Art Exercises I do weekly & Why they are useful

Edit: I’m going to art school now, so I’m dropping the weekly exercises. I might pick new ones after my studies, more suited for my situation then. 

The title is a lie. It should say “Art exercises I will do weekly after I slay the procrastination monster”. I just found a great new blog to read! Yaaaayyy! This spells doom and gloom for my productivity. On the positive side, I discovered it after finishing my painting session. I also managed to write up this blog post, didn’t I? 😉

Well, what are these weekly exercises about? I’ve been planning for a while to start an art routine. It’s finally taking shape! By having a bit of structure, I’ll be able to easily keep track of my improvement. I’ll post the proof of me slaying the procrastination monster on Tumblr by the end of the week. Pinkie promise. 😀

What are the 7 art exercises I want to do weekly?

  1. Gestures
  2. A portrait study
  3. Composition
  4. Perspective breakdown
  5. Interior or Architecture study
  6. A contest submission
  7. A drawing request

Now let’s get into some detail: what are these exercises exactly and why do I want to do them? We’ll discuss the what-why-how of each!

  1. Gestures

I mentioned gesture drawing in my post on drawing with your left hand, but did I tell you why gestures are important? By practising gestures, you can show energy and action in your drawings. Having a good understanding of gesture also prevents your figures from looking stiff and unnatural. Do I need to practice my gestures? Oh, for sure, I do. I remember drawing a running guy during biology class and someone asked me:

“Iris, why are you drawing someone falling?”

Oops. Two years have passed and my running figures still look like they are tumbling down a ravine.

  1. Portrait study

In my humble opinion, human faces are the most important drawing skill for an illustrator. Becoming an illustrator happens to be my goal, so… I often sketch faces, but never dedicate time to studying portraits. As a result, my faces all look the same and I have trouble with unusual angles.Time to do long portrait studies, from life or from photo reference. I’ll study the structure of the face as well as the features. I’ll work digitally and force myself to spend two hours on it. Besides improving my faces from imagination, I hope to get the knack of getting likeness. When I sketch people on the subway, they always look like a completely different person. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong… Focusing on portrait studies should help me out.

  1. Composition

This is the last painting I made, a Cossack charging on horseback:

Iris Hopp - cossack charge imag 45min

I repainted and repainted and repainted the little guy in front, but it just didn’t work out. I rearranged the victim and the charging Cossack, I changed the direction the horse was running in… For some reason I’m clueless about composition. When I end up with a nice piece, it’s because I happened upon the composition by chance.

Trial and error is a valid way to learn. It also takes a lot of time. That’s why I decided that I have to stop fiddling around and tackle composition head-on. At the moment the plan is to study master paintings. In other words, I want to learn from great examples. I am also looking for guides or books on composition. If I find a particular good one, I’ll add it to the composition study routine.

  1. Perspective Breakdown

This is a new exercise for me. I have always avoided perspective. My plan? Take an object and draw an analysis of the perspective: vanishing points, basic shapes, … This will be my very first step towards technical drawings. Guess what? I’m scared. Yup, even thinking about perspective exercises is scary for me. This means that I’m getting out of my comfort zone. It’s a good sign.

  1. Interior/Architecture Study

Yes, another exercise that scares me. This type of artwork also needs perspective… and patience… and precision. I’m very weak at landscapes in general: I sketch and paint without backgrounds. However, instead of just studying “backgrounds” or “landscapes”, I decided to narrow it down to interiors and architecture because otherwise I’d keep avoiding perspective forever. The perspective breakdown exercise is for studying objects in perspective, this exercise is to practice large-scale perspective. To maximise the benefits of this exercise, I better start adding backgrounds to all my drawings. That way I’ll apply my studies to my regular art work.

  1. A contest submission

At first I called this “a finished painting per week”, but I decided to go with a contest submission instead. Why? There are two benefits to participating in contests. First, you can compare your work to that of other artists. Secondly, you can ask for feedback. I decided to go with Do you remember the Cossack painting I showed you earlier? I submitted it to 99designs with a small comment, and the contest owner messaged me back explaining why he didn’t pick my design. I didn’t get a price, but I got a lesson about design instead. This motivates me to keep participating. Hey, I might even win a few bucks! Fingers crossed 😀

  1. A drawing request

I’m doing free request on deviantArt and gave myself two rules to abide:

  1. Draw the request traditionally.

The digital medium lets you undo and redo and gives you no limits considering size or colour. When I draw with ballpoint, I have to think about how to draw a glowing orb with my limited colours, and I have to plan ahead because I can’t redraw a pose without starting completely over.

  1. Make A4-sized drawings

A bad habit that I want to correct is drawing too small. The previous requests I did for deviantArt users were tiny scribbles. Scribbling on tiny pieces of paper is a three-year old habit and by doing a weekly big drawing, I hope to slowly get used to different formats. It will be better for my wrist and will allow me to draw with more detail.

I better start, because this is a pretty intensive to-do list! Do you think having a set of weekly exercises will make you practice more?

– Iris

What to do when you can’t draw with your right hand anymore?

Losing one of your hands is quite inconvenient. Not being able to draw, you know?
You can sprain your hand , get a fleshwound or face the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s tough being an artist without a functional hand.  Or when you’re a student or a plumber, or a housewife, or a doctor, or… Yes, not being able to use your hand is a downer for everyone.

