Learning to draw

This is the story of how I learned to draw as part of becoming a cartooning psychologist.

My ‘before and after’ drawings. August 2012 (on the left) and October 2013 (on the right)

My first cartoon – October 2012

A cartoon just over a year later – I’m obviously feeling very proud of myself.

In the beginning there was… no talent

When I call myself ‘the cartooning psychologist’ I do so with a huge caveat. Whilst I have spent many years studying psychology and have letters before and after my name to back up my credentials as a psychologist, when it comes to drawing… I am no artist. I have gone through my entire life believing that I’m simply one of those people who can’t draw. I was right.

Despite having no talent for drawing I often found that if I really wanted to express how I was feeling I would end up drawing a picture. My deflated or elated matchstick people seemed to capture these feelings so much better than words. But, because I couldn’t draw I was pretty much limited to those two emotions, so in the summer of 2012 I decided it was time to move on from my badly drawn matchstick people and learn to draw. I’m finding the process of learning to draw immensely challenging – but also great fun and very rewarding. You can watch me on my journey here.


Summer 2012

One of the tools I’m using to help me learn to draw is the very brilliant ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain’ by Betty Edwards. Your first task if you’re working through this book is to draw a portrait before you get any instruction. So here are my two first efforts:


I remember at the time thinking ‘Not bad – it’s not totally awful’.

Learning a different way of seeing – week 2

The basic premise of ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain’ is that drawing is a learned skill (rather than an innate ability) and that ‘not being able to draw’ has got much more to do with ‘not being able to see’ than any problems with your hand/eye co-ordination. The trick, as the name suggests, is to use the processes associated with the right side of your brain and effectively ‘turn off’ your left side processes. It’s your right side of your brain that can look at something as if it has never seen it before (which – for any fellow psychologists out there – links in wonderfully with phenomenology and mindfulness) whereas it’s your left brain that will label the thing you are drawing (e.g. ‘It’s a hand’) and distract you from really seeing what is in front of you.

With a tiny bit of instruction here are a couple of my first drawings:

Seeing what isn’t there – week 4

I’m finding the number of links between the process of drawing and psychology really interesting. The next lesson was focusing on what isn’t there – recognising that the negative space (the space where something isn’t) is just as important as the positive space (the space it occupies) if you are trying to understand the shape of something. I could link all of this to how we relate to each other as people – but instead here’s a couple of drawings of a chair that were made by drawing the ‘gaps’ first and as a consequence having a picture of the chair.

The art of cartooning – Autumn 2012

As well as practicing to draw with the right side of my brain I have also been working on the left side by going on a cartooning course. This is very different from life drawing as the thing you are trying to draw is not in front of you. This means you need to create an image using your imagination and your knowledge. I’ve been on the course for a month now and it has reinforced how much learning is going to be involved in this whole process. I feel like I’m learning to play the piano and the process I’m going through right now is to learn my scales – in this case that means learning how to draw hands, feet, noses, body shapes – until I can commit that learning to memory and then move on to the next piece. Here is one of my first efforts at drawing a cartoon:

Creating my first character – Autumn 2012

Every budding cartoonist needs to have their first character. My eventual aim is to be able to create characters out of the people I’m working with and tell their stories using my drawings – however – it wouldn’t feel right to do something to someone else that I’m not prepared to do to myself. So my first character is going to be me. So far my creative process has involved a ruler, a calculator, and significantly more failure than success:

I suspect it will be a while before my character has a body…

Making progress – October 2012

Just over one month later and I’ve completed my first cartoon. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve had a lot of fun creating this and it’s great to see some of my drawings come to life. The cartoon is a ‘one-pager’ that I produced so that I can start to communicate what I’m trying to do with my drawings. From a psychological perspective what I’m trying to do is really ambitious – but that seems small in comparison to the ambition of being able to turn my ideas into drawings:

How to be a cartooning psychologist

If, like me, you grew up on Rolf Harris and Tony Hart please brace yourself for the bitter taste of disappointment. Just as my work in forensic psychology does not involve running around town solving crimes, my process as a novice illustrator doesn’t involve sitting down and drawing the perfect image, freehand, first time. Quite frankly, my process of drawing would make rubbish telly.

