Why Any Gardener Can Be An Artist

When Kate Kopsey interviewed me about my botanical illustrations the other day, I began wondering why more gardeners don't take up art when learning to draw is really no different than learning to garden. Gardeners know that you aren't born with a green thumb, but that you instead succeed with trial, error, patience and a lot of practice. So why do so many gardeners still think you need innate talent to be an artist?


If you'd really like to be an artist and think you're just not talented enough, I'm here to set you straight.If you can plant a beautiful garden or cook up a delicious dinner, how is drawing any different? It just takes practice. Here are some of the biggest complaints from would-be artists, followed by my solutions.



These took practice and learning - not talent.

"I Don't Have Any Talent"

When it comes to art, talent is a bit of a myth. You know why I'm 'talented'?  My childhood teachers told me I was a good artist, so with my new-found confidence, I continued to fill the pages of countless coloring books. My mom was also an artist, so she showered me with encouragement and guidance along the way. When my shyness got in the way of my social life, drawing in class got the cool kids to see me as more than just a typical loser; and by the time I graduated high school, all of that practice made me into a 'talented' artist.

Artistic talent boils down to these things: Confidence, motivation and persistence. To keep creating art without giving up you have to be confident to the point of being a little full of yourself at times, and that's okay. Once you're confident enough, you need some sort of motivation to keep you on track - be it a daily sketchbook, art classes or constant 'works in progress' to dive into after a stressful day at work. The real trick to becoming a 'talented' artist, however, is persistence. You can't expect to get any better unless you're practicing, simple as that.

Want to go beyond stick figures? Take a figure drawing class.

"All I Can Draw are Stick Figures"

If all you've drawn so far are stick figures, don't worry. That has nothing to do with drawing. This is the most common complaint I get, and it's a bunch of bologna. Drawing a stick figure is a lot more like learning to draw a letter of the alphabet as a child and memorizing it for future use.  A lot of the 'how to draw' books even take this approach and show you how to draw a range of subjects like say - a gorilla - using confusing combinations of circles and lines. The result is something resembling a cartoon balloon animal gorilla, looking nothing like the real thing. These counter-intuitive step-by-step books are to be avoided at all costs.

Here's the good news: You don't have to memorize how to draw whole objects to become a good artist! All you have to do is draw what you see, learning about your subject as you draw.


Drawings don't have to be perfect.


"All Of My Drawings Suck"

Really? If you've managed to draw a bunch of crappy drawings by now, you're on the verge of creating a good one! Bad drawings are priceless because you learn a little bit from each one. Don't throw away that horrible looking portrait even if you think it's an embarrassment, because that one bad drawing contains hours of free art lessons. If you learn from a hundred bad drawings and each of their mistakes, imagine how much better your 101st drawing would be!

It's said that we artists are our own worst critics, but I'm grateful for my own unrivaled criticism. I'm hard on myself because I want to learn from my mistakes, but I never let my inner super-critic discourage me from creating art. I use that voice to create better art.

Not from memory: I bought two mangoes to use as 'models' for this drawing.

"I Can't Draw From Memory"

Congratulations! You've moved past memorizing hearts, smiley faces and rainbows and can finally become an artist. Not only is drawing freehand unnecessary, it's a roadblock to your development as an artist! Drawing from memory can be fun in small doses and even useful if you're a cartoonist, but for the most part it's discouraging and and counterproductive.

For example, you could learn so much more from drawing a coneflower using a photo reference than you could from relying on your own faulty memory of how you think that flower should look. Rather than memorizing the basic shape of a flower, why not look at a real flower or a photograph of one, investing your memory in the important things such as the textures and patterns of each petal, or how they tend to fold inwards before they meet the center?


Even a difficult passionflower like this has to start somewhere

"It's So Hard To Start Drawing"

Do you have beginning artist's block? Fortunately, I have a cure. Clear off a desk, and on that desk place a sheet of paper, a pencil, an egg timer and a photo of anything you find interesting. Set the egg timer for an hour and start drawing.

Relax! You can play some music if you'd like or sip a cup of tea, but don't get too distracted: Your pencil needs to be moving nonstop and you'd better not pause to crumple up the paper into a ball or erase mistakes. If you need to start over, just keep filling the page until you have to start filling up the other side. When the timer buzzes, you don't have to call it quits! In the bonus round you can either keep drawing or start on something new.

By the time you've finished, make a list of everything that is 'wrong' about your drawing, and list the parts that gave you trouble. If the eyes didn't look right or the shading looked weird, try to figure out why and write down the solution. If you're still stumped, as a friend or family member for their two cents, or come back to the drawing with fresh eyes later.

Need Help?

Email your questions to steve_asbell@yahoo.com and I'd be happy to provide honest critiques and encouragement.


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20 comments:

  1. Fantastic pictures, you really do have an amazing talent!

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  2. I start out copying what I like and end up with my own thing. It's not art as per definition I was taught (free, true, innovative), but if I end up liking it, happy days! I certainly can't draw for toffee, but that doesn't stop me from doodling, and on the odd occasion something comes up that doesn't look too bad, so I work on that. Best thing that ever happened was when a friend went through my photos and found one of a watercolour I'd half- copied, half- made up and wanted it for herself. Best advice I have is to do what you actually like yourself and keep at it. If it is good enough for you to display on the mantelpiece, it's good enough full stop.

