what to draw when you don’t know what to draw!

what to draw_childrensbooks.jpg

Showing up to make art is one of the hardest things to do, even when you really do feel like making art.

There are so many sneaky ways we try to self-sabotage, even when we know that making art is going to be fun!

One of the ways we self-sabotage our happiest drawing selves is by leaning on that trusty crutch: ‘But I don’t know what to draw!’

Often, what we really mean is ‘I don’t know what everyone else thinks I should draw’ or ‘I don’t feel confident in my art and I feel that what I want to draw won’t be good enough.’ There are layers and layers of feelings behind that seemingly innocuous statement, ‘I don’t know what to draw.’

The truth is that deep down you do know what to draw. You just need a little practice at opening yourself up to it.

Here are three ways to unearth that drawing mystery:

• Just start making marks.

Grab your sketchbook or a loose sheet of paper. Pick up your favorite pen or pencil or marker or brush or pastel, whatever your go-to art making tool is. And start making marks!

Make lines, circles, scribbles, blobs, doodles, patterns, etc. Try layering different colors and making textures.

Just relax and let your hand do the work at first. You might land on something that sparks an idea. Or might just have fun making marks and that’s good too!

Side note: it’s recommended that you try this exercise on paper instead of digitally. There’s something special about connecting pencil and paper and if you’re feeling stuck about what to draw, a change of drawing materials might spark something too.

• Draw what you love!

When you start to think of yourself as a commercial illustrator, you start to get a lot of ‘I should be drawing this’ feeling. Much of this stems from seeing what successful illustrators are drawing and believing that you need to draw those exact things to build a successful career.

Boop. Nope.

What you should be drawing is whatever you love drawing, whatever you feel passionate about, whatever lights you up.

Leaning into whatever subject matter lights you up will not only make your art making experience more joyful, but it will help you stand out in a world full of talented illustrators. It will make your work memorable. And eventually, it will begin to attract projects that are just right for the art you’re creating.

My go-to subject matter is birds. Obviously. Followed by flowers and insects. When I show up at my drawing desk and don’t know what to draw, I tend to make art that features simple shapes, hence all the birds, flowers, and insects in my sketchbooks.

Make a list of your favorite things to draw and keep it in an obvious place. When you get that ‘I don’t know what to draw’ feeling, just refer to your list.

There are some caveats to this when it comes to creating portfolio work. My personal example is that I prefer drawing nature, but because I illustrate children’s books, I’ve never been able to escape also having to draw people which I don’t enjoy as much.

So yeah, you might run up on a situation like that over the course of your illustration career, but don’t build an entire career on drawing what you think you should be drawing.

Draw what you love. Bring all the joy into your art practice and it will shine through in your work. All that joyful work will pull the right clients into your orbit.

But first, you’ve gotta show up and draw those things you love drawing.

• Give yourself an assignment.

Have you ever had the experience of working on a project and having tons of ideas for things you wanted to draw but didn’t have time for? And then when you get the time, you’re out of ideas?

Yeah, that.

Take all those fleeting ideas and write them down right away because you’re going to forget them otherwise.

And when you’re faced with not knowing what to draw, grab that idea list and use one idea to create an assignment for yourself, complete with deadlines.

Treat it like a paid project. Plot out the various stages of your project from ideation to sketches to final art and all the things in between that help you create your best art. Set deadlines for each stage and add them to your calendar.

Make this a fun project too, not just something you feel like you must draw because that’s what everyone says you should be drawing. Remember, lean into that ease of creating what you genuinely love.

Usually, deep down you do know what you want to draw and  with a little help, you can find those things that will keep you excited to show up in your drawing space day after day.  

Comment below and share your favorite thing to draw!


  1. Jennifer Bower says:

    I struggle with the "what to draw" conundrum all the time. My biggest excuse is the pressure I feel to always have a fully fledged final piece down on the paper. I never give myself permission to doodle, be sloppy or simply make an absent minded mark on the page. I love drawing horses and barns.

    • Wow! Horses are one of my nightmare subjects to draw ? It always cracks me up because other animals feel like no problem, but somehow horse anatomy doesn’t work the way I think it does…

      Have you tried having a messy sketchbook? I used to call mine my ‘bad art’ sketchbook, but I started calling it ‘playful art’ instead and it’s much more fun! It’s nice to have a place where there are no expectations, just marks and blobs, and fun!

  2. Elisa says:

    Steph, your article is great timing!!! I’m struggling currently on how to start, what to draw— all the reasons you mentioned. There’s often this pressure on drawing what people may like or having a consistent style that’s suitable on social media. It sounds silly when written but those voices are loud whenever i wanted to create. Your tips are spot on. The only way forward is to make time to draw, experiment and enjoy the process. Thanks for your thoughtful words always.

  3. Rae Scott says:

    What an inspirational article – thanks Steph! You’ve hit the nail on the head again with just the right kind of advice. You give validity to those of us struggling with this, so thank you! I enjoy drawing so many things – I’m quite fickle, as I’m inspired by soooo many illustrators & always think ‘oh I should be focusing on THAT’ but nature pretty much sums up all of it & animals as well (I first started drawing animals as a little kid, from one of those learn to draw by building shapes books, I’ve never forgotten, but haven’t actually grown/improved much! :D. I worry that if I flick between subject matter, I won’t be consistent enough….

  4. Teresa says:

    This article was so clarifying, I really needed to read it!
    My favourite thing to draw are snails 🙂

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