I Can’t Draw! Does This Mean I Can’t Paint?

how to easily draw and paint in watercolour. Using graphite backed paper to trace a reference drawing.
Do you trace or not?

How do you paint in watercolour if you can’t draw? This can be a real hang up for people who think, if they can’t draw, they can’t paint. It is almost like you can’t be an artist and you are not allowed to paint if you don’t draw the image yourself. So, is it OK to use tips and techniques to get the image down, or do we have to draw it out freehand? Here are a few of my personal thoughts.

Paul Hopkinson on how to easily draw and paint in watercolour
It is important to practice your drawing skills

One thing I do feel is important is to practice your drawing skills, this is a good way to hone your eye. You start to see the details, shapes, angles and size relations within a picture you are creating. The more you practice the more you will improve. As with painting it takes time to ‘get your eye in’. However, focusing on just the outline and any significant lines is a good way to really ‘look’ at a subject. Be that an animal, bird, your favourite pet, a tiny insect, a bowl of fruit or a building!

Photo, drawing and painting comparison for a robin watercolour showing how you can easily draw and paint in watercolour
Focusing on the most important lines will really hone your skills of observation

When you look back at art history there have been a range of methods used to get a composition onto paper. Some are still popular today, I can remember being taught to use the grid system to upscale an image. Indeed this is still a skill I teach. Other methods have included dividers to get the measurements correct and camera obscuras. In more modern times we can use light boxes and projectors. Indeed, projectors are favoured by artists who are working on extremely large projects.

Using the grid system to draw an image
Using the grid system to transfer an image

It is important to remember that freehand drawing is actually another skill altogether. Some artists simply draw and this is all they do. People who really enjoy the painting process may not be confident in drawing and may not be interested in learning. Indeed, many professional artists, simply do not have the time to freehand draw! For nearly all of my paintings I will use tracedown/ graphite backed paper to get the outline onto my watercolour paper. It is extremely quick and is always accurate. My subject are in proportion with eyes, ears and nose all in the right places! I can then get straight to the painting process!

How to easily draw and paint a robin in watercolour by Paul Hopkinson
I just want to paint!
So is tracing cheating?

I personally don’t think so, I see it as a way of getting to the painting process much quicker and making the best use of my time. I see graphite paper as another tool; one that can be used to give everyone the confidence to have a go at painting whether they can draw or not. Everyone can then start with an accurate outline drawing and to be honest this is probably one of the most critical stages with a realistic painting.

There are many people who want to learn to paint, they don’t want to learn to draw! They want to learn how to hold a brush, mix and apply paint, work with colours, washes and detail. Tracing an outline can also remove the need to erase drawing errors. Watercolour paper can be easily damaged and those errors will show as soon as you start to add washes – no one wants that. In my opinion tools are there to be used and graphite paper is simply a really good tool. It opens the doors so we can all draw and paint in watercolour if we want! 😉

Paul Hopkinson, The Devon Artist Robin in watercolour
Robin in Watercolour by Paul Hopkinson

At the end of the day, the decision is up to you; we all have control of our own painting journey and we do what feels right and works for us. Why not have a go at both, draw your image freehand and also trace it. Paint one or both of your outline drawings and see which method you found the most enjoyable and rewarding?
Now you know my thoughts, what are your feelings about this subject – post a comment below, I would love to know whether you think you can draw and paint in watercolour if you can’t draw.
Keep those brushes wet,
Paul 😃


Just a little after thought….

Should you have only just found me and have stumbled upon this page, both these robins are available as PDF downloads here on my website.  The one immediately above is also available as a FREE real time video tutorial over on my Patreon channel. Have fun. 😉

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