Drawing Less Wrong: Should You Learn to Draw?

by Raemon 8 min read14th Nov 201155 comments


This is the second post of the Drawing Less Wrong mini sequence, in which I discuss how to draw, how learning to draw *effectively* relates to rationality, and what the initial results were when I started running a drawing workshop, teaching people with essentially no experience.

Information here is a combination of lessons I've learned from numerous art teachers who all agree with each other, and some of my own observations that I'm pretty confident about. When I talk about "how the brain does things" I'm using a mix of folk psychology and guesses based on my limited knowledge of neuroscience, which may not be technically accurate but should be sufficient to make useful predictions.

The Nature of Talent:

"Am I talented enough to draw?"

This is a question people think about a lot. It's a wrong question.

Here are a few related, relevant "right" questions:

  • Do you have pre-existing skills that can be repurposed for drawing?
  • How quickly are you able to acquire skills relevant to drawing?
  • Do you naturally enjoy drawing?
  • If not, can you easily BECOME the sort of person who naturally enjoys drawing?
  • WHY and WHAT do you want to be able to draw?
  • How well do you want to be able to draw? How much do you value being able to draw that well?
  • How many hours of dedicated practice are you willing to put in to achieve this?

"Talent" is a real thing, but it doesn't mean what most people think it does. It's not a magical attribute you either have or don't. It's not an absolute cap on how good you're allowed to get. Talent is two different things:

  • How much you naturally enjoy doing something (This is most important, and fortunately I think this is fairly easy to re-wire, though it does take effort and requires some environmental factors)
  • How good you are at improving at something. Think of this as a "talent coefficient."

The Intrinsic Enjoyment/Improvement-Coefficient model of Talent is simplified, but like folk psychology, it's a useful way to make some predictions.[1] If you have a talent coefficient of 1 (average), and you put in 4 hours of practice, you'll get 4 hours of "effective practice." If your talent coefficient is 1.5, you'd get 6 effective hours. If your talent coefficient is .5, you'll get 2 effective hours.

And if you enjoy doing something, you will do a lot of it.

I have always been bad at sports. A lot of this can be attributed to me not really liking sports and hence not putting in much practice. But in high school, I noticed an interesting trend: We would spend a few weeks on a particular activity (basketball, badminton, tennis, volleyball). We would do the same activities each year. And at the beginning of any particular activity, I would suck at it.

I more or less liked each activity equally, and put the same effort into each. But after a few weeks, some activities I would noticeably increase in skill. Others I would not. I was terrible at basketball no matter how hard I tried. But I got better at tennis and volleyball, and I got much better at badminton.

It's possible that badminton was just an easier game (the birdie does move slower and you have a wide racket to catch it with). But I got better at badminton *relative* to other people in the class, and other non-athletic people in the class were always relatively better at me at basketball. I didn't do a formal study, but my nonscientific guesstimate is that I have a high-ish talent coefficient at badminton (maybe 1.1) and a very low talent coefficient at basketball. (.5? .2? .1?)

I'm sure that the things we naturally improve at ALSO tend to be things that we naturally enjoy doing, which confuses the issue. If you naturally improve quickly, you get to feel good about yourself sooner which inspires more effort. It also is probably an activity that feels comfortable and hence enjoyable to you. But there are also things I'm good at that I didn't become motivated to do until recently (for example, programming). So it's worth drawing the distinction.

It's also worth noting that skills like "basketball" and "drawing" are really made up of numerous sub skills. For example, various ball games can be broken down into things like:

  • Being able to run quickly
  • Being able to change direction while running accurately
  • Being able to move your hand to intercept a moving object
  • Being able to catch said object without dropping it
  • Being able to throw an object accurately towards a target

(I think the key difference between basketball and badminton is my ability to *throw*. In Badminton, Tennis and even Volleyball, the way your hand interacts with the ball is very different from basketball.)

In drawing, some sub-skills might include:

  • Being able to accurately observe shape and value
  • Having the coordination to draw marks where you want to
  • Being able to fluidly alter the pressure on your pencil to apply different line thickness/darkness in useful ways.
  • Weirder skills like "being able to instill emotion into your drawing," which may be frustrating for logical-brained people to understand. I'll try to break them down later.

