Self-Discipline a discussion on What Improvement really is

  • I want to get my main question out of the way. I haven't been drawing as much as I should so I'm rusty and not where I want to be skill-wise. Over the past week I've been talking with my art teachers and peers asking how to improve in drawing. I came up with the fact that no matter how hard I look, Its just about thhe self-discipline to draw and challenge myself everyday. But I still feel lost. the back of my mind keeps asking for direction or maybe even "permission" or "certification" on what to draw in order to truly grow my skills. I don't want to get stuck drawing the same crap, and I don't want to get trapped in chasing the "magic pill" for art which doesn't exist. So I want to ask if it ever gets easier, or does it just take the self-discipline to challenge and dedicate to see improvement? Also, how do you see your succesess and failures in self-discipline and what helps you stay on top of improvement?

    What I've personally found:
    First, @Will-Terry's video "How to Improve Your Art Skills Faster" had excelent points. the main ones I noted as...

    • Commit to draw everyday in Sketchbook
    • Challenge yourself "Mix it Up"
    • Copy others work
    • Know your Mentors (Heroes)

    From experience, When I commit myself to draw I can learn something. When ever I try to draw from imagination though and don't get it right, I get incredibly frustrated. I tell myself I need to practice more anatomy when I do figures, or I have horrible design when creating forms for vehicles, or I have horrible environments.

    I guess my real question is if the frustration gets easier to cope with or is the key to just stay strong and keep going to see improvment overtime?

    Noah Bradley in his essay on how he became an artist mentioned how he became an incredible environment painter despite his hate for environments because he made effort to practice creating environments everyday. In his career he is one of the best environment painters for Magic cards. So CONSISTENT PRACTICE has a large part to do with improvement. So another question is if the direction of what I practice should be managed often or should I just draw what ever I want and challenge myself when I notice something wrong?

    Thanks for reading this far if you did, and I'm excited for feed back. Also, It's been a while. Year's been hectic, but I'm in a better place now to create more again.

  • I've been trying to follow Jake's advice and practicing one skill at a time. He says to just aim for getting 1% better after each session. I can't remember if that advice was from the classes here or YouTube. I'm sure someone here can point to the video where he talks about this.

    That said, I also do some "decompression" drawing/sketching where I just do whatever the heck feels right at the moment. If it's always work you can lose the fun factor! This Proko video covers "automatic drawing" which is a nice way to just kick back and let it flow.

  • There are two things to I want to address when it comes to discipline: Will power & Habits


    Many people think, if I need to become more self-disciplined, I need to have more will power. This is true, however, it is unsustainable. Will power is a finite resource and should be treated as such.

    Most people have a full tank of Will power when they first wake up. But throughout the day things will drain your will power reserves. Cold day, but still need to get up to go to work? That takes will power. Choosing to pack a healthy breakfast, instead of that piece of cake left over from the day before? That takes willpower. By the end of the day, your will power reserves are depleted, so those good choices are harder to make, and you give in to temptation or what is easy.

    So use your will power wisely, and where possible, use willpower to create good habits. (More on that in a second). Notice when you use will power, and ask yourself how can I avoid this moment so I don’t have to exert willpower?

    So for example, the night before, I set up my sketchbook and computer, so all I have to do is pick up a pencil and draw. Picking up a pencil takes less willpower than setting up my sketchbook, finding and opening up reference images on my computer. I get that all done the night before.

    Another example of this is healthy eating. I would prefer to exert 1 bit of willpower at the supermarket and buy only healthy food, than having to battle myself throughout the day, every day, to not eat those biscuits. If I don’t by the biscuits in the first place, then I don’t have to exert the willpower to not eat them (I love choc-chip biscuits!)


    Creating good habits, and eliminating bad habits are key to success. Once you have developed a good habit, over time self-discipline becomes less and less involved, and it actually becomes uncomfortable to NOT do it. (Ever gone to bed and not brushed your teeth and not being able to sleep till you do - that's an example of a good habit in action)

    A book I recommend for developing strong habits is Switch by Dan and Chip Health. In it, they talk about the Elephant and the Rider and the Path they take.

