I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had this question come up over the years. I think it is indicative of a lot of common beliefs about learning any new skill. Naturally, in this day and age, people often gravitate to the latest technology in hopes that by spending more money it will improve their skills. In some regards this is true, for instance, I think it’s important to have decent paint (see this video about oil painting supplies) . But when it comes to learning the basics fundamentals of drawing, a stack of copy paper and a pencil are your best friends. There’s a couple reasons why I believe this.
Undo Undo Undo
For centuries Art Academies across the world have relied upon a simple trick to build confidence in their drawing students. They make them use pen and ink. And what is it about pen and ink that helps those wishing to learn how to draw? Well, it forces students to commit to their lines. Just 20 years ago when I studied at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Connecticut I was forbidden by my drawing instructor to even use an eraser. Today we have a much more insidious form of an eraser, and it is Ctrl-Z, or the ability to undo every mark we make. It makes beginners much more careless with their mark making, and they kind of just keep hacking away at a drawing hoping that one of the marks finally works out. Now, this isn’t to say that digital painting and drawing don’t have their place. They certainly do, and have their own benefits as tools. However, if we are talking about learning how to draw, then I think that starting off digitally has a lot more drawback and strengths. Another aspect of drawing with real ink, as opposed to digitally is that it forces to get you into the mindset of practising. Students hate to hear this, they want to labor away on one piece for months and end up with something good. I’ve seen them, they are actually OK drawings in the end. But the problem is that they took 3 months to make. The same student would raise their abilities much faster by doing hundreds of studies and “crappy” drawings on copy paper (or whatever cheap paper you can find). Digital painting and drawing lend themselves as a medium to more laborious tasks. By their very nature they have a proclivity to make students fiddle around with their drawings more.
When i started my foundation studies at the Academy I was immediately thrown into uncharted waters. I thought I had a good grasp of drawing since I did it quite often, and was better than many of my peers. But then came my first life size figure drawing class, and it totally rocked my world. For years, I had learned to draw with my wrist and fingers. With large format drawings I was forced to use my whole arm. I may as well have been drawing with my foot! Using my whole arm seemed unnatural and was frustrating, but then, as the months went on, I saw the benefits of it. For one, working large forces a student to really think about the movement they are making, and the gesture of the figure becomes more apparent. And this doesn’t only pertain to those who wish to become painters. It also is relevant to those who wish to go into entertainment design or animation. The gesture is at the heart of animation and character design, and it is essential for painters to get the rhythm into their works. With those working on tablets, many times (unless they have a huge Cintiq) they are working on a small surface. They are bound by the size of the tablet, and can’t increase the size of their drawing surface (Of course they can zoom into a drawing. An actual benefit of digital work) . Ask anyone who reviews portfolios for an animation studio and they’ll tell you that they want to see both finished work, as well as work in progress that displays a student’s gestural approach to the drawing as well.
Sketchbooks can easily be put into a backpack and you don’t have to worry about them getting broken, or running out of battery. As someone wishing to learn how to draw my best advice is to simply draw from observation, and practice it daily. It can be just 20 to 30 minutes. Maybe, like me, you have a commute on public transportation every day. This is the perfect opportunity to draw people around you. Or go to a cafe and whip out your sketchbook and begin drawing. The same can’t be said for those who wish to work only digitally. Unless you want to take out a tablet, your computer, get the glare off the screen, and then balance everything while you try to draw. A simple sketchbook is a better option which is also cheaper, more discrete, and more mobile.
Benefits of traditional media
Scientific studies have shown that students who takes notes with a pen and paper actually retain more information and have a better grasp of the material than those who do so digitally or with laptops. The reason being that doing so is a bit more difficult and forces your brain to “exercise” more while consuming the information. By using a pen and paper, it also forces a student to confront the environment in which they are in and try to render it on a two dimensional surface. Working from photos isn’t the end of the world, as some claim, but in general if you are just starting out, then it is far more beneficial to draw from observation. If you use source photos that’s fine, but use them correctly, to study planar changes on a model or quick value studies. You can download my free drawing e books here, and print these out for next to nothing. They contain a photo, and an are right next to it where you can draw the photo which you are looking at. All of the students in my first semester drawing course are required to finish 100 of these drawings on their own in additional to the coursework covered in class. It’s great to have something compact like this which is a clear record of your work. Of course with digital media you can just put all your jpegs into folders and look at them on your computer, but I think there’s something to be said for the act of reviewing your progress page by page, in a sketchbook you hold in your hand. There’s a clear beginning and end, and you should be able to see yourself improve page by page.
To sum things up, I think it’s important to remember that new technologies in digital painting and drawing are always just tools. Nothing more, nothing less. Somebody who gets a hundred thousand dollar violin won’t magically become a better violinst. And in the same regard, someone who spends a lot of money on state of the art equipment won’t necessarily hone their skills any faster. At a certain point, of course there are advantages to drawing digitally. Particularly for those interested in Entertainment Design. But at it relates to painting and drawing in a Fine Art context, pen and paper are still king. Not to mention that my colleagues, students, and friends who have all landed the dream jobs at major animation studios and production companies had one thing in common. They could all paint, sculpt, or draw really well. A fellow student I went to school with ended up working for Industrial Light and Magic, and he was hired without having a lick of computer abilities. He was simply an amazing sculptor with a strong foundation in figurative studies. So, don’t discount traditional media as being something only relevant in the past, it is still something which can help your drawing and painting abilities soar in their infancy. If you want to get a tablet later it’s fine. I use one to refine my sketches for TShirt designs and other more commercial projects. But practice, and learn to draw with good old fashioned pen and paper. Transferring the skills you learn will take literally a matter of hours to a digital format.