5 Steps to Learn any New Skill (and How I Used Them to Learn to Draw)

Over 3 days I went from being unable to sketch to doing semi-decent digital illustrations, here’s how…

Tom Littler
4th July 2021

The satisfaction of being able to do something you once thought was beyond your skillset is, in my opinion, one of the greatest riches life can offer.

For a long time, I’ve gained a real appreciation for the flat, colourful digital illustrations that seem to be having a bit of a moment. The way designers can invoke a sense of movement, purpose and friendliness through these simple drawings is something I’ve really come to admire, with a wish to emulate.

Unfortunately, I have one problem — I can’t draw to save my life. The Christmas period was a time I wanted to take a couple of days to learn how to do something new, in this article I’ll share what I learned from learning to draw, and how you can apply to picking up any new skill

Step 1 — Start with an extremely narrow goal

Broad goals can quickly become overwhelming, start really narrow, and build from there

‘I want to be able to draw’ or ‘I want to be able to code’ are good overall visions, but when setting out on your journey this kind of broad goal can become overwhelming. I set my goal as ‘I want to be able to draw a flat illustration of a person performing an action.’ I wasn’t going to get distracted by 3D perspective drawing, complex backgrounds or different styles. To take a coding example it might be ‘I want to be able to build a personal website to show my CV and other projects I’ve worked on.’

Step 2 — Pick a master to copy

“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery — it’s the sincerest form of learning.” ― George Bernard Shaw

This is probably going to be unpopular with the creative types out there, but it’s a really important step. When your skills are undeveloped you really need guidance from a master, and the best way to be guided is to simply copy their work, doing this you will learn the fundamental principles of the skill, so, later on, you can make the work ‘your own.’ I was lucky enough to find an illustrator on Skillshare — Jarom Vogal who produced the type of illustrations I was looking to perform. I took his digital illustration class and copied it pretty much step by step.

Step 3 — Break down the skill into its fundamental parts

Every skill can be broken down into ‘first principles’. I found digital illustrations could be broken down into:

  • Sketching
  • Colouring
  • Shadows
  • Navigating the digital drawing tool (procreate)

The reason it’s so important to understand the sub-skills that make up the skill you are trying to learn is it means you focus on each area individually. By looking at a skill as sub-skills you can identify areas where you are deficient and single-mindedly concentrate on these areas. Mentally, it’s a big win as well to see a problem as manageable chunks, viewing problems in this way also increases your aptitude to think from ‘first principles’ — fundamental truths that can’t be broken down any further, a skill I think is fundamental to creative problem-solving.

“By looking at a skill as sub-skills you can identify areas where you are deficient and single-mindedly concentrate on these areas”

Step 4 — Regularly review and critique your work

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.”
— Elon Musk

In the next step, we will be applying steps 2 and 3 to create a feedback loop of constant learning. At each logical milestone of your work, you should review and critique your work. I like to break this down into 2 parts. In the first part identify areas of your work that could be improved, be brutally honest here and only focus on the negatives. After you have a list of areas that could be improved try to think of a couple of actions that could be taken to improve this skill. Here is an example of the first illustration I did.

My not so brilliant imitation of Jarom’s illustration…

My main critiques were that the proportion of the rear arm was way off, and the shadows didn’t really follow any source of light, I also struggled with layers (a technique in the programme I was using.) I resolved to practice just sketching for a few hours and really think about my source of light before the next drawing. I actually managed to turn the sketching practice into a useful output, I did loads of illustrations of my girlfriends family (who I was staying with over Christmas) and made them into Christmas cards — see if you can inject some useful output into this sort of practice!

My sketching practice which I ended up copying onto Christmas cards!

Step 5 — Inject your own bit of creativity

After you’ve gone cycles of critiquing your work, finding appropriate next actions, you may be in a position to move away from merely copying the master you have selected and start to put your own personality into something. I am really passionate about the impacts that increasing technology use if having on our lives, so passionate in fact that I created an app to help people use their smartphones less. I used this passion to create a drawing of someone being distracted by their smartphone at a critical moment and even added a caption to the drawing and the app logo so it could be used as an advert one day. Of course, after this drawing, I went through the review and critique process and decided the text was quite jarring and it would be cool to learn how to draw text!

My most recent illustration after 3 days of practice, I was pretty happy with it!


Hopefully, this short guide has helped you understand how complex skills can be broken down into more manageable sub-skills and how, with a consistent, honest critique you can learn how to do learn at an accelerated rate!


1. Learning new skills is one of the most rewarding aspects of life, and it’s surprisingly simple to do if you have a proper framework for learning.
2. The first thing you should do is pick a really narrow goal, this will help keep you focused and prevent you from getting overwhelmed.
3. You need a master to copy! With the internet, you can now nearly always find someone who is a master in the skills you want to learn, even better if they have some sort of course explaining how the work their magic.
4. Once you’ve found your master you’ll need to break the skill into it’s most fundamental sub-skills, use first principles thinking to do this.
5. Regular, honest critique of your work, with actionable follow up steps is a vital feedback loop to have in your skill learning process.
6. Once you’ve mastered the basics, start injecting a bit of your own creativity, bonus points if you can also make it useful!

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