Why I Draw People and Animals (And What I’ve Learned From It Over The Years!)


imageThis is a guest post by Rebecca Tsien.

Rebecca is an artist … Not just any artist. 

Her specialty is drawing people and animals.

But what’s truly important is that she loves and lives her work.

Rebecca has found a way to do what makes her come alive.

Not everybody does.

So I thought it would be great to hear from Rebecca herself on what she learned by drawing people and animals over the years.

Without further ado, here’s Rebecca …

When J.D. contacted me and asked me to do a guest blog, asking me to look within myself and ask why I draw portraits of people and animals and what I’ve learned from it over the years, I thought ‘oh wow J.D. what a great challenge!’. Over the span of a few days, which turned into a week and much crumbled up paper, I said to myself ‘oh wow J.D., this isn’t as easy as I thought’ 🙂

Because, in all honesty, I’ve never really given it much thought. Drawing, to me, is as natural as breathing. There has never been a time when I didn’t draw. Even when I didn’t work as an artist, I still drew. Or thought about projects I’d like to do if only I had the time.

So, why do I draw?

I think that growing up as the child of older parents I was always finding myself being dragged along to adult functions and parties. Also, as my parents had extremely busy gourmet food stores, I would oftentimes find myself sitting in the back of a store on a bag of coffee beans listening to adult concerns, and sometimes stressful conversations. As a result, I think that I was somewhat more comfortable with adults and definitely shy around my peers. I was an observer of things around me for sure.

The times that I truly felt most comfortable were with my dogs and my paper and pencils. When I drew, I was transported to a wonderful, calm world where I could make up my own characters and stories. I was always interested in movies, so I would create my own movie magazines with fictional movie stars!

Why people and animals?

Faces, to me, are the most incredible things. They are these beautiful, often flawed, road maps that lead inward to a person’s (or pet’s) soul and as much as we’d like to think that we can put on a brave face and hide our life experiences it all still comes through in our faces. A person’s eyes, in particular, tell the real story. The corners of the mouth are also very telling.


I recently did a portrait of Robin Williams, using a fairly recent reference photo, and his sadness was so visible in his eyes to me. Even through his smile. He looked world-weary.

I also find drawing people and animals extremely therapeutic and meditative.

The first time I drew someone who had recently passed, I was very young and my Great Uncle Frank Meier had recently passed very unexpectedly. I thought to myself ‘I wonder if Aunt June would like a nice picture of him?’

So, I sat down with a photo of him that my mom had taken only weeks before and I drew a portrait. It wasn’t the greatest work I’d ever done, but when I handed it to my Aunt June she started to cry…but she was also very happy. That feeling stayed with me forever…that maybe I could do something nice to remember a person by and also help myself recover from their loss.

I recently lost an amazing friend. She was my daughter’s first grade teacher who passed way too early cancer. It was a devastating loss, a loss where there really weren’t any words to make sense of things. I was able to find a tremendous amount of peace from sitting down each day and working on her portrait…it was almost as if I was able to go back and visit her each time even though she was not longer in this world.

I thought about conversations we’d had, her telling me about driving into Newark, NJ to pick up her mother for weekend visits. I thought about what I know of her life and family, etc.

I felt extremely lucky to have had that time with her again while I did her portrait, and I feel that way with any person or pet that I paint. If I know or knew the subject (human or animal) I remember our times together. If the subject is someone famous, I think about the incredible body of work they produced, their personal lives and what might have been.

It’s really a wonderful experience for me. Not to sound like a nutty psychic, but I always feel a real connection with my subject, whether they’ve moved on from this world or not.

What have I learned from doing portraits over the years? And more importantly…what would I go back and tell my younger self if I could do things over?

Biggest Pro:

As much as you may want to believe you are an expert at any point in your life, you are not! There is ALWAYS something new to learn and master and enjoy! I’m sure everyone can identify with me when I say that I was voted “Best Artist” in high school, and I knew EVERYTHING there was to know about art! And so, I hopped on the train with my oversized portfolio and supplies into New York where I started college at Parsons School of Design.


Lo and behold I met thousands of “Best Artist” winners (chuckle), the majority of them much better than me. I said to myself, ‘gee, I guess maybe I don’t know everything just yet’.

The same applied for my first Art Director job. I knew everything about desktop publishing…I had this down! Slowly, the first pages that I worked on came back with production problems and I realized that I had a bit more learning to do.

The beautiful thing is that learning is a never-ending journey, and it keeps your mind young forever. That includes the failures along with the successes.

Never be afraid of failing even if takes a hundred times to get something right. The hundred and first time, it will work (or hundred and second…). When I started drawing directly into Adobe Photoshop with a device called a Wacom Cintiq, I wanted to throw it out the back window of my house. How could something look so easy, yet be so hard. I love working with it now, but I’m still learning and improving on it.

The other important thing that I would tell my younger self is to ‘believe in your abilities’. Stick with it!

I know that this is the oldest nauseating cliché in the book, but it is the honest truth. If you believe you can accomplish something and are willing to put the time and effort in, you will be successful.

Don’t listen to those voices (the little evil ones from within, and the ones from outside) telling you that you don’t have what it takes, that you will starve, etc. Those voices will always be there, and it’s up to you to cancel them out. It’s okay to believe in oneself, to be one’s own cheerleader.


I wish I had taken that route when I first got out of college, but I only ended up as an illustrator after taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. When I graduated from Parsons, my parents were immediately afraid that I wouldn’t survive doing entry-level art jobs in New York City. In all honesty, the jobs that I saw in the newspapers paid next to nothing and I would have had to struggle big time. So instead, I headed off to a highly respected finishing school to learn administrative skills. Sigh.

I should have said no, but I didn’t follow my heart and I didn’t have a whole lot of self-confidence back then.

As a result, I spent a good many years being miserable in jobs that I just didn’t have my heart in and quite frankly, was not very good at! (I’m sure I made my bosses extremely miserable too!). Finally, I made my way back to art and publishing.

Along the way, I took night and weekend classes to learn how to do artwork and magazine layout on computers in programs like Adobe Photoshop, Quark and Illustrator. By waiting to work in what I truly loved, I met wonderful people and made lasting friendships which I will always be grateful for. I lost valuable time, though, in the world of art.

If I could do it again, I would stick with what I love… struggles, starvation, failures and all.

That’s what I always tell my kids…find something that you love, and you’ll be successful at it.

Find something that you will want to do for a lifetime, not because you have to but because you’re passionate about it and can’t imagine ever living without it.

It’s worth it.