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Ten Tips for Learning How to DRAW!

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Drawing is a boundlessly rewarding activity. In this article, Robin Landa presents ten tips to help you start drawing or improve or refresh your drawing skills. These ten key pointers about technique and graphic space will help you transform your marks into drawings that actually resemble what you’re picturing in your head.

If you can brush your teeth, you can learn to draw. Granted, learning to draw is more challenging than brushing your teeth. However, it is a fascinating process—one that many people find rewarding throughout their lives. Drawing engages your whole brain: you have to look, think, and move.  It makes your brain happy. Here are ten interrelated drawing tips to guide you.

1. Be patient. Drawing is challenging. Although drawing comes naturally to some people for a variety of reasons, such as having good visual memories or the ability to select the key elements to draw, you can learn how to draw through instruction and practice. Learning to draw is no different in the amount of effort, hours enlisted, and passionate interest necessary than training as a dancer or learning to play an instrument.

Hang in there because it’s a boundlessly rewarding art activity. You’ll find new ways to communicate visually, express yourself, think things through, explore, and understand the natural world as well as your imagination. Drawing is a natural extension of curiosity—the desire to know something you don’t know. Curiosity is at the heart of creativity.

2. Practice active seeing. Train yourself to see and evaluate visual relationships. If you approach a drawing subject with a keen eye you will notice size, tone, color relationships, scale (the size of one form in comparison to another), angles, and the specificity of shapes or contours. By employing mindful seeing while drawing, your general observational skills will improve universally. 

Active seeing involves judging apparent size relationships when drawing from life. How tall is one object in relation to another? How far is one object from another? What is the exact shape? What’s the angle or axis of a figure’s pose or the specific curve of an apple’s silhouette?

Do notice the specific attributes of an object or figure—its particular shape and form and how it relates to all the others in terms of size, angle, curve, distance, tone, and color. Override any preconceived notions of what you think things look like to actually observe the forms in front of you.

Try to use “gist” thinking, or big-picture thinking, to think about the whole rather than parts. For example, when drawing a still life, judge all the interrelationships and general proportions of the forms. And don’t render one object and then move on to the next. Rather, work the entire composition at the same time, cultivating spatial relationships.

Figure 1 Learn to judge apparent size relationships and relative positions of forms in relation to one another as you observe them.

3. Think about the page. Consider all drawn elements in response to the format’s edges. Any rectangular page has four edges, and the marks you make will respond to those vertical and horizontal movements. If your page is circular, the drawn marks you make will respond to the round circumference as well. Whether it’s paper or digital, every page has a defined perimeter—its outer edges or boundaries—as well as the field it encloses. Consider what you’re drawing and how the marks you make relate to the page’s edges and outer shape.

Drawing representationally or from observation entails translating three-dimensional space onto the two-dimensional surface.  Your digital or paper page is much smaller than the world you are looking at. You need to scale down what you observe to translate it to the size of the drawing paper. The page’s orientation (portrait or landscape) should best suit the direction or emphasis of your subject matter.

As you learn to draw from life, a viewfinder is a handy tool (a see-through rectangular format, whether a rectangular hole in cardboard used to frame the subject or a plastic window format with drawn quadrants), not just for composing a single composition but also for learning to see the world within the confined format of a rectangle. The edges of the viewfinder correspond to the edges of the paper, which allows you to see how the forms would be positioned in a composition.

Figure 2 To make a viewfinder from cardboard just cut out a rectangular hole, which will be the viewfinder window. If you are using 9x12-inch paper to draw on, the window should be in proportion; that is, 3x4 inches. One brand of a manufactured viewfinder is the QuicKomp Artist’s Drawing Tool, whose side also can be used as a straightedge.

4. Consider all negative space. We call images, such as a pineapple or a human figure, positive shapes. People who don’t know how to draw focus on the images. People who are learning to draw need to observe the negative spaces (shapes) as well; that is, the spaces that do not contain imagery—what many people consider background or “leftover” white space. Focus on the size and shape of the negative space or the empty space between parts of the object and between forms.

Here’s a quick exercise to learn to see negative space or shapes. Find two keys, leaves, or two objects with interesting silhouettes. Position them on a tabletop. Note the negative space between the two objects and study the shape of the negative space carefully. If the space between the objects doesn’t look interesting, rearrange the objects to yield more intriguing negative space. Draw the negative shape of the space between the two objects. Finally, draw the objects themselves.

Always consider the spaces between forms as much as the forms themselves.

Figure 3 Notice the spaces between the leaves and stems are comprehensively considered.

5. Draw spatial relationships. Rather than being object-oriented, focus on where an object is in the pictorial space and how it relates to the space (floor plane, walls, ceiling) and other forms or objects surrounding it. Think about where forms are in space and fix them there. If you’re drawing a chair, anchor the chair in the room space by visualizing where it is on the floor in the pictorial space; draw the floor line as it relates to the chair and the other forms in that space.

An easy method for learning to see where to anchor forms in space is to begin by dividing the page into quadrants, which allows you to determine and record the positions of objects in a real room space (or landscape, still life, or anything you care to draw from observation) onto a flat surface.

