Sure would love to some day hear about how you taught yourself to draw.
I want to apologize to my high school art teacher, Mrs. Hanks. With enough practice, she’d say, anyone could learn to draw. As a digital filmmaker, I’ve always thought of myself as more of an engineer than an artist. That is to say, I’ve been trained to analyze, execute, and manipulate the photographic process, but not to imitate or reimagine it from scratch. I stubbornly ignored Mrs. Hanks’ advice for a decade.
And then, through a series of fortunate events, I ended up in medical school. As I wrote in my first Tumblr post:
It would be an understatement to say that I was caught off-guard by the amount of material I had to cram for medical school. It seems as though med school traditionally values a certain type of learning—the freakishly prodigious student who can sit down for long periods of time, read stuff, and recall it perfectly on exams. I am not that student.
In an effort to capitalize on my visual learning tendencies, I began learning how to draw in medical school. But it hasn’t been very long, and my technique is nowhere near where I’d like it to be. If you’re looking for solid advice on how to better your craft, check back with me in a few years. But if you’re a visual learner who can barely manage a stick figure, perhaps my abridged journey will light the path to comfortable amateurism.
- LEARN THE BASICS • YouTube continues to be a great resource for my sketching needs. I started out by learning the very basics: What tools do I need? (I can’t do without my drawing pencils, gummy eraser, Pilot V5 pens, Tombow dual-brush markers, and Wacom tablet.) How do I hold my pencil? How is a contour different from a gesture drawing? One of my favorite resources is Stan Prokopenko's archive. From there, you can work your way up to more advanced things, like how to draw fabric, movement, proportions, and specific body parts.
- DRAW FROM REFERENCE • To become familiar with which lines converge to form a hand, let’s say, it might make sense to start off by copying different permutations of hands (e.g. cartoon, realistic, abstract) from reference images. It keeps you productive while improving your craft. A simple Google Image search will often do.
- EXPERIMENT • Even now, I find myself switching things up once in a while, just to see how they turn out. One of the techniques I sometimes use (especially when I’m having a hard time disabling my mind’s eye and accurately depicting size/perspective) is the “connect-the-dots” method. I certainly didn’t invent it, but it seemed to come about spontaneously. Simply put, I try to place dots at important points along a contour—the tip of a jaw, the corner of an eye, the length of a nose—and then connect them. This is especially useful when drawing from reference images. Once I’ve connected the dots in pencil, I can ink the image, go back, and erase the guide dots. On a more general note, because every artist and online tutorial seem to tout their own ways of drawing X, you’ll want to experiment with different styles until you figure out what works best for you. In so doing, you’ll also develop enough muscle memory to begin creating images from your own memory and imagination.
- KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE • In their infinite wisdom, Molly and Adam over at the Stanford d.school were quick to point out that visual notes and sketches can serve a functional purpose without being pretty or polished. Why and for whom are you sketching (or graphically recording) something? Understanding your audience allows you to set goals and expectations for your work. Not all my notes make it to the Tumblrverse, and often I’ll spend a little more time on a design if I anticipate posting it later. If you, like me, seek to use sketches primarily for studying or other “internal” purposes, it might behoove you to amass a mental library of “stamps” (symbolic representations of things) rather than try to make everything as “beautiful” as possible. Examples of stamps might be star people, a clockface for time/duration, or a scalpel for surgery. Many stamps may be metonymic in nature, but some may be recognizable only to you—which might be perfect for your needs.
- IF YOU SKETCH TO STUDY • (A) Color things in later; it’s another opportunity to go back and study the material. (B) Whereas Picmonic generally tries to match as many syllables as possible (post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis = “post stripper glowing mare”), your stamps may come in different forms: They might only reference the first syllable (Betty Boop = buprenorphine), they might be somehow metonymic (a droopy heart for cardiovascular disease), or they might be characters you’ve created on your own (I couldn’t come up with something for aldosterone, so I created my own character, Aldo). (C) Use the space on the page! For example, in my tableau for Huntington’s Disease, I know which neurotransmitters are elevated or decreased by where they are on the page (e.g. ACh & GABA are at the bottom; dopamine & glutamate are towards the top). You may also use a clockface or shapes to help you make these quick associations. For example, I memorized the 3 types of renal tubular acidosis by drawing stamps around a triangle. (D) Use characters you already know to help you remember stuff you’ve never heard before. You’ve probably noticed I use a fair amount of Pokémon in my notes; I was a tween, once. On that note, you might want to check out Moonwalking with Einstein.
- PRACTICE MAKES SLIGHTLY-LESS-BAD • It’s a long and arduous journey with no clear immediate payoff, but looking back at my first year of medical school, I’m glad I stuck it out and continued to doodle, draw, and design. Besides, it gives me something to look forward to when cell surface receptors don’t. It seems to make some of my classmates chuckle when medical school gets tough. So, whatever your reasons, keep it up! You’re going to be fantastic.