When I say "your Drawing Talent Coefficient," I'm referring to an approximate average of various relevant skills. If you think you can't draw, I'm about 80% sure that your drawing talent is, at worst, around .75. You probably stopped putting as much practice in at a fairly young age, and/or never received proper instruction.

Why do you want to draw?

Here's a few reasons you might want to draw:

  1. You naturally enjoy drawing. You want to get better at it, but you're not trying to reach a particular level of competence. (Your terminal goal is to draw, and to improve at it enough that you notice yourself improving)
  2. You enjoy being able to record interesting things on paper (these can be real things like people or imaginary things like dragons). You have a terminal goal, not of drawing, but of drawing particular things in interesting ways.
  3. You enjoy the creative process - being able to design NEW interesting things. Drawing is an instrumental goal necessary to try out various ideas and see how they look, both to yourself and other people.
  4. You like to be able to impress people (with good drawings - possibly drawings of cool things, possibly drawings of the particular people you're trying to impress.) Drawing is an instrumental goal towards impressing people.
  5. You want money, you enjoy drawing, you think you can become good at it with less effort relative to other things, so you're considering learning to draw as an instrumental goal towards making money.

All of these are reasonable goals (possible exception of 5 - I don't know that drawing is a reliable way to make money, but I do think that drawing is a skill that helps build towards OTHER skills that reliably make money). But whether they're a good idea hinges on some additional information.

Like anything worth doing, learning to draw REALLY well takes somewhere on the order of 10,000 hours.[2] And even when you've put 10,000 hours in, you'll start looking at people who've put in 20,000 or 30,000 hours and you'll finally comprehend how much skill went into their work and realize how much farther you still have to go and you will never, ever be satisfied.

But drawing skill doesn't follow a linear curve. You'll improve more in the first hundred hours or so - a lot of sub-skills are low hanging fruit that can be quickly acquired if you dedicate yourself. If you want to make money, you'll need to put in the full 10,000. But if you want to do something reasonably cool, fun, impressive and occasionally useful, you can get achieve that in a relatively short time period.

Most kids who like drawing have probably put in close to 10,000 hours in when they reach high school. By the end of elementary school, the kids with slight advantages have made enough effort that the kids with slight disadvantages look at them and think "man, I suck at drawing." They lose whatever intrinsic motivation they had, falling further behind. They come to identify as people who "can't draw." People who can "only draw stick figures."

Most of those people are wrong. They can become good. And they don't even have to put in the 10,000 hours that the "good artist" kids put in, because most of the "artists" were spending their time doing horribly, horribly inefficient things (which is why they need to put in another 10,000 hours when they get to college and realize they were doing it wrong)

The "Right" Side of the Brain

Here's the problem: most aspiring artists are motivated by goals (1), (2) or (3). Drawing is comfortable and fun. They like drawing cool things. They like being creative.

But the comfortable, fun way to draw is not the same way to IMPROVE at drawing quickly, if your goal is to be able to draw things that other people recognize. The cool things you want to draw are not the optimal things to practice. The creativity you want to express cannot help you improve at drawing much at all until you've learned to be creative in different ways.

Learning to draw in an efficient way is initially uncomfortable. It is counterintuitive. It will feel weird and wrong. There will be a period of several hours where you will not understand why you are doing things this way, and your drawings don't seem to improve. This is because you're building up new skills essentially from scratch - skills you always had the capability to gain, but the relevant parts of your brain are extremely underdeveloped.

Art teachers in high school and college face the difficult task of convincing students (even "good" students) that they are approaching reality in a fundamentally wrong way using a horribly inefficient method, harnessing the power of the wrong parts of their brain. Most students never make the adjustment. They stick with the comfortable things that motivated them in the first place.

Learning to draw "the right way" is a high level action. Eventually you'll be able to return to the initial fun, comfortable and creative motivations that first inspired you. And you will be much better at it when you do.[4] But you must be sufficiently motivated to make it through 6-10 hours of difficult work.

If you AREN'T intrinsically motivated, you will give up, not try hard enough, and never understand why your teacher was making you do it this way.

