An artist’s strategies for learning to code / A developer’s strategies for learning to draw

Growing up, I’d sometimes hear people say that some people are more suited for arts and humanities while others are suited for science and tech, as if those were two opposites that couldn’t touch. Setting aside the total BS that is, now that I’m both an artist and web developer(-in-training), I feel that there is actually a huge overlap in art and code.

In fact, in many ways, learning how to code is almost exactly like learning how to draw.

An illustration of the human brain, with analytical diagrams on the left side, and rainbow-coloured art items on the right.
Image credit:

I’ve spent many years grinding traditional drawing, oil painting, and digital painting, and consider coding as the newest art form that I’m pursuing. It is with delight that I’ve found that my experiences as an artist help me a lot in training my skills as a developer.

So I present to you: some insights gained throughout my coding and drawing journey.

1. You don’t know how to code/draw until you code/draw

In other words.. just do it. So cliché but oh so true.

Here’s the thing: reading about coding/drawing is not actually doing coding/drawing. Watching a video about coding/drawing is not actually coding/drawing. Looking at other people’s work and studying their processes and methods is not actually coding/drawing. Attending a lecture on the concepts behind coding/drawing is not actually coding/drawing.

See the pattern here?

You can spend a lot of time and effort and energy reading about coding/drawing, learning the history of coding/drawing, and even understanding the more abstract concepts underpinning what makes good code/art…

But you don’t know how to draw until you actually draw! And you certainly don’t know how to code until you actually code!

Of course, there are real benefits to reading about a topic or listening to a lecture about a topic. I am not knocking these things. Doing these will give you more insight into whatever it is you want to learn, but don’t confuse it with doing the thing itself.

The most direct method for learning how to do something is to do the thing itself.

So open up your text editor/sketchbook and get started!

2. Read other people’s code / Look at other people’s art — and play with it, if you can!

Do you ever follow an artist on Twitter and/or Instagram and realize that 90% of the people they follow are also artists? That’s because artists are constantly looking at other artists’ art. Our creations, whether they are paintings or web apps, don’t exist in a vacuum. We are constantly influenced by and learn from the things we see out in the world.

As a developer, this means not only looking at other sites/apps that people have created, but going behind the scenes and looking at their code.

Actually, this is one area that developers have a huge advantage. Many web browsers come with a built in handy tool for looking at websites — aptly named Developer Tools. With this, we can play around with other people’s code!

I use dev tools a lot to look at how sites are put together, how other people write code and solve issues I might be having in my own code, and also just to change up big, culturally-important websites because I can.

A screenshot of the New York Times website, edited so that it has a rainbow gradient background.
Here’s an example of one such time I used dev tools. Yes, I really like linear gradients and I think the NY Times could use more colour. No, they have not yet asked me to be their new developer.

By the way, did you know you can actually download webpages through your browser?

I sometimes do this and open up the file in my text editor, because it’s much easier to look at the code this way than doing it through dev tools in your browser window. I mentioned this in my last post, but this is actually how I first learned to code. I had no teachers, no courses, no Youtube tutorial videos. I just downloaded/copied & pasted other people’s source code into Notepad, and fiddled around with it until I figured out what it did.

3. Recreate other people’s work

Also known as… copying.

There, I said it.

I’m gonna let you in on an artist secret — many artists make copies of other artists’ work! We just call them “studies”.

Now, the key thing here is that we don’t actually claim these copies as our own original work. They are merely done for learning purposes only and artists generally don’t show them to other people. The point is to learn the techniques used by the original artist so we can improve our own skills and make our original pieces better.

These copies are usually done entirely from scratch — so no tracing, no using Photoshop’s colour picker, etc. And during the days before Youtube, we didn’t have access to artists’ process videos, so we just had to try to figure it out on our own.

(Actually, if you ask most artists, they’ll probably tell you they got started with drawing by making copies of whatever comic book/cartoon character they liked as a kid. I certainly did.)

In coding, this means no Ctrl+C/Cmd+C of other people’s code. You have to type it out with your own two hands, and try to resist looking at the original source code — the point is to work it out for yourself as much as possible. You will learn a lot from this process, and it will help build up your skills very quickly.

Just be upfront about the fact that it’s a clone of another site made for learning purposes. Just like how an artist makes studies of other people’s art, this is your study of another person’s site.

And there you have it! Whether you are an artist seeking to learn code, a developer seeking to learn art, or just a learner seeking to learn, I’m sure there is something you can take away from this.

Now, go forth and code/draw!

[Originally published on Medium on Nov. 10 2019.]