Learning to draw again

Dear Artist, When I was a kid I was pretty good at drawing. By the time I got to art school some people thought I was a certified drawing genius. Trouble was, I solved all my problems with my drawing — to the detriment of composition, colour and other stuff that should have held my attention. Feeling I had to raise my standards, I decided to drop drawing altogether and try to build some other facilities. It was tough. For about six months I essentially disabled drawing and kicked my drawing board down the road. To this day I seldom draw. I go right to the other stuff. Psychoanalyst Dr. Norman Doidge’s remarkable book, The Brain That Changes Itself is full of stories showing how the human brain can be rewired. Doidge is of the “neuroplasticity” school of brain science. He doesn’t think, for example, that there is one part of the brain that masters drawing and keeps it there. Like a giant hard drive on a computer that’s capable of filing stuff randomly, any part of the brain, including left and right hemispheres, can learn and unlearn. In one story, after a devastating stroke a man was able to gradually regain the use of a paralyzed leg. During his recovery he had come to rely more and more on his good leg. It was part of his process to mentally disable the good leg so the bad leg could begin again. Psychiatrists note that during the sticky business of lovers parting, it’s necessary for them to “disable” the forsaken one in order to begin to love someone else. This doesn’t mean trashing the other, but the old has to be properly archived before new love-data can be entered. It’s thought that those who don’t need to do this didn’t love in the first place. Disabled neural paths can be difficult to regenerate — particularly as you grow older. But it does happen, and it’s no miracle. It takes character and focus. You can teach old dogs new tricks — and get them to relearn old tricks they’ve forgotten. Artists frequently report the loss of drawing ability when they neglect drawing for even short periods of time. Since my heady, distracted days in art school, I’ve noticed a decline in my drawing ability. Just another case of “use it or lose it”?

“Gentle face”
pastel on paper, 12 x 18 inches
John Newman’s first attempt to draw using his left hand 2007

Best regards, Robert PS: “Neuroplasticity contributes to both the constrained and unconstrained aspects of our nature. It renders our brains not only more resourceful, but also more vulnerable to outside influences.” (Norman Doidge) Esoterica: Canadian painter John Newman suffered a stroke that caused Transverse Myelitus, permanently disabling the right side of his body. His right-handedness appeared to condemn him to no more painting. But with application and focus John was able to gain nearly similar dexterity with his left hand and has subsequently had lefty sell-out shows.   John Newman

“Little Sister” 1979 right hand
oil on paper
36 x 30 inches 


“Compositional Study” 2011 left hand
pastel on paper
14 x 18 inches


“Bouquet In A Landscape”
right hand 2000
pastel on paper
24 x 18 inches


Summer sky” left hand 2011
pastel on paper
17 x 14 inches

              Unlearning must happen at times by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA  

“Broken Rock”
acrylic painting, 20 x 16 inches
by John F. Burk

Interesting. In my early career as an ad agency art director (one that has kept me at a full-time hop since the markets collapsed in 2008), I spent 5 years drawing everything in front of my face. I’d watch TV football with my sketchbook in my lap recording play action almost as quickly as it happened. Another look at that sketchbook shows little to be impressed with, but there was gradual improvement in accuracy and speed. I have always drawn from the age of eight, but this period improved my proficiency enormously. In those pre-computer days, everything was rendered, including headlines and text blocks. Ideas were more original, too, because you weren’t relying on stock photography to represent your images. I would abandon a good idea because I didn’t think I could draw it, until those 5 years happened. My style was contrasty — strong lights and darks, as was the photography I directed from the renderings. My compositions were very graphic and off-axis, my way of dealing with a fixed rectangular page shape. I find I compose paintings this way to date. It’s interesting how much background can shape development, and an example of how unlearning must happen at times to make corrections and improvements. I shall have to look carefully at what I’m doing to see if some of that is the order of the day for me.   Mouth painter by Judi Goolsby, Santa Fe, NM, USA  

oil painting, 36 x 72 inches
by Jared Dunten

For an amazing story of grace, recovery, faith and determination, check out my daughter’s friend, Jared Dunten. After a diving accident that left him only the use of his neck and above, after excruciating rehab that goes on still, he became a “mouth painter.” His work is amazing and his life even more so. He is now married, expecting twins and has a gallery outside Austin, TX. Truly remarkable young man. There are 2 comments for Mouth painter by Judi Goolsby
From: Janet Blair — Sep 30, 2011

I love the energy and vitality in this painting,in both line and colour.

