I’ve heard it said many times, ‘I can paint but I can’t draw’ does that make painting easier? Is drawing harder than painting? I’m not so sure. Both mediums have their own set of challenges and both are difficult to master.
It’s harder to paint realistically than it is to draw realistically because you need to know how to draw before you can apply the paint. In contrast, abstract art requires no drawing skills at all, and arguably, no painting skills either!
In this article, we will explore the differences between drawing and painting, and see which one is actually more difficult to learn. Let’s go to it.
(I get commissions for purchases made through affiliate links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)
Is it Harder to Draw or Paint?
There is no easy answer to this question.
Some people find it easier to draw because they can control the lines and shapes more easily, while others find it easier to paint because they can block in the main shapes quickly and construct the painting in layers.
It also depends on what kind of art you want to make. If you are a realist, drawing skills must be mastered before you can hope to paint the picture afterward.
Abstract painters, on the other hand, have no use for proportion and form and drawing is almost irrelevant.
Do You Have To Be Good At Drawing To Be Able To Paint?
The traditional approach to painting is to build upon a strong drawing foundation. If you can’t draw well, you’ll have a much harder time translating your ideas into a representational painting.
Before putting paint on canvas, the old masters would sketch out their compositions and figure out the tonal values.
The drawing was the scaffold upon which a painting could be built.
One of the finest classical painters you’ll find online is Stephen Baumann. His courses aren’t cheapies, but if you want to learn from the best, he’s your man.
Their canvas would be primed and tinted with a diluted earth tone and the drawing would be transferred to the canvas.
The old masters would start with a monochromatic base underpainting to clearly define the values, and establish the shapes and forms and overall balance.
The painting developed in layers of thin paint until a monochrome version of the final painting was achieved.
Any final alterations required could be made at this stage.
Only then would they start to introduce color, working in a range of colors, and progressively thicker glazes. The artist would then build up layers of darker colors, using the brush to accentuate the shapes and contours until the painting was completed.
Representational art is all about having good drawing skills.
Many abstract painters don’t have excellent drawing skills, but they are able to create stunning paintings because they understand how to use color and light.
Leaving aside any discussion about artistic merit, abstract painters can paint as they please. They are not confined to any technical constraints or rules.
Their skill lies in bold color combinations and being able to evoke an emotional response from the viewer.
They will benefit from knowing how to apply and mix paint and knowing how to take advantage of the serendipity of happy accidents that appear along the way.
If you paint abstracts this will help: This is How to Sell Abstract Art: A Practical Guide For Artists
Digital art is the new kid on the block. Whereas traditional drawing and painting skills are very useful, they are by no means essential.
Any mistake, no matter how catastrophic, can be corrected or undone. That does allow for a more cavalier approach to experimentation but at the same time, it doesn’t require an artist to hone their craft.
With the aid of digital shortcuts and AI, an artist can produce work that is wonderfully proficient, but beyond their natural abilities to produce the same thing using traditional media.
For the first time ever, you don’t have to be good at drawing to paint – digitally.
If you are intrigued and mystified about digital painting, I found this course to be very clear and helpful. It’s on Domestika and there are no membership fees.
Can You Paint if You Can’t Draw?
In my opinion, you cannot learn to paint without drawing first. Even if your preliminary sketch is made with a paintbrush.
You see some artists on Youtube and Instagram that seem to skip the preparation and planning stage and add blocks of color from the outset.
Well, social media is very deceptive, because what you see is the result of many years of practice. They have refined their skills to the point where they are able to shortcut the process.
They still have to visualize perspective and judge accurate proportions, but now it’s more intuitive and based on their knowledge and experience. You can only bypass a process when you know what you are doing.
You can learn color theory without being able to draw. In that sense, you can explore color and use the knowledge to paint abstract art.
You don’t really need a course to learn color theory. You only need a good reference book. Try this one by Betty Edwards. She is famous for writing “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”.
I can use my own experience to prove that you can learn to use color.
I could draw well from an early age, so by the time I decided to try and sell my art I was confident in my drawing skills There was only one problem, I’m colorblind.
I taught myself to paint.
I did that by learning to paint the colors I knew to be there, and not by what I could actually see.
Once I knew there was pink in an evening sky, and it wasn’t always a grey, I could add it, and did.
