Draw Everything Like a Pro

Drawing is a fundamental skill for artist, emphasis on skill. There are basic drawing rules and approaches that work, including these six tips on how to draw anything accurately.

  1. Start by drawing shapes, not identifiable objects. You’ll hear this advice over and over again in art classes and workshops. To understand what it really means, think about the way children draw faces. They know that a face has two eyes, two ears, a centered nose, and two lips. No matter how the person facing them is posed, children will insist on including all the features, even if they can only see one eye, one ear, and a protruding nose. They draw what they know, not what they see. To some extent, adults do exactly the same thing.
  2. The Open Door by Charles Sheeler, 1932, conté crayon on paper, mounted on cardboard. Female Figure #4 by Charles Demuth, c. 1912-14, watercolor and pencil on paper.
    The Open Door by Charles Sheeler, 1932,
    conté crayon drawing on paper, mounted on cardboard.
    Female Figure #4 by Charles Demuth, c. 1912-14,
    watercolor and pencil drawing on paper.

  3. Consider the negative shapes as much as you do the positive shapes. Students often find it difficult to determine how to draw an arm that extends away from a model’s body or the distance between two objects sitting on a table. The way to do that is to imagine that the “negative space,” or the open space between the model’s body and her arm, is a solid object with a height, width, and length. The same technique can be used when trying to determine how far one building is from another or how high a head is above a model’s shoulders. It helps to deal with the negative space in the same way you deal with the positive shapes.
  4. Visualize and draw the lines you can’t see in order to draw the visible lines accurately. Sometimes the best way to draw something that is partially concealed from your view is to continue the lines as if you could actually see it. For example, if you want to determine the curvature of a bowl filled with fruit, draw the complete circular top as if the bowl were empty, and then erase the sections that are obstructed. And if you want to know how far a leg extends beyond a person’s waistline, drop an imaginary plumb line from the waist to the floor, and then evaluate the shape of the triangle formed by the leg, floor, and plumb line.
  5. Draw connected shapes, not disconnected shapes. It’s very difficult to calculate how far a person’s head is from the bottom of his or her feet, the distance from one ear to the other, or the distance from a far tree to one in the foreground unless you draw all the shapes in between. That is, after guessing at the total height of a standing figure and establishing a scale for the drawing so that it fits on the sheet of paper, work your way down from the head to the shoulders, from there to the waist, on to the knees, etc., so you can judge each shape in relationship to the others.
  6. Draw light guidelines between shapes to better judge the distances between them. Artist Robert Liberace recently issued the first of five instructional DVDs on drawing, and in it he provides lots of useful information. Among the artist’s recommendations is to start by making very light, straight lines between all the component parts of the figure or still life objects to guide your hand as you begin to refine the drawing. Then gradually add more lines using Conté crayons, graphite, charcoal, or Prismacolor Verithin pencils to darken the edges of the shapes and the shadow patterns in between.
  7. Start by drawing the lightest values and build to the darkest. Most artists find that it makes sense to gradually build from the lightest areas of their drawings to the darkest so they have an opportunity to make adjustments along the way without damaging the surface of the paper or creating ugly smudges where they have erased inaccurate lines.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

10 thoughts on “Draw Everything Like a Pro

  1. These are all good considerations. I would like to add that starting to make your marks from the center of the head and working out to the edges verses the other way around seems to be a good practice that many are following.

  2. This was excellent! I am going to print it out and bring copies to the Life Class I teach. I would add just one more tip for life drawing: capture the gesture! I suggest to my students that they start off a long drawing with a very simple gesture drawing: only a few light lines, but these will help immensely with placement and proportions.

  3. I think that using negative spaces is one of the most important lessons I have learned and I learned it from one of the articles in American Artsist magazines. Being self taught I am always looking to improve my work. I seldom paint what I see but rather what I “don’t see” from sideways and upside down until I block in most of my rough shapes and colours. Then I start fine tuning and even adjusting prespectives. As I work in acrylics I do not always work from light to dark, (as I do when I use watercolour,) but I work from back to front and try to remember that air is blue. Does that make sense?

  4. I wish I could have said it as well. I still go dark and to light though in oil as find it makes more sense and even with charcoal I try to get the dark shapes out of the way, but for watercolors I also go light to dark. You magazine is so helpful especially for those of us who haven’t the time we need for classes. Thanks so much for being there. The cost value for your magazine compared to actually taking classes is nil, and yet I find I always gain so much more knowledge from you. Thanks again