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Ask HN: How Do I Become as Proficient with Art as I Am with Computing?
10 points by IMAYousaf 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments
I want to preface this by saying that like most artists, most programmers tend to have learned their craft through a combination of curiosity, experimentation, and eventually focused study, hence "Hackers and Painters".

My dive into the world of computers was much the same, where my desire to understand the technology around me lead to experimenting with code and components, eventually finding resources for problems along the way. I compounded this with formal study in University.

If I want to be at a level where I can sketch photorealistically in __X__ amount of years, as if I'm drawing a field manual, where should I begin?

What are the optimal ways to practice? What are the best books and reference materials to go off of? How do I learn to self-critique? What other questions should I be asking?

Thanks in advance.

Sculptor here. Everything here about the pottery experiment is 100% on point, as is that one famous Ira Glass quote. The fastest way to make enormous leaps and bounds as an artist is to focus on quantity rather than quality. When you start out, your quality is going to be terrible. Embrace it! Wallow in it! Accept the inevitable ugliness before you even get started! The Ira Glass quote in particular taught me to love and revel in the ugly prototype phase. And with each ugly piece you churn out, pick out one thing to improve on next time. Repeat until you finally get where you wanna go. Never start something with the intentions of the first round also being the final piece, there will always be something you'll wish you did differently.

I will also say, photorealism is 100% about the craftsmanship. That said, practice things like shading gradients diligently. Constantly. Stretch em, squeeze em, do the for wide and narrow ranges of shades. And start TODAY. Fill up entire sketchbooks of nothing but shading practice just for the sake of going through the motions. These are the building blocks as fundamental as musical scales. When I first got into working with cut paper, I wasn't sure what i wanted to make, but I started practicing with an Xacto knife anyway. I spent 6 months practicing before I finally had a vision of something I wanted to make, and by that time, my xacto knife skills were able to match it. THAT is what you want. I would make it a point to devoting your entire first year to nothing but this kind of practice. Do little life sketches and sketches of the folds in cloth, but don't linger on any single one for very long. As has already been stated, you're better off devoting time to lots of rough little things than one big polished thing.

You got this!


Thank you for your optimism and encouragement!

Do you have some suggestions about good technical exercises? I have a good understanding, I think, of the different aspects of a drawing, like shading and coloring etc. But I was wondering if there are good exercises for improving those?

I recommend the book: "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain".

To be proficient at programming we tend to be left brain oriented, so the shift in how we approach the process of "seeing with the right side of the brain" is a critical first step towards increased artistic ability. Doing the exercises in the book are fun and you should make some impressive progress.


Thank you for the suggestion. I will look into it.

I am on the reverse journey. I went to art school, have been a designer for many years, and write software at a "not very good but I'm working on it" level.

How do you learn to self-critique? Honesty, objectivity, and taste.

Given your background, taste is the only one I'd worry about, but if you're shooting for photorealism, that's fine. You've got taste about what photos look like. That's easy. I'd bet that, after getting in the game, your goal won't be photorealism at the 5 year mark. But that's for later.

Here's Ira Glass, of NPR, with a fairly famous set of remarks about overcoming the period of time when you know what good art looks like, and know that the art you are making is not good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2wLP0izeJE

Another anecdote I've heard that's a favorite of mine and describes the process of becoming talented very well:

A pottery class is divided in two for the entire semester. One half of the class is told they have the whole 15 weeks to make one really, exceptionally great vase. The other half is told that their only goal is to produce as many vases as humanly possible, regardless of quality.

At the end of the semester, the vases that were aiming for excellence pale in comparison to those created by the half that was shooting for volume. Through the course of creating many terrible vases, the students learned what makes a vase good, and how to do it in fast, repeatable ways. You don't make the mistake on vase 20 that you made on vase 1. These iterations compound and lead to significant quality gains.

There are a lot of links to e.g. the lean startup methodology here. Fast iterations are better than long chunks of time spent chasing an ideal, because your ideal at the outset is almost certainly flawed in multiple ways that you won't realize until you've spent time trying to execute against it. Your ideas will fail in the world in ways you can't expect, so you want to put many ideas into the world and learn about the maximum number of failing cases.

Make as much art as you can, for as long as you can, no matter how bad it is. As long as you have ideas about what needs to improve, you can improve.


Thank you for that anecdote. I appreciate it.

An artist friend, or maybe it was something that I read about art, said that you have to make more or less 100,000 bad drawings before you get a "good" one. Now even if it's a couple orders of magnitude more or less, I was interested in finding structure, because it's hard for me to benchmark progress even incrementally outside of "does it look exactly like how I want it to look" or something akin to that.

Being cold and scientific may be against the concept of art, but I'd like to figure out ways to benchmark myself, because I don't have that "assignment" equivalent with trying to learn from scratch.

