Dealing with Skill Atrophy

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This topic contains 8 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by Aunt Herbert 4 months ago.

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    i've recently been unable to keep up with my usual drawing practice, and even though it's only been a couple weeks i've noticed a significant degradation in my figure drawing. i'm taking longer to do poses than usual, or having a harder time breaking down shapes. does anyone else deal with this? are there any good ways to work on retaining what i practice?

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    Got a bad case of that right now. My hope at the moment: It is winter, short days, I had to do lots of extra shifts for sick co-workers and am mentally and emotionally exhausted... there will be better days, when I can hopefully return to experiencing beauty. I had bad times before, they passed. Spring isn't far away,...


    it's nice to be able to commiserate, but i'm sorry you're dealing with this as well. im sure there are brighter days ahead, though!


    I personally got hit by a wave of this recently and am just recovering after actual months of nothing to be made; these are some things that helped me work towards getting back on my feet someday, perhaps they will help!

    - Spending time in nature; walks, bike rides, or even just sitting outside and taking in the fresh air. I adore the outdoors so this comes with a bit of bias. I have a sketchbook I take around with me just in case, but you don't even have to draw; sometimes just a little time outside or even unplugging from devices for a bit makes my brain feel a little less jam-packed. Even better though, I find that taking a walk or a ride more frequently has loosened up and created some inspiration for me in little tidbits that I'll end up doodling or even rendering every now and then. Sometimes there's something about the trees, the look of the leaves, the sun peeking through and I have to make something.

    - Try drawing/painting what you really want to draw/paint. While taking on studies is tempting, try drawing or painting the ideas that quite frankly your brain will not shut up about. Furthermore, think of it as a time of "letting your hands vent" or "letting the brush/pen/pencil wander." Of course these pieces of "just letting go" aren't going to be perfect and you might want to touch up every single error you see, but "drawing blindness" also exists and you might end up really liking something you came up with the next day.

    - Remember and remind yourself that your brain is a muscle. It does get tired. Improving feels good, learning feels good, you feel a burst of energy when you get something just right. You'll feel driven to beat your "personal best," but it's just like setting a new record for pull-ups or even push-ups. You can't train forever and you have to give it a rest here and there. It is perfectly okay to need a break where you either do less or do nothing at all. Better yet, you might come back even better after a break and getting reacquainted with your rhythm. Think about trying to constantly challenge your art like trying to blast through a giant sudoku or other puzzle book as fast as possible; you are going to start feeling pretty icky at some point.

    I hope some of this helps. I'm not explicitly someone who draws figures, but this all has been working for me thus far and has made me feel a lot better from when I initially stopped practicing. I was grinding for unhealthily long hours, I stepped back for a few months and I'm actually seeing more improvements now that are almost a whole different "era" of my work compared to before. Take your time, rest up and I wish you luck : )


    Hello, Heirloomtomato. How are you?

    Great job on verbally illustrating your universal skill affliction. In order to "attack" that skill atrophy, can I see your drawings, please?



    I've been going through this! When pregnant, I just couldn't draw for so many reasons-art block, uncomfortable for my back and then later my tummy etc.-and I worried it would severely affect my art. Sometimes though I think we need a break! And when you begin drawing again, you have an even stronger muscle memory by relearning your own techniques for figures, animals, whatever your style is. Re-do training exercises with line width and accuracy like pressure on iPad or trad art and drawing lines in one stroke towards a single dot to regain those skills. It'll come back, but it'll be different because you'll become a stronger artist! Be kinder to yourself and art. ♥️


    I go through this too sometimes. I know personally my mental health suffers when it happens. I think it's necessary to be kind to yourself and not jump on the "Im an awful artist" bandwagon. Which i've been very guilty of. I remember to remind myself that progress is not a constant upward slope and it's okay to take my time while I get back into practice


    OK, I thought a lot about the phenomenon, and I got kind of a theory about what happens with us, and how to deal with it.

    First thing to realize: drawing isn't exactly one skill. Emphasis on the number. Not one, but a multitude of different skills. It starts with knowing how to sharpen a pencil, holding the pencil the correct way, drawing controlled lines with a decent quality, conceptualizing a drawing, learning how to measure proportions while drawing, identifying interesting 2D-shapes, understanding bodies in three dimensions, simplifying forms, getting used to common forms like the human figure or the face, understanding light and shadow, learning to differentiate shades and how to use them, ..... and so forth and so forth and so forth.

    There is pretty much a separate tutorial for each of those individual subskills and probably a thousand more. Probably each of us has at least done one such tutorial, and probably quite a few more. Now, while doing a tutorial, at first it feels a bit awkward, but in a good tutorial the scope of artistic expression you have to focus on is quite tight, and you will see quick progress after a while. Then you try out more and more tutorials, and add more subskills to your general drawing skill. But now, you are no longer throwing one ball in a perfect curve, you are juggling a dozen or so.

