A quick beginner’s guide to drawing
6 drawing exercises to get you started right now!
The basic craft of drawing is about two things: you learn to control your hand and to see.
Tip: For the following 6 exercises I suggest you stick with one pen and one particular type of paper (for instance A5).
Dexterity — two workouts
The first two exercises are about controlling your hand. We want to build muscles and train our hand-eye-coordination. Mechanical exercises like these are great for beginners. Later on you might use them to explore new pens or get started when you don’t know what to draw yet.
They are also terrific ways to relax your mind.
Exercise 1: Circles — more is more!
Distribute circles of various sizes on a piece of paper until the paper is filled. Make sure the circles do not overlap.
Drawing circles is not as easy as you might think. Notice how the circles become harder, the bigger you make them? Try them in both directions — and make lots of them.
Tip: Shake your hand when it starts cramping! This is a workout for our hands after all.
Exercise 2: Hatching — the joy of structure
Fill a piece of paper with parallel lines.
Diagonal lines come easiest for us because they comply to the motion of our wrist. Did you notice how left-handed people prefer the opposite direction than right-handed people? Have a look at drawings by your favourite draughtswoman or draughtsman (in my case: Leonardo), and guess which hand they used!
Now make sure to try other directions as well. Have fun! Combine various hatchings and enjoy watching the darkness spread on your paper.
Tip: Don’t rotate the paper. The whole point here is to train your hand to get comfortable with all directions.
So now that we have worked our hands a little, let’s train our eyes!
Perception — learning to see
Drawing is mainly about seeing and understanding what you see. People often assume that everybody sees the same, but actually seeing is a skill which you can improve. The more you draw, the more you see. The next four exercises will make you see more.
Exercise 3: Contour — Show me your hands!
You see all those fascinating contours of your hand? Collect them on a piece of paper! Don’t try to draw the whole hand yet, just pick some of those lovely lines.
Whether you draw a person, a plant, or your favourite animal, it is usually the contours that define a body or object and make others recognise them. The challenge is less to draw those distinctive lines but rather to see them in the first place!
Even if you think you already know the shape of an object, it is always worth to take a closer look and rediscover it.
Exercise 4: Chiaroscuro — folding light and darkness
Arrange and draw a piece of cloth. Start with the contours and then — using your hatching skills — create an interplay of light und darkness.
This exercise gives you a sense for light and darkness. I have to admit it is not the easiest and might as well be part of an advanced tutorial. Keep in mind: This one is not about getting it perfectly “right”. The cloth is a playground to try out those various hatchings you have practised before and feel how you can create light and shadows with your — almost — bare hands!
Tip: You can use curved hatching to modulate the shapes, and crosshatching to achieve darker areas that resemble woven structures.
Tip: Close your eyes just a little bit when you look at the cloth. You will see everything blurred, but you will also see an enhanced contrast between light and dark.
The arrangement of light is a great way to show what is important in a picture. Just have a look at paintings by Rembrandt or Georges de la Tour. And the next time you watch a movie look out for dramatic effects achieved with light and shadow.
Exercise 5: Perspective — lost in space
Let’s draw some cubes! Just follow the simple steps below.
Perspective drawing is basically a projection of a 3D environment on a 2D surface (your piece of paper).
Constructing perspective drawings is a bit of a science and cannot be covered in detail within the attention span of an online article. Nevertheless we can have some fun with a simple technique that gives us an intuitive feel for the magic of perspective drawing:
Step 1: Draw a horizontal line. This is the horizon of your picture.
Step 2: Define two points on the horizon near the edge of the paper. These are your two vanishing points.
Step 3: Draw a vertical line somewhere.
Step 4: Connect the endpoints of the vertical line with the vanishing points.
Step 5: Add two vertical lines like this:
Step 6: Connect them with the vanishing points.
Step 7: Now use a dark pencil or pen to emphasise the cube. Voilà!
Repeat steps 3–7 as often as you like. Have fun! If you feel adventurous you might even hatch the sides of the cubes.
Tip: When you draw lines that meet, it is usually a good idea to be confident and let them overlap a little bit. The shapes will look better defined.
Mastering perspective drawings will give you the power to create illusions of depth. But most importantly, you teach your brain how to think in three dimensions. So even if you choose to draw “flat” drawings or mess with the “rules” of perspective — which I like to do — to understand perspective drawing is still one of the most precious drawing skills you can learn.
