How to Draw for Real

Most of the time, our 6-year old is very happy with her art style.  She draws as well as builds 3D sculpture creature things out of paper and tape.  But the other day, she said, “I want to draw for REAL.  Can you teach me?”  I assumed she meant drawing realistically, since that’s what I was doing at the time she asked.  “Can you show me step by step?” she asked.  And so I did.

We started with the basics:  simple football eyes, two comma shapes for the nostrils, and the bow of the top lip, the line of the mouth, and the curve of the bottom lip.

She added her own flairs, as she always does (like vampire teeth and a “knight’s helmet”), and then she stood back and took a look.


“It still doesn’t look real, like yours.”

I explained to her that it was a VERY good start, and better than a lot of people can do as an adult, but the details would come with time and with practice.  The good news is, if you enjoy it, it doesn’t seem like hard work at all.

Anyone who draws will tell you that people often want to know the type of tool they use, the type of paper, the name brand of everything, they want to see a timelapse, they want detailed instructions on HOW you did it.  Aside from general interest as an artist, I can tell you that stuff is NOT NEARLY as important as practice.


It sounds easy, doesn’t it?  It takes time.  Lots and lots of time.  But if it’s something you enjoy doing, you’ll do it for the love of it, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get.

When you’re just starting as a kid, I think it’s perfectly okay to learn by copying a piece by another artist.  Or copying a face from a magazine.  Or by using the style of one of your favorite artists to make something of your own.  As long as you don’t tell everyone it was YOUR original idea, it can be a good way to learn from people whose work you admire.  From there, you can create your own work, your own drawings, and your own style.

And once you REALLY learn the basics, and really understand them well, you can unlearn them and create your own style!  People ask me why the people I draw are so wonky-looking (I assume they mean that respectfully–haha!).  They assume the variation in proportion is a choice I intentionally make while I draw.  Like, “okay, now I’m going to make this eye bigger…”  Actually, when I was in college, I took countless classes on proportion, and facial structure.  We studied live models, and had to measure out the proportions of the face and body correctly.  For me, there is something pleasant in perfected proportion, but once I learned it, I found I had much more fun when I just drew things as I saw them.

I often start with an eye, and then sort of guess-measure where everything goes from there, based on a reference photo I’m looking at.  And because I’m not a computer, my proportions wind up a bit…askew.  And I’ve learned that I enjoy that!  It’s not an intentional distortion, it’s just me, and what happens when I don’t walk directly down the center of the road.  And I enjoy it!

I’m often impressed at the technical perfection of people who can draw hyperrealism (where it looks EXACTLY like a photograph), but that style doesn’t sing to me nearly as much as wonky imperfection does.


And no matter WHAT tool you use, the only way you’ll get better at it is practicing, practicing, practicing, practicing, practicing, practicing, and PRACTICING.  As I told our daughter, I’m STILL learning.  There’s a ton out there for me to STILL learn.  And I’ve got TONS of practice left to go.  So as frustrating as it may be for our girl to not be able to draw “for real” after one lesson, I’ve reminded her that you can have all the lessons in the world and have the finest (or least expensive) art supplies, but it just takes practice.  And the great thing is that if it’s something you’re into, practice is FUN.

9 responses

  1. Excellent post! As someone who taught in an art foundation program for years, I agree with everything you said.

  2. Don’t forget about LOOKING. Once you look at something hard, it will never be the same again when you try to draw it. Get Myla to really look at something, maybe your eyes, for a little while and then draw it. It she is studying your eyes you will see how she concentrates to draw from life. Usually kids draw without looking at all.

  3. Excellent post! I agree with you. I really appreciate the skill level that goes into producing hyper-real art or something almost photographic but that’s not what interests and engages me as a viewer of art so it’s not what engages or inspires me as a creator of art. You have the ability to capture a likeness or essence of someone without striving for absolute verisimilitude and I think your pieces have much more character precisely because of that. I’m perpetually trying to learn new media and try new approaches to art and it’s fun to try on new things, attempt a new style, but all the while it just hones my own sense of what I like and what I don’t like to create myself. I actually often adapt art lessons so that they suit my style, which is much more illustrative than painterly. After all, if we lose our sense of self in striving to make our art something it’s not then we also risk losing the sense of joy and abandon in creating.

  4. mylifeasishan | Reply

    Great post

  5. This is wonderful wisdom. Thank you. How does the quote go? “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration?” I have enjoyed drawing my whole life and doodle in my journal now and again. My favorite (not) as a kid was someone looking over my shoulder and asking, “Who are you drawing?” I was never drawing anyone. I was just drawing from my imagination and that was fine for me. I didn’t want to draw real living people, because that seemed boring to me. I wanted to invent people. The main point of your post that I keep coming back to is it takes enormous amounts of practice to progress, but the practice will be enjoyable if you really love what you’re doing. YES! THANK YOU!

  6. Great advice. I’ve always loved drawing faces and people in general but if one in three portraits turns out OK I’m happy. The so-called gaze is tricky to catch but worth practicing to achieve. I wish your daughter success and above all hours of fun!

  7. Thanks for the kick in the pants – I’m drawing now!

  8. Thanks so much for this post! I’ve just accepted that I’m always going to be in the learning phase, and that it’s ok. It’s helped me a lot to hear pros say they toss about half of everything they create. I used to treat everything like it was going to be THE masterpiece (and still struggle with that) so I’m not willing to take risks, and it makes me wait until I am super inspired. I’m working really hard now to reframe all my work ask practice, at least for now.

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