    Here is a good video on it. Watch this first before continuing on.

    The Rider
    Make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to do. I find it easy to just follow through a course, or preplan how I’m going to tackle a new piece. Even if it is dot points of basics things to do, just the process of thinking how you are going to do something helps.

    The Elephant
    You need to be emotionally invested in what you are doing and reward yourself for doing something good. Know what your big audacious goal is - it should be personal and an emotional investment for you. Connect those little actions to getting yourself closer to your big audacious goal. Even if you don’t like doing something, connect how it fits into getting you closer to your goal. If it is really tough, do it first thing in the morning (when willpower is at its highest)

    The Path
    This is your environment. Like the examples I gave for will power, these are shaping your environment for you to actually do what you want to do. Have your environment push you to achieve your goals. Eg, if you have kids, get up at 5am when everyone is asleep, so you don’t get interrupted when drawing? Set your drawing environment up before bed so its easy to just draw. I use to have a coffee machine with a timer, it would start brewing at 4:55am, so as soon as I wake up, BAM! Coffee. I do personal work in the morning before my 9-5, because I know I won’t have the energy/willpower to do stuff in the evening. I can sit around, relax and do nothing if I want and not feel guilty.

    Your environment also includes the people around you. Surround yourself with people that encourage you. Get your S.O. on board. Get an accountability buddy to lift you up when you fall down. Get a mentor to help guild you (or at least a course that helps you grow). I have an art mate who mentors me and keeps me accountable. We talk monthly. I also have other mates who I talk to weekly who are always encouraging me and holding me accountable and making sure that I’m enjoying the process (which is something I often forget). Everything around me is driving me forward and keeping it FUN.

    If your path is smooth, it makes it so much easier for the rider and elephant.

    The Key To Habits
    The main thing about building a new habit is consistancy. Many people go all in and say, I’m going to draw for 2 hours every day. This is going from 0-100 and requires a ton of willpower to get this habit started. More than likely, you will quickly burn out.

    A better habit to create initially is to draw for 5 minutes each day. This is easy. And the thing is, you can draw anything.

    When I first started drawing regularly, in those moments that I couldn’t be bothered drawing anything I would still open up that sketchbook, put a timer on and literally scribbled for 5 minutes.

    It's not what you create, its the sticking to the habit that is important.

    The crazy thing is that after that 5 minutes I usually kept drawing, but if I didn’t feel like it, I stopped after five minutes. Not guilt. I kept the habit.

    I still keep this habit, but now I have put aside a 2 hour block for drawing. If I don’t consistently draw for 2 hours all the time that’s ok. (Sometimes I use it for going through tutorials if I don’t want to draw), but I always make sure I at least got that 5 minutes in of actually pencil/pen/paint on paper. (Don’t try this drawing for 2 hours daily - this habit took months to build up to.)

    And yes, I’ve gone to bed with that itching feeling of needing to draw if I haven’t. I will then get up and doodle something for 5 minutes.

    Lastly, don’t beat yourself up.
    You are going to fail. Period. You will fail multiple times. However, don’t beat yourself up about it? Miss that 5 minutes drawing on that day? Bummer. Just make sure you do your 5 minutes the next day. (Don’t be tempted to “make up lost time” and do 10 minutes the next day. It snowballs and makes you feel guilty as hell - which the elephant hates and avoids).

    Just keep on going. If you take a small number of steps each day, in the future, you will look back and see that you have walk MILES. Consistency is the key.

    Anyways, that's my brief take and experience with self-disciplined. Hope it helps.

    Further reading if you are interested:

    • Switch by Dan and Chip Health (Mentioned above)
    • Atomic Habits by James Clear

  • @SketchyArtish That automatic drawing exercise is awesome. I love it, and have discovered some really cool stuff that I would never have created if I didn't do that exercise 🙂

  • Moderator

    @Ben-Migliore I have found that in my beginning forays into illustration--which I am still in--the most frustrating part is to determine how to get better. There are a million people saying, "Work on this" or "Work on that," or "Develop your capacity to do this thing" or whatever. I see it every day in my day job--I teach theatre in a BA program in San Diego, and those students get told "You need to be doing this," and "You need to be developing this," or "You need to be practicing these things," or "You need to meet these standards," from all directions in their life--teachers, parents, peers, and even me!! It's my job! Which they're paying me to do!!