I got a little problem with my shoulder. Every now and then, my shoulder goes like “I’m done with this!” and pops out of its socket. I am not against strikes every now and then – after all shoulders don’t have unions. However, it doesn’t work well with my drawing ambitions.
My shoulder has improved a lot, but it still tends to dislocate. Last time this happened was when I did a biceps flex on Skype. (Needless to say, I didn’t impress the guy 🙁 )
When it dislocates, I can’t move my arm for about two days and it keeps hurting for a while. A perfect excuse to take a break!

Or not.

Knowing myself, that’s the beginning of the end. I will slip back into my old habits of laziness and procrastination. So after the bicep flex accident, I got thinking: how can I keep drawing despite not being able to use my arm?
The answer is obvious. I still got another arm. Yes! I can just draw with my left hand (i.e. my non-dominant hand).

Have you ever tried drawing with your other hand?
It’s not easy. You are drawing a head and you want to put the nose in between the eyes and the mouth, yet the nose ends up outside the page and not looking like a nose anyhow.

Because you don’t use your other hand, the fine motor skills are not developed. Your brain tells it what to draw and it just won’t cooperate. Precise lines and details are impossible.
Step 1:   find a replacement hand. Done!
Step 2:   draw with it. Eh… this one is quite the challenge.

Are there types of drawing that don’t need clean lines or precision?

Yup, there are plenty! I got two exercises for you: gesture drawing and shadow massing. 😀

1. Drawing gestures with your non-dominant hand

Iris Hopp - digital gestures ref subtitle banner

New to gesture drawing? This video explains it in 10 minutes:

 I love you, Proko <3

With gestures, you express movement or emotion using simple marks. You try to capture it without trivial details. Hey, no details needed? Sounds doable even with the sloppy left hand!
Here’s an example of my gesture drawing, with my right hand:

Iris Hopp - right hand gesture drawings

And this is what I managed with my left hand:

Iris Hopp - left hand gesture drawings

Do the lefties look worse? Sure. Yet I got great practice out of it, because gesture drawing is a mental exercise: find the flow of the figure. Find the action line. My lines being wobbly?  That doesn’t matter!
I used the Posemaniacs tool, but you could also draw gestures from your imagination.

2. Shadow massing
Iris Hopp - black white eyes subtitle banner

Shadow massing is another exercise where the key is simplification.

What is shadow massing?
You take a reference and try to divide it into light and shadow. One of my weaknesses is dividing small areas into shadow and light, while missing the big shapes.  I can’t be the only one!

This exercise helps. It isn’t called “find the shadowy parts” but “shadow massing” because you are looking for the big groups and you ignore details. Master paintings are great to study shadow massing with, because they often have a value composition. The focus of the painting is bright and centered, and the unimportant parts are left in the shadows, like in these examples:

Colourcow - Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein

Colourcow - Lama Giulia - Fondazione Federico Zeri


First, I lightly sketched with a pen to get the proportions down. Then I used a marker to fill in the shadow areas. With my left hand, I couldn’t work digitally because a tablet is so smooth. The pen was constantly slipping! Using pen and paper, I had a little bit of grip. However, with the polygon lasso tool, you could practice shadow massing digitally and much more efficiently by filling large areas at once.

Now you might ask me:
Since drawing with your left hand is so difficult and your shoulder dislocates often, … why don’t you learn to draw with your left hand?
I’ve seen a similar question in art forums: “Should I practice with my other hand, in case I ever lose my drawing hand?”.

Should we all learn to draw with our other hand too?
Iris Hopp - digital hand study ref subtitle banner

I think we shouldn’t.

Yes, ambidexterity can be learned. Yes, it has advantages, like switching hands to prevent repetitive strain injury. So why don’t we?

Your non-dominant hand is slow and clumsy. You better spend your time drawing with your usual hand, instead of preparing for an accident that might never happen. In my own situation, I lose one or two days in a year, that’s it. In short, it’s not worth the effort. You lose more opportunities to practice efficiently than you gain benefits.

Drawing knowledge is in your head – not in your hand. Your fine motor skills alone don’t determine how good your art is. Focus on improving your art and the fine motor skills develop on its own, just because you draw everyday.
Got carpal tunnel? Broken bones? An amputation? Nerve paralysis?
If you ever lose your dominant hand, you just continue drawing with the other and it will become your new drawing hand. The two exercises I suggested, gesture drawing and shadow massing, they focus on knowledge and skill, not on mark making. Drawing precision comes naturally over time. There are paraplegics (paralyzed in all their limbs) who paint better with their mouth than I do with my right hand!

Let’s sum it up!

Iris Hopp - sketch imag subtitle banner

Situation: for some reason, you can’t use your good hand. So you decide to draw with your non-dominant hand.
Challenge: that rusty non-dominant hand has a lack of precision and motor control.
Solution: select exercises that don’t need precision 🙂

Gestures and shadow massing are the two exercises I chose, but there’s more! How about studying composition and colour pallets? You could also watch tutorials, go to a museum, read art book – it all helps to learn and expand your visual library.

Happy drawing!

– Iris