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This blog post is an ode to one A5 handmade sketchbook that got me drawing again after a long break. This book has travelled to many places with me and became a safe space for exploration. Following my Masters Degree and a start of my full-time teaching job in Cambridge, I found very little time for doing anything creative. I knew I had to find a way to get back into drawing regularly, but I didn’t know where to start.

Every time I tried to start a sketchbook before, I would quit half-way through, and I had a pile of unfinished sketchbooks with empty pages laying around. To make this sketchbook different, I decided to create and hand-bind the book myself. I found a handy Youtube tutorial and learnt how to do Coptic stitch binding. I didn’t want my sketchbook to feel too precious, so I used discarded scraps of paper of different shape and colour that I found at work. It wasn’t perfectly cut, and it wasn’t perfectly straight, but that was a good thing. It made me much more relaxed about drawing and making a mess out of it.

Sketchbooks bound with Coptic stitch method.

When the book was finished, I made a pact with myself.

I said that I would fill this book with drawings. Idealistically, I imagined that I would accomplish this task within a few months, but it took me a whole year. And even though it sounds like a hell of a long time, it still made a massive difference. The following year, I completed 5 sketchbooks, the year after I got a picture book contract and a few years later on I was heading into illustrating full time.

Making that one commitment paid off in a big way.

Note the plates reflected in the teapot.

I began my drawing year by taking pencils and pens (and my sketchbook) everywhere I went. This very first sketch was done at the tearoom, where I quickly realised how out of practice I was. However tempted I was to get upset about not being able to accomplish a “perfect” drawing, I knew I had to be easy on myself in order for this exercise to last.

I decided that it was ok for me to produce imperfect drawings and that the whole point was just to do it, and not think about it too much.

I carried the sketchbook with me to work, I also took it on holidays and soon I found myself making time to go to places just to draw from life. I sketched people and Roman monuments at the British Museum, beaches in Scotland, cups and mugs in the cafes around the country. Because I made my sketchbook from found paper with different textures and colours, it made my drawing practice more exciting.

I also practised letting go of the way how the drawing looked like and drawing just for the fun of it (although I have to admit that didn’t come easy). I tried drawing people in motion: walking, rowing and cycling. Those sketches only lasted a couple of seconds, and I found that they helped me simplify my drawings and made me worry less about the outcome.

Drawing of moving feet at the British museum.

Every other day I would manage to do a quick sketch after work. Even when I was really REALLY tired, and didn’t want to do anything, I found doing sketching helped my mind relax.

Drawing from life doesn’t require any conscious thinking, so it helped me take my mind off work-related stress.

A lot of the drawings in my sketchbook feature domestic scenes drawn while sitting on the sofa, absolutely exhausted.

10 points to anyone spotting the infamous TV presenter in the drawing.

Soon enough, I found that my drawing was getting better. By better, I mean that I was happier and happier with the outcomes. I definitely felt more creative and whole as a person. And the fascinating thing is that when I look at each of these drawings, it takes me back in time to the moment when it was created. Drawing makes you remember things in a much more vivid way then photography does, as you can remember smells, feelings and colours of that moment in time.

“Reassuring lion with nice hips” — from the British Museum

Making a simple promise to myself worked wonders for me. If you are looking to get back into drawing after a long break, I suggest you try this sketchbook exercise.

Get a new sketchbook, or make it yourself! Make a promise to finish it in a certain period of time.

If you are feeling all up for it and competitive, set yourself strict targets. If you can’t bear to work under pressure, just start and see where it takes you. I won’t judge you if you give up halfway.

Draw with any materials that you like and in any way that you like. Observe, draw, explore, and do it regularly — and your drawing WILL improve. If you start a sketchbook, feel free to share your progress with me.

You can read my blog post about drawing tips for beginners here.

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I would never forget my first drawing lesson. The teacher arranged a selection of natural objects on the table said: “Draw them”. I was really scared, as I never drew anything from life before. I picked the easiest object to draw – a simple tree branch – and luckily, I soon discovered that most students at the table were of the same ability as I was.

My teacher once said that drawing was a mechanical skill and that you could even teach a monkey to draw. A personal interpretation of life in the drawing was far more important. Since then, I began teaching drawing classes myself and then I realised something. The issue that most people experience with drawing has much more to do with their mindset rather than their ability to draw.

The good news is, your drawing can improve dramatically if you just change the way you think about it.

Whatever stage you are at, whether you want to improve your drawing practice professionally, or simply would like to take up drawing as a hobby, these tips will help you reach your highest potential and grow as an artist.

Draw for the fun of it, not the result.

I think that drawing should always be fun. Treat drawing like going for a walk in a park. You don’t go there just to get from point A to point B. You go for the experience and the pleasure of it. With drawing, the same principle applies. Enjoy the process of spending 10, 20, 30 minutes looking at something while making marks on paper. Explore the object by drawing it. Don’t get too impatient to get to the end result. Maybe you can use this time to calm yourself down after a long day at work or to experience something more fully while you are on holiday. Whatever it is, enjoy the journey and don’t judge the outcome.

Here is a fantastic book that I recommend for practical and fun drawing exercises that really work. It is used by tutors of many art colleges in the UK and concentrates on developing creativity rather than academic drawing skills.

Don’t tell your mind what you are drawing.

