a LOT from the Draw 50 books, and I thought they were fun and interesting and probably helpful, but I see what you're saying.  I didn't feel lost or frustrated by the time it came to make my own lines on a piece of paper, but it's good to graduate from that style of step-by-step drawing (though it did help with confidence and drawing recognizable things... some of those horses I did were masterpieces!  Or, I thought so then, ha ha).  I've also always agreed that tracing doesn't do much good, but referencing/researching has been a staple from the beginning.  That's how we develop and define our individual style.
JessiRenee Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
This is really encouraging, thank you!
speckles-cosplay Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013
I am totally at the blank paper stage in my life, and it is the most horrible thing to try to overcome, always being compelled to use drawing reference to get anything vaguely presentable. But reading this has really lifted my spirits and given me courage; I am glad to see even a professional had to deal with it in his journey through drawing. Thanks for your words of experience.
Eyan Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
but sometimes; fanning that flame on our own might make it bigger then with the help of another. Its amazing what a person can learn and teach themselves after knowing the basics.

I never had the help of books when I was younger; sure I borrowed from libraries but they never had the "draw 50" series and I've actually never heard of it. I've learned to draw on my own on the floor in my room; it was amazing drawing letting your imagination run free. But I do admit it is very tough without knowing the basics of structure. 

Thank you for these journals they are very well written and very true.
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December 5, 2013


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