The Inner Critic

Do you have a voice inside your head that tears down your work and tells you again and again that it is not good enough and why do you keep this up? Sometimes when we compare our work to that of others who have been drawing longer than we have it seems hopeless. “How could I ever make something that good?” When this voice grows, it can silence our work, make us put down the brush, and quit doing what we aspire to do.

There is a place for self-regulation and the voice of the critic but most often it just stands in the way of letting us draw and paint freely. Oddly it is by making lots of pictures that results in making beautiful ones. The only way to get there is to paint the next one, and then the next (see previous post Quantity, not quality).

Be gentle with yourself. Do not beat yourself up either because a drawing does not look good, or because you are having an inner critic moment. The act of creativity and making art are good in themselves. It takes courage to put brush or pencil to paper. By making yourself vulnerable like this, you make yourself a better person and make the world a more beautiful place. I draw to help me observe that which I would otherwise miss, to help me remember beauty that I would otherwise forget, and to help me wonder things that I would otherwise take for granted. This is the root of why I make art. Each drawing is not an end in itself but a stepping stone on a journey deeper into this beautiful world.

Here is a process you might try when you feel that voice inside saying that you are not good enough, to help you return to your work in peace.

  1.  Drop your shoulders, unclench your jaw, relax your hands, close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breath. Follow your breath with a relaxed smile on your lips for four or five cycles. When you feel ready, open your eyes.
  2. Remind yourself that each drawing is practice for the next. Find the best part of your drawing? What can you learn from it? How will you take that into the next drawing? Find the part of the drawing that was the most fun to do. Why?
  3. Notice what did not work on this drawing. Be as specific as possible. Don’t say, “this part looks terrible”, rather, “the shape of the eye gave me difficulty and I ended up overworking it so now it is really dark and still does not feel right”.
  4. You now have a specific lesson that you can work on. “I need to look at eyes more carefully and perhaps study the way others have handled this problem.” You have turned a general feeling of angst into a project.
  5. Remind yourself of the roots of why you draw. Stand up and stretch, make a cup of tea or fill the bird bath, and return to the practice when you feel ready.

Every failure can be reinvented as a lesson if we are willing to sit with it and listen. You are not alone in any of this. Everyone faces these feeling on a regular basis. Keep going. More important than any product or drawing we make is this process of creativity, observation, appreciation, and wonder.

How to Paint a Donkey
By Naomi Shihab Nye

She said the head was too large,
the hooves too small.

I could clean my paintbrush
but I couldn’t get rid of that voice.

While they watched,
I crumpled him,

let his blue body
stain my hand.

I cried when he hit the can.
She smiled. I could try again.

Maybe this is what I unfold in the dark,
deciding, for the rest of my life,

that donkey was just the right size.

How to draw a dragonfly: Flame Skimmer

Learn how to draw the transparent wings of a dragonfly in this step-by-step demonstration.

Drawing glossy transparent wings is challenging. By using this bag of tricks you will be able to suggest transparency in your drawings. Here are points to consider.

  1. Which of these two diagrams does the best job of suggesting transparency? Why?

    Which of these two diagrams does the best job of suggesting transparency? Why?

    Lines should be lighter when seen through the transparent membrane.

  2. Use less detail on parts seen through the membrane.
  3. Colors behind the membrane will be less vivid and values will be lighter.
  4. Reflections on the surface of the wing should cross over features that are seen below so that it is clear that the reflections are on the membrane, not the surface below.
  5. Consider a little highlight along the edge of the membrane surface.
  6. A membrane may block or partially block reflections from the surface below

Click on the first image below to start a step-by-step slide show. Let’s draw a dragonfly!



Drawing foreshortened insects: Seven-spotted Ladybug

Learn how to draw a foreshortened ladybug in a step-by-step demonstration.

Drawing insects from the top view is useful for identification but may lack dynamic interest. Three quarter views of insects show the height and form in ways you can not show from above. Visualizing the way that straight lines wrap around rounded forms is very helpful in drawing these angles. See the previous post for more details on this technique.

Click on the first image to begin a step-by-step sideshow of how to draw a foreshortened ladybug.


How do straight lines curve on a rounded surface?

Straight lines appear to curve on a rounded surface. Practice seeing and drawing these lines will greatly improve your ability to draw what you see.

