The story behind how you stopped drawing

Mental blind spots, actively losing control, finding beauty in novelty, and a new app for unlearning how to draw

Adrian Hanft
5 min readFeb 25, 2017

Drawing is terrifying. Do you disagree? Even if you have the courage to draw privately, showing your sketches to people makes you feel naked. Drawing is a strange thing to be scared of, isn’t it? Let’s dissect that a little bit this morning.

Isaac Asimov once said that, “The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad.” He didn’t draw pictures, but he knew the naked feeling you get when you open your sketchbook to onlookers. And yet, he was able to overcome that fear with each of the over 500 books he wrote.

The moment your pencil (or marker or finger) touches the paper (or whiteboard or screen) something takes over. You might think you are being lead by the artist inside you, but the person really pushing the pencil is your mental bean counter. Your internal editor is more like a government regulator than a Picasso. The committee in your mind rarely green lights the scribbles you ask it to approve.

When we draw, most of us lean on mental constructs of what we think something looks like. These mental models are flawed shortcuts, down-sampled ideas that save storage space in your brain by dropping details. In your head, you believe you know what a bike is. But when you access your mind’s model of that bike data and try to base your drawing off of it, the results crash hard. Your drawing will get the two wheels part right, but beyond that it will be a mess. For fun, check out this gallery of drawings done by people who were asked to draw a bicycle from memory.

These mental models are hard to shake, they overpower our visual perception and we end up with drawings that look forced. When you look at your forced drawing you are unable to pinpoint why it looks wrong. Attempts to correct the flaws again tap into our mental models, compounding the awkwardness of the drawing. Now not only does the drawing look wrong, it looks like great effort was exerted to make the thing. You find yourself in a death spiral where the more effort you put into the drawing, the worse it gets. Eventually you give up and hope nobody discovers your atrocity.

This episode probably happened to you in middle school. You concluded that you couldn’t draw and you have been reciting that excuse ever since. So we end up with a population of people who preface every scribble with the words, “I can’t even draw a stick figure.”

It’s not that you don’t want to draw. Watching someone draw well is inspiring. It looks so effortless. You sense their freedom, their ability to tap into something transcendent. They have found a way to get outside of themselves. How do we get there?

I have been talking about drawing, but the same can be said about any activity that we tell ourselves we can’t do. Maybe it is the book you are avoiding writing. The music you wish you could make. The idea you avoid pitching at work. I believe that breaking through these mental blocks requires you to:

  1. Give yourself the permission to fail. No more excuses about not being able to do something. The only failure is not trying.
  2. Let yourself lose control. If the brute force of intention was all it took, you would already be a master. Silence your inner editor and step into the chaos of uncertainty.
  3. Resist the urge to reject novelty. Your creation will surprise you, that’s the goal, and it shouldn’t discourage you when the result doesn’t look like your mental model.
  4. Welcome the consequences with excitement, not embarrassment. Your brain gets hit with the exact same chemicals when it encounters real danger and trivial social risk. Whether you interpret that feeling as excitement or fear is a choice you can make.

I humbly submit a small contribution that aims to help you practice getting out of your comfort zone. It is a free app that I released this week called Blind Contour Drawing.

Blind contour drawing is a technique that corrects bad drawing habits. Learning to draw requires you to forget how not to draw. Instead of the pencil being an extension of our flawed mental models, it reconnects our pencil to our visual observations. Here is how it works…

Pick an object to draw. It should be something in your view, not something imaginary. Drawing your hand is a great place to start. Select the point on the object where you want to start your drawing.

Place your pencil (or finger) to the screen ad let your eye trace the details of object. As your eye moves, move your hand. Do not lift your pencil, instead make a single continuous line that wanders around responding to the details your eyes stumble across.

The urge will be almost irresistible to look back and forth from the object to the paper. This habit leads you to judge your drawing to quickly and breaks the link between your eye and your hand. That is why this app hides your drawing except for a faint line.

After your eyes have touched all the edges, the contours of the object you are drawing, you are finished. Lift your pencil, tap the eye icon and your drawing will appear.

Now comes the hardest part of blind contour drawing. When you see your drawing for the first time there will be a voice in your head telling you it isn’t good. Don’t listen. It is perfect. You are looking at a direct recording of your observation, the documentation of the connection between your eye and your hand. Tap the save icon to save it to your camera roll and share it with friends. Then clear your canvas and try again.

Thanks for reading. I blindly scribble stories like this every Saturday so you should follow me so you don’t miss the next one. Stay creative.



Adrian Hanft

Author of User Zero: Inside the Tool that is Reshaping Dystopia