From: Jim Oberst — Sep 30, 2011

I am very, very, very impressed.

  No apology by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA  

original painting
by Peter Brown

I, too, was an art kid. Then I met another kid that could draw like Leonardo. I saw that my place as an artist was to become a colorist. Colors and shapes were enough for me. I eventually learned to draw, but what to me was important was color and shapes. It is fifty years later, and what I still do is to just put one color next to another color. Paul Klee became my guy. I do not apologize. I just keep painting. That is what I do.     Campaign for Drawing by Catherine Stock, France  

watercolour drawing
by Catherine Stock

Why not put a link to the Campaign for Drawing? It’s a fabulous organisation in the UK, determined to get everyone drawing again, and their main spokesman is the master draughtsman Quentin Blake. October is the month of The Big Draw, and museums and galleries all over England host special events providing projects and materials for anyone who shows up, usually free. My own little gallery in a small village in southwest France, La Sirène du Causse, is hosting an event this year on Saturday, October 1st, for anyone in the neighbourhood… The Big Draw is becoming an international event! There are 2 comments for Campaign for Drawing by Catherine Stock
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Sep 30, 2011

Thank you for this link to Campaign for Drawing. I just spent some time looking at everything there and some of their links. Good idea.

From: barbara greene mann — Oct 01, 2011

Well I had a really good time going through everything [page by page.I wanted to get some people together and do it too. May be i could make a class for the dowdy seniors where i live, Bingo comes b4 drawing. I could try. I liked the article paint big cuz thats me. a small bachelor apart, i do watercolors on my bed. i’ll let you no my results .

  Conscious mind creates barrier by Margot Hattingh, South Africa  

“Love flies in”
original print
by Margot Hattingh

Many years ago, I used to be really good at capturing a likeness, drawing a portrait of a live model in a very short time. Then years later, I was playing with my sketchbook on a beach in India. Out of nowhere I drew a little crowd watching my every move as I started to sketch a young boy. I was embarrassed by my total inability to capture any likeness and felt like a total beginner. However, some time after this humiliating episode, I was in a situation where I felt calm, relaxed and unattached to the outcome, and all my previous drawing skills resurfaced effortlessly. So I think that to a certain extent one does actually retain the skills deep down, even if long unused. It’s the conscious mind that can put the barrier in place. It could be like riding a bicycle after 30 years. A little wobbly to begin with but, if one persists, then it all comes back.   Regaining the ground lost by Rick McClung, Atlanta, GA, USA  

“One fine day”
oil painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Rick McClung

I agree with you. I noticed the same about myself. I’ve always kept a pad around, however used it only for very rough or loose ideas. I decided to find good stock to work on first instead of just a good enough pad. After just a few weeks of sketching every day I seem to have regained quickly the ground I had lost from lack of practice. I’ve grown to enjoy it and hopefully the brush drawing will benefit from it as well.       There are 2 comments for Regaining the ground lost by Rick McClung
From: Sherry Purvis — Sep 30, 2011

Hey Rick, I do like this painting.

From: Ron — Sep 30, 2011

Rick,I really like your choice of colors.Everything I’ve seen of yours on here,I have liked.

