Things I wish I knew when I started drawing

Claudio Cicali
7 min readMay 24, 2020


My own definition of “drawing seriously” is more or less the same that applies to “running seriously”; you get to that status when you look forward to the next moment you’ll be only with yourself and your paper and pens, or your running shoes. It’s that feeling you get at the end of your new drawing, when you breath that sensation in: you have accomplished something, and you actually like what you did, as much as you were happy and proud when you broke your PB running 10k.

image of ants walking in a spiral
Ants are a recurring theme :)

I started drawing seriously at the end of 2018 — during the end-of-year vacations. I almost unconsciously realised that instead of the frustration of imposing myself to endlessly learn how to draw figures, animals and landscapes, I rather just enjoy running a pen on a white paper, in complete thoughtlessness, but consistently trying to form an habit.

That was it: the key of starting putting a serious amount of time on drawing (and for the sake of it, mostly) was lowering the expectations and start doodling (aka: non-representational art form).

After one year and half trying to center myself on a specific style, after having spent some (not much) time trying to make the jump to the “representational art form” (sketching people and buildings), I think I have put together some advices and observations that the present me would like to tell my 1-year-and-half younger self.

I am not here to teach anything, mind you; in art, especially at the beginning of this fantastic journey, there are very few “mistakes” to address and making those is definitely part of the fun: realising that “X with Y doesn’t really work” gives you more confidence to try something different next time. Not to mention that what “doesn’t work” for you, “does work” for someone else.

Before starting with the list, if you want to take a look at what I do I put most of my drawings on Instagram. All my drawings are different and use 2 or 3 colours top. Many of them are also a “take of my own” on something I have seen on Pinterest of IG itself. I definitely don’t think to be anywhere near a first stop in my journey, yet. Some things are settling, but I am still experimenting too much instead of refining a style or a technique.

On with the list, then (in no particular order):

  • Doodling means freedom, but some constraints are a good thing: I have to thank the completely random encounter with the “zentagle” technique, for my first, big self-confidence “boost”. I was in a shop, looking for a gift and I found the “zentangle starter kit”. I bought it and started right away drawing tangles. Fun, easy, quick. I abandoned that technique after some months, because I just didn’t find it interesting anymore
  • You’ll buy a s*itload of things: and that’s OK (if you can spend that money, of course); my favourites items are technical pens, paper and notebooks. I actively use maybe 5% of all I have, without any regret
  • Black and white and colours don’t mix: too many times I have ruined a drawing because I wanted to colour only a part or an object of the drawing. Your brain doesn’t like that: either color or black and white
  • The background of your drawing is important, but tricky: at the beginning I didn’t pay too much attention at the background since I was just focusing on the things I was laying on the foreground; but if you think in term of composition, sooner or later you need to deal with the contrast that a good background may give to your drawing. I haven’t “solved” this problem yet, but I have began using lot of black or very strong outlines
  • Graphite helps but it’s not easy to know where it should go: when I wanted to give my drawings some hints of depth, I started using a pencil and a tortillion together with the pen and ink to give them some simple shading; zentangles use this technique a lot and it works pretty well; the problem is when the size of your drawings grows and you see that the black ink and the graphite start to not match anymore, unless you work a lot on different “depth levels” of the shading. I now rarely use graphite for shading, as I am learning (ink) hatching
  • Don’t mix blacks: as a beginner I was eager to try any possible combination of pens and inks for my drawings; not only different tip sizes, but also from different brands. The end result looked “OK” to the eye, until I started using a scanner to digitalise the works; what a disaster: consistency is everything, right? And the scan version exposes all the small and painfully annoying differences between a “very shiny black” and “quite matte black”. Also, always take 15 minutes at the end to fill the small, tiny gaps in your black areas (that you want to be just black): once again, the scanner tends to emphasise those gaps
  • Warming up is important: before putting the tip of your pen at work on the “good stuff”, it’s always better to take some minutes to warm up your muscles which of course include your hand, but your brain too: before starting a new drawing I scribble random doodles testing pens, paper, ideas sometimes for so long that I don’t even start something new; and that’s OK! That would simply count as a pure experimentation session.
  • Technical pens and their issues: everybody loves their Sakura, right? They are your best friend: affordable, a nice deep and waterproof black ink, come with a lot of different sizes, you can consistently draw for hours with them. But the black is not really really 100% black (and it’s matte), you need to be very careful when using the eraser because the lines tend to fade, you’ll get fast to their “almost perfect” condition when you can still apply a consistent trait, but you need to push harder and harder (and you cannot throw it away because the pen is still good!) and of course they don’t look great when using a scanner (matte surfaces don’t shine). The next move is then to use something like the mythical Rotring Isograph; oh I love them: they last forever, the black is really black (and you can also use any other ink, if you want) and their trait is really consistent. Unfortunately they cost a lot, you have to use them perpendicularly to the paper, the feeling with the paper can be scratchy and not really great if you need a lot of arches and curves and they need maintenance: leave them in the drawer for some time and they clog. There are workarounds and maintenance itself is actually pretty easy but it’s another thing to consider when using that tool
  • Fountain pens: months ago, when I was reading that many people use fountain pens to ink their drawings I was like “Oh, those snobs and their fountain pens.”. But then I tried using them and even if at the beginning I had to force myself to get acquainted with the tool now I think they are going to be used almost on any of my drawings; the main reasons are that they are relatively cheap, there are quite few nibs to try and use, their trait is really consistent (but it can change shape and size at the same time if needed) and playing with different inks is of course another entire (new and fun) game on its own. Try them, or even just use a set of calligraphy nibs, imbuing them directly in the ink!
  • Techniques: beside starting with Zentangle, I cannot say I am using any particular technique. With Zentangle you are told to not use the pencil as the first step in your drawing–the idea being that erring is part of the experience and mistakes must be embraced–, so I started using it quite recently, but I should have started earlier. I am currently trying to get better at (cross) hatching, which I found to be the one that gives the effect I like the most and probably I should have started earlier with that. I can use it as part of my works without worrying too much if I get it right or not. I believe that a good, convincing hatching could improve the work, but a bad one cannot really ruin it.
  • The size of your drawings will grow over time: when I started I wanted to use very small sizes for my paper: from a Moleskine to A6. I thought that that was my “style” but I didn’t realise that using a small size for your paper just meant that I wasn’t confident enough! So over time, I got to A5 and finally A4. I haven’t yet understood how I actually want to frame my works though. At the moment my favourite composition is a A5 size inside a A4 page.

That’s all I have for now! I am pretty sure I will be back with some more ideas once I will become more experienced. In the meanwhile:



Claudio Cicali

My specialties are software engineering, fintech and pointless random rants. I live in Berlin.