I discovered that colors are divided into warm and cold colors. Warm colors advance and cool colors recede.
I soon learned that I could add subtle touches of warmer or cooler colors into any scene. As long as the tonal values were correct, I could get away with it.
Irony upon irony, I was often complicated on my color sense.
You can see some of my old paintings here: How To Sell Landscape Paintings: 13 Ways to Make More Money
You don’t need drawing skills if you are happy to paint Mandalas. Geometric designs are not beyond the ability of anyone to create and having a good eye for color is essential.
Nor are drawing skills needed if you are content to trace an image. If you paint for relaxation, there is nothing to prove. It’s just art therapy, a way to escape the world for a few hours.
How Is Drawing Different From Painting?
While drawing is often seen as the foundation for other forms of art, such as painting, drawing is a unique form of art in its own right.
Drawing is different from painting in a number of ways:
1. Drawing is typically done with dry media such as pencils or charcoal, while painting is typically a wet media applied with brushes.
There is a crossover point where to two meet. Chalk pastels are a dry medium containing paint pigments. They are in effect, pre-mixed dry paints. You both paint and draw at the same time.
2. Drawing is usually done on paper, while painting is also done on canvas or board.
3. Drawing is typically a more detailed and realistic form of art, it lends itself toward realism. Painting by contrast is typically looser in style and can be more abstract in nature.
4. In addition, painting often relies on color to convey meaning whereas drawing is typically black and white (or grayscale).
5. Drawing is often seen as a more technical form of art than painting. This is because drawing often requires a great deal of precision and planning in order to create a successful composition. Painting, on the other hand, can be more spontaneous and improvisational.
6. And lastly, most artists start to draw from light to dark, adjusting as they go. Most painters, except for watercolorists, will paint from dark to light. They require different thought processes.
It must be said that drawings must go the extra mile simply because they lack color.
A painter can paint two colors side by side with identical values and the viewer separates them clearly. With a monochrome image, those identical values are seen as the same tone. That forces the artist to find a way of differentiating them if the drawing is to work.
In other words, a drawing is not a black and white version of a painting. That can’t work.
Is Digital Art Harder Than Traditional Art?
There is no simple answer to this question as it depends on a variety of factors.
For some people, digital art may be harder than traditional art because it requires a different set of skills and knowledge.
While for others, traditional art may be harder because it can be more time-consuming and requires specific materials and tools.
From my perspective, I would say traditional art skills are much harder to master.
Putting it simply, most traditional artists could learn the tools on a drawing tablet and get excellent results, but few digital artists could say the same in reverse.
For one thing, it only takes a tap on a tablet screen to create a simulated watercolor and if it goes wrong you can undo the error and do it again.
Any watercolorist will tell you that you can’t undo many mistakes.
In a real watercolor painting, you can alter things, take advantage of a happy accident, or add mixed media and go over the error, but you can’t backtrack.
With a tablet, you can fake a medium and make it look like the real thing. There are very few skills needed to switch between them. Contrast that with traditional skills where each medium has its own skillset.
In my opinion, traditional art is far harder than digital art.
Advance beyond the basics and give your illustrations some life. Another Procreate course by Brad Woodward
What is The Hardest Drawing Style?
Some drawing styles may be more challenging to execute than others, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the hardest.
In my case, I can, and do, draw hyper-realism, which to the casual observer might be incredibly difficult to do. It takes time and patience, that’s true, but I find it harder to draw simply.
Try these tips: How to Draw Faster: 14 Expert Tips For Sketching at Speed
My lack of confidence compels me to ‘finish’ the work, and in doing so I lose some of the life and the spontaneity I achieved halfway through the work. It’s a constant frustration for me.
Two cliches come to mind, ‘less is more’ and ‘It’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out’. That sums it up.
Realism in all forms is difficult. Perhaps the area where it matters most is in portraiture. If the portrait is wrong, it’s wrong. You can’t blag it. Nearly right, is still wrong.
These types of drawings require a high level of skill and precision and can be very difficult to get right.
Check this post out if you are struggling to find a style: How to Find Your Drawing Style: 8 Ways to Develop Your Skills
This very popular drawing course by Brent Eviston is on Udemy.
He has over 73,000 students!