    Also, frankly, some of those subskills are just contradictory. There are about a thousand exercises to perfectly measure every dot on the reference and to perfectly copy it onto your page, be it proportions, shapes or darkness values, and then there are almost as many exercises to find a "looser", "more dynamic" way to draw, and that is only possible if you stop obsessing over every dot on the page.

    So, we are juggling a dozen balls, and some of them drop by the side, and we don't even realize at first. And then, one day we look at our latest drawing and realize, that that one, and the last dozen we drew before that are just incredibly fugly. Which is a valuable, honest, aesthetically sound observation, but not really a craftperson's observation.

    I think the real solution is to get better at self observation and self diagnosis. "Cool" and "Lame" just aren't useful categories for that. If you would try to give a child or a total beginner a honest and valuable feedback, you wouldn't just tell them "Your drawing sucks, git gud, nub!", even if that is your actual first impression. Instead you would first show your respect by appreciating what actually good qualities the drawing has, and there just isn't a single drawing in the entire world, that has no redeeming qualities at all. And then you would check your mental library for that catalogue of subskills, you encountered over time and think about which one would be most valuable to focus on for that specific artist.

    So, part of our journey as craftsperson is to be able to identify the balls we dropped, so we can remember to pick them up again. "This drawing sucks" doesn't help, but "well, at long last I got the proportions correct, but my line quality is back to total chicken scratches" or, "OK, those lines are long and confident, but this was supposed to be a human figure, and those proportions look like something from an alien monster movie" are way more valuable.

    Because we know what exercises we did to achieve that subskill, and once we realize, that we have been slagging, we can focus on retraining that. And the word "self" in self observation and self diagnosis is also somewhat important. Because if you just show me an image of your last drawing and ask me for advice, I will most likely tell you about the subskill, that is most present on my mind, and that will most likely be the one, that I am currently practicing. Which could by chance be the one fitting to the source of your disappointment, but it could as well be a totally different one, because we are different people on different journeys.

    A practical example of my recent slump in quality: I realized, that my drawings were really falling below standards, that I easily passed long time ago. First attempt at self diagnosis didn't take very long: We had a really bad winter at my workplace, and I had to do tons of extra shifts to jump in for sick colleagues, so I felt constantly tired and exhausted and stressed out, and I did my daily practice with gritted teeth, not with real interest into quality, just to keep in the habit of drawing, and to remind me, that a universe beyond my stupid job exists. Under this circumstances it wasn't surprising, that the results looked ***, and once I realized that, I didn't worry for a while.

    Now, the job situation has cleared up a bit, but somehow my drawings still were off, and it took me a while to realize the stupid detail I missed. When I started drawing I drew with graphite or charcoal. I did some tutorials about holding the pen more like a brush, that is at the end, and controlling it from my elbows and shoulders, and less like a first grader, who is leaning to write and barely controls its pen with its fingertips. Later on I switched to ink, and during this winter I returned to charcoal. What I really forgot about: charcoal pens are wooden pens, and you sharpen them by shortening them a bit. So over time the pen got shorter and shorter, and I retrained holding the remaining stub almost at the tip and drawing with my fingertips alone. Which feels natural, because that is the way I write, and like probably everyone else here, I learned to write before I really got into learning actual drawing techniques. It's the lazy way to draw for me, and it felt awkward and like a lack of control, when I first switched away from it, and it feels awkward and like a lack of control now, that I have to go through the motions and again get used to holding the g****m pen correctly.

    This is one stupid ball I dropped, and now I have to pick it up again.

    Self diagnosing your results is kind of a very important subskill in itself. It is trained by adding more insight into all the other different subskills you accumulate on your journey, and by occassionally remembering those that you trained a long time ago, and checking whether you still make use of them.

    The notion of "Take a break from drawing"... I am wary of that. On the one side, it can absolutely work, especially if the problem that currently impacts your drawing quality the most is the sheer frustration about the low quality of results. This can become a vicious circle, and taking a break has decent chance of stopping that.

    On the other hand, drawing daily is a valuable habit, that we want to keep. And if our #1 choice to solving problems, that we encounter within the habit, that we want to have, is taking a break from that habit, then "taking a break" can become a habit in itself, and "taking a break" is a habit to stay away from, because it can end the artists journey for good if it gets permanent.

    So, the ideal way to fix an ongoing quality problem is to self analyse and understand which subskills you have to retrain.

    If you just can't figure out which one that is, and your frustration grows so much that the frustration becomes a problem in itself, I think the second best way is to keep "practicing" every day, but completely change the content of that practice. Do something completely different than you used to do, change the medium, change the motive, change your style, and if you feel like you can't draw anything well, then start doing stupid stuff, like trying to draw as bad as possible for a while.

    Also, don't just look at the skills, also look at yourself and your surroundings. From stupid things like "how long is my pencil" "how is the lighting" to more existential things like "where are my thoughts and what else is going on in my life".

    Art is a journey, and we all will pass through bogs and landfills on our way to the peak at the horizon. But as long as we keep walking, that **** can't stop us.

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