Learning to draw
How to draw, a complete beginners guide
I have written this article as there seems to be a lack of proper basic drawing tuition out there. And if you don't understand the basics then drawing will always be a source of frustration. Perhaps you have always wanted to draw, but never known how to start. The word perspective fills you with images of incomprehensible angles and maths. What do the letters on pencils mean? And is it really necessary to stick your arm out in front of you and wave your pencil about?
I also want to encourage anyone who has an artistic hobby or job to learn a little about drawing. Whether you embroider, take photos, make mosaics, carve wood, or design stuff on graphics programs, drawing is for you. It's not just some random unrelated subject. Sure there are computer programs that can take short cuts for you, but if you know nothing about tone, perspective or composition you won't be able to use those programs to their full potential.
So here it is, from what to buy to what subject to start with, covering everything from shading to shadows to perspective (maths free guarantee included), here is the article that assumes you know nothing and starts you right at the beginning.
But if you can already draw a bit, don't log off, you will find the additional tips here that will take your drawings from drab to fab, so get reading, and get drawing today!
Pencil drawing 'Vase' , Copyright Michele Webber
What you need (it's a cheap hobby!)
Not one to keep you in suspense I will tell you what you need right away: Pencil, Sharpener, Paper, Eraser. There it's easy, (and seriously cheap) now just a little info to help you choose. If you are not going to the art shop right now, skip this bit and refer to it later.
PENCILS AND SHARPENERS
People often buy a set of pencils, but if you are short of pennies (or cents or insert local currency) there is no need. Art shops make a lot of money from sets, mainly from beginners who don't realise you can buy everything separately. It may make you feel like a proper artist to own a set, all I'm saying is you don't have to. Just a note about mechanical pencils: they are great, but really more suited to technical style drawing than freehand sketching and shading
Pencils start with H (Hard) grades, but these are rather hard for sketching. Now let's look at the B (Black) grades. Starting at 1B and progressing all the way to 9B, which is the blackest (and softest.) These are the most useful grades for sketching, giving a range of tones and being easy to rub out. Start with a couple, perhaps 4 B and 9B. Slap bang in the middle of the H and B grades is HB, mainly designed for writing, but you may find one useful, particularly for very detailed work, side notes etc.
The best sharpener is a craft (scalpel) knife. General pencil sharpeners will give a short lead, but a long lead is more useful, as you can use the side for shading. The best way to achieve this is with a craft knife and plenty of practice. I believe it is now possible to buy a sharpener from art suppliers that make a long lead point for your pencil, although I have never used one. If you need to further refine the point of your pencil a piece of glass paper (fine sandpaper) can be used.
Safety notes:Never point a knife towards any part of your body; it should be used in a motion that pushes away from you, into space. If you are very young, very old or have arthritis or other mobility problems (or are just downright accident-prone) get someone to do it for you.
Paper comes in many types and is graded by weight. However I don't want to go into a lot of technical stuff here. Just look for a cartridge (sketching) paper that does not feel flimsy. It should have a slight 'tooth', not as textured as bumpy watercolour paper, in fact you will barely notice it, but avoid cheap paper that appears unusually smooth, shiny or coated. These papers make it almost impossible to achieve dark tones. Paper is available loose (for use with a drawing board), or more usually in a spiral or gummed top pad. Size does matter! Don't make the mistake of buying a tiny little pad, because you are nervous and think it is easier to work small. It is not; give yourself a bit of elbow room. Peering at a tiny cramped drawing is no fun, a bigger space will give you room to experiment. I would recommend no smaller than UK size A4 (approx 21 by 29cm), preferably larger.
The best type for sketching is a so called 'putty' rubber. These are soft and malleable; they remove errors with the minimum of abrasion to the surface of your paper. When your paper becomes damaged it affects the marks that you put on it, making a mess of your picture. Top tip: this type of eraser does not last long, and gets filthy in no time, so I suggest tearing a tiny piece off and using it until it is no good, then just bin it. This way your eraser lasts longer and stays cleaner. Avoid using the eraser on the top of your pencil, it is too hard.
Photograph copyright Michele Webber
(Proportion, proportion, proportion)
Here in the UK we have a property show called Location, location, location, named after the joke that the three most important things when buying your house are... well you can guess. If that show were about drawing, you can replace location with proportion.
Do you remember when you were a kid? You started drawing something... a cat perhaps. It's eyes looked great, although its head wasn't quite right, and then the body seemed the wrong size... and in the end its tail didn't fit on the page. So disappointing. What went wrong? It started so well!