This tip sounds crazy, yet it really works! Sometimes drawing means re-programming your brain. Next time you draw something, do not tell your brain what you are looking at. Instead of thinking, “I am drawing a …” imagine that you are just looking at areas of light and dark tones, lines and shapes that the object is composed of. When you tell the brain what you are looking at, be it a hand, a face, a building, our brain immediately conjures up a flat and generic image of that object. This can really affect your drawing. Try drawing a face without acknowledging that you are looking at a face. Treat it as a strange collection of lines and shapes, and you will be able to trick your brain and ultimately create a better drawing.

Do not compare yourself with others.

The way in which you draw is unique to you, it is your personal creative DNA and just because it doesn’t fit the accepted norm does not mean that it is wrong. Look at the art of Tracy Emin or David Shrigley – they are not particularly “good” drawers in a conventional sense, yet they are UK’s top fine artists. Just because you can’t draw a perfect photo-realistic leaf does not mean that you are a worse artist than someone who can. Find what you are good at, and don’t be harsh on yourself.

A drawing is never “good” or “bad”.

My favourite question to ask a group of students who just came back from an experimental drawing session would be: “Do you like your drawing?”. Most people always reply that they hate their drawing “because it is ugly”. What they really mean by that is “it is not photorealistic”. For some reason, realistic drawings are perceived as beautiful, and correct, whereas expressive drawings are perceived as ugly, and wrong. Yet, what we see in contemporary art is the opposite – drawings with a strong character are usually much more interesting and rewarding. If you are tempted to judge your art, keep in mind that your view is subjective and doesn’t have anything to do with your real creative abilities. In fact you have been preconditioned by the society to judge your art in a certain way.

Do it your way.

Not going to a traditional art school turned out to be a blessing for me, as I never had any pre-conceived ideal of what drawing should be. However, working with students I realised that most people were actually terrified of trying more experimental ways of drawing. Although I knew that there was a science and reasoning behind those experimental approaches, many people dismissed them as silly or were scared to be out of their comfort zone. If you are feeling stuck in your ways of drawing and need a change, you should definitely try and become a rebel with your drawing. Don’t like to draw with a pencil? Use twigs dipped into ink. Make collages, play with scale. Make your own tools. You may discover something new about yourself!

And here are my top 3 experimental drawing exercises:

  • 1. Continuous line drawing

Continuous line drawing means putting your pencil down on paper and never lifting it up until you finished drawing.

Why? It trains your hand to eye coordination and teaches you to better perceive the space you are looking at.

This is what is called a contour drawing, because you are tracing the edges of the objects with your eyes.

Expert tips. Please go slowly with this exercise. Don’t rush it. Really take care to follow your hand everywhere your eye goes.

Variations Want a challenge? Try drawing continuous line with your left hand.

Or, how about doing a blind drawing? That means simply not looking at paper at all while you draw. Sounds scary? Good, give it a go!

2. Drawing with your left hand

I love seeing students’ facial expressions when I announce this exercise. Drawing with your non-dominant hands seems utterly useless at first. After all, you can be sure that your drawing will not look perfect. And that’s the point!

Why? We are so pressured to create a “good” drawing that we can’t truly relax when drawing with our dominant hand. When we use a non-dominant hand, be it left or right, we don’t hold any expectations and thus can draw freely.

Secondly, it works on your other side of the brain than what you normally use. All round goodness to train your drawing abilities.

Expert tips. Make sure to approach this with an open mind and a playful spirit. Do not judge yourself… at all!

Variations. For an extra challenge try different drawing tools with your left hand. Or, go for blind left hand drawing, or combine it with continuous line.

3. Timed drawing

Nothing gets your drawing juices flowing better than a timer. Set yourself very short timers of 5 minutes, 1 minute and 30 seconds.

Aim to complete your drawing within a given time frame.

Why? Perfectionism is a killer of progress. Spending hours on a drawing can be nice, but doing lightning fast drawings is brilliant for teaching yourself to capture a glimpse of an object quickly and expressively.

Expert tips. This exercise works brilliantly with portrait drawings. Invite a few friends, set a timer and draw each other fast.

Those portraits might not win awards, but they are a fun and challenging drawing exercise.

Variations. For even more fun try combining the above technique with a timer approach.

It took me years to get comfortable with my drawing skills. Yes, I did a lot of practical work, but a mental shift played a huge role as well. Eventually, I came to a conclusion that the way I was drawing was okay. Now I don’t care if my drawing looks good or not because I simply enjoy doing it. I trust myself to make certain decisions and I know that drawing is not a beauty contest, it is a snapshot of who I am in the moment of time.

Thankfully, we had an incredibly creative atmosphere at college. Our teachers were on a mission to make drawing lessons different. They were teaching us how to draw in new ways: with your left hand, with a thread dipped into PVA, with both hands at the same time, and even with your eyes closed. They brought real ducks to the class so that we would draw them in motion and they wrapped models into rolls of kitchen towels creating weird and wonderful body shapes. It made me feel like I was part of an underground art school. I was still nervous about drawing, but I loved this rebellious approach. Those drawing sessions were like acts of performance. They taught me that learning to draw is just as much about a process as the result.

I hope that these ideas will be helpful for you when you are starting out with illustration. If you enjoyed this article, let me know in a comment, follow me on Instagram or subscribe to my mail-out here for more tips and news.

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