But if you have the motivation and proper instruction, you can rewire yourself.

In 3-5 hours, you can develop an understanding of WHY you need to rewire yourself. For the next 2 hours, you'll have developed to the point that you'll understand what's SUPPOSED to be happening, but it won't be happening yet. This will be extremely frustrating. Somewhere around hour 6-10, you'll have developed new skills to the point that you can start showing improvement. (It may still not be clear to other people that you've improved. Your drawings will look messy in a particular way that others might not get. But you and other trained artists will be able to look at your drawings and see that your newfound skill is reflected in your work. And you'll probably have produced at least one drawing that untrained bystanders will recognize as much better than what you started with).

I haven't studied the issue as much past the 8 hour mark. Right now I've run two 4-hour workshops. Among students who had practically no drawing experience, my predictions proved accurate. Participants are enthusiastic for more meetups and my new, less certain predictions are:

In 12-20 hours of concentrated effort, you'll have reached a point that the average person will watch you draw and say "hey, you can draw, that's cool." If your goal was to use drawing to develop creative ideas, you'll understand how to study things so that you can synthesize new, better creative ideas. If your goal was to enjoy the process of drawing, you'll have rewired yourself so that you enjoy a new, faster process of drawing.

Low hanging fruit will start to drop off after the 20 hour mark. By the hundred hour mark, the average person will look at your work and say "Wow, that's a good drawing! You're talented!". (You'll also have been able to do that drawing in 30-60 seconds, which makes it even more impressive, if you care about that sort of thing)[5]

(I expect interest among NYC rationalists to drop off around after 4-5 sessions. I'll report on that, in addition to the report about the first two sessions that I'll be doing this week. I do not expect to get good data on the hundred-hour prediction, unless I can find good, pre-existing data about similar programs).

So... should you learn to draw?

I've given you a sense of the time involved. You can figure out how motivated you are. A big remaining question is: Can you find a good teacher?

Having a good class environment is important for many people's learning and motivation. There are a bajillion subtle things you will get wrong (or get right) and not notice - having a teacher who can identify those things is important. A major difficulty I found teaching was finding ways to articulate ideas that I've long stopped thinking about consciously. I will attempt to outline as many techniques as possible, and I may even post some youtube videos (or link to good ones I find). But the participants in my workshop all agreed that it was very useful to actually see me drawing, to understand how they were actually supposed to move their pencil.

After I've finished this sequence, if you live in the NYC area and think you want to give it a try, shoot me a PM and I'll let you know when the next workshop is. (For the time being I am not charging for this, since I'm still learning a lot myself about how to teach. That may eventually change).

If you don't live near Manhattan, look for a local figure drawing meetup or class that stresses *30 second gesture drawing*. This exercise is the crux of the material I'm presenting, and a teacher that emphasizes it will probably also emphasize a lot of the other things I talk about.

If you have previously decided you "can't draw," but are motivated to try again, I recommend going to a class that's similar to what I advocate, put in at least 8 hours, and then evaluate from there.

[1] If Lukeprog or anyone else has information on the science (neuro or otherwise) of skill acquisition, I'd love to learn more about it.

[2] Whenever I say "expect X from Y hours of practice," I'm referring to the average person with a coefficient of 1. But I'm pretty sure the 10,000 number is a highly approximately made up number to begin with, so it's not that important. (If I give a range, like 3-5 hours, I'm accounting for ranges in talent)

[3] I know "right and left brained" isn't exactly a real thing. But the set of abilities generally associated with the Left Brain (i.e. the stuff Less Wrongians are particularly likely to favor, as well as what most novice drawers gravitate towards), are mostly the wrong abilities to be harnessing for the purpose of drawing.

[4] It actually does take extra effort to translate the kinds of skills I'm about to talk about over to "cartoonish" drawing. Cartoonish drawing is its own skill that requires it's own kind of practice. BUT you will still end up much better at drawing cartoons if you have an understanding of reality. More about that later.

[5] You may not care about drawing quickly, but fast drawing is actually an instrumental goal towards drawing well. Drawing quickly FORCES you to develop mental processes that make your drawings more energetic and interesting, which drawing slowly never will.