What Line Drills Can Do for You

Pointless and boring, or meditative exercise?

Video accompaniment

Why should you do line drills? What can they do for you? How can you do something so repetitive without wanting to pull your hair out?

The most deconstructed root fundamental skill for all 2D art is repeatedly putting marks where you want them. The only way to do that consistently is through practice. Drills are a kind of practice that distil one aspect, take out all other concerns and let you just focus on one thing to improve it faster. So line drills, repeatedly putting lines where you want them, let you quickly improve your most basic fundamental drawing mechanic.

Being able to do something really well after a lot of repetition is sometimes called muscle memory. It describes the feeling of muscles knowing what to do by themselves. The action becomes becomes automatic, thoughtless, natural. It’s been done so many times it is no longer conscious.

Once you gain even an approximation of that ability with lines, you are free to use them however you want - producing them will no longer be a barrier. You’ll no longer have to sketch or feel out lines, you can just do each one once. This is amazing for speed, being able to quickly express something true to the picture in your imagination and only having to worry abou what your lines are making, rather than the quality of the lines themselves. But how do you get to that destination without wearing out?

Drills don’t have to be boring

You can keep drills interesting by changing things around, while keeping the solid core of what makes it effective — one aspect, distilled and repeated to improve it. Switch up which exercises you do, make up your own, or change parameters that don’t matter to what you’re trying to practice, like here where I randomise the colour of the lines with some hue jitter on the brush.

You can also get around the boredom by changing your mindset. Miyamoto Musashi was a legendary Japanese swordsman in the 15th century who remained undefeated in duels. He has this to say on the importance of kata — choreographed patterns of movements made to be practised alone:

Repetition of the same movements is not identical repetition.
- Kenji Tokitsu, Miyamoto Musashi — his life and writings

Every iteration of a movement is imperfect in slightly different ways. Quite drastically at first, then in more nuanced ways as you gain experience. Just because you do it perfectly once or know the theory of how to do it perfectly, doesn’t even approach mastery.

Photo by Robert Seidel on Unsplash

Drills can be meditative and relaxing, only focusing on the next stroke, being completely in the moment, doing the simplest of drawing actions. Very zen. It definitely shouldn’t be the only drawing you do, that would be mind-numbing. I believe they work best as warm-ups before jumping into application, or as a cool-down once you’ve squeezed out all your creative juices and want to relax — it’s a good intermediate between work and full relaxation.

I would be careful about doing drills mindlessly as it takes some concentration to notice and correct for those little imperfections you’re trying to iron out. It may be that you can do it subconsciously while listening to music or watching a show, or it may be you need active attention without distractions. Pay attention to what is working for you, as it would be a shame to waste the time you’re investing in this.

Exercises to try, with sources

If you’re having trouble with line, do some of those exercises for 10–15 minutes a day before moving on to your real drawing. You will see improvement in your line quality and accuracy, guaranteed. If… sorry, when you do, let me know about your experience on Twitter. I’d be interested to get real field-tested results from people out there.

From Dynamic Sketching with Peter Han:

  • ¼, ½, ¾, and full page-width lines, repeatedly gone over for accuracy. 4 of each length, gone over 8 times. The aim is to make the first as straight as possible, then not make it any thicker when going over it.
  • Same exercise but with arcing lines, 2 concave (hill) 2 convex (valley).
  • Same with wavy lines of varying lengths and frequencies.

From Scott Robertson’s book How To Draw:

  • Parallel straight lines.
  • Straight lines connecting two points.
  • Stars/asterisks —multiple lines at different angles crossing through same centre point.
  • Smooth arcs that go through multiple points arranged in a triangle.

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