Creating Art When You Don’t Know How To

Inspired by my friends Cindy and Eric, I’m learning to create art. The last time I put pen to paper for artistic study was in high school (hi sophomore art class). This is probably my fourth or fifth attempt to do learn how to make art in the last decade through lesson plans or tutorials, with ended in failure. My last visit to an art supply store was an avalanche of colored pencils and paper types and paints and tempera and markers–so many tools that I don’t know how to use, all of them daunting. I have no idea how to art, so how do I start learning what I don’t know?

I started with what I know. And if you want to learn to make art but are also feeling uncertain, overwhelmed, or terrified by the thought of creating art, starting with what you know (instead of a specific book or tutorial) might be the right path for you too.

While I haven’t created art of any kind in years, I have been making creative decisions my whole life. You have too. An artistic decision is everything from choosing the color of our clothes to picking what music to listen to after a rough day at work to simply choosing to touch the bark of a tree. You’re making a decision to experience a feeling in that moment. That is a creative act in your life, even if it doesn’t make art that others can enjoy. So we are all creative.

Some of my most recent creative decisions have been in figure-making for academic journals, which might sounds boring (but stick with me). During my PhD I published two research articles that required not just figures showing data, but also schematics of what was going on at the molecular level. Creating these schematics isn’t entirely standardized, leaving room for artistic leeway. I ended up spending a lot of hours in Illustrator and Powerpoint building these schematics, not just for my research articles but also for presentations I gave on my work. This mostly consisted of arranging shapes and colors in a way that conveyed information but wasn’t painful to look at (seriously, lemon yellow will never look good on a projector). These each creative decisions, though I didn’t think of it at the time.

So for my first artistic endeavor, I started with something I know: my thesis work. Below is an artistic interpretation of what I discovered with my thesis work.


There are things I would change (and certainly a few things that are ‘scientifically inaccurate’) but overall I’m pretty happy with it. Here are some close-ups:

One of the biggest challenges (besides having to give up some scientific accuracy to artistic license) was figuring out what colors to use on the sketch. My previous experiences with color in this world have primarily come from 1) clothing choice, 2) creating Powerpoint documents and scientific figures, and 3) identifying plants and mushrooms. None of those translate super-well to watercolor pencils, so I took one of the sheets in my notebook and broke it into boxes to test color patterns for each part of the sketch. I then tested the final color palette on the other side:


Though it takes an extra piece of paper, this method was invaluable for seeing what colors look like next to each other (which does change) and I can keep it for subsequent projects, so I’ll count that as a technique learned!

I’ll let you know what I make next.