Complete Curriculum for the Self-Taught Artist — Introduction
Four months ago I decided I wanted to learn how to draw. But I didn’t want to just learn how to doodle, or make decent pictures that would impress my family. I wanted to attain what I’ve always believed to be the pinnacle of drawing — to successfully convert any conceivable image from the imagination onto a 2D surface. I drew a lot as a kid, as every child does, and although I was okay at copying other images (mostly comic book characters), I was never able to draw what I saw in my imagination. As an 11-year-old I would see other kids who seemed to have the ability to successfully bring their creations to life, and since I couldn’t, I assumed I wasn’t talented enough, so I gave up on drawing. What I didn’t realize was that those kids probably spent a lot more time drawing than I did, and what I mistook for innate talent was probably earned by hard work and a lot of practice.
Now, as a 38-year-old, I have a much better idea of the discipline and hard work it takes to walk the path of mastery. To be clear, I don’t expect to one day suddenly have the ability to draw from imagination and consider my goal achieved. Rather, I’m expecting to set out on a journey of self expression, self discovery, and mastery that will last the rest of my life. Here I will outline a plan for the first couple years where I will focus on fundamentals, and lay down some of the principles and habits that will ensure success.
For the last four months I’ve been drawing around 30 hours per week. I’ve gone through various books and videos, learned a ton, and even completed a couple 11 x 17 comic book pages of original art. However, I began suffering from the problem any learner faces in the age of the internet, which is the sheer overabundance of learning material available. Oftentimes I’d spend hours sifting through lists of the best drawing books and creating playlists of YouTube videos. I became more focused on curating the best resources than actually going through those resources. I would start one book, then wonder if I should be working on a different book, and I’d start jumping back and forth. Jumping around so often, I started to lose the big picture, and I didn’t give each resource the full attention it deserves. I was always focused on getting through one book so I could get get to the next. I realized that I needed 1) more structure and 2) a different attitude.
I love the structure of learning in a university environment. If I didn’t have to worry about money, I would probably enroll in an art school. That would provide all the structure, accountability, and mentorship I need. However, since I have to work 40 hours a week, art schools are insanely expensive, and a degree is irrelevant to me, I’ve decided to create my own curriculum, which I’m calling Art Home School. This project was motivated by season 2 of the Draftsmen Podcast, which will teach you everything you need to know to create your own curriculum for the self-study of art. What really pulls it all together for me is a Reddit post from RadioRunner that details a full curriculum for self-taught artists. The curriculum combines a list of the best learning resources on the internet with a schedule that mimics university courses and semesters. The funny thing is that I’ve already done the first few suggested units in the last four months before I ever saw this curriculum. I was already on the right track, but the curriculum idea helped me design a long-term structure instead of just picking a random thing to work on every day.
I’m using the same terminology as RadioRunner’s curriculum.
- Unit — Four weeks. Can be thought of as a university course.
- Term — Three units. Can be thought of as a university semester.
I have about 3 hours of free time for drawing per weekday, and 6–8 hours on the weekends, so I’m shooting for about 30 hours per week. I’m only going to do one unit at a time, but if you have more time you could work on multiple units at once. I plan on doing specific tasks at the beginning and end of each day, week, unit, and term.
Each Term (3 months)
- Begin — Assess the scheduled units for this term and make changes if necessary.
- End — Evaluate my process and progress, and make adjustments as necessary. Write a reflective blog post on what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown, and what has held me back. Showcase the work I’m most proud of.
Each Unit (4 weeks)
- Begin — Choose the materials to study for this unit. Create a rough plan for each week.
- End — Blog post summarizing how I’ve grown with respect to this unit’s topic, and what has held me back.
- Begin — Reassess where I’m at with the materials for this week and make changes if necessary. Create a rough list of exercises to do for this week’s lessons.
- End — Write a blog post showing all the drawings for the week, describing what I learned and what needs more work.
- Begin — Know exactly which material I will study that day and which exercises I will do. Read or watch the material, then do the exercises. Everything I learn should be accompanied with exercises where I apply it. Some days will not have any associated material, but will just consist of practice.
- End — Photograph or scan all drawings done that day and save them with the date to make it easier to post them at the end of the week.
