For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to learn to draw. And for as long I can remember, I’ve been failing to learn to draw. I just couldn’t get the hang of it; every time I put pencil to paper, it ended in frustration, and repeated frustration inevitably calcified into defeat. Though I’ve never really stopped trying — my junk closet brims with abandoned art supplies — at some point I internalized my failure. A lot of drawing teachers say that everyone can learn to draw. A lot of drawing teachers haven’t met me, I thought. I was an exception. Even Pictionary filled me with anxiety.
Then, in 2019, I started playing with Procreate, a digital drawing and painting app for the iPad (there’s an iPhone version, too). It was a revelation — a gateway into the thrilling possibilities of digital art, and the realization that computers have done for drawing and painting what word processors once did for writing. Call it the magic of undo: in digital illustration apps — not just Procreate, which is Apple’s top paid app for the iPad right now, but also classic programs like Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop — every mark you make can be instantly reversed. This small thing changes the game entirely. Because you’re never locked into anything, frustration rarely builds, and the process of learning to make art feels close to actually making art.
At this point, some of you may be mocking my digital attachment: Look at this bougie dork who thinks you need an iPad to learn to draw! Purists may also call it a kind of cheating — that claiming to learn to draw on a computer is like claiming to learn to add and subtract on a calculator.
But that misses the point. Although they offer some hand-holding (more on that in a bit), to make the most of these apps, you’ve still got to learn the fundamentals of drawing or painting, and the way to do that is the same on a screen as on paper or canvas: practice. You don’t need an iPad to learn to draw — of course — but for me, having something like a fully equipped art studio at my fingertips has allowed me to practice often enough over the last few years to finally be able to declare to the world: I can draw!
There’s this Taylor Swift lyric: “I’ve never been a natural / all I do is try, try, try.” I like the line as philosophy — talent is overrated, hard work is underrated — but it’s also a perfect summation of my creative process. I write by brainstorming on the page — I’d bet that every sentence in this column has been rewritten at least three times. Not all writers work like this, and there are some who still prefer the old-school feel of pen on paper, but among writers and editors who grew up in the digital age, this experimental approach isn’t uncommon. Is there a more blessed keyboard shortcut than Command-Z?
Procreate lets me apply this process to visual art. In my earliest days with the app, I spent a lot of time just trying, trying, trying. In particular, Procreate’s facility with digital photographs allowed me to analyze shapes of things I wanted to draw. I’d take a photo of something, put it in Procreate and then I’d trace on top of it. (I should note: One problem I ran into immediately was the terrible feel of drawing on slippery glass — it was only after I got an add-on iPad screen cover designed to feel more like paper that I was hooked.)
After a while, I moved on from tracing to drawing from a reference image placed beside my canvas. Here, I was aided by Procreate’s grid lines and its color picker — a feature that lets you inspect the precise ways colors shift in a reference image. In the drawing of leaves above, I used the grid superimposed on the photo as a guide.
In the digital world, there’s less distinction between drawing and painting; out of the box, Procreate offers dozens of different pens, pencils and brushes, and there’s a pretty big online community of artists who make and sell their own custom brushes. This allows for another kind of artistic experimentation — an exploration of a wide variety of artistic styles, keeping boredom at bay. In the above self-portrait, in which I attempted to mimic the work of the painter Chuck Close, I drew different parts of my face in different styles, then pasted them together.
More recently, I’ve been learning about light, shadow and reflections. Again, a particularly brilliant feature of digital art made this easier for me: layers. In Procreate and other apps, different elements of your drawing can be stacked on top of one another. So, for example, you can work on the background of your picture without altering the foreground. This helped me create the light beam in the pencil sketch of three-dimensional shapes and the reflections on the ceramic mug in the drawing below.
The rise of artificial intelligence has led to a great deal of worry that computers are killing art. But if art is dying, somebody forgot to tell the many artists who make and sell their work entirely in the digital world. (Or in print: Several New Yorker magazine cover illustrations have been created on iPads.) I took no formal instruction to learn to draw on a screen, but as part of my learning process, I’ve watched countless YouTube videos and subscribed to several artists’ Patreon communities, where many offer tutorials and sell merch. This community, and my own progress, should provide some hope about the future of visual art — if digital tools led me to finally crack at least the basics of drawing, they may help lots of others, too. Perhaps even you.
Office Hours With Farhad Manjoo
Farhad wants to chat with readers on the phone. If you’re interested in talking to a New York Times columnist about anything that’s on your mind, please fill out this form. Farhad will select a few readers to call.