You can learn how to draw what you see. Everyone has the ability to learn the fundamentals and with practice master this skill. There is no mystery to talent as I explained in this post. In this article, I’ll outline some basic points to help you get started.
If you want to skip the discussion, just click here to redirect to the how to draw step-by-step below.
History of Drawing
Humans have been seeking ways to communicate with each other since the dawn of time. From the earliest cave paintings, which predate writing, to the current day, we use images to teach, warn, make each other laugh or cry, keep visual records and so much more. To think that drawing is the prevue of the gifted view is to deny ourselves a voice in the visual conversation.
It’s unnecessary as we all have the ability. We only need to be shown how and then practice our newfound skill. So I’m asking that you suspend any belief you may have that drawing skill is a gift, that the artist was born knowing how to see artistically, that you weren’t born with ‘IT” – and instead see that this is a skill you can pick up just as you did when you learned to write. Let’s begin.
We start with observation
Perhaps someone who has been drawing for decades, and has learned to draw everything, can glance at a subject and just start sketching. But if you are starting out or learning to draw something out of your comfort zone, you’ll spend quite a bit of time looking. There are exercises to help train your eye, like contour drawing. Those exercises help build eye-hand coordination, and I encourage you to incorporate them into your practice.The next time you are waiting in line at the store or taking a walk, pick something out and study it with your eyes. See the subject in front of you with your eyes and not your brain. Try to make visual sense of your subject before… Click To Tweet
Study your subject
- First commit to using your eyes and not your brain to see. Your brain will want to substitute the symbol it has filed away for the actual image you are trying to recreate. For example, no two trees are alike, but your brain is going to want your hands to draw a generic form of tree rather than the actual tree in front of you. The points that follow will help you to overcome this.
- Look at your subject and try to see it’s overall shape. Think geometrically. Does your subject fit into a square or rectangle? Or a circle? Perhaps a triangle?
- Then look at the parts of the subject that make up the whole. What shapes do you see and how do they relate to each other? Squares and circles? Do they overlap? What parts are not seen because they are behind another part? Do you see any strong lines?
- At this point you are just looking and mentally breaking your subject apart into pieces and then putting it together again. Now look again. Where does the light hit your subject. Where are the shadows? Can you see where the darkest and lightest parts of the subject are? How does that relate to the geometric shapes of your subject?
- Now follow the outside perimeter of your subject with your eyes. Take note of the form and how it sits within its environment or against the background.
Observation takes practice.
The next time you are waiting in line at the store or taking a walk, pick something out and study it with your eyes. See the subject in front of you with your eyes and not your brain. Try to make visual sense of your subject before putting pencil to paper. And tell your brain to take a break; the eyes have this!
Drawing is an activity that uses supplies you probably already have in your home – a pencil and a piece of paper. Last week I talked about the pencils and paper I like to use – you can read that post here – but don’t get hung up on supplies. Use what you have to start drawing now, and add to your collection of pencils and paper later.
What should I draw?
Eventually you will learn to draw everything, but if you’re just starting out choose something simple like a mug or a tissue box. Choose something with a clean, easy to read shape. Having said that I know that drawing a mug or tissue box can be boring. I still encourage you to start there, but if you just can’t bear it choose something a little more complex, but only focus on a part of it. Complex subjects can all be broken down into simple shapes, so focus on the simple shape and move to the next, then the next and so on.
Incidentally, this is actually a general rule of thumb no matter how experienced you are. Start simple, and then add complex detail.
Light and shadow, proportion and perspective
If you are looking for a drawing “recipe” then I say this is it: 1 part each of light, shadow, proportion and perspective will give you a realistic rendering of your subject. All of them play a role in making an object burst out of its two-dimensional plane and gives the illusion of three-dimensions.
Think of perspective as the angle you see your subject, and proportion as the relationship of parts of your subject to its entirety. This may be the hardest part of observational drawing – getting the perspective and proportion right.
Shadow and light are the elements that create the illusion of three-dimensions on your page. The darkest areas recede; the lightest look nearer to the viewer.
All of them combined help you recreate what you observe realistically in your sketchbook.
Quick note about pencil grades
Pencils are graded from hard to soft, which corresponds to lighter (hard) and dark (soft) – 9H (hardest) to 9B (softest). Each pencil grade give a range of light to dark relative to its individual grade. When I’m sketching out in the field, I tend to use a somewhat soft pencil – like a 2b or 3b. Soft enough to block in big shapes, but hard enough to put in details. My watercolor underdrawings are made with a 4H because it’s a faint line that disappears as I paint. (In a pinch I’ll use a regular #2 pencil but roll a kneaded eraser over it to fade the lines.)
In my previous post about my favorite pencils, I showed you what I love to draw with and the process. I encourage you to experiment with pencils. See which brands you like and the grades that get you the effects you want. You can mix brands. I certainly do!
How to draw step-by-step
Here is my process right now for pencil drawings (slightly different for watercolor under drawings)
- Draw in shapes using flat side of soft pencil, paying attention to proportion and perspective
- Take my 2B mechanical pencil and add midtones
- With my soft, dark pencil put in the darkest shadow shapes
- Now I go back and forth adjusting values to get the form
- Then I step away and go work on something else. When I come back I make adjustments as necessary.
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Project: Easy drawings of nature
If drawing a cup or your bookcase drives you nuts, there are plenty of subjects in nature that are easy to start with. Leaves, shells, tree trunks, rocks, and so on – just choose something with a clean shape. Shells are a favorite of my as are rocks. They are interesting to look at, have simple shapes and yet enough complexity to help you grow as an artist.
You can sketch them where they lay or if you are allowed you can take them inside to draw. Keep in mind that on public land like national and state parks it’s against the law to remove any nature.
That’s the beauty of keeping a sketchbook and pencil with you at all times – you can draw your souvenirs!
The secrets of learning to draw
- Get a Dover book of master drawings to trace (muscle memory), then try to freehand – and do this over and over.
- Break down your subject into geometric shapes (great exercise while watching television).
- Practice a lot!
- Keep a sketchbook/junk book to practice in.
- Breakdown techniques – blocking and proportions, light and shadow, shapes, etc., in your sketchbook and practice them over and over.
- Draw everywhere and everything.
- If you get frustrated turn the page of your sketchbook and begin again (or take a break). And you can always draw on top of your mistakes.
- Don’t give up – you can do this!
Conclusion – What’s next?
While you’re learning how to draw from observation, start also drawing from memory – or in other words your imagination. Fantasy drawing is no more that observing the scene in your mind and putting it on paper. You can use the same process, only you’ve created the world and are looking at it with your mind’s eye.
I can’t say this enough – just keep practicing. I promise you’ll see improvement, and it will become easier. Draw what you love. And let me know how it goes.
Also I’m curious – what are your favorite subjects to draw and why?