Sheets of paper with drawing drills

Drawing drills are like art vitamins

I didn’t realize how important muscle memory and pure ‘mileage’ of mark making and training your arm/hand/eye coordination can be until this past year. Which sounds kind of silly, but I suppose I always had the assumption that art skill was all talent* + creativity + intelligence.  I guess it’s just a reflection of how I tend to live with my head in the clouds, and that I need to ground myself in my physical body more.

The more I practice realism, the more I feel the importance of having a range of and control over the marks that I make. The ability to draw objects, environments, creatures, and the human figure which appear closer to reality than abstraction is a difficult ability to master.  The nature of the marks we are able to make — their range and qualities — is a basic component in creating visual illusions.

In the past, I’ve leaned toward stylizing my work, admiring comics and anime and such. It felt easier and I admired the style.  Lately, I’ve realized that I long for realism. For realistic fantasy and science fiction art, like so many of the works of the concept artists and illustrators I admire. Not to say artists don’t add their own unique stylization in, but the necessity of the fundamentals of conveying the illusion of space and form are still, well, fundamental to the work.

And these fundamental practices benefit so much from an ability to produce a range of marks: from long, swift, gestural lines to small, tight, controlled hatches. So that’s where muscle-memory drawing drills come in – they’re daily practices to train the eye, shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingers.

I’ve been keeping up my drawing drill practice every day for the last 71 days (which according to the Habit Bull app I’m using for tracking, is past the 66 days a habit takes to form…a matter of some debate, but sure, why not?). I’ve definitely noticed an improvement and it’s teaching me to be patient with improving overall.

Types of Drawing Drills
Drawing drills as a definition can contain more than just muscle memory. I’ve found that drawing drills can generally be divided into the follow categories, with most of the practice I’ve been doing lately falling into the first one:

  • Muscle memory mark making
  • Visualizing 3D space
  • Intuitive/meditative drawing
  • Texture gradients
  • Observational art drills

Muscle Memory Drawing Drills as a Daily Practice

My favorite drill is just drawing ellipses of varying degrees from the shoulder. It’s super easy to sit down and finish in under 2 minutes (not so easy to draw the ellipses accurately, but that has been coming with time and practice).

Committing to finishing a single sheet of copy paper covered in ovals and circles is soooo much easier than telling myself I need to sit down and fill “x” number of sketchbook pages everyday.

I’ve also kept it less boring by switching between hard and soft lead pencils, pencils sharpened with a craft knife verse a regular pencil sharpener and various colored pencils and colored ink fine liner pens and markers. Whenever I’ve digital painted, I warm up with several layers of ovals (usually whatever I can finish during a 3-4 minute song), then delete the layers once I’m done. It’s made me feel so, so, SO much more comfortable with my Wacom tablet.

The many variations on muscle memory that I’ve found so far are:

  • Various mark types:
    • Straight lines
    • Curved lines
    • Ghosting lines
    • Basic shapes and flat planes
    • Hatching, cross hatching, scribbling, stippling
  • Concentrating on where the movement of the mark primarily pivots from:
    • Shoulder
    • Elbow
    • Wrist
  • Varying the pencil grip
  • Varying pressure of the mark
  • Varying speed of the mark
  • Testing out different materials/colors
  • Varying posture and environment
    • Observing how good and bad posture affect the marks
    • standing vs. sitting
    • Sitting at a table vs. the couch vs. the floor (I am usually on the floor if using traditional mediums… idk why but it’s hard to get myself to sit in a chair >_>* At this moment, I am typing with my laptop on the coffee table while sitting on the living room floor XD)
    • Using a drawing board against the knees at a table
    • Observing how proper workspace setup matters (bright enough lighting, comfort level, music playing, etc. Evening making sure my glasses are clean ^_^*)
    • Spinning the paper/sketchbook/board to draw at a more natural angle, but also trying out uncomfortable angles
  • Gradation of tone/amount of media on the paper’s surface
  • Observing how internal mood affects the marks, grounding and centering my energy before drawing, finding a place of calm from which to draw

This list mostly applies to pencil and charcoal pencil drawings. Ink drawing drills have more limitation of the type of mark, but you can still affect the line weight, even more so if you use a brush pen in place of a fine liner for some of the daily practices.  Tablet is kind of restricted in variation, but I haven’t yet started to play with various brushes/brush and pressure sensitivity settings. I also don’t really know how different Wacom tips in the stylus affect the mark making on the computer. So there is still room to play.  And to get really creative – mark making can be such a wide area of experimenting. Just searching “mark making variety” on Pinterest shows a range of experiments, using sticks, various brushes, stamping, found objects, paint, ink, coffee, tea — the possibilities are endless. Being able to play with your marks brings fun and life into a practice, especially when dreaded art block comes along.

I think committing to this practice has been eye opening. It’s much like regular drilling for belly dance or working out — small steps, building over time are much more effective than trying to push yourself once a week.

Helpful Links & Such

The following resources were what really helped me in this direction, perhaps you’ll find them useful too:

Happy sketching! :3


*foot note on “talent” – anymore to me, this means having put in the time to practice, practice, practice. But in the past, I was under the assumption that talent was also just this thing you had inside of you. I now see “that natural thing inside you” as an inclination to enjoy art and thus practice it more. Anyway, I’ll leave it at that before opening a “talent” can o’ worms 😉

I'm an illustrator, web, and graphic designer honing my skills and learning all I can about drawing, painting, and storytelling through visual art. I love comics, anime, gaming, and reading blogs. Read more about me on my About page.
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