If you were building a house, how would you start? Randomly, at one corner perhaps, starting to lay bricks, making it up as you went along, and hoping for the best? Obviously this would be crazy. You would make a plan. And yet many people start a drawing like this, just hoping it works out, and somehow fits OK. So I am going to teach you how to make a plan for your drawing, so it always fits, however big or small your paper. The illustration is a five minute sketch I drew of objects in my studio, I have left in the mistakes, plot marks and construction lines. It won't win any prizes, but this is how your drawing should start out.
Firstly we are going to aim to fill your paper, with a little edge space. There is nothing sadder than a lovely big piece of paper with a sorry looking picture in one corner. And before we start we are going to check if your paper is the right way round and the right shape. Take a look at your still life/object. If you drew a (straight edged) shape around the whole of it, what would it fit into? A square, vertical oblong, or horizontal oblong? Now turn your paper round the best way. If you have oblong paper and the subject fits into a square the get a ruler and either draw a line down one edge to make a square space, or (my choice) use a piece of masking tape. Note that it doesn't matter the size of the paper, you will learn to draw your subject to fit any size, we are talking about the shape here.
Now it is time to start. Make a little mark for where the highest part of the drawing will be, and another for the lowest. This is a construction mark. Now look for other main edges or lines in the picture. Ask yourself questions: thinking within your straight edged shape again, how far across would a particular edge be? Halfway? A third? Start to mark in the basic shapes very simply, with no detail whatsoever. Your lines should be sketchy and soft, not hard defined shapes. You are looking to make a map of the objects. Don't worry if you get something wrong, this is just a part of drawing, keep adjusting. Use objects you know are correctly drawn to map others, by lightly drawing lines and angles to plot them. These are called construction lines. They are light and you will rub them out later. Constantly ask yourself, is it higher, lower bigger, smaller than the things around it. If you took a line across or down from the top of an object, what would be level with it? Don't get so engrossed you forget to look. Looking should be 50% of your time, minimum. Once you have mapped your drawing, read on for more tips on completing it.
TOP TIP Have you seen those initial drawings by clever cartoonists? Animals and people reduced to simple shapes like ovals and circles; the cartoonists know you need a plan before putting any details in.
Illustration Copyright Michele Webber
Proportion - The most important thing...
Repeat after me... I will not under any circumstances start putting detail on my drawing until I have the proportions correct.
So, what's with the waving your pencil about with a straight arm thing?
(Careful you will have someone's eye out with that)
It's another method of judging proportions. Hold your arm straight out, gripping your pencil. Look at the tip of your pencil and line it up with the top/side of something. Slide your thumb down until it's in line with the bottom/other side of that thing. Now (keeping your arm straight) use this measurement to compare against another object or line. For example you could use the width of a house to judge if the height of the house was greater or less. You might find the house is one and a half times as high as wide. Or whatever. Useful, but you must sit still and keep your arm straight whilst doing it or it won't work properly.
Photograph, copyright Michele Webber
Some tips for good technique
(Check out these helpful ideas)
Stop seeing with your brain, it takes shortcuts. It uses the information the eyes send it to make decisions, many of which are quite basic like, "Can I eat it?" "Will it hurt me?" "Simpsons or Family Guy?" The brain cannot possibly process everything it sees, so it just takes what it needs and disregards the rest. It is your job to make it focus and work a little harder. The brain will trick you into thinking light is dark and an obtuse angle is acute. Make sure you study carefully, and understand how something is constructed, its real shape, tone, roughness, smoothness. Use the straight edge of your pencil to check an angle, it becomes much clearer when you do this.
Adjust before rubbing out. If a line is wrong, don't immediately obliterate it and all the stuff around it. You will just be back where you started, with no greater chance of success. Instead use the wrong line to help you judge where the correction is needed, and then rub it out.
Don't press too hard. Children (and beginners) make the mistake of pressing too hard. Gripping your pencil until it practically snaps and forcing the point along with your tongue stuck out in effort won't help. You will just look stupid. Pressing hard makes a permanent dent in your paper that no amount of erasing will get rid of. Press as lightly as possible in the initial stages of your drawing. Expect to make mistakes; it is just part of the process.
Draw things in the direction they grow. If you draw a small line on paper, it will be thinner at the end you finished the line, as you lifted the pencil off the surface. Use this to help you draw organic things like hair, fur, grass. Start at the base and make the stroke in the direction of growth, root to tip.
