How to Draw (lessons from a 7-year-old)

I don’t draw well. But I’m learning, thanks to my 7-year-old.

When I was a kid, I drew all the time. I drew animals, hockey players (goaltenders sporting 90s Jets gear was my specialty), just about anything. I enjoyed the life of a prodigy artist and drew for the adoring masses (namely, my mom and dad).

Rick Tabaracci, c. 1990.
No, that’s not a real bunny, it’s just a drawing ;).

But something happened.

Somewhere along the way, around the time my voice changed, I lost my mojo. I unlearned how to draw.

Reflecting back, I think this is what happened:

  1. In 5th grade, a new kid moved to town. He drew Garfield characters like nobody’s business. He quickly became known as the “really good artist” in our class. I couldn’t handle the new competition, and started getting quiet about my passion.
  2. Around the same time, I started to realize that there were seriously talented artists out there. Because my sketches didn’t match up, it was easier to hide by saying, “I don’t know how to draw”.
  3. Because I “no longer knew how to draw”, I also stopped exercising the drawing muscle. (And, with the arrival of computer graphics, the muscle ended up atrophying comletely).

I don’t think this is uncommon. Lots of us used to know how to draw, or sing, or play a sport. Then we found out that our “special talent” wasn’t that special at all. Instead of digging in, we started to hide and claim ignorance.

Every child is an artist

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
– Pablo Picasso

My daughter is drawing these days. At school she’s learning how to “look-draw”. The process is pretty basic:

  1. Look at something.
  2. Draw it.

And that “look-draw” process seems to be working, because here’s the thing:

She can draw anything.

If she can “look it”, she can draw it. She might not be Picasso, but she’s a seven-year-old with the confidence to give drawing a try. (And honestly, she can draw a lot better than the grown-up who simply doesn’t because they’re convinced that they “can’t draw” anymore).

Her simple “puppy”, which she started drawing as a 4-year-old, is still my fave.
He had a very shiny nose…

(Re)learning how to draw

I’ve wondered if this kind of approach would help us grown-ups who have unlearned the skill of drawing.

What if, instead of claiming ignorance, we’d say “I can draw like a 7-year-old”?

It’d be scary, because your chicken-scratch artwork would be out there for the world to see, and potentially ridicule. It’d be gutsy, because putting yourself out there is always pretty vulnerable. But it’d be a start. (And hey, if you’re in an environment where everyone else claims they “can’t draw”, you’d actually look a gutsy genius for working up the cajones to even try!)

When I became a father, I re-discovered drawing. I could doodle a dog, or a frog or a sheep and my kids loved it. The bar for pleasing a 3-year-old was so low that there was 0 risk in trying.

I still draw like a seven-year-old, but hey, I’m drawing! And if I stick with it, I might even get better.

If you want to re-discover a childhood talent, try the following:

    1. Admit that you can. Repeat after me: “I. Can. Draw.”. If that sounds too presumptuous, add “…like a 5-year-old” to the end of that. The first step is denying ignorance.
    2. Draw. Try a “look-draw”, or call it a doodle, do it in crayon and sign your kid’s name on it, whatever you need to do. You can only get better if you try.
    3. Study up. Reading isn’t the same as drawing (so don’t skip #2!), but developing a “visual language” can help you with some of the basics. Check out Sunni Brown’s Doodle Revolution or Dan Roam’s Back of a Napkin. (Those books will also remind of some of the reasons why grown-ups should keep drawing, too).

Before you know it, you’ll be that creative genius you’ve always known you were, deep inside! Your fans will love you!

But even if the masses don’t come running, you’ll at least be able to put a smile on a kid’s face. I don’t know about you, but that’s reward enough for me.

I don’t always (or ever) draw unicorns, but when I do it’s for my daughter’s birthday (and yes, it helped make her day).