How Many Drawings Does it Take to Make a Good One?

Image: Sketches by Vincent Van Gogh

There’s no such thing as wasted time when working on art, even when a piece turns out badly.

If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all. – Michelangelo

If at first you don’t succeed in drawing, try and try and try and try… How many drawings does it take to make a good one?

Out of 100 drawings that I do, what percentage would I count as successful? 100%. No, I’m not an egomaniac; I am always reminding myself that “successful” and “presentable” can be two different things. Each time you work on art you are practicing your skill. If my drawing doesn’t turn out right, I have now tucked away in my head a process that doesn’t work for me. That is a success!

Our brains are always troubleshooting, the same way a child learns to walk: by getting a little bumped up. I heard that John Singer Sargent did as many as 14 starts on a painting. If he did not like how they were going he’d wipe or scrape them off to start over, rather than correcting them. He did more than a dozen studies leading up to his famous “Madame X” painting. He was being “successful” working towards “presentable”. Presentable meaning: it’s going to the gallery, the art competition, up on his Instagram, etc.

I’ve made a ton of work … Some are ok, most “meh,” and a handful of good ones. … It’s equal parts mining for gold and standing in a field trying to get stuck by lighting. -Matt Shlian

I’m a big proponent of working with what you have because there’s a lot to learn from sticking with a piece. But when drawing and deciding to start over, may I make a suggestion? Please don’t get in the bad habit of starting over out of frustration. If you do this every time your work gets difficult, your brain will put on a parachute and jump out the window! Rather, start over out of understanding; knowing WHAT you need to do, and knowing that doing it on a fresh sheet would be faster.

Landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from.” ― Geoff Colvin

(The above quote by Geoff Colvin is from his book, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. I highly recommend it for all artists!)

Van Gogh created roughly 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches, in his 10 years of doing art.  That’s about 200 works a year! Granted, he was more prolific at certain times than others (one year, he completed 200 paintings, and 100+ drawings and watercolors). From all that work, it’s believed that he sold just one painting during his career (The Red Vineyard at Arles). Does that mean he only made 1 good piece in his life? Depending on if you’re a fan or not, which I am, so the answer is “Definitely not!”. The artwork is always successful because with each piece you know more of what you like and don’t like. With each piece, you are a step closer to YOUR truest way of doing art. Your taste and style are being discovered. Only you know what’s “presentable”.

 “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I accomplish.”. –Michelangelo

I pray I never fear making “bad” artwork and start creating to be safe; Only doing the art that I know I can do, in the stagnant safety of “good”. We have to allow ourselves to make “bad” to break through “good” and get to “great”. The important thing is: keep creating.

Hey artists, what percentage of your artworks would you consider successful? How many would you consider presentable? I would love to hear your thoughts! Please comment below.

Artist, DNY Instructor and Author
I love painting faces, flesh, and fabric. The more tactile I can make a painting feel, the more I’m satisfied with it! I feel blessed to make art every day and look forward to the next day to continue my projects. Traveling to teach workshops is also something I can’t believe I get to do.
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Kelly Foss Author
I love painting faces, flesh, and fabric. The more tactile I can make a painting feel, the more I’m satisfied with it! I feel blessed to make art every day and look forward to the next day to continue my projects. Traveling to teach workshops is also something I can’t believe I get to do.
2 Comments
  1. Putting a work aside isn’t the same as giving up. I don’t think frustration produces great work. Also my thoughts on good art never seem to settle. Work that I once took pride in fall from grace and sketches from the past become the source of new excitement. To be an artist the important rule is make art.

    “It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.-
    Pablo Picasso

  2. What a refreshing article! Good information and good suggestions.
    I was told when I started figure work that I would have to do at least five hundred drawings before I achieved anything worthwhile. But that was too depressing! To me just the process of working from “life” is exhilarating. Getting a drawing that works is a bonus!
    The key to success, I believe, is to have a vision of how you want a drawing or painting of the model to appear before you put brush to paper. (I usually work in watercolor at model sessions.) Then with practice and knowledge of proportions, art anatomy, and perspective etc. you will be able to realize your vision. You can also go back to unsatisfactory efforts and finish them to your satisfaction. Knowledge with practice are crucial. You have be persistent in your efforts and to know your “stuff”, always remembering that it’s the process and not necessarily the product. Happy Painting! Hilary Page

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