I can’t draw! Part 1 – Five tips to help you make great children’s illustrations without being a natural artist.

When it comes to creating children’s fictional characters, be it for cartoons, comics or story books, there is an almost limitless supply of talent throughout the world. Colourful cartoons and comic drawings have always held an appeal to me and I am not ashamed to admit that even as a man in his 30s who has long since left childhood behind, I am still fascinated by them and always will be.

Art can appeal to people on so many different levels and whilst there is undeniable talent displayed by the so called ‘greats’ (Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Monet, etc.), the art that ‘wows’ me personally, is that of the world of cartoons and comic books. So it would follow that I would want to create my own ‘cartoon’ style drawings. Indeed this is something I have attempted numerous times, throughout my life, not least in my childhood where, along with my close friend Bash, we would literally spend hours coming up with crazy characters and storylines and making them a reality with whatever pens, pencils and crayons we had at our disposal. But in doing this I had to learn one of life’s difficult lessons: having a passion for something does not automatically make you GOOD at doing said thing.

snapper's journey
A picture book I made in 1994, aged 11.

Here lies the conundrum that has been with me all my life. Whilst having a clear passion for all things cartoony, I simply could not transfer the beautiful images created in my head into physical form on a piece of paper.

There’s no doubt that many cartoonists, illustrators etc. have been blessed with immense talent when it comes to drawing. I should point out here that I really don’t intend to discredit anyone by saying they were just ‘born with talent’ because just about any person who has made a successful living from drawing (and indeed many who haven’t) has not achieved their incredible output without putting endless hours of hard work which is fully commendable. But it is undeniable that some are naturally more gifted than others when it comes to drawing, and sadly, in spite of all my early enthusiasm, I was not blessed with natural talent when it comes to putting a pencil to paper.

ds combined
Some characters from an idea for a graphic novel I drew in 2012 (I never saw the project through to completion)

So if anyone reading this can relate to the feeling of being stuck in a rut where they just can’t draw as well as they would like to, please stick with me – I assure you there is hope for you yet, plenty of it! Because I can guarantee you that even if you don’t feel naturally talented, and you have problems transferring an image out of your head and on to the paper, the great thing is that you can definitely improve!!

Having become a big fan of graphic novels in recent years, my desire to create my own characters and stories has been reignited in recent adulthood. Which is why roughly two years back I decided to start learning to draw again. This has been challenging, especially with a career that is demanding of both my time and energy, but I knew this time I wanted to stick with it and really make some improvements to the quality of my work.

So when I really decided to embrace creating characters again approximately 24 months ago, it is fair to say that what I was initially producing was really poor. My drawings were scruffy. The perspective was never correct. They were out of proportion. My lines were wobbly. The character’s expressions were all wrong. They looked hopelessly  two dimensional. Frankly they just weren’t very good. Whilst people might say to me ‘they’re not THAT bad’ or ‘well they’re better than I could do’, their semi-compliments never gave me much comfort. That is because however they looked to others, they did not look how I intended them to, and ultimately this was the most important thing for me.

b & y sketches
My best attempts at drawing cartoon wasps back in 2017

Unfortunately I was not able to find a decent ‘cartooning’ or illustration course near me but if you are lucky enough to have the time and money, a specific course or tutor is likely to be invaluable in helping you improve. However, if like for me, a course is not an option, here are five ways I’ve gone about overcoming my lack of natural talent to create drawings I am happy to call my own:

1. Learn from Others 

This may sound obvious but we are blessed with so much freely available education on the internet these days, and for the world of illustrating and cartooning, there is no exception. There are thousands of great online tutorials out there, as well as step-by-step guides – personal recommendations include both the ‘Draw With Jazza’ and  ‘Mary Doodles’ Youtube channels, but there are endless others. For those who prefer not to stare at a screen, there are many great books out there too which still offer many useful hints and tips. And don’t just stick to one book or one artist’s tutorials – be sure to check out a wide range of material to give you the maximum advice and support.

2. Take a Close Look at That Which Inspires You

By this I mean think about the particular drawings that you like and look closely at them. Try to think about what it is that makes them pleasing to your eye? Then try to incorporate some of these features into your own work. Note that I am not suggesting you directly copy the work of another, but every single one of us takes influence and inspiration from what we see around us. So characters that you really like the look of should help you to shape and develop your own style. With that in mind, I also would stress that you don’t need to worry too much about specifically developing your own style; so long as you don’t completely copy someone else’s work, you will find that your own style will develop organically. But taking inspiration from others’ work is a key part of this process.

3. Draw a lot!

It sounds so obvious but you will not improve if you don’t draw very much or very often. This has been one of my biggest problems as I often find I lack the time and or energy to do as much drawing as I would like to. However, in the end it really just takes a person to get on and do it! Make time for it, and you should find that as you improve, you will want to do it more and more and will naturally find more time to do it.

4. Have Patience

If like me, you have a vision for a character which you struggle to translate into reality then it’s very easy to get frustrated and feel like giving the whole thing up. This is where patience really is vital. When you’re starting out and you’re not immediately at the level you want to be at, the kindest thing you can say to yourself is ‘My drawing isn’t as good as I want it to be…yet!’ If you can accept this from an early stage then you will be able to better focus your energy on getting better rather than getting annoyed with yourself because you JUST CAN’T DO IT!!!

Accept that you are at the level you’re at, and that you can’t suddenly achieve ‘Disney’ standard overnight. Be realistic and give yourself time. Something I can’t stress enough is to jot down the date next to every doodle you make (something I regret not doing when I started out). That way it’s really easy to see how far you have improved over a certain time period. But just remember to be realistic and have fun doing it – don’t worry if someone else you know is improving at the speed of light whilst you’re still struggling to draw stickmen. This is your journey and you need to go at the pace that is right for you. But always have patience!

5. Have a Project

It’s fine to doodle just for the fun of it, but I personally found the whole process considerably more enjoyable and ultimately more  fun when I had a project to focus on. For me this has ultimately manifested in the form of creating the Crazy Randoms but I did have several smaller projects before that which helped me to focus in the early days. Your project can be as simple or as complex as you choose. It could be anything from ‘design ten characters based on woodland creatures’ to ‘make an entire anime style comic strip’ but I would recommend, in the early days at least to keep it simple and to not try to run before you can walk. You’ll probably find that project ideas come to you naturally as you progress, and of course ideas can change or evolve – it really doesn’t matter so long as it inspires you to keep drawing!

ghost sketches
In 2018, one of my projects was to draw a set of mythical creatures. Sketches of the ghost are pictured here.

So that was just five useful tips that spring to mind; obviously there are so many other ways to improve when it comes to creating characters. The overall most important thing to remember is that WHATEVER your level or ability is at the moment, if you want to, you CAN improve! However, something I have not touched upon in this blog post is the use of drawing tablets, another tool which if used in the right way, can help significantly with improving your artwork. But I will visit this topic in more detail in Part 2 of my ‘I can’t draw’ posts. Until then, stay happy and keep drawing!!

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