Learning Hard Skills and Drawing 50 Hands

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Drawing anatomy is one of the hard skills you need to learn as an artist. By “hard skills” I don’t mean difficult. I mean high precision skills that need to be performed with exactness and consistency.

Daniel Coyle, the author of The Talent Code (great book btw) says that these are skills that “have one path to an ideal result; skills that you could imagine being performed by a reliable robot. Hard skills are about repeatable precision.”

When a pianist runs their fingers through scales perfectly: hard skill.

When a tennis player swings a perfect serve: hard skill,

When a basketball player does a free throw: hard skill.

When a worker on an assembly line installs a part: hard skill.

When an artist draws a hand: hard skill.

These are skills that need to be performed the same way every time, almost like a reflex, without much thought.

I won’t get into soft skills here, except for this, an artist using soft skills knows where that hand needs to be placed, and what it needs to be doing to help the overall piece elicit an emotional response from the viewer.

Hard Skills is knowing how to draw. Soft skills are knowing why and what to draw.

To get really good at the hard skills you repeatedly do them over and over, until they become second nature.

“Drawing 50 Somethings” is a drawing exercise I’ve given my students over the years to help them get better at drawing hands, and to condition themselves for learning these hard skills. The repetition of drawing the same thing over and over in different positions, and from different angles is challenging, but effective.

What you’re going to do is pick something that you struggle to draw. For example: hands. 

Next, either take photos of your own hands in interesting, or common poses, or search around online for photos and drawings of hands.

Now begin drawing fifty of them in different poses, angles, and proportions. The repetition of drawing the same object over and over imprints the shapes and characteristics of that thing in your mind, like practicing scales for you musicians out there.

If fifty sounds daunting, break it down into five groups of ten drawings. If you’re doing hands, then the first ten drawings would be open hands, the next ten would be closed fists, the next ten might be hands holding an object. You get the idea.

Once you’ve done fifty hands, try doing feet, or legs, or heads, or ears. After you’ve made it through all of the body parts, start over.

Every time you complete a set of fifty compare it to your reference. Ask a friend or teacher to see if they can spot problem areas. When you draw your next set of hands pay close attention to your problem areas making sure to correct any problems you made in the past.

This is an important fundamental skill, and it may seem boring at first. Think of it as an investment with a high interest rate. The more you invest in it now, the better artist you’ll be in the future. And the more capable you’ll be when you want to answer the why and what questions with your art.

A couple book recommendations on learning and drawing anatomy:

Figure Drawing: Design and Invention Perfect Paperback by Michael Hampton

Morpho: Anatomy for Artists by Michel Lauricella

-Jake