A quick tip: Brent speaks very clearly but slowly, so you might want to listen at a faster speed of 1.25
What is The Most Difficult Painting Medium?
Each painting medium has its own challenges. Oil paints, for example, dry slowly and many layers may be required. Waiting for the oil to dry can be frustrating for beginners.
Not only that, and this is something few blogs mention, it stinks. If you are painting at home, open the windows because it smells like you are decorating.
Some very talented artists can paint ‘alla prima‘ which is a fancy way of saying, ‘wet in wet’ or ‘all in one go’. It takes a long time to get good. Plus if you paint outdoors there’s a wet canvas to carry home. It makes life more difficult.
Get to grips with color theory with this well-reviewed course on Udemy
Watercolors dry quickly but are very unforgiving if mistakes are made. However, they can produce a wide range of beautiful translucent colors, that are almost impossible to achieve with any other medium.
Mixing and applying clear watercolor washes is a rare skill. It needs a sure confident touch and an ability to distill the scene down into its simplest forms.
Because watercolor washes are transparent, it means that the colors are layered on top of each other to create new colors, darker tones, and textured effects.
In the hands of experts, the white of the paper shines through. For the rest of us, the colors get muddy and flat.
I think Antonia Reyes has nailed it.
If you like her style she teaches on Domestika.
Very wet washes will take time to dry, but studio painters speed things up with a hairdryer. An alternative option is to have more than one painting on the go at any one time. That’s how Turner painted.
One last aspect of watercolor painting is the difficulty in learning how to predict the change in color and tone as the paint dries.
A wet wash can look perfect until it dries and then it becomes weak and insipid. The most proficient painters know how to compensate for the color change.
Watercolor is not for the faint-hearted. You are one stop away from disaster every step of the way.
In many ways, acrylic paint feels like a hybrid between oil paints and watercolor.
Acrylics have some of the same characteristics as watercolors, they are water-based, have no noxious fumes, and they can be laid down in transparent washes.
The big difference is when acrylics dry, the paint is permanent. It cannot be lifted off or blended. You have to do all that when the paint is still wet. Unlike watercolor, if you go too dark, it’s impossible to dab it lighter.
Because acrylic is both quick-drying and permanent, it’s important to work with small amounts of paint on your palette and have just enough to finish a task before it dries out.
Acrylics are excellent for painting on large surfaces, and because they dry quickly, you can apply many layers of paint without having to wait long periods of time between coats.
Many artists love to work with them because they mimic the viscosity and texture of oil paints, yet they dry quickly, often too quickly.
You can even buy gels and mediums to thicken acrylic, make it glossy or give it a matt finish.
All this amounts to a long learning curve until you get used to it.
In my opinion, which is totally subjective, I would argue that painting in watercolors is the easiest way to get started, but the hardest medium to master. Watercolor is very unforgiving.
Is Drawing Harder Than Painting? Final Thoughts
I’m tempted to fudge the answer because when it comes to representational art, drawing and painting are inseparably linked. You can’t paint without drawing.
Abstract art is another world where drawing has no significant role to play. You have no way of objectively evaluating the level of skill or the intentions of the artist, but having said that, in my biased opinion, abstract art is for people who can’t draw.
You can, however, draw without painting, and a drawing has to be extraordinary to compensate for the lack of color.
This post will interest you: 7 Types of Contour Drawing Explained: Quick and Easy
Our brains are hard-wired to register on color. Advertisers use garish primaries for a reason. They know it attracts attention, and in order to have a chance of being appreciated a drawing must be more dynamic, more atmospheric, and more powerfully composed, if it is to compete.
In that sense, it could be argued with some justification, that drawing is harder than painting. In my experience, drawing also takes longer. A sketch may well be rapid, but a detailed study takes time.
When I painted for a living, I would seldom take more than a day to paint anything. Now that I only draw, it seldom takes less than a week!
So drawing must be harder then? No, not really because, in representational art, you have to have the craft of drawing in the bag before you can surpass it with paint.
Mixing colors is not easy because we all perceive color in slightly different ways. Although we can learn color theory, it takes a special talent to blend, mix, contrast, and harmonize colors over and above the tonal values of a monochrome drawing.
If I’m pushed to make a choice between them, I’d have to say painting is harder.
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Hi, my name’s Kevin and I’m a real person!
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy