Phases in learning to draw or paint

Phases we go through to learn to draw or paint.

Our brain and hand don’t talk.

When you draw a face or figure, anyone can tell if it is wrong. Well isn’t that interesting? You say you can’t draw but your eye knows when something is wrong. What is it that tells your eye/brain that something is wrong? Simply put, it is a gap between your eye/brain and your hand. Is it more than a gap? Is it a wall? If you have the reference of what you are drawing right in front of you, just copy it! Right??? What’s so hard about that??!!  This is the challenge with faces and figures that I love. If you were to draw a landscape or a pot of flowers, no one knows if your proportions are wrong, and in fact they may like the abstract nature of your drawing. But, if the face or figure is off, people will analyze it and tell you exactly what is wrong. Figure drawing can help an artist hone fundamental visual skills that are transferable to almost any medium. If you can draw a believable human figure you can draw anything..

People first need to want to draw better. Second, take efforts to learn to draw better, and then do it over and over again.

You have heard it many times and you may even have said it yourself, “I can’t draw a stick man.” to describe your artistic abilities Do you want to draw better? Do you want to paint better? What people often don’t realize is deciding you want to get better is the most important first step. People don’t know how to draw because they haven’t been taught to draw. If you compare your ability to draw with other creative and necessary endeavors, you’ll better understand what I’m saying. For example, did someone just hand you a crayon and say draw the alphabet, or hand you a sewing machine and tell you to make a dress, or give you a pan of drippings and tell you to make gravy?  I feel it is all about first learning the fundamental skills and then building on them makes us better each time we do it. To expand this further, a common saying is “practice makes perfect”. However, I like to refer to it more as repetition makes perfect. By doing something over and over again you eventually do it without thinking about it; it has become engrained and natural. You transition from the Left Brain, where the focus is thinking/concentrating on what your hand is doing, (for example with cooking telling the difference between sweated and sautéed onions; with watercolor painting knowing how wet the paper is), the formulas you were taught for drawing a face or figure, etc.. Repetition allows you to transition to the Right Brain where you “Do It” instinctively.

Four stages of competence.

To better explain this I learned about the four stages of competence or learning* which can easily be applied to art. The first stage is  Unconscious Incompetence, in which someone doesn’t know and doesn’t care that a knowledge gap exists. In art, this is when a child creates something without caring what it looks like. The second stage is Conscious Incompetence, when you begin to realize there is a skill gap. With drawing, this is when you know what you drew is not quite right and want to make it better. It is in this stage that active learning begins. Stage three is Conscious Competence. At this stage, you know how to use your new knowledge and skills with increasingly positive results but you must concentrate deeply and repeat often in order to hone the skills. With artwork, in stage three, you are at a point where you know what you are doing and how you are doing it. The fourth and final stage is Unconscious Competence, where you are on autopilot. You can perform the skill and apply the knowledge without having to consciously think about what you are doing, it has become second-nature to you.   Using drawing as an example in this stage you are simply able to pick up a pencil and begin to sketch on paper what you see with proper proportion and perspective. Likewise using watercolors as an example you paint without paying the least bit of (conscious) attention to how much paint is on your brush or how wet the paper is. You are in the zone just like grandma making gravy, she can’t explain how she does it, she just does it! Some artists do not make the best art teachers because they are deep into stage four, Unconscious Competence. They have a hard time teaching new students how to do something because their skill and knowledge is so engrained and natural that as teachers they have difficulty bringing themselves back to stage three, Conscious Competence, to help students learn fundamentals and nuances of drawing or painting. Artists in stage four typically are those teachers who say, “well it just happens” or “you just know” when asked a question about proportion, perspective, or blending colors. I think this is a reason really good artists don’t teach because they don’t want to drag their minds back into consciousness.

*to learn more about the Four Stages of Competence visit (accessed June 15, 2019)

Last changed 18 Jun 2019, D’s edits.