Get better at making art by making more art. The pottery class experiment is pretty famous and corresponds with what some artists experience:


One thing to be careful about is your personal success as an artist through craft and commercial success as an artist. Commercial success requires reaching people with relevant material that engages them and is another level of skill above and beyond being able to make visions real.


I think that it's interesting that a lot of people talk about clay specifically.

I like to think that I was actually quite good at pottery, after my half-year long art credit in high school which was spent in a pottery class.

Maybe because the tactile nature of clay creations, and my obsession with geometric symmetry and "perfection" let me visualize exactly every step that I needed to get there.

Optimal way to practice

> Deliberate practice

Best books

> Depends what you want to draw? How to Draw by Scott Robertson and Figure Drawing Design and Invention by Michael Hampton should keep you busy for a while

How do I learn to self critique?

> Take a picture of your drawing I find it easier to see mistakes by looking at a picture of it. Another trick is to get up, walk around and come back in 5 minutes. You'll get a fresh look and see the mistakes.

Honestly I wouldn't worry about optimal practice from experience it's very difficult to achieve until you've built a habit out of drawing and some proficiency.

Step 1: Have fun. Do you enjoy drawing? If not find a way to enjoy it.

Step 2: Build a habit out of practicing and enjoy the process. From reading about many experts and mastery the process is the key to mastery. Enjoy the process, not the outcome.

Step 3: Don't stop. Quitting happens only once. If you stop drawing for a month that's fine, pick it back up. This is a life long journey. Again enjoy the process.

As an aside check out www.artstation.com it's a concept art website where industry professionals post their work. Fantastic site for inspiration.

Read this post: https://noahbradley.com/blogs/blog/dont-go-to-art-school

Pick up a copy of Art & Fear and read it whenever you feel discouraged.

Good luck.


Thanks for those suggestions.

I'll check those out.

Get a nice, large journal with quality paper and just start drawing things. Pick out some interesting objects and draw the same thing from multiple viewpoints.

Your goal is to understand the structure of the object (or scene) well enough that you can translate the spatial structure to an optimal 2D representation. This is not always what you would see from a single viewpoint. In order to know the spatial structure, you have to make multiple attempts.

You should enjoy looking at things, in the same way that a writer enjoys reading.

Color is a freaky beast, you should probably get a copy of the book Color and Light by James Gurney if you want to understand how to make color work for you.


Thank you for those suggestions.

I think that I've always really struggled to understand color and shading techniques. I'll check that book out.

Sketching phptorealistically mostly just requires patience. Just sit down and do it. It's a methodical, technical process. If you sit down and do a different drawing every night for a couple weeks you should be pretty close to photorealistic by the end. That's middle school art class stuff. They'll start with simple shapes like cubes and balls, then move on to plants, or old shoes. You can draw your hand, and then maybe try a portrait.

Now to really learn how to draw, with style and sensibility takes a little longer. There's a book called 'the Natural Way to Draw', which is broadly recommended and is an excellent guide for getting off on the right foot, with the right mindset.

Hello. Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll look into that book.

I was also recommended Charles Bargue's "Drawing Course" and Harold Speed's "The Practice & Science of Drawing". Do you have any particular thoughts on those?

Are there anyways to optimize that methodical, technical process? I would ideally like to practice in a "structured" way in regards to building up skills as opposed to the more organic way of practicing everything until it looks nicer.

Are there any particular recommendations as well regarding equipment? There's a lot of stuff out there, and I'm willing to invest in better quality products.

Also, if I want to take advantage of my iPad and Apple Pencil, with an app like Procreate or something similar, do I focus on digital drawing, or is pen and paper still far better to build fundamentals from?


I don't recommend taking a structured approach from the start. That's akin to picking up a violin for the first time and sitting down with the sheet music to Mozart's violin Concerto #4, and expecting to learn it note by note. It just leads to tears and frustration, and you'll likely give up before you've achieved your goals. Your work will be awkward, fussy and uptight. I run into a great deal of beginner drawers learning this lesson the hard way.

All formal university level drawing courses take an organic approach, because you're organic, you need reinforce the neural pathways between your eye, your mind's eye, and your hand, until the whole chain is connected and intuitive. You learn best through rapid iteration, and failing fast, over and over until all the fail has been worked out of your system, the same way a child learns how to do pretty much anything.You'll get to proficiency faster this way, I promise. Formal observed drawing courses haven't changed much at all in centuries, it's a refined and well understood process.

And do start with a pencil and paper. Bigger is better, feel free to blow money at the art store, but an HB pencil and photocopy paper will do at least for a while. Don't go to the iPad until you're confident you know what marks need to go where on a page to make an image.

I could go on about this at length, but that's why I recommended the book. Harold Speed's book is alright, but I've only parsed it, so I don't really know.


Thanks for that insight.

