To Improve My Drawing Skills, I Aim to “Fail Fast”

As a beginner, it’s natural to shy away from failure. Here’s why you should learn to embrace it instead.

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A page from my sketchbook. Drawing by the author, Benya Clark.

I think that when we begin a new creative endeavor, most of us feel a bit self-conscious. I know I do.

When I started drawing a few months ago, everything I put on paper looked like it was drawn by a middle school student (at best). It made me cringe a bit just to flip through my sketchbook.

My drawings were flat out bad, and although I knew they’d get better with time, I also knew it would probably take quite a while.

As I saw it at that point, there were really three options available to me:

  1. Quit. Give up and write off the whole experience. It can be a tempting option, but ultimately it’s a bad attitude to have in life. I don’t mind giving up on things I don’t enjoy, but quitting something just because it’s hard is not a great habit to get into. If I start doing that, I’ll never accomplish much of anything.
  2. Do whatever it takes to make each drawing perfect. I could spend hours on every drawing I did, putting in my all, trying as hard as I could to make them look great. This option is better than quitting, but it’s still not a great idea. The trouble is, putting so much time into every single drawing is a very slow way to learn. What’s more, even after all that time, they still wouldn’t end up very good because I’ve had so little practice.
  3. Lean into failure. The last option is to embrace my mistakes — to accept that when I start I new hobby I’m not going to be any good at it. Instead of treating each bad drawing as a waste or an embarrassment, I could treat it as an opportunity to grow.

If you want to improve at any new skill, option three is the only real choice.

Why “Failing Fast” is the Best Way to Improve

The idea of “failing fast” is popular everywhere from the business world to autodidact communities. Essentially, the goal of a learner should be to work on short, quick projects so that they can discover their mistakes and shortcomings quickly.

The sooner we discover our mistakes, the sooner we can fix them. So, the faster we fail, the faster we’ll ultimately improve.

I’ve tried to apply this approach as much as possible while learning to draw.

When drawing people, I focus on gesture, doing quick sketches that last 30 seconds to 2 minutes. In this way, I’m able to go through as many as 10 sketches in just 5 minutes.

I’ve grown far more comfortable with drawing the human body by going through hundreds of these quick sketches than I would have if I only did long, “finished” drawings. I still have a lot to learn about movement, weight, and proportions, but my improvement so far is great.

Another example of “failing fast” can be seen in the drawing at the beginning of this post. At the time, I was trying to learn to shade with cross-hatching.

Instead of going straight for drawing humans or landscapes, I began with simple shapes like cubes and cylinders. Once I was comfortable with them, I moved on to the rocks pictured above.

Rocks are a little more complex than cubes, but just barely. By focusing on such basic forms, I was able to quickly see what I was doing wrong and make corrections.

I sometimes just have a few minutes to draw in a day. Aiming to “fail fast” let’s me get the most out of that time.

Lower the Pressure

Another benefit of “failing fast” is that it lowers the pressure I put on myself for each drawing.

If I were to spend hours and hours on a single portrait, I’d feel a lot worse about any mistakes I made. Instead of seeing them as learning opportunities, I’d fall back into feeling self-conscious.

On the other hand, if I’m spending a couple minutes at a time quickly sketching faces, I’m not too bothered by messing up on any individual one. I can treat them like the learning opportunities they are.

Ironically, removing the pressure often ends up making my quick sketches look better than my longer drawings. It helps me relax and literally loosens up the muscles in my arm, which in turn improves my drawing ability.

Next time that you’re starting a new project, hobby, or skill, try to remember that you’re a beginner. Mistakes aren’t only inevitable — they’re actually a good thing. Instead of trying to be perfect from the start, “fail fast” so that you can learn from your mistakes.

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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