  Conscious-choice handedness by Gail Mardfin, Bernardsville, NJ, USA  

“Daffodil hill”
acrylic painting, 30 x 48 inches
by Gail Mardfin

A book by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who suffered a stroke herself, that is really great, is about rebuilding her “left brain” by conscious choice: My Stroke of Insight and she also gives a fantastic 18-minute Ted Talk.   There is 1 comment for Conscious-choice handedness by Gail Mardfin
From: Rose — Sep 30, 2011

Wonderful lecture,thank you for the info.

  Experimental hand change by Jeri Lynn Ing, Red Deer, AB, Canada  

“Fall Road, Red Deer” (left hand)
“Blairmore, AB” (right hand)
original paintings
by Jeri Lynn Ing

From Right to Left — I have been on an interesting journey in 2011. It started as a lesson in being open to change and ended with my switching from right hand dominant painting to left hand painting. I am naturally a right-handed person but I am now, for the past 3 months, a left-handed painter. It started as an experiment and ended with a change in style, composition and even color choices because of the hand that I choose to paint with. I have enjoyed this exercise so much that I think I will stay painting with my left hand for some time. Others, who have been witness to my change in painting hands, have noted that my work has softer edges and richer colors. I agree, it is better… it is amazing what can happen when you let go and trust yourself to learn something new. I have included two landscapes for you as an example of the change. One is right hand and one is left hand. You be the judge. There is 1 comment for Experimental hand change by Jeri Lynn Ing
From: Liz Reday — Oct 08, 2011

Wow! I’m impressed. I love the painting on the right with the high horizon and diagonal shadows….but was that your right hand or your left? Whichever, they look cool together as one piece, although I have to say I prefer the painting on the right.

  Jon Gnagy by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada  

“Hulls woods”
oil painting, 30 x 24 inches
by Lorna Dockstader

The first person I think of when remembering how to draw, as a child, was Jon Gnagy. His program “Learn to Draw” was first broadcast on television in 1946. He convinced me from a very early age, that I could become an artist. This morning I googled him, and was delighted to be able to re-watch many of his drawing lessons, online. Even the introduction music brought back joyful memories. He was commenting on how things had changed since he was a child (born in 1907), when the mailbox was the main method of communication, and now there is television! I saved my copy of his Learn to Draw book and will now give it to our granddaughter to enjoy.   There are 4 comments for Jon Gnagy by Lorna Dockstader
From: lindsaybradley — Sep 29, 2011
From: Diane Artz Furlong — Sep 30, 2011
From: Jackie Knott — Sep 30, 2011

Add another Gnagy watcher when I was a child. Simple, straight forward instruction, and still worthwhile to watch.

From: Kathy Mayerson — Sep 30, 2011

I too used to watch Jon Gnagy and drew along with him. I loved that show.

  Brain can be retrained by Nancy Pace, Benton, IL, USA  

“Wild tree of life series #1”
mixed media painting
by Nancy Pace

I am living proof the brain can be retrained. I had a stroke, a brain bleed. Afterward I had major memory problems. My husband bought me my first computer to keep me company while he was working. I shed many tears of frustration trying to master that computer. I wanted to learn how to use the e-mail program, LOL! The computer was the best medicine I had. If you met me now you wouldn’t know I had a stroke. I thought your post was very informative. Perhaps it will help others that didn’t realize how wonderfully adaptive our brain is.   There is 1 comment for Brain can be retrained by Nancy Pace
From: Anonymous — Sep 30, 2011

Thats beautiful


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Learning to draw again

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Sep 27, 2011

This letter, like so many others of yours, has revealed a problem area I wasn’t aware of. That is not me! Then a week later, the truth is revealed, Robert just wrote about this! I have felt my drawing skills slipping lately, but didn’t know why. I have always loved drawing, but haven’t done much of it recently. I am in love with color and texture, I admit it, and have forsaken drawing! Do you think he will take me back?

From: Linda Hill — Sep 27, 2011

I, too, am now aware of the fact that I don’t draw like I used to, after reading this letter. I quickly sketch, so that I can get right in to the painting, using color and texture to make it happen. Thanks for this………..I will try a little harder to get back to drawing again.