Having significantly lowered your expectations – here is everything you need to be a cartooning psychologist…

1. Gather your equipment

2. Smile for the camera

My drawing isn’t good enough to work without photos yet. I reckon that in a decade or so I’ll be able to whip out a drawing without too much assistance. But for now posing for photos in my flat is one of my main pastimes. I think my acting skills are slowly improving – this is a pretty decent steely-adventurer look. However, note-to-self: remember not to take yourself too seriously when you’re brandishing a plastic kitchen utensil.

3. Trace that baby

This is actually a lot harder than you might think. I’ve needed to develop my own style. It’s not possible, or useful, to include every detail. So you’ll need to work out which bits of your face, hair, and clothing you want to focus on. I find it easier to make adjustments to the image during the tracing stage – for this image I needed to change my hat to make it more  ‘Indiana’ than the one I was wearing in the photo.

4. Ink it up

Once you have your pencil outline on paper you need to fill in the missing pieces. In this case I needed to add the shape of the whip. When that is done it’s time to ink up the whole drawing. I invariably make mistakes when inking, and my hand always seems to wobble at key moments – but that’s why some smart person invented Tippex. The final bit is my absolute favourite part – rubbing away all of the pencil marks and revealing a crisp, clean image underneath.

Congratulations – you are now a cartooning psychologist AND Indiana Jones. You may now finish the banana bread (if there is any left).

Raising my game

October 2013 – at the moment I am busy drafting my chapter for The courage to be me. There is nothing like knowing that your amateur work will be sitting alongside the work of professional illustrators to make you want to raise your game. So this month I have been trying to improve my drawing skills.

I’ve turned back to my original drawing resource ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain‘ and I have finally finished it. It is possible to complete this book in 5 days. It took me over a year. But I did get very distracted by my cartooning. Here is my self-portrait before and after training (the ‘after’ is the one on the right)

I’ve also ditched the tracing paper for my cartooning too. This wasn’t really planned. I drafted my chapter using a very roughly drawn cartoon character – and I decided that I quite liked her and that she should stay. Here’s one of my draft pages:

And here’s what she’s looking like now:

I think she looks happy because she’d thrilled to have hands.


  1. forget about “learning how to draw”! your drawings are perfect as they are. just move in your mind from visual to haptic. it’s not about how the character “you” looks like. it’s about how it feels like. i adore the wit and depth in your comics. but pleaaaase, don’t trace, unless you consider it a sort of relaxation technique.

    i like your website a lot, enjoyed your reading texts a lot, and am happy i discovered it early enough to apply as an illustrator for your book.
    kind regards and good luck with your projects!

  2. Thanks Kasia.

    I hear what you are saying about the tracing – but I’m really comfortable with the fact that I use it and I feel that I am learning a lot from doing it. Obviously not 100% of what I draw is traced – but most of the images of ‘me’ are at the moment.

    I hope to progress from my current style. I think one of the added bits of interest when people read my work in the future will be to watch me grow as an illustrator – as well as just enjoying the psychology. But the content, the psychology, is what it is all about for me. I hope people enjoy what I draw, not necessarily how I draw it.

    I’ve done a fair bit of freehand (no tracing) drawing for my latest chapter – it was fun and I like these more ‘cartoony’ characters. I’ll get there eventually – just keep watching this space…

  3. I can’t believe I have just stumbled upon your website! I have only just returned from my lovely sis in laws house, after having coffee and chatting about my blog and possible future book. She is an Artist and mentioned about using more imagery in my work; I just couldn’t see what type of imagery would ‘fit’ with the type of content I am writing. And then I found your site. Really looking forward following you.

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