Do you know of any syllabuses that would be good to look at for the "organic" approach idea? I'd like to understand more what progression would look like even with a more free-flowing approach to learning.

If you look at art history, you will discover the artists constantly experimented with new technologies, chemistries, methods, etc. I think that iPad + Apple Pencil is one of the latest additions to the artist's collection of tools. Personally I find that taking a photo and then using it as a layer to draw on top of is very helpful for some exercises, especially when beginning to learn cartooning / caricature drawing.

Personally I use a Lenovo (Android) tablet with AutoDesk SketchBook and an Adonit Dash 3 stylus. A good, cheaper alternative to Apple products. The biggest drawback being that there is no palm rejection with this approach and that can be an annoyance at times.


Do you have any particular recommendations for learning digital tools and technologies?

I'd like to know if there are some specifics native to stylus and tablet that differ from pen and paper.

I highly recommend using pen or pencil on paper and not using anything digital. The paper will last for decades, just roll your finished drawings into a tube and put them away for ten years, then revisit them or frame them and send to friends.


Ideally, digital drawings will last for just as long too!

But I'd like to do that. I bought a binder and some paper protectors. It might be ego and vanity here, but I'd like to record my entire progression if possible.

Artist here. I do a lot of ink and watercolor work, among other media. Most of my work goes between surrealism and abstract, and I've been doing this since I was a kid. I'm 40 now. I've been practicing for years. I do sell occasionally, but I'm lazy about self-promotion. I also help with a rather large facebook painting group (over 50k members).

What are the optimal ways to practice? Daily. Sketch something daily. I'd suggest a variety of subjects from photos. It's OK if you don't finish a sketch every day, so long as you put in at least 15-30 minutes most days. Most adults that practice daily see huge improvements in the first year or two - they surprise themselves with their progress. Some of the sketches will just be practice drawing shapes and shading.

What are the best books and reference materials to go off of? This is truly an individual thing. There are many youtubes out there. Alfonso Dunn makes some decent drawing videos. There are many books out there: whichever seems to speak to you is the one to get. If you can, get one in which you are interested in the subject. Different subjects will have different bits: Portraits and human figures are different than landscapes, which are different than still life. I'd honestly suggest a combination of references and subjects at first.

How do I learn to self-critique? This is a really difficult thing to do, some of which will simply come to you as you learn more about art. There are some tricks, such as taking a picture and viewing it in black and white to see contrast. Studying color theory helps as well. Study other people's art: Read art advice from artists you personally think do good work. Some folks look at their pictures upside down: I personally will make sure to look at the picture from afar. Many set their work aside for a few days to look at it with "fresh eyes". I'd fully suggest things like a facebook group or Wetcanvas forums for an outside view.

What other questions should I be asking? How to protect yourself from repetitive motion injuries. Tennis elbow, carpal tunnel, shoulder issues, and other such injuries plague artists. You'll want to make a habit of taking breaks during longer sessions, stretching your hands and less frequently, your body. You'll want to have good posture for the most part.

The last bit of advice is to learn to be kind to yourself. Most folks tend to see all of their "mistakes" when others won't. It'll take time to both train your fine motor skills and things. Good luck and have fun on this journey :)


Thank you for your thoughtful response.

What is the name of that Facebook group, and similar groups that you think might be helpful? I think that finding communities like that online could really help me.

I'll make sure to check out Alfonso Dunn. Is there someone in the art world who is considered in the same light that programmers consider people like David J. Malan and Andrew Ng for Computer Science education?

No problem.

The group is "Acrylic Painting for Everyone" - no worries, we cover more than just the painting, but the group is large enough that we can't change the name. "The Art Studio" and "Accidental Watercolorist" are good as well, though the second is narrowly focused on watercolors. You might also check out www.wetcanvas.com - this is a really, really good forum with loads of information. A lot of other groups seem to be hit and miss, like everything else.

You might also be interested in a book called "Drawing on the right side of the brain" - I've never read it, but it comes highly recommended from adult learners.

Unfortunately, art tends to specialize more and such people really depend on what you get into. People learn from old works, usually from the Renaissance painters to Picasso, Dali, and Van Gogh. Then you have folks like Giger (alien movie art) and Escher (with lots of perspective and math). Oh, and Bob Ross - people seem to love or hate him, but he inspired many to start making art. Some of this, I think, is because there are so many different mediums and styles of art that people tend to split a bit more. Or simply because art has been around for a very long time compared to programming.

An important question is :

How to keep yourself on track until you reach your goal.

That’s more difficult that it seems. There will be many real and imaginary barriers to overcome. And sometimes you won’t even know you have hit one of those barriers. You will find out later and say, hey!, why did I stop ?


That's what I'm really trying to find out as well.

With things other than creativity, it's easy to benchmark progress. I'm not versed enough technically with art to know what those benchmark points are to assess myself honestly.

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