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    1. There's nothing wrong with copying to become a better artist, and many times you actually need photo references to accurately render the subject. If I don't have my own photo reference I'll often use several and do my drawing from that. Being a photographer helps a lot if you need material... If you want your art to be hung at the Louvre, then yes: Everything has to be original. If you're doing art for your own happiness, copy as much as you need and eventually you'll develop your own style.

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  3. We're going to have to agree to disagree here, Steve. Artistic talent IS innate in some people and not others. The ability to translate a 3D object into a 2D one is something I simply find next to impossible. Have you ever played me in Drawsome? Ask those who have and they'll tell you. We all have talent(s) that are unique to us. One of yours is definitely the ability to create amazing pieces of art!

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    1. Drawsome is a BAD example because for one thing, I suck at it; and another thing, drawing on a touch screen is considerably harder than drawing on paper. I usually work from photos, so I'm really going from 2d to 2d most of the time and it took a while for me to get used to drawing from life. Understanding the 3d form helps, but it takes time.

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  4. I am so glad you took the time to write this and then post it. I don't consider myself an artistic type, although I love photography, but I have always wanted to create art through painting, or drawing. This summer I committed myself to this challenge and I have begun keeping an 'art journal'...it really is quite a journey but it allows me to dabble in all kinds of media...plus the one I am familiar with...photography. I have used all the excuses you listed here but have kept my inner artist tied up long enough! Thanks for the inspiration.

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    1. If you can do good photography, you're halfway there! It means that you have a good grasp on composition and values, and you also have your own photography to work from. I don't know what I would do without my own photographs. BTW, I have a hard time staying focused on an art journal myself because it takes time away from my illustration and writing. Kudos to you for pulling it off! If you ever find you're in a rut, get some quality bristol board paper and work on something big!

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  5. Steve, you are so talented it seems daunting to climb that creative mountain. I'm certainly inspired to try though. I don't draw much but I would like to try and create my own images for a silk screening course I'm taking in the fall. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I would love to see your silk screening because you have impeccable taste and a good eye for detail. I would recommend sketching patterns in advance to get a feel for what you'll want to print! So exciting.

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  6. As a left-brained person who went from getting a science degree to graduating with a creative degree, it does take more effort. And 24 years after graduating, I am still having to work at it. But sketching, becoming unbridled by practice, is really quite the design tool. Funny, but I started sketching 1x a week, but missed this past week.

    That said, great variety of sketches and techniques, including not doing it from memory. But your last list of what's wrong, really hits it on the head. Perfect! Go for it, I say.

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    1. Left brainers have a big advantage because the hardest part of drawing for many people is triangulating between 'landmarks' in the drawing; estimating the degree of each angle, determining how far apart to draw lines by using fractions and keeping meticulous and accurate marks... you already have the intelligence and the creativity will follow. As you know, sketching helps you approach problems from different angles and develop unusual solutions!

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  7. You gave a very good reference with gardening & being an artist in a same concept.
    Just like any gardener - who paints the garden with living plants painted on the landscape.
    Its all about patience, practice and perseverance - just as you had mention.
    And I always enjoy your artwork - they really show a lot of dedication & details to be marvelled at.

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    1. Thanks! You're right; just as a gardener develops good taste creating beauty in the garden, an artist develops a better eye with practice.

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  8. Steve, I feel like you read my mind when you were writing this post. I fall under the 'I can even draw a straight line' category but I must admit I've been toying with the idea of taking a beginner's art class more for the fun of exploring color combos than actually creating the next great piece of art. Thanks for the inspiration.

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    1. I can't draw a straight line either! That's why we have rulers... and I also lightly plan my lines with a light 2H pencil before committing so that i know I'm safe. BTW, please take that art class! You'll be surprised at how much you'll develop in just one class.

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  9. Thanks for your wonderful insight Steve. I will use more of my own drawings in the future as models for my silkscreening.

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    1. I love your prints! I wish I had the tools and dedication to do it myself, but I'll leave that one to the pros like yourself.

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  10. Steve...Right on! I wish people understood this too. I love watching the process when people discover they can do things like art or gardening and it makes me a little crazy when they think they can't when we all started where they are at one time. The belief runs so deep they won't even try to learn which is really sad. (Oh to have a vaccine against self doubt.)

    The posts you have done on FB have prodded me to get back into drawing again. The ones where you show the process made me realize how much I missed it and so I am getting back into art after years of it being set aside...I am wondering now why I ever laid it down. It is such a joy. I only have one question...Is there a way to be more left brained? I am pretty right brained...better with color and texture and weaker on spacial relationship. If there is a class I want to take it so I can learn to better determine those spacial relationships...beyond basic perspective drawing which I have had some training in. And here's something kind of funny...I'm so bad that finally decided to I let my husband arrange the furniture in our living room because I'll spend hours doing it and it never feels right...he comes in and POOF...gets it the first time!

    Thanks again for sharing the encouragement. I'll be sharing this post and I hope others will take the time to read it and be inspired.

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  11. In college I minored in art! I loved to draw and had been doing so since a young child. I drew and drew. In college we learned many different techniques and used different drawing materials. I loved it. At the end of my second year of college I developed a tremor in my right hand. Freaking out I went to the Dr. who diagnosed early, early onset essential tremor. My Mother had a tremor but they didn't have a name for it. It's benign but progressive. My whole body is involved now. I take medication for it but I sometimes still cannot write my name. It took me until my early forties to find my art again through design of succulent containers and photography. Thank goodness for image stabilization and digital cameras.

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