Exercise 6: Composition — Why is this there?
Make 5 different drawings of an object. Arrange the object differently on the paper each time!
Composition is a great tool to “say” something with a drawing, to shape its meaning or message.
To understand how it works we have to bear in mind that our perception has been shaped by everyday experiences. For instance horizontal and vertical lines seem more “stable” to us than diagonals, which might “fall over” any second. And when we see a big dark shape at the bottom we somehow assume it must be “heavy”.
As you try different arrangements of your subject on a piece of paper, notice how this changes their connotations — their meaning.
Let me know what you think!
Since this is my first drawing tutorial, I am curious about which parts you enjoyed. What else would you like to learn about drawing? Please leave ideas and suggestions in the comment section below!
And tweet your drawings!
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Do you struggle with a simple circle from the first step of every tutorial? Do your straight lines keep bending no matter how hard you try? Do you seem to be unable to draw two points with a given distance between? Do your pictures look wrong even after repeating carefully every single step from a detailed tutorial? These problems may come from lack of basic skills that are ignored when learning how to draw. In fact, these skills are obvious for someone who's been drawing a lot, but they also can be easily forgotten after a few years without a pencil in your hand. So, are you ready to catch up?
If you're looking for a pre-game motivational boost before taking on this challenge, check out the accompanying article, What's Your Excuse? Why Can't You Draw?
If you're drawing digitally, perhaps you want your work to look more like it's created with pencil and paper. If this is the case, may we recommend one of the many Photoshop brush sets available on GraphicRiver, including this Classic Art Brush Pack.
1. Break the Straight Line
Your problem: you're not able to draw a straight line/perfect circle.
Straight lines aren't real. They exist only in vector, as the shortest way between two points. You can cheat and use a ruler, but most likely your hand will never learn to draw a perfectly straight, long lines. Even if it starts as something perfect, the longer you draw it, the more mistakes can be made. What does it mean?
If drawing a long line is almost impossible, we can use short lines that our hand is more adapted for. Just look at the picture below. The shorter the lines, the closer to the original the picture is.
Let's say you want to draw a flower like below. You can see it's built of a straight line, a perfect circle and a few of curves with precise angles. I guess you can draw it very slowly, very carefully driving the lines from point to point, with your tongue stuck out and sweat on your face. But... why? Drawing isn't a chore, it should be fun!
Technical drawing (straight lines, perfect circles) requires concentration. It's about drawing things exactly as they are. There's no space for creativity or personal style, since style comes from diversity. Is it really what you want to do? Draw the same things exactly the same way all the time?
If you do, well, there's no tutorial for you. Because drawing - creation - is about keeping your hand relaxed while being focused on a final effect instead of creating a series of perfect lines. That's what you need to learn - how to keep relaxed, sketch fast and carelessly. Let's try to draw this flower once again, shall we? But this time follow these simple rules:
- Divide the long lines into short ones;
- The more curves, the shorter the lines;
- Touch the paper very lightly, don't press your pencil hard;
- Keep it fast!
Wasn't that fun? If you narrow your eyes, it even looks quite done. Now, fill the spaces between the lines with the ones it's lacking. The rules from the previous step still apply.
You can now stress the defined lines with a marker or pressing the pencil harder. This step isn't necessary, you can skip it.
It's done! It doesn't look exactly like original, but you can see some style in it, a bit of your personal character, a real work of your hands! You can notice it even looks more natural than the original, because nature isn't perfect. What's most important, once you cross the boundaries, you can easily change everything! Paradoxically, the less accurate your lines, the more natural the drawing.
What to practice?
- Divide the lines into short ones;
- Draw circles made of short lines instead of long, ever-bending one;
- Draw lightly - this way your little mistakes won't be visible.
2. Create Your Own Style
Your problem: you feel you can only draw things other people have already created. Your drawings never look like something truly yours.
So you can draw circles and straight lines, right? That's not really good. You may be stuck into mathematical rules and technical drawing - you're great at repeating, but not creating. How can you help yourself? Well, the first step of this tutorial is good for you too, but there's another trick you can use.
As I said before, style comes from diversity. If you're redrawing a picture carefully, line by line, without adding anything new (because it would be a mistake!), you can't end up with something different. The original wasn't yours, and your drawing is just its copy. I don't say you shouldn't follow tutorials anymore - you should just be more creative and - paradoxically - less precise when doing it.
