‘You Can Draw in 30 Days’ by Mark Kistler

I did the illustrations for my new book myself, mostly because I was on a limited budget and couldn’t afford to pay illustrator fees. These illustrations definitely don’t look like the work of a professional, which is okay because they’re supposed to have been done by the thirteen-year-old narrator. But as I was working on my less-than-perfect illustrations, I remembered how much I used to enjoy drawing when I was a teenager. I did art as an elective subject at high school and proved to be spectacularly untalented at most artistic endeavours – painting, sculpture, pottery, screen printing – although I was okay at drawing. Maybe the idea of perspectives and vanishing points and so on appealed to my nerdy maths brain. Anyway, I had so much fun doing my recent book drawings that I decided I wanted to do a bit more guided practice and eventually found this book by Mark Kistler, who apparently is famous in the US and used to be on TV.

This book was a great introduction to basic drawing techniques. It’s designed for absolute beginners with no confidence in their own abilities, so it was ideal for me, given I’d barely picked up a pencil in thirty years. There are thirty lessons, which you could do in thirty days, although I didn’t have time to spare every day for a month and so I stretched the lessons out over three months. The lessons teach the fundamental ‘laws’ (foreshortening, placement, overlapping, shadow and so on) that make pencil marks on a page look like three-dimensional objects, but it’s done in a simple, easy-to-follow manner that provides quick success and builds confidence.

I zoomed through the early lessons on spheres, cubes, spheres inside hollow cubes, pyramids and textures, coming unstuck only when I hit cylinders. Something about the combination of curved and straight lines did my head in. But the book gives lots of practice in each skill, over multiple lessons, and so I persisted, valiantly producing wonky tins of tomatoes:

Wonky tins of tomatoes

And wonky tubes:

Wonky tube

And wonky mugs with wonky handles:

Wonky mugs

Then came interiors and exteriors of buildings in one-point and two-point perspective. Phew, mostly straight lines again, what a relief:


Mark Kistler is a cartoon illustrator, so he also provides instruction in some basic cartooning skills, such as 3D lettering and cartoon whooshes and cartoon planets consisting of volcano craters and levitating boulders. Then in Lesson 28, we suddenly had to draw faces. This seemed an enormous leap to me, but once I started, I realised I was using the same principles and skills I’d been practising all along. Admittedly, my first face was only vaguely face-like, but I kept going for a few days and my face drawings got better and better:

Face 1

Face 2

Face 3

The final lesson, though, was to draw your own hand. You know what fingers are? CYLINDERS! It’s also pretty difficult using your right hand to hold the pencil while you draw your own left hand. I am definitely in need of more hand-drawing practice, ideally using someone else’s hand as a model.

The good thing about drawing is that you don’t need anything except a pencil and some paper. Kistler provides suggestions for a few other useful drawing tools, but they weren’t expensive. I ended up spending less than twenty dollars in total on a nice thick sketch book, a smudging tool, some pencils and a nifty retractable eraser. Kistler is also a fan of tracing as an instructional method and he recommends a complicated arrangement involving a transparent clipboard, erasable markers and an easel. I couldn’t be bothered with that and honestly didn’t think tracing was going to help me develop my skills, so I ignored all the tracing instructions. The lessons also have optional ‘bonus challenges’ to extend your skills – sometimes I did them, sometimes I didn’t, depending on how enjoyable or interesting they looked. But by the end of the book’s lessons, I definitely felt more skilled and confident about drawing. I found I really enjoyed relaxing over a sketching activity for twenty minutes at the end of a long, stressful day and I plan to keep on drawing. If you want to learn to draw, but lack confidence and don’t want to shell out for expensive drawing lessons, You Can Draw in 30 Days is highly recommended. Two smudgy thumbs up!

7 thoughts on “‘You Can Draw in 30 Days’ by Mark Kistler”

  1. Want to learn to draw – yes. Lacking confidence – yes. Don’t want expensive lessons – yes. Sound perfect.

    A few years ago I tried a different ‘teach yourself to draw’ book and found it very interesting — things like copying drawings upside down so you weren’t distracted by thinking about things ‘ought’ to look but concentrated on the lines and shapes.

    I am really tempted to give Kistler a go, though I am utterly unblessed with artistic talent of any kind! Your results are very impressive, I must say.

    1. Have a go at this! This particular book was good for me because it was very structured and I could work at my own pace – doing multiple examples if I needed to practise a particular skill and skipping through the easy lessons. I also liked that Kistler provided examples of his own students’ work as they progressed through the thirty lessons – so I wasn’t just comparing my (wonky cylinder) drawings to his professional drawings, but to other students’ work.

      Probably the main difficulty for me was setting aside time to practise, but I really did find it relaxing, almost meditative, to focus on silent drawing after a long day of talking and listening and reading and writing.

  2. I really love the idea of doing this, but I already have piano and knitting (very badly) as my meditative relaxations… and then there’s reading… I think I will give it a go though!

  3. I’m about 3/4 of the way through this book, having also not picked up a pencil to draw in over 3 decades (and I was always pants at it anyway!). Like you, I found it easy to follow and very encouraging, and I’ve definitely advanced at least several years in drawing skill over the month.

    I did find the layout of the book a bit odd in places, though. I would definitely skip to the first lesson on one- and two-point perspective (Lessons 22 and 24) before attempting lessons 12 (Constructing with cubes) and 13 (Advanced-level houses) and possibly even before lesson 7 (Advanced-level cubes). I found those very difficult and frustrating, and I really wasn’t looking forward to the perspective lessons because of that. But surprise! those ones were FAR easier, and I don’t think it was because I’d done them the ‘right’ way round. I think it would have been much easier to have done the perspective ones first so I could understand how to get the angles right, particularly for the house; I went back and did that again, and sailed through what had been a miserable experience of erasing and swearing the first time round, and ended up with a much better result too.

    1. Glad you found this book useful, too! I agree that some of the lessons seem to be in a strange order. You may not have reached this yet, but the lessons teach face drawings before eyes. My face drawings certainly looked more realistic AFTER I’d learned how to draw eyes properly…

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