Keep your hands off the paper. Oil in the skin soils paper surfaces. Keep your hands clean, and don't lean on your paper. If this is necessary place a piece of kitchen paper in between. If you want to smudge, there are tools you can buy.
Draw through things. In the initial stages, if a line goes behind an object, and out the other side, draw it straight through, and rub out the bit you don't need afterward. This stops weird stuff happening where things behind objects don't align properly.
Don't use a ruler. I can't stress this one enough. For general sketching stay away from rulers. People associate straight lines with architects plans, draftsmanship, and vector images made by graphics programs. These programs are faultless and they use maths. If you put a perfect line in your picture then the expectation of the viewer is of perfection throughout. People expect very different things from a sketch, it's an artistic rendition, perfection is not necessary. Using a ruler will make a rod for your own back. There are some artists who use ruled lines and a very technical style, and there is nothing wrong with that, but for a beginner a ruler will cause you more trouble than it is worth. You can use one (or a set square) to check straightness or angles, but refrain from drawing along it. If you desperately need to make your horizon line level, take a set square and draw little dots across the paper, join them up by hand, your horizon will be straight, but still look 'hand drawn'.
Tip it upside down... It's an old trick, but if you are working from a photograph and you can't seem to get the proportions right, turn both your picture and the photo upside down and look again. Why does it help? It gets rid of preconceptions about what you are looking at, and forces your brain to see the shapes as abstract, enabling you to see more clearly the correct proportions, it's particularly helpful for portrait drawing.
Take a break. Again if you can't see what's wrong, but you know something is, particularly when drawing buildings, walk away, come back an hour or two later, as soon as you look at your picture the wrong area/angle will jump out at you. Sometimes when you have been staring at something just too long, you need a break, this will ensure you see it with fresh eyes.
Get a second opinion. Another artist or art tutor will often be able to spot areas that need improving. Even non artists will be able to point out areas that just don't look right, so if it just needs something... ask a friend!
Pencil drawing, 'Izzy', reproduced by kind permission of/ Copyright Rita Crawley
As with most things, practice makes perfect, the more you draw, the more you will improve. Failure is not the time to stop, it is merely a step towards success. Failing teaches you what not to do next time.
Shading and shadows
Keeping it real
Tone is what you use to make your image look three dimensional. Dark areas recess, light areas come forward, and anything you are drawing that is not white or a pure highlight should have some shading. Take your softest pencil. Make the lightest mark you can. Now make the firmest darkest mark you can, press hard. This is your tonal range; you should have these tones in your picture, and all the graduations in between. A drawing that is all mid tones, with no distinct lights and darks looks very dull. To shade smoothly try this trick. Lay your pencil flat on the table. Now pick it up without wrapping any of your fingers underneath. Slide your first finger towards the point for stability. Keeping it at a low angle you can now shade with the side of the long lead. The type of shading you do will give an indication of the objects surface. Textured, messy shading indicates a rough surface; even, regular shading indicates a smooth surface. Neither is wrong; just choose as suits the subject. Experiment with cross hatching, dots, anything you fancy.
Shadows are what ground your image. An object drawn with no shadow will appear to float. Never outline your shadows; they will look like a separate object. Generally speaking your shadow should be darker closest to its object, and fade softly towards the edges. Hard edge shadows are only seen in strong midday sun, or under artificial light, they can be difficult to pull off successfully in a picture. Anytime you have an object behind another, drop a little shadow behind the edge of the front object, to make the rear one recede.
Pencil drawing, 'Ruby-Mae', reproduced by kind permission of/ Copyright Rita Crawley
Shadows and tone will take your image from outline to three dimensional object.
A few composition tips
(It's just arranging stuff)
This is not an article about composition, although I may write one. But I will give you a few hints. Composition is like fashion. There are rules if you don't want to look stupid. But then you notice a top designer has broken the rules and it still looks fabulous. So don't email me with examples of beautiful art that breaks these rules, it is out there and I know it. But you are just starting out, and it takes a bit of genius and years of experience to break the rules and get away with it. So for starters:
Don't take a line off the corner of the paper, it is distracting and the viewer will follow that line right away from your work. (Hint, a line could also be a fence, a river or a path)
Don't go off one edge and not the others. You can go off all the edges, or none, or even a couple. But a drawing that just goes off one side only drags the eye out of the picture, and generally looks like you just got it wrong.