How to lose a reasonable bit of precision? Let's start with this simple exercise: draw a few simple shapes with your hand shaking, as if you were being nervous. Do it until you feel your hand is relaxed.
Let's try this simple tutorial now. Do this the same way as usually, but in Step 4 shake your hand when drawing the final lines. Draw a few of these heads, changing the level of twitch every time.
Surprised? Every head looks different than the original, but you can recognize what you've just drawn. Also, you used the same proportions for them all, yet none of them looks identical. How could it have happened?
When you were learning how to write, your teacher wanted you to repeat lines from a template. You were spending a lot of time drawing (not writing) every single letter as if it was a small masterpiece. Then, with time and experience, you developed your own character of writing, your own style. Your letters look different than mine or your friends' - still, we can all read what you write. Your style changed because you wanted to write fast - to write down your thoughts, not to draw perfect, but meaningless letters.
Apply this rule to your drawings. Think about what you want to achieve, not about the lines. Draw fast and your personal, unique hand movement will have a chance to shine.
There's another thing that adds up to your style - creativity. Do the same tutorial once again, this time changing the step results to your needs. You're learning how to draw a dragon head, but dragons in your mind have longer mouths? No problem! You don't need another tutorial for it, just adjust the rules to your needs.
What to practice?
- Try to draw things from your environment with shaky, careless lines, without taking care about the effect;
- Sketch a lot! Don't think about the result, just let your hand practice its natural movement;
- When following tutorials, stay creative - change lengths, shapes, distances and see where it takes you.
3. Measure the Proportions
Your problem: your proportions always look off. You feel unable to draw a given distance without using a ruler or other tools.
Wrong proportions are a huge problem for an aspiring artist. Luckily, it can be overcome if you don't ignore it. First, what are they, actually?
Proportions aren't a distance measured in some unit. They define a location of an element relative to others. It means that if you want to draw all the picture (set of elements) two times bigger, all the distances need to be doubled too.
Let's train our eyes to see and redraw proportions. First, try to redraw this picture, but two times smaller:
Now, take a ruler and check if you got it right - the distance should be two times smaller than on the screen. And, how's your result? Probably not very good, if you're reading this tutorial. Notice that the circles should be two times smaller too, and that seems almost impossible - how to draw a twice bigger circle, if you don't even know the original size?
The answer is we need at least two elements to talk about relativity. No matter what size the first element is - it can't be unproportional, if there's only one! So, let's try once again. Draw only the first circle.
Now imagine two lines coming from the center of the circle. There's a third imaginary line connecting both circles. Can you see what angle it creates? Draw this line on your picture, without adding the second circle for now.
We need to set the distance now. How many circles can be put between both centers in the original? Apply this relationship to your picture. For the first time it's the best to print the original and draw the other circles physically, later you can try with only pretending you're drawing them (keeping the pencil right above the paper/screen and seeing the circles in mind).
It's almost done! Now we need to check what the size of the second circle is in relation to the big one. A good method for this is to imagine the second circle inside the first one to clearly see the proportions.
Done! You can use the ruler once again to see how accurate it is. This method is really good when your eyes aren't trained to see proportions yet, and with time you may not need to draw the guide elements anymore.
What to practice?
- Learn to see proportions everywhere. Look around and ask yourself - how long are my fingers in comparison to the palm? How many heads can be put in a row along my dog's back? What element of the face could fit perfectly between the eyes? This training can be done in your spare time, and it increases your concentration. Also, with time your eyes will learn to do it without your awareness!
- If you have problems with recreating sizes (for example, you draw two identical circles and they're always different), don't avoid practicing it. Draw these two circles as long as you can draw them identically, then try the same with triangles, squares and so on. This problem must be solved before doing any other tutorial, since it's the base of other skills;
- The Internet is full of simple, step-by-step tutorials that don't teach any real drawing skills, but they're great to practice proportions. Start with the simplest pictures for children and move on when you feel more confident. Again, don't go further before establishing these basic skills. Nothing strong can be built on a weak base.
4. Free Your Hand
Your problem: you find drawing parallel or concurrent lines very hard. The second line always goes in wrong direction somehow.
This happens sometimes when you're trying too hard. You want to be precise and as a result you draw slowly and carefully, giving your hand more time for mistakes. Try to draw both lines fast - does it change anything? If yes, well, I'm glad I could help! If no, a little training may be needed.
