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There are a lot of learning styles and methods in general, especially when it comes to obtaining and retaining information, but there’s two specific ways that you can improve your drawing skill, and I’ll give you my own personal bias about which one is better.

These two methods are:

1. Muscle Memory Learning
2. Foundational Learning

A while back, Wewius asked this question:

“I started with general digital art a few weeks ago after three years of drawing vectors of one particular… well… “fashion” (just check out my channel and you’ll understand). While I made huge progress when I started with those vectors years ago, I find myself making very slow progress, if at all, at general digital art. It takes me ages to come up with a relatively basic sketch, even at my skill level. Now I fear that I’m just not talented enough and will never become as good as I want to be. This fear has lead to me not really practicing new stuff at all and sticking to the stuff I already can, which causes me to progress even slower. I know that I have to practice a lot and try out new stuff but every time I fail at an attempt to make something new it gets harder to not just give up.”

What is crucial to note is that Wewius has spent a lot of time creating one type of artwork, in his case, perfecting the vector shapes of My Little Pony character designs. The answer to his problem is right in that statement, and I’ll give you a hint; it has nothing to do with My Little Pony. What he’s practicing is our first learning style, which is muscle memory learning.

Muscle Memory

We all used this method as infants. At first, our ability to grip, to walk, balance ourselves, articulate speech, was simply underdeveloped. With repetition and practice, along with some failures, we viscerally repeated these actions until we were familiar with them. Now we’re able to perform most functions without thinking, because it’s so engrained in us.

A lot of people will recommend that you learn art this way. That starting with no zero drawing ability, repetition of the same subject, the same shapes, the same faces, the same methods of creating, will eventually cause you to be a better artist.

This is technically true. With a lot of things pertaining to art, practicing and refining our mechanical skills is necessary and beneficial.

HOWEVER: Should you be studying one subject, repeating your study of it over and over, until you can produce that specific subject?

A Firmer Base

The second method is Foundational Learning.

Basically, this involves a proper study and understanding of Anatomy, Perspective, Construction, Rendering, Observation, Draftsmanship… all the big, scary, sometimes boring-feeling elements of learning art.

While this can definitely seem daunting, and it can seem like we can get by without it, understanding of fundamentals is key for ANYONE who is serious about art.

With a firm understanding of fundamentals, you aren’t just able to draw one thing really well: you can draw ANYTHING, because you understand how it needs to be made.

To illustrate the difference between Muscle Memory Learning and Fundamentals, here’s some lego visual aids:

Muscle Memory 1

Let’s use a lego brick to represent a unit of time. Let’s give each of our learning methods 10,000 hours. That’s the amount of time generally accepted to be what it takes to become an expert at something.

Let’s say that this frame represents the range of art that you can make, and hypothetically, if you were able to fill this frame, you would unquestionably be the greatest artist in the world.

Let’s give our muscle memory guy some time to practice his art. He wants to create art like one of his favorite artists, perhaps a cartoonist. Now he doesn’t really understand why his favorite artist does what he does, he doesn’t really understand the decisions that he needs to make, but he can produce a pretty decent imitation. As time goes on, he spends more and more time specifically working on cartoons.

Muscle Memory 2

Eventually, after this relative 10,000 hours, he arrives, able to produce a *pretty* good cartoon character. His friend comes up to him and says, “hey man, I hear you’re an artist.”
Our little guy here, having spent 10k hours perfecting his craft, drawing the same things over and over and over and over says, quite confidently,

“Yes, yes I am.”

“Awesome!” says his friend, “Can I pay you to draw me a car?”

Muscle Memory 3

Well at this point, our little guy has built his skills up in one area specifically. But on the spectrum of artistic range, that car is going to probably be about here.

Have you ever felt like you could draw one thing so well, yet completely fail at something else?

I absolutely have. I spent close to 10,000 hours drawing one way and learning little. You might make the assumption that an artist that can draw a car, and an artist that can draw a cartoon character, are just different kinds of artists. But that doesn’t need to be the case. This is why:

Foundational 1

Here is our foundational learning method. Without rushing through the beginning and instead taking his time, this little guy begins to build up his fundamental skills. Along with his practice, he’s building an understanding for why things are the way they are.
At times, it’s boring. It’s tedious. It’s not coming easy to him. This many hours in, our muscle memory learner was halfway up the frame, but this doesn’t discourage our foundational guy. Once he has a fairly good grasp on these concepts, he starts to draw what he likes. He spends more time perfecting specific areas of his learning. He starts to hone in on what he likes to do best.

Now his friend comes up to him and asks,
“I heard you’re an artist. Could you draw a car for me?”

Foundational 2

Same as our previous guy, this artist has never drawn a car before. But look where that car lands on his range of skill. The distance for him to grapple to is is a lot closer than it is for our muscle memory artist.

When it comes to learning and improving your drawing, realistically you’re going to incorporate both of these methods. The foundational method may take longer, it may make you feel like you’re not producing what you’d like to as quickly as you’d like to, but it truly does enable you to create anything once you have an understanding of it.

Be careful not to fall into a groove of comfort, and break out of that every once in awhile, and make sure to question your reasons for doing what you do and attempt to understand the principles while you’re drawing.

Have fun creating!