Look for angles and invisible lines to lead the eye into the picture. Use lines, repeating objects and perspective (more about that later) to lead the eye into and around the picture.
Evens are uncomfortable, odds are more pleasing. Put two apples on a page and it looks uncomfortable, four and your brain will start grouping in pairs. Interior designers know the trick of using threes or fives to make stuff look pleasing, and you can do this too.
Don't put the main thing or the horizon line dead centre. This doesn't apply to botanical works or portraits, but for landscapes or scenes, having the most important thing dead centre can be boring.
Balance it out. If your picture looks unbalanced, ie all the interest is over to one side, balance it out by placing something on the other side. It need not be large, it can even be a cloud or a shadow, but a picture needs a little balance.
Block lines leading out of your picture. A strongly rendered stream/path/other line that heads out of the picture can take the viewer with it. Block it. Grow a tree, a bush, a telegraph pole if you like, just some vertical object to break up the line. Conversely, avoid vertical lines (like a tree trunk or post) that divide your whole work into two separate areas.
Watercolour painting 'Mexicana' Copyright Michele Webber
"Drawing is the root of everything"
Vincent Van Gogh
(or how circles don't have corners)
The mathematical definition of an ellipse is complicated, but for most of us it's the shape we see when a circle is viewed at an angle. Circles are all around us, therefore so are ellipses. Look about you: car wheels, jam jars, pen lids, lipstick tubes, they are everywhere, so you had better learn how to draw them. The mathematical way is with string and compasses and pins, or by plotting the width and height with a cross shape: but all of that is unnecessary for simple sketching. I will teach you a method to do it simply. Firstly you must understand the main thing about an ellipse, or circle. There are no corners or points on a circle. Ever. No matter how narrow the ellipse or how acute the view, it has no corners. And yet I see beginners put them in, the drawing on the left is a common one. Trying to join up a dotted line, to make it circular never works; instead you should draw loosely in a circular motion. Your hand should hold the pencil, not too firmly; the movement is all from the wrist, not just one circle, but several. When you are happy with it, go over it lightly and get rid of any lines that wavered too much. Have a practice; you will soon get the hang of it. It is important to use this method even if you can only see part of the ellipse. Draw the whole thing; then rub out what you don't need.
Let's look at the two pictures in more detail. The one on the left has a base that is almost straight. And yet this too is an ellipse, its just that you can only see part of it. In fact the ellipse at the base should be even more curved than the one at the top, due to the fact that you are looking at it from a slightly higher eye level.
Now check out the writing on the jar. The writing on the left hand jar exists on its own plane, breaking all the rules of physics and perspective. The writing on the jar on the right follows the surface of the object. It also becomes smaller as the edges of the jar recede (more about perspective later). Remember, surface decoration or text on anything must follow the shape of the object it is on.
Illustration, Copyright Michele Webber
Linear perspective - simple rules
(No maths please we're British)
Again, it's a big enough subject for an article in it's own right, but here are a few pointers to help you:
Perspective is an illusion! It is caused by the way the lenses in our eyes view things. Think about it. A row of 3 foot high fence posts will appear to get smaller into the distance, but if you walked up to them, they would still be 3 foot high. Artists use perspective to mimic the way humans view things and give the impression of dimension and distance. Clever huh?
Uprights remain upright, horizontal lines change (with a couple of small exceptions.) When drawing buildings, it is the horizontal lines that change, due to vanishing points and eye levels, all the uprights stay exactly that. What are the exceptions? Tall buildings viewed from directly below: if you stood at the bottom of a skyscraper and looked up for instance, the sides would get closer together as they went away from you. Another exception is when the object or building has physically sagged over to one side ie crooked fence posts, old timber buildings etc.
If you draw accurately what you see, the perspective will be correct. It's a comforting thought that if you just accurately record the angles and sizes you see, even with no understanding of perspective, it will be spot on (and far easier than trying to mathematically plot all the lines, which I advise against, unless you have the brain of Da Vinci). Remember, don't change position/seat height/viewpoint, you will change the perspective!
Corners of buildings or chimneys viewed from ground level will always be convex not concave, in other words the part that is central/closest to you will be highest. Look at the illustration above, the angles I have highlighted red are viewed from below. The base of the building on the left, highlighted in blue, is viewed from above, therefore the angles go the other way. Most buildings can be viewed as simple variations of cubes and tubes, the roof goes on afterward. The angles in most buildings will appear this way, but if you had a very high viewpoint (like standing on a mountain looking down) then all the angles would be like the lower one.