Drawing snakes is the greatest and the most complex training I can think of. It lets you practice proportions, planning lengths, changing size and angles, and, most importantly, it teaches your hand how to move gracefully. If you're reading this paragraph, you probably have problems with snakes too - they're thick at one point, then thin and thick again, totally messy and wrong. But we can fix it!
Start with a row of circles, each of them smaller than predecessor. End the row with single point.
Connect the corresponding ends of diameters. A simple snake is done! Of course, there's more to learn.
Now draw a series of the same circles, but changing their positions vertically too.
Connect them again.
Let's increase the difficulty level. Do the same as before, but now leave bigger spaces between the circles.
Connecting the circles may be harder now, because you need to draw the arches. This is the actual practice. Draw the snakes, long and short, straight and curled, using bigger spaces between the circles every time you see you got it right. If you do this long enough, your hand should learn the proper movement.
What to practice?
- Snakes! Draw a lot of them, they're fast and easy;
- Draw a series of parallel lines and waves as fast as possible. Let your hand feel it's free!
- Draw wavy lines when watching TV or reading articles on the Internet. It doesn't matter what you're drawing, just teach your hand how to move freely and carelessly.
5. Learn What Things Are - and Why They Are
Your problem: you can't draw from imagination. Everything goes right when you follow a tutorial, but then you can't remember the steps, or there's only one pose that turns out OK.
You'll be glad to hear this isn't as big problem as it seems. You only need to change your attitude. The problem is you learn how to draw lines instead of what the object is. There are two kinds of information:
- Matrix (raster): where's the point? What's it connected to? How long is the distance between them? How many of them occurs on a given area?
- Vector: what's the point for? What is this point part of? What does this set of points do? How does it influence the other elements?
Matrix information is a template to create the same thing all over again. It's hard to remember and it's useful only at few cases. Vector information is scalable. It means that when conditions change (different pose, size, style), the elements adjust to them, because they're attached to proportions, not position. Here comes an example:
- C1 - nose;
- C3 - eye;
- C1-E3 - mouth;
- A3-E5 - head (etc).
- The head is made of two circles - a "brain case" and a mouth;
- The mouth is a bit higher than the middle of the brain case;
- The eye is circular and it starts at the middle of the brain case, touching the mouth;
- The nose is on the tip of the mouth, it's as big as the eye (etc).
If you like to change something, for example open the mouth, matrix information fails. It's fixed, scalable only in terms of size, and it's even more useless when you want to create a pose in 3D space. How to learn in vector then?
Take an object and analyze it. There are two ways of thinking you can go now (I'll use a glass as an example):
- The glass is made of a rectangle, then there's a flat triangle under it, a quite long line and a flat triangle again;
- The glass is made of an oblong container with circular section where wine is poured. The upper part of the container can be bent to inside, to reduce slipping away of the bubbles. The bottom of the container melts gently into a thick leg. The leg is then melting into circular support.
What do you think, which way better describes an essence of a glass? The first one is fast and great when you start your adventure with drawing, but it will only let you draw this particular position. You may try to go into a 3D world, learn perspective, add some motion, and suddenly it turns out you don't really know how to draw a glass.
Another example is anatomy. You may learn curves of a body in one pose, but it doesn't tell you anything about what the same body looks when running/sitting/fighting. A simple "why" has never been that powerful. Why is this part bulging? What's it used for? Why is it long/short? Why is this part connected to some particular one?
What to practice?
- Stop thoughtlessly copying the lines you're seeing. Try to understand the object as a whole. If you understand why it's built and drawn like this, you'll be able to modify it and create something truly yours without breaking the rules;
- Analyze objects even when you don't draw. In a queue, in a bus, waiting for someone - look around and ask yourself: why does it look like this? What's its purpose? With every answered "why" you're extending a huge base of a vector information in your head. You'll be surprised how much it helps!
Now You're Ready to Draw!
If you followed the tutorial carefully, after some practice you should be able to follow intermediate tutorials flawlessly. While these exercises may seem boring, they're essential and need to be learnt. If you tried them and they seemed trivial, that's great, you're ready! But if you had some problems, it's really better to stop here and practice until you overcome them. Also, if you have anything you'd like to discuss with me, just post a comment - I'll be happy to help!