Latitude and longitude lines on tilted ovals

Print out the latitude and longitude lines in the figure at the right. Trace over these lines about ten times then draw them free hand. As you trace, do not just make the line, but visualize the shape as a three-dimensional form. This process will kinesthetically add these curves to your drawing repertoire. You are training your internal pattern recognition system to see these curves . Use these lines to block in the patterns and shapes you observe and to help you in drawing curved lines you see in nature.

How to Draw Insects: Video Workshop

Insects are a delight to study and observe. Learn the basics of insect illustration in this video workshop.

This workshop introduces you to the basics of how to draw insects including anatomy, the most common mistakes made by artists drawing insects, the eight most common orders of insects, and details to watch for as you draw them. Discover how to make insect look dull, shiny, or iridescent.

The wet look: how to make an object look wet or slimy

Drawing something that is wet and slimy? Here is how to get the look of sunlight bouncing off a wet surface.

This could be an eyeball, slug, or a waxy cap mushroom. You will find this trick can be applied on many subjects. The secret is to overpaint your subject with specks or streaks of bright opaque white. While working in the field, I use Windsor-Newton Permanent White Gauche that I keep in a section of my palette that I reserve for opaque paint.

Click on the first illustration to launch a step-by-step tutorial slideshow.


How to Draw Insects: Understanding and Drawing the Legs (part 2)

The most common mistake people make in insect drawings.

Before you read any further, stop and choose which one of these two beetles has the correct leg attachment.

Don’t feel badly if you guess this one wrong. It is a very common mistake. This is where a little knowledge gets us into trouble. We know that the legs attach to the thorax and so expect to see something like the first (left) picture. Now do a google search for images of beetles and look at how the legs really attach. Surprised? What we see in real beetles is like the drawing on the right.

Carabid front and backHow can this be if the legs attach to the thorax? The diagram at the right shows the dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) view of a ground beetle. The thorax (middle segment) is shown in orange. Note how the thorax extends on the underside of the abdomen. Technically, the elytra or wing covers attach to the thorax too and should be orange but as they overly the abdomen, I left them white for this diagram. Remember to look carefully at where the legs really come out instead of relying on your ideas of where they should.


How to Draw Insects: Understanding and Drawing the Legs (part 1)

One of the hardest things about how to draw insects is getting the legs right. This is a place where a little bit of study in advance will really pay off. But this is also a place where a little bit of information can get you into trouble. A careful analysis of insect leg anatomy and attachment will prevent you from making the most common mistake in insect illustration.

Lets start by studying the parts of the leg itself. The three most important parts to learn are the femur, the tibia, and the tarsus. These three parts are visible on most insects when viewed from above. Remember them as the thigh, shin, and foot. The tarsus is made of small segments and ends in little claws. The other two sections, close to the body, are usually hard to see and can be ignored on most insects.

insect leg parts.003


The exception to this is on wasps where these segments are elongated and add an extra bend to the leg.

H Ammophila macra or azteca

As you see above, the legs (and wings) attach to the middle segment, or thorax, of the insect’s body.   This observation is essential to accurately drawing insects but also is responsable for the most common mistake that people make when drawing insects. Below are two beetles. One has the legs placed correctly, the other is the most common mistake. Choose which one looks right before proceeding to the next post for the answer.

How to draw insects: shiny vs. dull textures

Capturing the roundness and sheen of insect bodies is an important part of learning how to draw insects. The secret is in the amount of contrast between light and dark and the abruptness of transition between highlight and shadow. Here we explore how to draw an insect that looks rounded but dull and what to change to make it look glossy. You can print a beetle worksheet (three line-drawings of the beetle in this demonstration) on a piece of mid-weight watercolor paper and use it to experiment with and practice drawing dull or shiny insects. Click on the first image to enlarge it and follow the step by step demonstration.

How to draw insects: Iridescence

Many insects have nano-scale layers in their wings and bodies that refract and reflect iridescent light. You will observe vivid colors that change color as you move your viewing angle or the light source. Areas that do not reflect iridescent light drop suddenly to black with little transition. You can simulate these effects in your drawings by placing vivid colors adjacent to each other and rapidly transitioning to black.

As in other skills, learning how to draw insects takes practice. Start by looking at photographs of iridescent insects online and practice with these. I saw a beautiful photo on by Andrew Mckorney and he gave me permission to use his photo for this demonstration. Thank you Andrew! You can print a beetle worksheet (three line-drawings of the beetle in this demonstration) on a piece of mid-weight watercolor paper and use it to experiment with and practice drawing iridescence. Click on the first image to enlarge it and follow the step by step demonstration.