This is mostly copied from RadioRunner’s curriculum. I will likely make adjustments as I go along. I plan on designing more specialized courses where I, for example, do a deep dive on a particular artist that I love. It will take two and a half years to complete this schedule. I’ll probably sprinkle in some art history among the other units. Keep in mind that exercises can and should be tailored to your specific interests. You should be getting practice in the kind of art you wish to create.
- Figure Drawing I
- Perspective I
- Composition and Storytelling I
- Anatomy I — Head
- Perspective II
- Anatomy II — Torso
- Perspective III
- Anatomy III — Arms
- Clothed Figure Drawing
- Color and Light I
- Perspective IV
- Anatomy IV — Legs
- Intro To Animals
- Perspective V
- Color and Light II
- Character Design
- Composition and Storytelling II
- Perspective VI
- Anatomy V — Imagination
- Perspective VII
- Environmental Design I
- Environmental Design II
- Inking I
- Anatomy VI — Caricature/Animal
- Painting I
- Inking II
- Painting II
- Painting III — Matte Painting
- Personal Project I
- Personal Project II
In some ways, the material in this section is more important than the structure or specific exercises. One can have the perfect resources, perfect teacher, perfect exercises, and perfect materials, but with the wrong attitude failure is inevitable. If you feel like practice is a grind, and you’re struggling just to get through it so you can get it over with, that is not a sustainable attitude, and eventually you will lose the will to push through and you will give up. The only way to stick to the path of mastery is to enjoy the process, and the best way to do that is through meditation practice, which ultimately comes down to being present. If you’re trying to complete a challenge of drawing 250 boxes, and each page of boxes feels like a slog and you can’t wait until you are done with that page, then you are very likely to quit. But if gliding the pen across the page at just the right angle with just the right pressure to make one corner of the box brings a slight smile to your face and a lightness to your heart, then you are likely to finish. And when you finish, you will exclaim “What? I’m already done? Very well. It’s time to move to the next exercise.” After realizing that the point of all the exercises is not to achieve some tangible goal, but instead to simply enjoy the process of doing the exercises, you are on the path to mastery. For me, maintaining this attitude will require discipline, inspiration, self reflection and health, and I have some ideas for exercising each of these “muscles.”
Sticking to a schedule, especially for any significant length of time requires discipline. Being present during the process can help because the mind is less likely to overrun itself with negative thoughts. I plan on reading books on mastery and discipline in order to set myself up for success. Having a set time every day when I draw is also helpful, because after I get into the habit, I don’t have to think about it anymore or force myself to draw. At 7:00, I automatically pull out some pencils and paper and start drawing.
Remember why you want to get good at this. Make sure to spend time admiring your favorite paintings or illustrations. Study them closely until they get you so excited to draw that you can’t help yourself. Hang your favorite images around your workspace. One piece of advice from the Draftsmen podcast is to adopt art “parents.” Choose a few artists who are your main sources of inspiration and try to meld their three styles into something new. Read and re-read inspirational books. Keep quotes on your wall that always get you in the mood to create.
I have built in reflective exercises at the end of each unit and term in the form of blog posts. It is always good to check in with yourself and reaffirm why you are doing this, and how your path might have veered this way or that. Think of this as meta-art, or studying how you are studying art.
Finally, anything that requires this much effort is a nonstarter without health. Eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, and mediating regularly are non-negotiable. For me, eating right means vegetables and lean protein, no fast food, minimal sugar, and plenty of water. For exercise I like a brisk 10 minute walk three times a day, and a 20–30 minute jog 3–5 days a week. Walks work wonders for inspiration and creativity, especially if you listen to an inspirational audio book or podcast. I like to get 8 hours of sleep a night, and I try to meditate for 20 minutes every day. In my opinion, this is the basic groundwork that excellence in anything must be built upon.
That’s it. That is the whole Art Home School program as I currently have it planned. I will be creating weekly blog posts on Sundays detailing what I learned during the previous week, and critiquing my drawings. I hope this will inspire others to embark on their own paths of mastery.
As an inspiring example of the benefits of concentrated study, I am posting here my first drawings from 4 months ago, after I hadn’t drawn hardly anything for 26 years:
And here is my best work after 4 months of dedicated, deliberate study:
If you were inspired by this post, consider leaving a tip. Thanks, and happy drawing!