    But it's exhausting and deflating to know you have more learning to do than than you will ever be able to accomplish. The road to mastery never ends--especially when you realize the more you know the more you don't know. The very act of listening to advice, reading up on how to be disciplined, comprehending that one needs to develop the ability to "follow through" on things... It's all completely overwhelming before you even get started, and trying to sift through all the noise about what one should be doing undermines one's capacity to actually do it.

    I'm learning that for me personally, the hardest part is realizing when to stop listening to everyone else and just do what I think is best for me.

    YOU determine what you need to draw and how often. No one else. YOU decide if you want to do a series of practicing one thing over and over, or whether you need to do a variety of different things. YOU decide whether you're working on your portfolio or doing something for pleasure.

    Every where you turn, someone is going to fill your world with "You Shoulds".

    Don't let anyone Should on you.

    YOU ultimately decide what's the best course of action for your progression as an artist. And if you decide to follow someone else's advice or plan or trajectory or curriculum, please remember that even then you have empowered yourself to make the choice to do so.

    There aren't any easy pathways to getting better, no single map, no fortune teller to tell you the perfect plan. For some, drawing selective things helped them improve, for others it was attending a specific school, for others it's peer pressure, or an apprenticeship, for others still it's drawing only what they are passionate about. It's different for everyone. However you decide to progress is going to be your choice, and because it's your choice and not someone else's it's going to be on YOU to define how you've successfully increased your skills or your choice to defer to someone else's definitions.

    Over and over and over again I see people attempting to answer the questions "What's the correct path to improvement? How do I know I've improved?" with specific guidelines and advice. Teachers galore have come out of the woodwork to say, "Follow this advice to be successful," and "do it this way to improve this or that." But the actual answers are, "Whatever path YOU decide you need to take for your improvement is the correct path," and "YOU set the criteria for improvement wherever you need/want it to be." If you're not getting the results you want, you haven't met your definition. If you are, then move on to the next thing you want to improve.

    There will ALWAYS be things to work on. That's a given. For everyone, no matter how successful or professional or renowned they may be. And there will always be higher standards to attain--both your own and other's expectations. All things being equal, then, what do YOU want to do?

    I chose hands. That's all I can do right now. And I'm doing them in specific ways because it gives me the confidence I need to keep working and exploring new things once in a while. I'm not going to pretend I can draw everyday consistently. I'm not doing 30-Day challenges anymore, and I'm only doing prompts when I want to. I'm going to experiment a bit here and there when I can, but I'm done feeling guilty that I'm not drawing enough. I'm not going to take every class in the world all at once, nor keep up to date on some impossible social media regimen. I'm giving myself permission to learn what I want, when I want, to standards I set myself. And I have pretty high standards. But they're my choice.

    And interestingly, it becomes easier and easier to improve.

    Let yourself off the hook. If things aren't happening fast enough for you, work harder to improve, however you want or think is necessary. The impetus to get better is never going to come from the outside. It's only ever going to come from inside you, and even when it seems like it is coming from someone else, it's still your choice to do something about it.

  • @Ben-Migliore this is a good question. I think the skill that has helped me improve tenfold over the last month, is improving my time skills. I thank @Lee-White for introducing me to the Pomodoro technique in a SVS class (can't remember the class title). I'm so easily distracted and a skilled procrastinator. This time Jedi technique has sent my neglected time management skills to another level. I found the Bear Focus Timer (BFT) on the app store. How it works - Where I set the timer, divided into sessions with breaks, and a little bear counts down to track my focus. I flip my phone over and if I pick it up and check it, his little face growls at me. When I complete the focus time he rewards me with positive bear based illustrations. Sweet. Now me and the bear are working together, to keep projects on track and distractions at bay. It basically doubles my day.

