The Self-Taught Artist’s Path: 5 Ways to Improve Your Skill

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If you’re a self-taught artist and you’re struggling with figuring out how to bridge the gaping chasm between what you want to create and how the heck to create it, this post is for you.

Because you know I’ve been there too.

Other than doodling in the margins of my notebooks as a kid, I didn’t start drawing until I was in my early 20s. A friend gifted me a silly little how-to-draw book and looking back, that’s probably a moment that changed my life.

I fell deeply in love with drawing and wondered if I could make a career of it. The only problem is that although I loved drawing, I wasn’t particularly good at it. The gap between what I wanted to create and what I could create was so massive, I couldn’t even see the other side of it.

Ugh, how frustrating!

This was back in the early 2000s, so things like Skillshare didn’t exist yet. There weren’t easily accessible online drawing courses and if there were, I wouldn’t have known how to find them.

Instead, I went to the library and checked out every drawing book I could find. Drawing books for kids, drawing books for adults, books about drawing comics and manga, books about drawing hands, books about anatomy, books about drawing landscapes.

And let me tell you: it was so boring.

I was so bored and so frustrated that I couldn’t just fast forward to that magical moment when I was a Great Artist.

Does this feel familiar to you? Are you feeling that frustration right now?

It’s such a cruddy feeling.

I wish I could say ‘but wait, here’s the magical method to just skip it and become the artist you want to be right now!’

But I can’t.

Because it’s one of those things where the only way out is through.

The only way to become the artist you want to be is to put in the time, to put forth the effort, to keep trying and to keep learning.

While I don’t have a magical method, I can share the things that have worked for me over the years.

• First, you need to be motivated and persistent. I couldn’t have gone from barely being able to draw to enjoying a six-figure income as illustrator if I wasn’t persistent. Or stubborn. Or whatever you want to call it.

Embrace the fact that you’re going to feel frustrated. You’re going to feel like you’ll never be good enough. You’re going to feel like you want to just quit.

But if you want to be a better artist, if you want to make a career of your art, then you’ll dust off your pencils tomorrow and get back to drawing.

• Second, you can’t skip the basics. I’m talking about those foundational art skills like shape, form, value, line, color, proportion, movement, perspective, and composition. Right now, you’re thinking, ‘but I don’t want draw realism, so I don’t need to know those things!’

Well, that’s wishful thinking.

After trying to skip that boring foundational stuff, I found myself in a place where I couldn’t move forward with my art because I didn’t have those foundational skills to build on. I had to hang my head in defeat and go back to learn the things I skipped early on.

Go through those basic how-to-draw books. Take a course on art foundations. Watch YouTube tutorials on drawing basics.

Develop those foundational art skills and when you start to find your own unique artistic voice, you’ll be able to easily express your ideas on paper.

• Third, give yourself time and space to explore a variety of techniques. Start with what’s accessible and affordable. I started with ink and watercolor and then experimented with whatever technique or medium caught my eye until I finally landed at Photoshop.

Even now, after a decade of illustrating in Photoshop, I take classes on new techniques and mediums and I nearly always learn something that is useful for my art practice.

• Fourth, consume, study, and dissect as much art and design as you can, and now just in the area you want to create art for. Look at fine art, picture books, book covers, graphic design, architecture, sculpture, editorial art, surface pattern design, music posters and anything that grabs your attention.

Ask yourself what you like or don’t like about each piece. Be specific. How did the artist create it? How would you recreate it?

You can even do master copies, trying to recreate the work of artists you admire. Try creating it exactly as they have and then try it in your own style.

A note on creating master copies: this is a wonderful way to learn and that’s all it should be. Your master copies are not for sharing on social media and you certainly shouldn’t be putting your name on things that aren’t your original creations.

If you’re learning by doing master copies, keep this work in a separate sketchbook or folder, away from your own original work. Make a note of whose work you are studying. Basically, take all the steps to avoid being confused at any point.

• And finally, the most important part of your self-taught artist’s path: draw every day.

For real. Every day.

If you’re frustrated by the gap between what you want to create and how to create it, drawing every day is the bridge you’ll need.

Of course, the more time you put into the faster you will improve. But even spending 15 minutes a day drawing will quickly improve your skill.

As your skill improves, getting those gorgeous ideas down on paper will become easier.

If you take nothing else away from this post, take the idea of getting in a daily drawing habit.

The easiest way to create this habit is to carve out the same block of time every day for your daily drawing. Pair that with a ritual to prepare yourself. Maybe you sit in a particular spot or go to a specific location. Maybe you turn on certain music. Maybe you brew a coffee or a tea. Maybe you keep a special sketchbook for your daily drawing or use special materials just for this.

Whatever helps you get in that creative drawing-every-day space.

Some days will go well. Some days will be a struggle.

But as you persist and draw every day, you’ll gain both skill and confidence. One day you’ll be creating the gorgeous art you dream about making.

You can do it. Don’t give up.


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  1. Kate says:

    I’m so heartened to read this post by an artist I admire, who has ‘made it’ in the illustration industry. The creative journey is an emotional rollercoaster so reading that these experiences aren’t unique give me confidence that maybe I can ‘make it’ too
    Thanks for all the work and teaching you do sfc ❤️

    • Steph Fizer Coleman says:

      Creativity is such an emotional journey, for sure! If you’re persistent, you can definitely make a career in illustration though 🙂

  2. Domenica says:

    I needed to hear this. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Melissa says:

    Wow! Great read! You’re so right.. just learning and I seem to be getting good at faces but need to go back to the very basic.

  4. Heather Williamson says:

    Thank you for your tips! I think your right, I need to draw everyday to bridge the gap.

  5. Felicity Tucker says:

    I really needed to read this. Thank you!

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