Kung Fu Drawing: Art & Martial Art Parallels

By Jeff Scarterfield | Posted 4/25/09 | Updated 8/28/23

Kung Fu Drawing by Jeff ScarterfieldLast time, we took a look at seven different ideas regarding practicing and improving at drawing. Here — just as the title suggests, I'd like to expand on this idea a bit by looking into another form of art — martial arts.

Aside from drawing, martial arts is another passion of mine. And from experience, I've found that in order to get better at either — drawing or a martial art — there are certain principles that once understood and applied can help you do just that.

Here, with insight from the legendary Bruce Lee, let's explore five similarities between art and martial arts, and how they relate to your improvement as an artist.

Practice and Repetition

No matter the martial art, in order to improve — practice and repetition is extremely important. Here's a quote from Mr. Lee which illustrates this very point:

"I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times." — Bruce Lee

Much as Bruce Lee commented above — results are much better if you invest your energy into improving at fewer things at a time.

And yes, with respect to drawing and art — the very same thing can be said.

Whether your goal be improving as a drawer, a painter or a sculptor, it's best to focus on fewer things at once when you are first starting out.

For example — drawing realistic-looking humans, is something many people wish they could do. But with more than just a few aspects involved, learning how to do so can be discouraging.

From skeletal structure & anatomy to drawing specific body parts and position — there are certainly more than a few things to factor in.

Back to the individual who practiced one kick, 10,000 times — a logical approach then to drawing great-looking realistic people, would be to focus on one area or part of the human body at a time.

For example, by focusing only on drawing hands really well at first, then you would see both your skill and confidence grow with this particular aspect of drawing people. And in time, once you're comfortable with drawing hands, then moving onto another aspect won't just be easier to do, but even better — more enjoyable.

In short, the artist who has practiced drawing hands 100 times, will be more skilled than the artist who practices drawing 100 different body parts once.

Relaxation and Adaptation

Being able to control your mind, relax and adapt when confronted with various situations — is something every martial artist strives for. Here are some inspirational words from Bruce Lee, outlining this very idea:

"Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend." — Bruce Lee

Water, as Mr. Lee mentioned — is the perfect metaphor with respect to establishing and maintaining a calm, relaxed state of mind and body — ready and willing to adapt with ease.

And sure — 'being like water' is also important when it comes to drawing and art.

When we are creating — it's important to be relaxed and comfortable — maintaining a state of mind where we can truly enjoy what we're doing. Like in the previous article, it's about 'just letting go', keeping a 'right brain' train of thought.

Just as water is able to flow in a free and relaxed state — changing from one form to the next, and adapting to any given situation, as 'creators' — we can (and should!) do much the same.


Here are some ideas to be relaxed and comfortable:

  • Keep an open mind
  • Loosen up the grip on your 'drawing stick'
  • Don't press down so hard
  • Lose the eraser!
  • Limit expectations
  • Try new looks, styles and forms
  • Let the image gradually take form
  • Aim for softer quicker strokes
  • Treat the experience as a process

Again, it all comes down to creating in the moment.

Just like a free-flowing liquid, maintaining a relaxed state of mind and body — one where you can easily adapt to new approaches and ideas, will truly make the creative experience all the more enjoyable.

Be (draw!) like water, my friend.

Persistence and Determination

In every martial artist, there should exist the drive to press forward — persistent and determined to succeed. Similar to this idea, here's what the great Bruce Lee once said:

"Running water never grows stale. So you just have to 'keep on flowing." — Bruce Lee

Really, if your not 'running' — not only can you go stale, but just like an ice cube, you can freeze altogether! So for sure, it's important to stay in motion, and keep on flowing.

A fun little quote you may have heard of is 'motion creates Emotion'. And yes — emotion (created from movement) IS that inner drive that helps us stay on track, pressing forward, and determined to succeed.

Art and drawing-wise? You betcha. Motion creates emotion!

Consistency in your efforts — whether you're just practicing or whether you're working on your masterpiece, is key in being successful.

Sure, it's important to take breaks — otherwise we can burn out!

But truly, much of the emotion (the drive) we experience when creating — is experienced in the moment of creating. So really, the more we 'move' the more we experience that emotion, and the more we continue to press forward.

It all relates back to the simple idea — pick up a pencil and draw!

Do so and yes — the emotion — that spark that reminds us just how much we love what we're doing (so we never grow stale), will continue to shine.

So keep right on flowing!

Learning and Growing

There are many different martial arts, and within each — many different philosophies and techniques. Among the various ideas taught in any given style — there will always be certain methods you gravitate towards — things you yourself are best at, and things you yourself can improve at most effectively.

"Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own." — Bruce Lee

By focusing on those things that you not only most interested — but that also — you are best at, it will be easier to improve and ultimately, accomplish your goals.

In art and drawing, nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes to drawing for example, developing a style that is uniquely your own — is something that every artist should strive for.

Sure, mirroring success through the teachings in classes, books and on websites is helpful — but the true magic occurs once you've:

A) determined what your strong-points are, and

B) taken these strong points to a whole new level by harnessing your own unique creative potential.

And let's not forget about passion. There's likely a few specific 'things' you love to draw more than anything else. Quite often, we enjoy drawing these things — not just because we love them, but also — because we're better at drawing these things than others.

So yes — focus on those aspects of any teaching that best suit your interest and your strengths. If something isn't helping — get rid of it. And if something is, do everything in your power to harness it and see it grow.

And as it grows, make it uniquely your own!

Focus and Emotion

In martial arts, thinking is important — but it's our emotions that allow us to truly appreciate and succeed at what we're doing. Here's a wonderful quote from Bruce Lee, as he stated in the 1973 film Enter the Dragon:

"Don't think; feel. It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory." — Bruce Lee

Sometimes, we can become too focused on a certain task or idea. If we focus on something too much, 'paralysis by analysis' can set in, and you can miss out on a more meaningful and much more wonderful picture.

And yes, this idea relates to drawing and art as well.

When drawing, times come up when it's important to focus on a specific aspect of whatever piece you're working on. Sometimes though, if thought outweighs emotion, it can be difficult to move forward with the 'bigger picture'.

For example, let's say you're attempting to draw something uniquely your own — person, animal, dragon! Instead of just 'creating' — moving forward and enjoying the creative process, it's possible to get 'hung up' on some particular aspect of the work.

How to Get Hung Up

  • Drawing a certain aspect of your work (hands, eyes, etc.) too look 'just right'
  • Aiming for too close of a likeness to a reference picture, real life, or perhaps even another person's work
  • Refusing to move forward with other parts of a drawing due to difficulties in another area
  • And sure — there are other examples too!

Don't get me wrong. It's good to ensure your drawings look the absolute best they can be. But again, too much focus — and you might just miss out on all the 'heavenly glory' as Mr. Lee spoke.

Being able to look at a finished drawing — something you poured all your heart and emotion into, really is an amazing thing.

So always keep in mind that even though your work may not turn out exactly the way you intended it to — it will always be special in that it's new — it's unique — and it's created by you!

And really — embracing the bigger picture of the creative process is what it's all about!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this article. It's interesting — the parallels that exist between art and martial arts. Perhaps these ideas offered you a deeper insight with respect to improving at drawing — and as an artist altogether.

And with that, how about we hit some boards… er — drawing boards!

©2009 by Jeff Scarterfield. All rights reserved.

Jeff ScarterfieldJeff Scarterfield is an art instructor who creates drawing lessons aimed at making the learning process both simple and fun.