Do You Have to Be Good at Drawing to Paint?

So you want to paint, but you suck at drawing. Will you give up on your dreams of becoming the next Rembrandt? Will you consider learning more of the craft to get better or just go blindly splashing paint on canvas?

You don’t need to be good at drawing in order to paint, especially if you plan to create only abstract art. Traditionalists and liberals debate this, but they agree on one thing: having competent drawing skills will help immensely with painting, as these provide a foundation for painting.

We present their arguments to you in the hope that you will gain clarity on what and how you want to create. There is no right or wrong side. Whichever you choose, however, has to advance your mettle as an artist.

There is no rule that says you must draw before you paint. Drawing isn’t necessarily an initial step to painting. You don’t need a drawing as a skeleton on which to build your painting. (This depends, of course, on the category of the painting you want to pursue.) 

Nevertheless, it is a choice. Being skilled at drawing will make you a better artist and will add dimension to your future masterpieces. If you dislike working with pencils or charcoal, however, you don’t have to force yourself to draw just to paint.

Conventional Thinking

Do You Have to Be Good at Drawing to Paint
Do You Have to Be Good at Drawing to Paint

Writer, artist, and art teacher Marion Boddy-Evans says that people who attend a traditional art school have to spend a year or two learning to draw before they start painting. Traditionalists and many teachers believe artists must learn the basics of perspective and shading first. ​This approach has merit and we will learn why in a bit.

The moderator of the Draw Mix Paint (DMP) forum emphasizes that drawing is foundational to painting. Anyone who aspires to achieve a high artistic skill level should learn these skills and techniques: gauging perspective and proportion, determining line, shape, edge, tone, value, and proper measurement. 

Other important aspects include anatomy, posing, composition, action, gesture, foreshortening, shading, negative shapes, sight sizing, and lighting. Tonal and subtractive drawing is also important. Knowledge in photography is a bonus that only enhances what you already know.

If you want to want to emulate the masters and create art the professional way, academic training is your best bet.

Debunking Myths

Boddy-Evans busts many myths pervading the beginner art world, one of which is that if you can’t draw, you can’t paint. She clarifies that “a painting is not a drawing that is colored in,” and that “a drawing isn’t a painting that hasn’t yet been colored in.” They are two different animals.

Painting skills don’t automatically accompany drawing ability and vice versa. You need a specific skill set for painting. Even experts at drawing still need to learn how to paint. 

Some artists draw detailed foundations on paper or separate surfaces first before they paint. These preliminary drawings act as a reference. Others draw directly on their canvas before painting. Others don’t draw at all and proceed to paint directly. These are mostly the abstract painters and mixed-media artists. 

The Liberal View

Drawing is a unique way of creating art. Having superior drawing skills will certainly help with your painting. You don’t have to be good at drawing, though, to be outstanding at painting. Drawing is a step for doing certain kinds of painting, but it isn’t mandatory for all types. Some don’t require precise drawing skills. Even if you can’t draw a straight line, this shouldn’t stop you from discovering the fulfillment that comes from painting.

To paint well, you don’t need to be a master at fine pencil or charcoal drawings and etchings. Leave this to the enthusiasts if you’re eager to start painting and don’t mind just getting by with basic drawing skills.

There’s no harm in advancing your current skills, though. It will benefit you in the long run. If you learned to write, then you can learn to draw better. Artist John from DMP says, “Painting is just drawing with brush and paint.” With most paintings, you only need to draw the outlines, not the shading.

Consider the minimal under-drawing before painting as mere scaffolding. It should be deconstructed and removed. In painting, the fewer lines, the better, keeping in mind that these are essentials in fine drawings and etchings.

For painting, you need to practice applying paint of the right color, shape, and value to the appropriate areas. Once you master this, you can draw with a brush. Feel free to use magic lines and a proportional divider to aid in the process.

Testing the Waters

The DMP moderator suggests that to ease into the learning process of drawing, one has to keep to the basics and not be bothered by acquiring fancy tools. Distracting yourself with state-of-the-art material and complicated methodology just because they’re employed by your idol artist will overwhelm you if you’re not too keen on drawing in the first place.

For tools, all you need is charcoal, a few sketching pastel crayons, and some newsprint. Keeping things simple and informal lessens the pressure to perform. Try to sketch as often as you can, preferably every day.

Leveling Up

Anyone can learn to draw. Freehand drawing is like learning drafting─one step at a time, followed by constant practice. You don’t need to be a stupendous artist, but you need basic drawing skills to design (and maybe one day, sell) your work.

Both public and private schools offer art and drafting classes. Prestigious art academies abound that offer graduate and postgraduate degree programs in Fine Arts. You cannot escape drawing if you choose this route. In Bulgaria, for example, one academy offers a bachelor’s degree program in mural painting. The entrance exam is to draw a human being with a pencil.

If you find the countless programmed learning systems overwhelming, sign up for a basic workshop at your community college or neighborhood leisure center.

Or consider DIY. Fast track it by watching the myriad instructional videos on Udemy or YouTube. 

A surefire way to kick up the pace is by reading books or using drawing kits by America’s original TV art teacher, Jon Gnagy. His TV show taught people nationwide how to draw. Andy Warhol learned to draw through him. Gnagy’s kits contain some of his original TV lessons. If you’re a fan of TV painting instructor Bob Ross, Gnagy will surely have your artistic fervor burning with a vengeance.

Gnagy’s basic book of instruction, Learn to Draw, was reissued last year. It’s available on Amazon and other retailers as an ebook ($4.99) and paperback ($99).

Five Basic Skills of Drawing

If you don’t have the inclination to learn drawing for an extended period, at least familiarize yourself with its five foundation skills. These refer to the ability to:

  • construct shapes and control strokes
  • calculate proportion and perspective
  • recognize edges, lines, angles, weight, form, and dimension
  • decipher shadow, highlights, and gradations of tone
  • put all the above elements together in a coherent form

An Essential Drawing Hack

The folks at Wet Canvas suggest using the grid technique to transfer readymade images like photos to the canvas and paint it. Place an overlay of tracing paper on the photo, then draw a grid on it. You can also use a computer to do this. Scan the photo, then create the grid using graphics software. Duplicate this grid on your chosen surface. Draw or paint in each grid on the canvas what you see on each grid on the photo until you complete the entire picture.

Painting From Photos

If this is what you want to do, you don’t need to draw at all. Print the photos in black and white and trace or transfer them onto your canvas. This also works for big panels. Just print the image in large format on multiple sheets.

If you want to paint from real life, take a photo of your chosen scene, then trace or draw it using a proportional divider.

Venturing Into Advanced Mode

Drawing isn’t harder than painting and vice versa. They’re just separate media with different perspectives, rules, and approaches. If you want to draw realistic images, however, you have to know how to draw people and the environment.

For those wanting to draw the human form, the DMP moderator claims that, with the right materials and the proper environment, a person interested enough will be able to draw a passable human figure in a couple of weeks, assuming they practice one to three hours daily.

Create Your Own Finale

All professional artists were beginners at some point. They had to master the basics before they went on to create their masterpieces. This is true even of the great masters. Before they reached the pinnacle of their careers, they had to enforce discipline on themselves to practice and develop their techniques. They made many mistakes, but these are necessary for the learning process.

Whether you choose to draw before you paint or abandon drawing altogether, the important thing is the creation of art, not the methodology.



Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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