I Can’t Even Draw a Straight Line!

“You can always fail at what you don’t want, so might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” - Jim Carrey, actor/comedian 

Throughout my career in design and teaching, the most common thing heard from clients, friends, and students has been, “ “I can’t even draw a straight line!” 

For non-creative folks, drawing, writing, playing music, or cooking can be daunting, while those fluent usually understand the simple secret to a better understanding of these skills: it’s called practice! 

Becoming good at anything requires constant, repetitive routines of familiarity, forming muscle memory, and developing pattern recognition. Still, there’s more to getting better at something than just practicing. Intangible connections, like passion, desire, or competition, often drive us to want to get better. 

Rethinking the “I can’t even draw a straight line” into a more confident, “I’m going to learn to draw” starts with small steps and these helpful reminders, below: 

1. Inspiration & Motivation 

Most pursuits begin with, “I want to,” whether going shopping, eating, or learning something new. “Wanting” is the first, positive step that sparks action. Inspiration happens when stirred by a positive, emotional response; motivation comes from acting upon that emotional response. 

Seeing a live musician perform, a new art exhibit, or tasting a new dish all may inspire and motivate us to learn to play, paint, or cook, for ourselves. 

2. Realistic Goals & Expectations 

So, you’re inspired & motivated to play the ukulele – a reasonable goal with realistic expectations. However, if you’re inspired to walk across the country, perhaps the goal is a bit extreme with unrealistic expectations. 

When I said, “I want to do some wiring in my house,” my options were to hire someone or just do it myself. My goal was reasonable with expectations I could handle. So, I learned what I needed, did it myself, saved some money, and was happy with the result. Installing a new furnace, though… I’ll call someone for that! 

3. Committing to Learning 

Saying, “I want to learn to blow glass,” is different than saying, “I’m going to learn to blow glass.” Being inspired and motivated, then recognizing goals and expectations, are the first steps to learning something new. 

What follows is a personal commitment to pursue learning – action forward toward the unknown and stepping out of a comfort zone into discomfort & frustration that often comes with growth. Most people will give up a this point, but being committed means sticking to it, even when it’s uncomfortable. 

 4. Immersing into the Subject 

Once committed, fully immersing and consuming all knowledge on the subject is necessary to elevate understanding of what’s needed. Classes and workshops, online tutorials, YouTube videos, magazines, and even talking to those successful in the field are great ways to learn more. Saturating the desire to learn with information progresses motivation and accelerates action. 

5. Focus & Distraction 

A common result of immersing into a subject is “information overload” and becoming overwhelmed, creating confusion & frustration, a break in focus, and possibly loss of interest in the subject. This happened to me when I first learned how to code a web page, but I stuck with it and eventually “got it.” When overwhelmed, stepping back and getting space let’s you revisit the reasons for wanting to learn in the first place. 

6. Taking Action 

Whether it’s a new language, playing soccer, or creating a garden, it takes time to learn what to expect, but it’s through hands-on application that we truly gain a keen and personal understanding of how things work – or don’t work – and how to apply information to put to use. 

Nothing worth doing is ever easy, so learning a new language with someone fluent can be humorous and even embarrassing. Spinning wet clay into a fine pot can often result in a failed ashtray. But, it’s the hand-on relationship that will build experience and develop learning.

7. Practice, Practice, Practice! 

As I said, you can’t get better at something without practicing, be it bowling, archery, or riding a bike. Dabbling or doing it sporadically won’t get you there. Doing it over and over, until discomfort turns to excited comfort, will. 

For me, learning to use an airbrush was frustrating. I read books, studied commercial work, and even met with an album cover designer from Epic Records. My initial efforts were disastrous (paint bleeding, water spits, ruined paintings). But soon, after months of trials and learning what to do/not do, I got better, got clients, and got paid! 

8. Getting the Right Gear 

I used to teach students to invest in cheap gear until they knew whether their interest was a passing fancy or if they were in it for the long haul. If they were truly in for the long haul, I’d recommend investing in high quality equipment. There’s no sense wasting time and money if you’re going to give up after a month or two. 

I learned to play guitar on a cheap $50 guitar that I played for years. Once I was proficient, I got a $2500 C.F. Martin guitar and understood the difference between the two. It was a Motel 6 vs. The Ritz Carleton.

Once skills emerge, however, I don’t recommend staying with cheap gear, as it will hinder progression and ultimately cause frustration. 

8. You Are NOT Amazing 

Your friends, family and co-workers may tell you the cake you made was “awesome,” “great,” or “amazing!” and they’re being sincere. But, in a fast-food culture where watered-down compliments are handed out every few seconds on social media, sincerity has become as convenient as a “Like” button. 

Brutal honestly and self-awareness are vital for growth. Being humble and thankful is fine, but knowing you can still be better is reality and worthy of aspiration. Instead of settling for breezy compliments, seek inspiration that creates that stir of passion and interest, and drives you to want to be better. 

Seeing Picasso’s “Guernica” up-close is “awesome;” watching Paul McCartney play “Blackbird” from 20-feet away is “amazing;” and tasting soft shell crab prepared by Chef Ming Tsai is “great.” 

9. To Be or Not Be Challenged? 

Thinking leads to process; process leads to understanding; understanding leads to growth; growth leads to thinking. 

A product called Zentangle came along a few years ago. It was a branded collection of drawing patterns which folks could easily access and string together to create interesting designs. While it was excellent for the meditative process of creativity, it lacked in challenge, as users often just followed the patterns they were given.

When that novelty wore off, along came Adult Coloring books, which introduced a new meditative process of creativity by filling in pre-drawn images with color. Again, it further reduced challenge to a grade school level.

These two outlets are examples of how some people prefer not to be challenged, but still want to enjoy the process of being creative and the relaxing, meditative results of doing art. However, for those aspiring to develop more refined skills and deeper interests at a higher level, staying constantly challenged to learn more is key.

10. Expect Respect & Make Mistakes 

Making mistakes is how we learn and get better. Frustration comes when mistakes are frequent, big, or costly. But, knowing how to respect mistakes and use them to learn is vital for growth and further understanding. 

Eggshell in the omelet? Paint still in the brush? Dark foundation on light skin? Ugh! But, beating ourselves up over mistakes won’t fix them, but recognizing that “uh oh!” moment and responding with, “let me try again!” might.

While some mistakes make us cringe, they do often reveal certain truths: 

  • I can do this, but need to focus and try again.
  • I can do this, but I need help.
  • I can’t do this, but I’ll keep trying, anyway.
  • I can’t do this and should stop trying. 

Respecting mistakes can also help realize that this skill may not be the right fit and perhaps stopping before further mistakes become in vain, costly, or for naught. 

As I mentioned, becoming good at anything requires practice, but also requires disciplines to truly transcend beyond a fleeting interest and achieving success and mastery in a field or subject. 

I’ve been at this illustration & design business for over 30 years, and I’m still constantly blindsided by new techniques, styles, and things I never thought of before. Life is too short to stop exploring, whether in the kitchen, on the road, or even in our minds. There’s always something “amazing” to discover, we just have to look. 

Thank you for reading and be creative in everything you do! 

Cheers, Mark

Drawing from video, above.