To Draw or Not to Draw

Greetings Friends,

I received a message from fellow artist John Bolton, where he was describing his artistic style, and he included this comment:

I cheekily call myself an artist, but in truth, I cannot draw. Landscapes, people, flowers etc are a complete mystery to me.

It’s interesting to me that we still consider being able to draw a prerequisite for being an artist. I can’t remember the last time I sat down and actually drew anything other than a rough sketch or doodles.

When did this idea that you need to be able to draw get started, anyway, and why does it persist? Is it a right of passage to be able to draw before you can be considered an artist?

I’m guessing that it started in the days before photography, when art was the only way to get a realistic rendering. But now that we have photography to cover that need, why is realistic drawing still required?

Here are some photographs of John’s incredible art, just so you can get an idea of how unrelated it is to drawing. It’s hard to imagine that he might not consider himself to be an artist just because doesn’t think he can draw.

John Bolton Art

John Bolton Art

John Bolton Art

What do you think? Should realistic drawing continue to be a requirement for art? Are there some other qualifications one needs before declaring themselves an artist? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share them with us in the comments section below.

With love and appreciation,



  1. I don’t think you have to know how to draw to be an artist. There are so many styles, art forms and modalities in art, especially now with digital art, multimedia and mediums. These are exciting times to be an artist. Now to be a successful artis, who is able to make a living on art sales, is another story!

  2. I’m intrigued. If John doesn’t draw, how does he prep for these works, which are great, btw. ? I’d love to know his process from initial idea to finish. Perhaps I could learn something as I tend to pick up a pencil immediately to bash out a rough idea. (Sometimes creating a block in itself- oh I haven’t drawn it out, yet. I can’t start properly…)

    1. Interesting, Melanie. Like Julie wrote below, John does do rough sketches. Then there are those of us who work intuitively and respond to the art as it’s in process. That’s what I do, I start on something and then evaluate what more it needs. I dont do any drawing at all.

      1. Oh wait . . . I’m the one who said I do rough sketches, not John! I do a rough sketch if it’s a piece that requires masking, and I need to decide where the masks are going to go.

    2. Hi Melanie
      I never said that I draw to prep my art work. I start with an idea usually from something already published. That said I don’t steal photos or images, but adapt parts of them. To suit my style. I also modify my work as it progresses. Sometimes it turns out completely different, and I then think to myself, where did that come from?

      Most of my work involves some form of construction, so, inevitably, I end up throwing about a quarter in the bin, because they have not turned out right.

      Thank you for your kind comments. If I. Had your email, I could send you further examples. And if you request it, I can give you the back story to a lot of the pieces.

      I assume you produce art yourself, love to see some. If you care to send me photos. Email is

  3. John does mention that he does rough sketches which is probably what many artists do especially design makers. Not everyone needs to be an accurate drawer to make something unless it’s for a particular commission.

    1. I’d like to see more of John’s work, too, but he doesn’t have a website yet. Maybe we can nudge him in that direction!

    2. A website is on its way, where I will publish all 160of my pieces of artwork. Thanks for your comments.

  4. As an artist for whom representative drawing does not come easily, I believe it is important. Drawing is seeing the details. Drawing is meditation. Drawing is learning a kinesthetic response to what you see.

  5. I do not think that representational drawing is a prerequisite to anything. It is, however, a unique process of getting to know what your subject/model actually (as opposed to concepts and memories that we have in our minds) looks like. And how to draw/paint/smudge and translate this looking onto a 2 dimensional plane.
    I teach drawing (“Drawing and the Art of Seeing” at a wonderful store called Castle in the Air in Berkeley, California). The biggest roadblock I find for people who would like to draw representationally is their sheer terror of it. And horrendous self condemnation and shame for not being able to. No one shows up for a Latin class ashamed of not being able to speak Latin, but drawing classes seem to evoke that, as a rule.
    Drawing, like walking, doing backflips, speaking Latin, or living, for that matter, takes practice and practice and practice. And because it seems to come more easily to some than others doesn’t mean anything more than that. Learning to read comes more easily to some than others, but when we are young we are not encouraged, or even allowed, to think or say: “Oh well, guess I’m not a reader.” No, we are just told and helped to keep at it.
    I think the attempt to deride representational drawing is a reaction to the pressure people feel to be able to do it, somehow magically, with close to no effort at all, and the shame then felt.
    I do not need anyone to draw, only insist, for those who would like to, that it is utterly learnable.

    1. Hi Alice
      You are quite right. I am terrified of not being able to draw properly. But properly, to me, means conforming to a set of predefined rules. Something I rarely do. I signed up for a 10 week college day course and after 3 weeks gave it up. I learnt nothing. The tutors were from the dinosaur age (in my opinion).
      I was so disappointed with myself ifif no artwork for the next two weeks. I then tried some digital sketching with “Apple Procreate on my IPad. That put me back on track.
      Any further advice would be gratefully received.

      1. So sorry you were put off by the instructors and their methods!
        The biggest hazard I feel in teaching is finding ways for students not to get so discouraged that they stop trying.
        Finding a teacher that suits you is critical.
        I do not teach rules or isolated techniques. I spend most of my time coaxing, inviting, inspiring, encouraging students to allow what is inside of them out. Everyone has their own way of seeing, but getting to recognize that after a lifetime of being inundated with external authority’s notions of correctness can be quite a project.
        Our own ideas of beauty are utterly personal and the domain of no one but ourselves.

  6. I LOVE all these thoughts about drawing. And they all ring true! Even if they seem in conflict with each other. Drawing DOES help me see…line, dimension, contour. A drawing class is like calligraphy, it is a practice…


  7. All of these comments are great! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I like your point, Alice, that drawing is learnable. And Bee I can see your point that drawing helps us to see and respond to what we see.

    Why do you think we feel pressure and shame about drawing? Where does that come from? I know I and many others were completely turned off to art for long periods of time or even a lifetime by that feeling of inadequacy at not being able to draw realistically.

  8. In thinking about this discussion, I was reminded of the controversy around projection, and artists who use projection to create a base drawing for their work. There’s a lot of shame around this practice, but why? Why wouldn’t we use the latest technology available to make our work easier, especially when working large?

    1. Well, Vermeer (among many others) used Camera Obscura, and I don’t get the impression that there was any shame or shaming involved. Perhaps because his personal touch is so apparent in all of his paintings.
      And David Hockney used projection as a step in his paintings, and, again, I am unaware of any shame or shaming.
      I use projection as a shortcut sometimes – even while there may be value in working out my “map”, my under drawing, sometimes I just want to get to the part of the drawing or painting that I want to get to – and I feel there is no less value or genuine creation on my part in the piece.
      A piece of paper with a small square cut out of the middle can act as a viewfinder that can be quite useful in seeing perspective, and that is simply a good tool, as are projections, in helping us to see what is in front of us.

      1. Thanks for your comments about projections, Alice. As you probably know, David Hockney wrote an entire book about it, and at the time it was very controversial. Here’s a quote from a NY Times article discussing the book:

        “But what is to fear? Plenty, said Nica Gutman, a conservator of paintings who worked on the current Eakins show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Many artists find it shameful to be caught using photographs.”

        You can read the entire article here:

        1. Thank you for the information and the link! No, I did not know that Hockney got harassed for that.
          And thank you so much for inviting this discussion!

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