From: Raymond Mosier — Sep 27, 2011

Interesting, as always. Contrary to others’ observations, I am enjoying drawing more and more. Those are now integral to my painting process. I am finding drawing a way to see things in a different way and I think make my paintings better. I tend to think about and analyze the scene or subject more carefully. I’ve always used sketches and even some more detailed drawings before attempting to paint. My drawing skills have not faded, in fact have become more sure. What a confidence builder!

From: Marg Vetter — Sep 27, 2011

I love drawing, my big problem is if I do a detailed drawing, my brain thinks its finished with those images and doesn’t want to do the painting, so I trick it, just draw some of the elements, and use them.

From: Rick Rotante — Sep 27, 2011

When I started as a painter I had tons of drawing behind me. Finding a painting teacher I started working in his class. He constantly corrected my work by saying that I wasn’t painting, I was drawing. I assured him I was painting and he kept at me until I began to realize I was actually drawing with paint. He was right and I had a hard time not drawing while painting until I had finally had had enough and stopped drawing all together. I put away my pads and charcoal and completely stopped. After a very long time I began to see the difference and only then did I start to develop as a painter. Years later, after I had learned to paint did I again pick up drawing again. Now, I can do both and manage to keep the two apart. This is a big problem when I teach students. Having gone through this experience helps me in getting students to let go of the drawing and rethink what they are doing in paint. I don’t agree with those who say the two are the same. Today my drawing is okay and I don’t slavishly make finished works I see in classical workshop and schools. My drawing is only a tool for my painting which I do much more.

From: Marilyn Massey — Sep 27, 2011

As a young 20ish woman I learned to take shorthand. The strokes of shorthand are choppy and contradicted all my years of practicing my “lovely and legible” penmanship. My brain had to replace the lovely strokes with the corresponding figures and strokes of shorthand in order to automatically and almost subconsciously guide my hand to a speedy recording of what I (my brain) heard. As my shorthand teacher predicted, my lovely handwriting was destroyed. Today only with deliberate concentration can I even closely replicate my legible handwriting. Good news…my drawing did not suffer…

From: Barbara Timberman — Sep 27, 2011

Drawing is such a good discipline I think it’s important to draw a little each day. Even if it’s only while on the phone when you don’t want to be on the phone. I hope your comments don’t discourage anyone from pursuing learning to draw and to begin painting before they even know how to draw. I thoroughly enjoy your twice weekly letters.

From: Linda Sandland Wright — Sep 27, 2011

My return to drawing and creating in graphite has helped me with values in my painting.

From: Jane Walker — Sep 27, 2011

Like anything else we get out of practice.. but like when we go back to the gym after a break we recover our fitness pretty quickly after a little effort. My drawing definitely waxes and wanes according to the time spent on it .. the eye loses acuity as well as the hand.. what is more drawing often changes with age as losing the eye’s focusing agility means other artistic parameters come to the fore in place of highly detailed observation

From: Theosophilus Bram — Sep 27, 2011

The human brain is an amazing, versatile organ at your command that wants you to win at any endeavor you choose. It seems that males use only about 11% of their brains. Females only 17%. Women’s brains are smaller than men’s.

From: Gavin Logan — Sep 27, 2011
From: Allan Furniss — Sep 27, 2011
From: Kate Lehman Landishaw — Sep 27, 2011

“Neuroplasticity” is another great word for what life had to offer all along the way if you don’t surround yourself with old fogies who stop learning at the age of 57! Yikes! Youth, in and of itself, isn’t worth much, but stalled-out aging is a real disaster and a contamination on those in near proximity. Be thee fair warned – keep an eye out for lumps in the road –

From: Marvin Humphrey — Sep 27, 2011

re: “Use it or lose it”. Skills do get rusty; it feels good loosening them up with a little elbow grease.

