1) Look at things when you draw. The most important thing you can do to improve, is not practicing. It is practicing well. I have pages in my sketchbook where I have tried drawing bodies, pulling from all my feeble brain can remember, all the tricks, all the lines, everything I know about curves and shapes, and the whole page just looks terrible. Not only that—I spent all that time practicing bad habits and I didn’t learn anything from it. When people tell you to copy as an artist, I’m pretty sure they don’t mean for you to just find something interesting, like some great nose, use it once, and then never look at the nose again. I’m decent enough at eyes that I can scribble them confidently all over my sketchbook and make it look nice. But that’s fatal. I’ve stopped learning about drawing eyes. I’ve stopped, or slowed improving on eyes because “I found a style I liked” and forgot that there are other things I can still learn by studying eyes, whether someone else’s style or real eyes. Look at the closest thing that is what you want to draw, and it will help fill in the details that go missing in the brain-to-hand transfer. Even if you think it’s a simple pose—even if you’re just doodling, look up some stock images or google image the closest thing to that pose. Work off of it.
2) Gesture draw real bodies every day. This really goes under number one, but is so important, and so ignored, that people have to beat it into the aspiring artist’s brain. People like to phrase this differently. “Take a sketchbook with you everywhere, draw what you see.” “Draw people in line, at the bank, in class!” Well, you should do that too. But there’s a flaw with going about and drawing people on the street when you’re trying to learn anatomy and proportion. These people are clothed. We get so caught up in the folds of their clothing that we don’t learn the fundamental shapes underneath that cloth that make up their bodies. This is why people often advise to draw your characters naked before you put clothes onto them. Clothes hide all those lovely, subtler bumps and curves and angles that make our bodies more fluid and real looking. If you’re wondering why your bodies lack depth and dimension, even if you’d make some anime studio proud, it’s because you haven’t learned how to draw from working off of the source. You’ve learned from a caricature of something, which is why anime gets a bad rap. It doesn’t look like the real thing. There’s been a swell of popularity from artists who draw the extra bumps and curves and angles that make up human, instead of opting for same-face syndrome and lithe, supermodel limbs. How do you get that? How do you get your figures to look like they have real depth and weight? Gesture drawing.
Here are some great resources, but they don’t substitute for going to the beach, swimming pool, or forking over the cash to take a class in it.
Figure and Gesture Training Tool
Tumblr Masterpost of Resources for Artists
Nude Women Stock Images on DA
Approach your gestures differently until you naturally work into something you like. Some people prefer drawing the curvature of the spine first. Others draw general shapes and circles (or squares and triangles) to get proportion down correctly. Some just pick a spot and let their pencil fly free. I try to do a bit of all three, depending on the figure. If I think I’ll have a problem with the proportion, I get that down first before I outline the figure. Learning shapes is more important than learning line, anyhow. Otherwise, you’ll just have learned how to draw a body in one particular pose. You will not have learned how to draw that leg bent, or how the mucles move when someone raises their arm above their head. The more you do gestures, the more your brain will understand how the human body works. This is the easiest way to improve. Otherwise, it’s like, congrats, you can draw one thing well. This way, you will get less frustrated with yourself, and those plateaus won’t last as long.
3) Concepts > Making It Pretty. This is less how to improve your drawing and more how to improve your art. Some artists draw and paint to make pretty things, and that’s it. That’s nice. Move over, you pansies. Art is one of the most effective means of communication in the world. From propaganda to comedy, art captures our attention, throws a message in our faces, and whether we like it or not, it stays with us. In my experience, people are better visual learners than anything else (at least, there are more of those types). If you have a good concept, effectively made, they’ll remember it. If you have some amazingly drawn picture that either does not offer anything for the audience to identify with or has nothing of interest but some nice colors and great anatomy, your audience will pas on your picture. This is why crappy fan art gets more attention than amazing, detailed pictures of original characters. You can have simple pictures if they communicate something effectively. Sure, the “finishing techniques” like color, shading and nice line work help, but those alone are so much less. My point is not “how to get popular”. The thing is, at the end of the day, you’ll have a bigger sense of accomplishment. When your art means more than the sum of its parts, more than the color, the pose, the line work, you’ll treasure it more. Chances are, others will too, and most of us desire that. I’ve seen a lot of tarot decks that look really pretty, but mostly just featured half naked ladies and offered none of the symbology associated with each card. I’d never read with them, because in tarot, the pictures are supposed to help convey the meaning of each card. If the artist who drew them can pick out the meanings, great. But it’s harder for others to, and that’s why those decks get less sales. A part two to this point is that sometimes your picture can remain “unfinished”. Some pictures are just done as a sketch (some of us prefer that with our favorite artists!) and it would ruin the idea behind it to make it any “prettier”. Not everything needs color. Not everything needs the pencil lines erased away (especially since a lot of the time that removes weight and dimension from your character). Learn to be content with Rough Work.
4) Don’t stop drawing when you’re in a rut, just draw differently. Now, it’s important not to kill yourself and your love for drawing. There’s only so many times you can beat the dead… hippo before it starts to smell. We often get worse before we improve, actually. That said, if you give up, it will take a while to get back into the habit of drawing. And, because you stopped for a while, you might have gotten even worse, leading to even more frustration. So when you have artist’s block, sure, take a break. For a day or two. I find that if I go any longer, there’s no coming back. so after my more than adequate break of 48 hours, I start drawing again. This time, though, I start with something I know will look terrible. Like backgrounds, animals, toes, folds in clothes, all things I draw abysmally. It’s easy to get frustrated at yourself when you draw things you usually draw well, poorly. But if you have the mindset of “I’m going in here to learn. I’m not going into this to draw something pretty”, then you might actually learn something. Get out of your comfort zone, because it is no longer comfortable to be in anyway.
5) Be organized. There are millions (I mean that) of reasons to learn organization skills anyway, and I realize it’s almost a moot point to say that when talking to amateur artists, but it’s important enough that I’ll take the risk. If you organize your time efficiently, you become more productive. It’s as simple as that. “I don’t have time to practice!” people whine all the time. Neither do I! I’m a music student, which means I am in practice rooms all day and have no friends. I still make time to improve my art. Because my time is so little and so valuable, it’s imperative that I spend that free time as efficiently as possible. I go in with a game plan. How much gesture drawing do I make myself do? How much drawing of endless, cartoony floating heads do I allow myself? Will I work on projects today, or is today easier/boring/less frustrating, set aside for learning? When do I have time for commissions? If I didn’t manage my time at all, I’d be lying around all day, drawing floating heads and staying up until 2am to get homework done. How miserable! Another thing I do, mostly for motivation but also for progress, is I make small goals for myself. This is easy when you are being organized! The key word here is small, though, so you don’t get overwhelmed. If you get done what you set out to do, you will feel great, which will help motivate you to do more things! It’s vicious circle! I mean, wonderful.
TL;DR: Don’t just draw every day, draw correctly every day, and look at what you’re drawing (a picture, photo or real life version of it) as much as you can. Also, learn to be an effective communicator, get out of your comfort zone, and make small goals for yourself.