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Painting vs drawing

Do I need to know how to draw before I learn to paint?

drawing vs painting Jul 29, 2021

Author: Leigh Penner

Before we get started I like to save you some work and see what Google says!

Some say YES to learning to draw first:

  • "Learning to draw is paramount to your journey as an artist. It not only provides a strong foundation as you identify your style but also enlightens you on critical aspects such as shape, form, light, and shadow" (
  • "The reality is that drawing and painting go “hand in hand.” Learning how to draw is a stepping stone to learning how to paint. Concepts learned from drawing carry over into painting, and understanding painting concepts actually improves your drawing. While the mediums used are different, and carry their own set of possibilities and limitations, the thought process of the artist remains very similar in both disciplines" (

Others disagree:

  • "You don't need to know how to draw in order to paint. All you need is the desire to create and the discipline to practice and develop your technique. You'll make plenty of mistakes, but that's part of the learning process. Ultimately, the creation of art is what's important, not the road you take to get there"
  • "Drawing is not just an initial step in making a painting. Drawing is a different way of creating art. Having drawing skills will definitely help with your painting, but if you hate pencils and charcoal, this doesn't mean you can't learn to paint.

    Never let the belief that you "can't even draw a straight line" stop you from discovering the enjoyment that painting can bring" (


Why the confusion?

Drawing and painting are similar, but they are not the same. Their focus is different and their means of attaining their goals -- not to mention the tools they use in doing so -- also differ. 

How are drawing and painting the same?

Both drawing and painting attempt to make a visual representation of something -- an object, emotion, concept. They both require manual dexterity and a degree of hand-eye coordination. Neither can depict something which does not already exist in some form in the real world. An artist may combine real word elements to create a monster, for example, or a work of abstraction, but only with shapes and/or colors the eye can recognize. This means that any sighted person can have an opinion of the caliber of the artwork -- and they will.

How do they differ?

The most obvious difference are the tools used in creating a drawing vs a painting. Each discipline has its own techniques. Drawing tools are less expensive than paints, which theoretically allows more universal access to learning to draw than to learning to paint. 

Drawing is much more conservative than painting in the sense that the constraints of charcoal and paper limit the effects attainable in a drawing. Drawing often focuses on realism. A painting, on the other hand, can be realistic, impressionistic, abstract, surrealistic, and more. This is because of the main difference between drawing and painting:

"Drawing focuses on lines and shapes, while painting focuses on color and form.

Drawing and painting are two different visual art forms. Drawing is the art of representing an object or outlining a figure, plan or sketch by means of lines while painting is the practice of applying color to a solid surface such as a paper or canvas. Sometimes, drawing can be the basis of a painting"


"Painting embraces all the 10 functions of the eye; that is to say, darkness, light, body and color, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest." — Leonardo da Vinci.


Are there benefits to learning to draw before learning to paint? 

Many art teachers believe in learning the basics of art -- form, perspective, shading -- first. As the saying goes, learn to walk before you run. ​There are obvious benefits in this approach. For one thing, paint doesn't erase. In that alone, it makes some sense to work with a medium which can easily be removed before attempting more difficult work.

Drawing as a learning tool is beneficial in several other ways. It may help you identify a sense of personal style as an artist, and will introduce you to basic concepts like shape, form, light, and  shadow. Drawing may loosen up and allow you to paint freely and with flow. Some think drawing onto a canvas before painting will increase accuracy. Instead of a freehand rendering, you are effectively coloring in what you have drawn. This may allow you to control proportions and scale more effectively. Therefore, hypothetically, the better you can draw, the easier time you will have attempting your painting.

This, of course, leads us to the often-asked question, do strong skills with one medium guarantee success with the other? By consensus, the answer is no. Painting and drawing are different, their tools and techniques are different, and being an expert with charcoal is no promise that you will be able to translate your skills equally onto a painted canvas. Which means, while drawing may help you become a better painter, you might be fine without substantial drawing skills, too. 

What does Charla say?

 According to Charla, "Painting is like drawing with color. You do need to be able to draw something on your canvas in order to paint it. Paint gives it form and expression. 

"If you want to be great at your preferred subject, I strongly suggest studying a subject by drawing it in many ways. For example. If you love elephants than draw them from many directions and with different light and environments. After just a week you will have a completely new understanding of the form of an elephant. After a few months you can draw them from memory. Painting them would be the next step. 

"However, you can paint without practicing drawing your subject. You can use different way to get a drawing/subject onto your canvas. You can use grids, projector, apps, and several other kinds of drawing methods. Just remember that doing it this way has the possibility of making very flat images. Not studying the subject takes away your understanding of the form.  Form is very important when you paint. 

"There's nothing wrong with getting on with painting and skipping being a professional drawer. However, if you love one subject matter, you will become a much better artist by studying that subject. 

"I love faces and anatomy. I took a year long course in university where we studied the figure for 6 hours a week -- for an entire school year. Now I study faces. Even in social situations I study the faces of people I am talking with. 

"It's great to work from photographs, but it is so much better to work from life when you are learning. Studying real-life faces (and especially drawing them) will force you to really consider the shape and form and how the light hits and moves the subject. I talk about this a lot in my class Bold Color Bootcamp. For one thing, I talk about how to get started with faces and how to sketch them onto canvas." 

- Charla


The bottom line appears to be well-represented by this quote: "There is no rule that says you must draw before you paint if you don't want to" ( That appears to say it all. 

While most seem to agree that an ability to draw is at a minimum helpful to an artist who wishes to paint, there is no reason why you can't pursue painting your own way -- even if you don't want to learn to draw. There are, as Charla points out, other ways to get a subject onto a canvas. Drawing skills may help, but they are not necessarily essential.

On the other hand, drawing skills might not even be enough. Prior to painting, Charla advocates doing more than just drawing, she recommends studying your subject. Going that extra mile -- doing your homework, so to speak -- can only benefit the art you ultimately produce.  

- Cover photo by Alice Dietrich

Creativity awaits!


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