I’ve been slowly taking up drawing as a hobby. I wouldn’t consider myself a very artistic person. In school, I was more math and science oriented. Now I work in computer security. But I want to share some of what I’ve learned.

One of the first things I learned when I started is that using a pencil is hard. When you write, you can have some variation in the angles and curves of your letters while still maintaining “good form”. An “E” still looks like an “E” whether you write it with curves or corners or one stroke or three or squared-off or angled. Contrast this with something like drawing a circle or a 3D box. Even a small variance in curve or angle will turn your perfect drawing into something that looks wrong.

There are tricks you can learn to making more accurate circles or boxes. For example, the lines going out from the corner closest to the viewer on a box need to have obtuse angles between them. If an angle is perfectly 90°, then the viewer will have to be looking at a side straight-on. If the angles are acute, then the box will look skewed. Drawing boxes doesn’t get easier just by knowing the rules, though.

Even though I’ve come up with how every angle and line relates to every other angle and line, I still draw skewed boxes. My hand just doesn’t know how to control the pencil properly. The solution is simple: the knowledge must be applied - a lot. That’s the idea behind Draw a Box’s lessons. (No, this is not an advertisement for DaB.) I think that’s the idea behind a lot of art lessons. Hell, it’s probably the idea behind most things you can learn.

A long time ago, I was browsing a forum thread on a fairly unpleasant website. The forum thread had something to do with programming, and someone was asking about learning programming. I don’t remember the programming language in question, the person in question, or anything else. But I do mostly remember the response.

It was a well-formatted, but very sarcastic paragraph about the “greatest developers”. These “greatest developers” would spend years studying the fundamentals of the language. They learn the nuances of the compiler. They learn the most efficient algorithms for every problem. They read books and watch tutorials and browse forums until they understand the language better than the people that created it. And so on and so fourth. But one line from the paragraph summarizes the idea and stands out most in my mind: "The greatest developers go years without writing a single line of code." (And in case it wasn’t clear, the post was satire.)

I don’t think I appreciated that line at the time, but I find myself thinking about it more and more lately.

I’m one of those people with a tendency to “learn” more than I practice something. I’ll watch hours-long YouTube videos on obscure topics, and my favourite podcast(s) came from the How Stuff Works group: Stuff You Should Know, Stuff You Missed in History Class, etc. I’ve read books on the history of tea, the book index, and capital punishment in France. It’s knowledge that can’t really be applied in my life, or is only applicable to hyper-specific niches. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this - it’s a form of entertainment for me.

Yet, learning as enjoyment and learning to apply are two different things. Returning to the art topic: I’ve spent more time watching the Draftsman Podcast, browsing r/artistlounge, and similar activities than putting pencil to paper. I - like many in my position - justify it as time spent learning, and there is value in learning from others. (“Don’t reinvent the wheel,” as they say.) But that time is really more entertainment-learning than applied-learning. It’d be better spent putting pencil to paper and improving. Using the pencil is hard, though, because it means having to face failure when the boxes don’t look right despite my best effort.

I don’t have any good words on failure or dealing with it. That’s another thing I’m still learning. But I don’t want to end on a sour note, so I want to highlight another thing I’ve learned through art: how to see it.

I know that sounds a bit pretentious, but hear me out.

I’m going to be using a digital painting by the artist “WLOP” as an example. It’s titled “Civilization3” and you can find it on his DeviantArt. (I’m avoiding posting it here directly because I’m unsure of his re-upload policy.) The art is of a girl playing a magical steampunk-esque violin with lots of floating gears. I think it’s a really pretty piece, and I’d probably be able to know it was one of WLOP’s at a glance (even if it didn’t have a big watermark saying so).

There’s a few things about the painting that I wouldn’t have noticed before I started learning art. For example, look at the part of the violin furthest from the girl. It’s only a few simple strokes and even has some bits randomly floating off to the side. The more you look, the more you notice things like that. The gear under her chin has misshapen teeth. The leaf pattern on her dress is just bean-shapes and circles with a few thin lines running through it.

I don’t say this to make fun of or insult the piece. It’s actually an amazing trick that I hope to be able to emulate one day! But it’s something that I wouldn’t have noticed before I started learning to make art instead of just looking at it. (I also apologize to the artists to whom I’m probably stating the obvious.) WLOP focused on the areas that most people would unconsciously notice the most flaws with (the face and hands) and let the viewer’s mind fill in the detail for the less important parts (the pattern on the dress).

Here’s another one to look at: Breathe by Yuumei. It’s another portrait. This time it’s a girl wearing a respirator of sorts with roses where the filters should be. One of the first things you’ll notice is the clear brushwork-iness of it and the lines again. But this one I point out for the colour. At first glance, she’s wearing a tan coat, but notice the left side: it’s blue. So is part of her hair and face. (Also, if you go back to WLOP’s image, you’ll notice the character’s hair is actually a bit green. Especially in the back.) Before learning a bit about colour, I’d probably have defaulted to a black or grey for shading.

I’m happy that I’ve learned to see things this way. It’s like I’ve learned a secret to unlocking a hidden part of the world.

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