Drawing Basics

An Artist Needs It All—From Drawing Techniques to Drawing Ideas

Study for the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, before 1508.
Study for the Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, before 1508.

Mastering the art of drawing can take a lifetime because there are just so many drawing lessons to be learned. From foundational step-by-step drawing knowledge to all the different kinds of drawings to be explored—line drawing, contour drawing, gesture drawing, figure drawing, and more—a life of drawing is one that can be busy and incredibly varied.

But there are drawing basics that draftsman almost always explore. That’s why taking drawing tutorials on shapes are so prevalent and popular. How to draw a cube, how to draw a sphere, how to draw a cylinder—these are the essential building blocks that allow artists to learn what they need about drawing line, shading, and turning form in order to create more complicated and virtuosic drawings as their skills progress.

The most crucial of all drawing tips is simple—draw! Make it a daily part of your artistic practice. Study the historic drawing masters of the past; carry a sketchbook with you as much as possible to record your own simple drawing sketches; study more complicated drawing pursuits like anatomy, the sight-size method, and gesture drawing.

All of these combined will give you a foundation of drawing basics and the keys to grow them into a skill set that no successful artist should be without, allowing you to draw competently and confidently for the rest of your career.

Contour Lines & Line Drawing

Thrusting Figure by Dan Gheno, 2002, sanguine crayon, 24 x 18. Collection the artist. The far side of the figure’s head is very lightly indicated, which tips it farther into the background.
Thrusting Figure by Dan Gheno, 2002, sanguine crayon, 24 x 18. Collection the artist. The far side of the figure’s head is very lightly indicated, which tips it farther into the background.

Contour lines are useful to indicate the edge of a form in a line drawing. In truth, we don’t see a line marking the edge of a model’s face. We merely see where the form curves away from view. Drawing a solid line on the edge of elements suggests shapes, not forms—a draftsman must take care to imply the other planes not visible from the viewer’s vantage point. Plus, simply concentrating on the contour lines can distract an artist from the important task of portraying the gesture of the model, which usually radiates from the interior of a figure. For this and for other practical reasons, an artist’s handling of edges is of great importance if a drawing is to be convincing.

Curves are hard to accurately render. Many drawing instructors recommend using only straight lines for edges, softening them into curves where necessary later. If you think this is a beginner’s crutch, consider how Rubens, a master draftsman, used this method.

Edges do much of the work in suggesting depth. A thick line brings the shape forward; Dan Gheno’s drawing reminds us that a light, thin line indicates a plane receding into the background. But edges aren’t just about lines. In more tonal pieces, a harder edge and a marked contrast between planes create a form that is closer to the viewer than one with a softer, lighter look. This is essential for cast shadows—a shadow is sharpest at the point where it touches the object casting it, and it diffuses as the shadow lengthens away from the object.

Drawing the Cube—Drawing the Figure

Illustration 1: Tipped, Turned, and Tilted Rectangular Volumeby Jon deMartin, 2008, charcoal pencil drawing on newsprint, 18 x 24.
Illustration 1: Tipped, Turned, and Tilted Rectangular Volumeby Jon deMartin, 2008, charcoal pencil drawing on newsprint, 18 x 24.

In the most basics of drawing, the human body can be reduced to basic geometric volumes. The head, ribcage, and pelvis are the three main masses of the body, and they are connected by the vertebral column, which can independently tip, turn, and tilt. The front, side, and back views of the figure, built as cubes, illustrate the variety of these movements. Each mass is in a different position in space. Note the imaginary center marked on each mass, describing the orientation. Many artists find it helpful to use the cube to understand and re-create complex forms in nature, as shown in some of Luca Cambiaso’s drawings.

When imagining the head, ribcage, or pelvis as boxes, we find that they are rarely seen at predictable views but are continuously changing in their positions in space. Illustration 1 shows a series of rectangular cubes presented as a head thrown into different perspectives. In the center row and middle rows the cube is tipped and turned and all of their respective positions appear to be vanishing to a true horizon—that is, all lines are vanishing to the eye level of the viewer. The outside rows show the cube tipped, turned, and tilted, which means all lines are vanishing to a false horizon—they are no longer vanishing to the eye level. This is most often the case when drawing the head. Note the axis of the head that orients its position in space. The axis is an imaginary rod running through the middle center of the mass.

Good drawing requires developing the ability to depict anything so that it appears structurally correct and undistorted. By far the best method for learning to draw is to draw actual objects from life—not copying reproductions or photographs. Mastery comes through constant practicing of drawing techniques and skill. Keep nurturing your creativity while working on the more formal exercises. In the long view they will help one another.

–Jon deMartin

Making Art According to Leonardo da Vinci’s Motto

Kem, 2004, 48 x 24, oil on canvas, by Daniel Maidman Hands #1, 2011, 24 x 24, oil on canvas by Daniel Maidman
Left: Kem, detail, 2004, 48 x 24, oil on canvas. Right: Hands #1, 2011, 24 x 24, oil on canvas.
I am not claiming either painting is better, but without my figure drawing
practice between 2004 and 2011 I couldn’t have painted the newer painting.

Few match, and I’d argue that none surpass, the genius of Da Vinci. But Da Vinci himself may not have seen it that way. It is said that his motto was Ostinato Rigore. This translates to something like “persistent rigor.” Da Vinci tirelessly pursued his art, from moving line drawings to designs for incredible inventions, and allowed no obstacle or challenge to deter him.

Yes, there is such a thing as talent. There are prodigies out there in the world. But the pencil and the brush hide continents of complexity. A prodigy may pick up either one and make a great painting or draft a beautiful drawing the first time he or she tries. But to make a life of it—to produce a great body of work, perhaps to change the world as Da Vinci did—takes persistent rigor.

Beauty and truth are fine things, and they live on a high mountain. Sometimes, in the dreams of talent and prodigy, we fly up and touch them. But it is only by climbing a little bit every day that we can hope to make a home with them, and share their company for an extended time. Some people are born with talent, but nobody is born with skill. Skill is the mastery of materials and techniques, learning the basics of your art form, and there is no way to get to that level of expertise except by practicing, by showing persistent rigor.

–Daniel Maidman



About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.