When I tell people I’m an artist they will sometimes respond with admiration for it, followed by some version of “Oh, unlike me... I can’t draw to save my life.” That last part makes me cringe, not simply because I suspect they might have powers beyond their reach but because that idea of inability is a symptom of a longstanding problem in both education and culture.
You were making drawings before you could write. The drawings were simple: big strokes on any surface in the house that could hold a mark. Eventually someone would have decided to give you some paper and crayons and off you went. You did it from a basic, very primal need to express something—that's my theory.
Writing came later, it was a lot more complicated, and it had less to do with instinct: even at its most basic level, writing requires the layer of vocabulary and grammar—language—on top of the essential motor skill of forming shapes into delicate letters with a fine instrument. Writing in english is about making quick code-shapes, they have to be consistently sized, and sit next to each other proportionately, between top and bottom lines in a comprehensive sequence to be of any use. Compared to drawing, writing is very highwire stuff for a kid, and even some adults.
So it always quietly surprises me how often people say they can’t draw, even when they can write. But I've come to believe there are a couple of reasons for this.
I believe the problem isn’t that you can’t draw. In the right context, anyone can draw: a map, a smiley face, a venn diagram. But you're likely saying you can’t because you're comparing yourself to an expert at drawing for art, someone who has put in some serious time figuring out how to do it, trained at an art academy, or been apprentice under a master. They put in years of work perfecting their craft, and produced a lot of incrementally better work. In comparison, you have a little more in practice and training than pre-K level drawing skill. Comparing yourself to Salvador Dali and saying ‘I can't draw’ is like an average teenager staring at an Are You Experienced? Jimi Hendrix poster and deciding they can’t sing and play guitar.
You don’t have a skill problem there, you have a framing problem.
Another common reason people say they “can’t draw” is that they weren’t encouraged to develop the ability—they might even have been discouraged. Their school system, or family either didn’t place enough emphasis on it, or they were taught to deprioritize it in favor of more obviously marketable skills such as math and science. Over time, what basic ability might have been developed would have withered. It is not hard to see how this eventually makes drawing a mystical skill that only the gifted people do well. It explains why the skill continues to seem out of reach.
It's important to understand that in all cases, how much skill relied on a few key and tangible factors, not just an initial spark of talent. One factor was developing an ability for making marks on paper that matched up with what they saw in front of them, the image they were copying for practice. That requires hours of getting it down on paper and following up with painstaking self-scrutiny over years. Being hyper-critical of their work made them acknowledge, try something else, and eventually improve. Some of them were also fortunate or lucky enough to find the right teachers. Others relied on Youtube videos, and whatever other resources they could find online or offline. In other words, it's a set of things that any person with little to average ability, sufficient motivation, and the right guidance can do and become an expert at drawing.
What IS Drawing?
At its most basic level, drawing happens when you make any mark on a surface. It is simply a record of an expression of pigment, friction, and physical energy on a surface. When it is done with a purpose it becomes something with almost infinite potential: a quick map for a tourist or an architect's diagram to explain a home. Drawing can be about hard lines that mark territory, or delicate lines in a picture that will be traded for a high sum between collectors.
Drawing is a fundamental human communication skill. It need not be art, in the same way that fabric need not always be worn. It requires no special resources like electricity or superhuman strength, but the payoff in developing the ability to draw gives you access to a different way of thinking and seeing, a kind of superpower on its own. It is the private language to record your ideas, to communicate with yourself.
There’s a practicality about drawing
Often, a drawing is a faster, cheaper, more immediate solution. Scientific diagrams quickly communicate problems and solutions on one page that would take many sheets to convey in text. A clear hand-drawn map is faster to make, and faster to read, than its prose counterpart.
Drawing is, for oneself, a way of slow reading. With the right circumstances, drawing becomes a deeply meditative act of searching and tracing just the right mark to represent something important. It is studying closely, looking for relationships between things, and the points within things. It is letting the various perspectives develop and unfold over time. Drawing can be a more a priceless necessity than a luxury activity, and a great practice for decompressing, de-stressing from modern life. It renders us capable of being in touch with a precious, sensitive inner self—one that we would often otherwise neglect from having to engage outwardly for most of our waking hours.