Stuff gets smaller into the distance, and fainter, and thinner, and closer together
You can use this trick, and repeat motifs (trees, sheep, posts, rocks, anything) to lead the eye into the picture.
Have you ever heard of aerial perspective? It has nothing to do with vanishing points, angles or maths - phew. It is the effect of viewing things at great distance through particles in the atmosphere, making stuff further away appear: fainter, bluer, cooler, softer. Used by painters for years to make landscapes more realistic, so much is aerial perspective imprinted into our brains, that it can even be used in still life and closer subjects to trick the viewer, even though in reality the effect would not be visible so close up. Even in drawing you can use this trick, just use softer fainter pencil marks for objects or views that are further away.
'Lake District' photograph, Copyright Michele Webber
Using drawing as a basis for other media.
Drawing is fun, what's next?
Now some people never tire of drawing, the simplicity and beauty of the media are enough for a lifetime, which is fine. But personally, although as a child I drew constantly, as an adult drawing has mostly been the means to get to painting. I can't wait for the moment when I can load my brush with lovely colour. So all my drawings are simple under-drawings, used to tell me where to put the paint. You too can use drawing as a jumping off point for all sorts of other media, from fine arts to crafts.
Some other media to try:
CHARCOAL. One of the oldest, most beautiful mediums in the world, you can put it straight on your sketch paper, or onto coloured paper. Top Tip: For charcoal you need a hard rubber, one of those that look like they are made of plastic.
SOFT PASTELS Soft pastels are like coloured chalks, best used on coloured paper specially made for pastels, build up the work in layers, blowing away excess dust. Beautiful soft blended effects can be achieved by smudging with fingers.
OIL PASTELS. Oil pastels are more like wax crayons. Colcurs cannot be easily mixed, and the effect resembles an oil painting. They too are best used on coloured pastel paper, it has slightly more 'tooth' than ordinary cartridge paper.Top Tip: Baby wipes will keep your hands clean when using pastels or charcoal.
SANGUINE DRAWING. The traditional red brick coloured crayon used by the old masters, it is combined with black charcoal and white chalk on a tinted paper. Modern coloured pencils are available to mimic its use, with less mess.
COLOURED and WATERCOLOUR PENCILS. Use coloured pencils in the same way as your graphite ones, with super added colour. Watercolour pencils are versatile, you can use them as ordinary pencils, or with the addition of water, they become paint, just like magic!
LINE AND WASH. Sometimes called pen and wash, waterproof liner pen or old fashioned dip pen and ink drawings are overlaid with Watercolour washes.
WATERCOLOUR. This technical medium uses pure transparent pigments to create beautiful effects, it is also my favourite.
GOUACHE. (Also known as Designers Gouache due to its use by commercial artists before the invention of computer graphics). This is opaque watercolour, giving a denser more chalky look, and enabling areas of flat colour.
ACRYLICS. The ultimate paint for bright colours and over-painting, can be put onto surfaces from canvas to paper to wood. I use it for murals. When it dries it becomes a type of plastic, so must not be allowed to dry on brushes. A ceramic palette is needed, it chemically bonds to plastic forever!
Top Tip: A simple rule, if you are applying any water to your paper you must use Watercolour paper, not cartridge. Cartridge is only suitable for dry media.
How to make an under-drawing.
All that stuff I told you about shading, forget it. If you are going to paint then the paint will be your shading. Your drawing should be minimal and basically an outline. For a painting, the less drawing the better. An overly complex drawing will lead to you applying the paint in a rigid, paint by numbers way, leave yourself some freedom to use the media in its own right. Note however that for watercolour painting, areas of white must be marked out, as these are reserved, and remain as white paper. In other words, watercolour requires a more detailed under-drawing than other media. It is worth remembering too that heavy use of an eraser on watercolour paper will degrade the paper, leaving marks that only become visible when the paint is applied! Top Tip: When working in pastels or charcoal your under-drawing should be in the same media, not in pencil. Believe it or not mistakes will show far less this way, as they will blend seamlessly into the finished picture.
Line and Wash Painting 'Valletta, Malta' Copyright Michele Webber
I hope this article has given you a better understanding of drawing, its uses and methods, please leave a comment, (you need to be a member of squidoo) or share the link on your blog, facebook etc. Thanks, I appreciate it.
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