  • @Ben-Migliore -Ben, these are such good questions and things that I think about a lot. I've listened to the counsel of Jake, Will and Lee. I especially have taken Jake's recommendations regarding "what to do the year before you go to art school." While it was offered specifically in the "get ready and don't waste large sums of money on learning to do the early skills (do those via the SVS classes, local community classes etc.)"--but I think it's also a pretty good blueprint for the first part of this journey.

    Then I've listened to the famous Neil Gaimon commencement speech-it’s on YouTube and here’s a link to the transcript.

    So combining these, I laid out a map for the year to “my mountain” (Neil’s term). Identifying what was my “mountain" for the year was one of the biggest challenges.

    Next I listened to Deep Work by Cal Newport (another Jake recommendation)-and have been implementing a number of strategies from that approach: timed, deep focus sessions with outrageously ambitious goals set for each of the sessions. I started with 30 minute sessions, and now do 1-2, 90 minute sessions on the days I don’t work at my job. I also have a “visual calendar” where I mark with dots the hours of deep work-it inspires me.

    Jan Feb Deep Work 2019.JPG

    All of that helps me tremendously with time management, and the plodding along.

    What still baffles me is how to get from Point A to Point B. I’ve been steadily taking the foundational SVS classes. So my drawing ability improves a bit (yeah!), but then I can see that my gestures are really in need of work, or anatomy, or perspective, etc. It hasn’t worked really well for me to focus for very long (say longer than it takes me to take the class and apply the principles for a couple of weeks)-for then I see that I really need to bring one of the other foundational skills up. I’m also struck with how much collateral “work” there is to the drawing, things like file management, learning to use my tools better (I draw on the iPad with Procreate), trying to spend a bit of time here in the forums, etc. This all tremendously supports the drawing, but also takes hours in the day.

    What do I think would help me?

    1. I’ve thought about suggesting (and even offering to help assist in some way)-creating EXERCISES for each of the SVS classes, chapter by chapter. (Right now, I’m working thru a book called “Drawing with Words, Writing with Pictures”-a 15 week coursebook on learning to draw comics. The weekly structure of it has been really helpful for me.
    2. Looking for a partner here to take a class together and maybe challenging each other with ideas for exercises.

    I look back through my work over the past 9 months when I started, and I steadily see improvement. And as I am doing this for personal enrichment and enjoyment rather than trying to create a career out of it—I don’t have to be in a hurry. I tell myself this frequently. I usually don’t listen.

    Glad to have others like you who think a bout these things as well.

  • @Nathan oh man.
    I needed that encouragement. I am in “beat myself up” mode over not doing the 2 hours I want to do daily. But just scribbling for 5 minutes to build up the habit sounds doable. It really is getting the pencil in hand and making something happen part that I keep getting worse at. But these are some great actionable tips. I am going to give it a go tonight.

    On a related note, I have been giving myself permission to do other forms of art that I love. In addition to illustration I love to sew and make dolls and collage things with paper and found objects. I have been denying myself the joy of making other stuff because I have not been getting my illustration goals taken care of. I guess I was punishing myself. But I have recently been making some peg people and miniatures in wooden boxes. Guess what ?! I feel more like illustrating now too. DUH!

    Thanks for the advice and for being willing to share your experience with us.

  • Pro

    @JennyJones 2 hours a day is really tough! Some days you'll have plenty of time and energy, most days you'll be tired, lacking time and 2 hours will sound incredibly daunting! But I have noticed if I set up an easily reachable goal like 5-10 minutes, once I'm started I'll go for longer. But if it's one of those days that I just can't, if it's just 5 minutes then I can manage at least that much and call it a day, but I will still have done my 5 minutes so I won't beat myself up. The goals we set ourselves have to be easily reachable on our WORST DAY, not our best one!

  • @sigross That sounds like an awesome app. Thanks for sharing. I too have found that a timer helps be immeasurably

  • @Spencer-Hale Yes it's really useful and like having a little drawing buddy! Now I've been timing myself, I have started to work out how long it takes me to actually make something. So I can make a better action plan.

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