Figure 4 Divide your page into four equal quadrants with a horizontal and a vertical line.

  • The horizontal line will represent the place where the floormeets the wall. Anything in the room above that line will be drawn in the quadrants above the horizontal line.
  • The bottom of any object on the floor will be drawn below the horizontal line. If the objects on the floor rise above the line where the wall meets the floor, they will move into the upper quadrants.

A viewfinder (a piece of clear acetate or plastic that is divided into a modular grid) with the same quadrants is handy. The edges of the viewfinder correspond to the edges of the paper, allowing you to see how the forms would be positioned in a composition. You can make a viewfinder with quadrants using clear, hard plastic and a dry erase or permanent marker or purchase a readymade one.

6. Establish visual emphasis. What do you want the viewer to see first? Consider emphasizing one form or visual element and deemphasizing others. Create a focal point—the part of a drawing that is most emphasized.

To go further, can you arrange the composition through a visual hierarchy and positioning forms to guide the viewer through the pictorial space? What do you want the viewer to see first? Second? Third and so on?

Figure 5 In this drawing after a Vincent Van Gogh, the boat in the foreground is the focal point and helps direct the viewer into the pictorial space.

7. Manipulate graphic space. Think about something that you would like to draw. Where would it exist in actual space, out in the world? Now think about where it would exist in your drawing. Would it be in the foreground? Surrounded by nature? Flying through the air? Standing on the horizon?

Figure 6 There are three key spatial planes in pictorial space:

  • The foreground is the part of a composition that appears nearest the viewer;
  • The middle ground is an intermediate position between the foreground and the background; and
  • The background is what appears in the distance or lies behind the most important pictorial or graphic elements in the composition.

To create the illusion of three-dimensional space, follow these general guidelines. Make pictorial elements positioned in the foreground bigger and/or brighter and render them in greater detail than forms in the middle ground or background. Forms in the foreground have more contrast than those in the middle ground and background. This (conventional Western) pictorial illusion of space on a two-dimensional surface imitates the way we perceive forms in the real world. Forms appear to become smaller and grayer as they move away from us and recede into the distance.

8. Think of the lines you draw as edges or movements. A line is a mark made by a drawing tool as it is drawn across a surface. To draw representationally, whether from observation or your imagination, you need to think of lines as what they really represent: boundaries between light and dark areas or boundaries between an object and space. Imagine a lemon sitting in front of a dark blue curtain. If you were to draw the contour of the lemon, you’d be drawing the edge between the yellow (the light area) and the dark blue (the dark area) colors of the lemon and the curtain.

The direction and moving path of a line also can convey a gesture or the movement of a form, figure or object. For novices, it is challenging to see a line in this way. A quick way to understand this concept is to draw any sweeping line across a page and concentrate on how your eyes follow the path of the line. Then look in a mirror and strike a pose with your arms fully extended, outstretched in different directions. Can you imagine a line drawn from hand to hand, following the path of the gesture?

Figures 7a & 7b Learning to notice the key gesture when looking at a model’s pose is important. The held-taught silk scarf represents the main thrust of dancer/choreographer Julia Kulakova’s pose; imagine the scarf as a line that would capture Ms. Kulakova’s main gesture.

Convince your friends and family to pose for you. The more you practice, the easier it will be for you to quickly determine or select which aspects or edges of a figure you need portray to convey the figure’s form, gesture or movement.

9. Draw what you see from your point of view. Rather than draw from any preconceived notions, draw the forms, shapes, and angles you observe rather than what you know to be. For example, we all know the length of the average human arm. However, in any given pose, you might not see the entire length of a person’s arm from your point of view.  Observing a person’s arm in a specific pose in that moment is the kind of active seeing that will help you learn to draw.

10. Explore. Draw figuratively—whether recording what you see or expressing your own imaginary world. Draw abstractly—altering, rearranging, or distorting what you observe in nature or in your mind. Try a procedural approach to drawing, perhaps employing a mechanical, diagrammatic or mathematical process to make marks. Draw as an autography, drawn testimony or proof of your existence.

Get involved with materials and see how that affects your drawing and what marks you can make. Try different drawing tools. Draw with conventional (pencils, charcoal, crayon, etc.) and unconventional tools. Utilize soft and hard pencils. Dip a twig in ink. Twist a rag to a point and dip it in iced black coffee. Dip a perforated plastic ball in paint. Use a worn, ratty brush. Experiment.

Draw for different reasons. Get your thoughts out without words. (Or combine what you draw with words.) Allow the act of drawing to be cathartic. Draw to calm down or relax. View the activity of drawing as meditative. Draw from Old Master works.

Figure 8 To learn more about composition, practice drawing from Old Master paintings. This drawing is after the Caravaggio painting, “The Lute Player.”

Drawing offers expressive possibilities, but learning to draw takes time. Since drawing is a very portable art, carry a paper or digital pad with you, or carry DRAW! The Guided Sketchbook That Teaches You How To Draw. There is hard evidence that practicing will significantly improve your skills. To practice is to draw. Enjoy the process.

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