From: Betty Pieper — Sep 28, 2011

I too, and I suspect many artists, drew very well as a child. That is probably where we received heavy reinforcing interest, attention, and praise by our peers and elders who thought us brilliant. For almost all my years I felt that anyone could do the same but did they just did not prefer to…had no interest. Even looking at the crude efforts of earnest classmates didn’t seem to disabuse me of this notion. Then when I ‘caught the passion’ for paint as a young woman, the next few decades…yes, not months or years but decades…were spent in an almost derisive mode: if you want to draw, draw; if you want to paint, paint! I saw how my mentor the late Sal Cascio could begin abstractly and pull elements of “drawing” out of his hand, heart and brain if and when he wanted them. I assumed that our abilities and experience “stays there” somewhere to be called upon when wanted or needed. We might need some focus and practice, but it is ‘there.’ Recently I tried four study sessions with a nationally (internationally) known portrait artist and found that although I had suffered from not drawing, I was still “OK”. My technique is messy, clumsy in charcoal and sometimes my observation of the model is surprisingly off, but I still believe that the ability to draw stays with us to a remarkable degree – neuroscientific theories aside.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Sep 28, 2011
From: daniela — Sep 29, 2011

I actually love John Newman’s left hand work. Years ago I kept a copy of National Geographic (June 1995) that had an amazing detailed article about rewiring the brain and people who have had brain damage through strokes or accidents, I was amazed and still have the magazine. One of my parents had a stroke and had to relearn talking and moving the whole left side of the body, and did.

From: George Alles, Pleasant Valley Watercolors — Sep 30, 2011

I’ve been a watercolour artist for about 20 years. What can you tell me about using watercolour board. I understand some artists have been doing this and by sealing the painting with an archival, matte varnish have eliminated the need for a mat or glass. Sounds appealing. What are your thoughts? Are such paintings marketable? George Alles, <a target=_blank href=”http://www.allesart.ca/Welcome.html” title=”George Alles, Pleasant Valley Watercolors”>Pleasant Valley Watercolors</a>

From: Christine Debrosky — Sep 30, 2011
From: Bettye McBurney-Mistrot — Oct 03, 2011

I have MS and there have been numerous studies on the ability of our brains to “rewire” or bypass the damage from stroke or signal interruption. Very interesting fact they also have found is that people who multi-task have the brains that can “rewire” the most effectively. A study of the Black Taxi Drivers in London was done and they multi-task each day and apparently it was found they could “rewire” the best. At some point apparently the brain runs out of that rewire capacity however and can no longer “rewire’. Yes a good motto for life for all of us and one I live by daily is “lose or use it”, be it art or mobility!!!! Thank you for the reminder. Enjoy you letters and sometimes they give me the pick up I need for the day….this was one!!!! Pearland, Texas

     Featured Workshop: Tony van Hasselt
093011_robert-genn Tony van Hasselt Workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 


acrylic painting, 48 x 60 inches by Danielle Richard, QC, Canada

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2010. That includes Leonard Skerker of Ann Arbor, MI, USA, who wrote, “Regarding your thoughts on loss of earlier drawing ability after de-emphasizing it for years: Wonder whether the years of developing other imaging aspects (color, design, texture, etc.) has changed your approach/evaluation making you more critical of recent drawings… enjoyed and applaud your bringing to our attention the newer understanding of the lifelong reforming of our brains.” (RG note) Thanks, Leonard. Over the years I noticed painters who couldn’t draw very well who nevertheless developed a great colour sense, excellent style and other painterly virtues. It’s a matter of finding your niche, balancing your abilities, and working your bliss. And also Susan Belcher of Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Love ya! Now when I teach a ‘drawing’ class I preface with ‘I teach drawing like a painter’ not like a draftsman. Though I do admire that ability. We use large sizes of paper, charcoal and graphite STICKS. No pencils. Lots of erasers. Positive and negative space!!”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.