How to Draw


Learn to Draw and You Will Never Be the Same

Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher, lithograph, 1948.
Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher, lithograph, 1948.

Great artists know that they can never afford to leave behind their drawing techniques if they hope to keep growing and refining their work. This goes for illustrators, architects, painters, sculptors, designers, even tattoo artists! Drawing is the backbone of art, allowing artists to not just see but record what they see in line and shading, contour and gesture.

What’s most exciting about learning to draw is that there are so many avenues of pursuit. An artist can join a drawing program that is specifically tailored to drawing from life, doing quick studies and lengthier sessions to capture the movement and gesture of a live model. Or one can pursue drawing as a personal study, taking up paper and pen (or pencil) and going out into the world to simply sketch. It can allow you to learn how to draw with a variety of media as well–graphite or pencil, charcoal, pastel, pen and ink and more.

But if an artist hopes to master how to draw realistic objects and figures every time he or she puts pen to paper, there are drawing techniques that one must focus on. First comes observation and hand-eye coordination, so that we train the eye to interpret what we see in ways that make sense when we are drawing, no matter what our subject is. Then an artist can start learning how to draw figures and their actions and poses. Life drawing classes will follow, as well as drawing in a sketchbook on a frequent basis. This is the life of drawing artists–coming back to and utilizing drawing on a day-to-day basis. It is a commitment, but the rewards are learning how to draw anything!

How to Draw a Great Painting

A five-minute gesture drawing by Jon DeMartin.
A five-minute gesture drawing by Jon DeMartin.

“One of the biggest reasons painters get into trouble is because their pictures don’t have a solid foundation of accurate and expressive drawings,” says New York artist Jon DeMartin.

“Drawing is an integral part of the picture-making process,” DeMartin says. “It provides the opportunity to explore variations of the subject. An artist might get excited about an idea and rush headlong into the painting without adequate preparation only to discover–often much too late–that the idea couldn’t be sustained through the entire process. By taking the time to execute preparatory drawings, an artist can carefully consider and distill the ideas and thereby make better creative decisions.”

The best part of DeMartin’s drawing workshops is that they give students a range of approaches to figurative drawing, each of which can help with particular aspects of picture-making. For example, he has students start each day with quick gesture drawings that emphasize the spontaneous, linear aspects of recording an active pose in a line drawing.

“Short poses from one to 45 minutes tend to be more about line and gesture, and long ones (one hour or more) are about shape and volume,” he explains. “Because of time constraints, any extensive modeling with values is difficult to do, so the more ways I can make line express volume, the better.” When artists spend hours or days working from the same pose, their drawings become analyses of values related to forms turning from the light to the shadow.

“Both of these approaches to drawing the figure can be beneficial to painters, but they can also lead to their own problems,” DeMartin says. “Artists who only make short gesture drawings often produce stylized images that are formulaic rather than honest responses to individual models. Conversely, artists who only make drawings that take months to complete often end up with mechanically accurate observations that lack emotional content. By combining the two approaches, the artist has a better chance of being able to make both quick evaluations of the way figures move in space as well as accurate observations that evoke the essence of the person being drawn.”

DeMartin recommends that artists use different drawing materials but the same posture while making these two types of drawings. “Drawing should be done from a standing position with one’s arm extended so the motion comes from the shoulder, not just the wrist,” he indicates. “Artists should be able to see both the drawing surface and the model within their field of vision.”

DeMartin explains that there is not just one recommended approach to drawing or painting. The crucial thing for artists to remember is that some amount of drawing will help in selecting the elements of a picture, establishing the composition of lines and values, and resolving potential problems.

Source: Adapted from an article by Steve Doherty

Drawing Techniques: Line and Shadow

DeMartin (figure drawing, above) recommends finding and emphasizing the rhythmic actions in a drawing.
DeMartin (figure drawing, above) recommends finding and emphasizing the rhythmic actions in a drawing.

Here are a few tips from artist and instructor Jon DeMartin for when learning to draw with line and contour or shadow and tone.

Line: The principal objective in making quick sketches is to capture rhythmic actions. Find the action before the contours because without that sense of motion the drawing will lose its rhythmic flow. If time allows, gradually introduce structure by conceptualizing the orientation of the head, rib cage, and pelvis in space using vertical and horizontal median lines. The focus is more on the skeleton of the body than on the muscles.

Shadow: Shadows guide the artist in comparing the other values that are in light, so put those in first. Create one flat value for the lights (the white of the paper) and one flat value for the shadows with hatched lines that make a light tone. Value is not a concern, only the graphic interpretation of the shadow pattern. It is important to recognize which forms are in shadow and which aren’t because artists often mistake dark values in the light for shadows.

Line: Lines describing the features can cross over the body parts as they emphasize the flow of the forms and the relationship of one shape to another. If an arm crosses over the body, for example, the artist should draw the continuous lines of the body first and then draw the arm over that section of the body. The point is to capture the action and contour and let the subtleties come later.

Shadow: Learning to draw or develop the shadows means working in an additive way, building up layers of charcoal. First rub in an even, flat mass of shadows and then use a charcoal stump to melt the shadows into the paper. This serves as a nice juxtaposition to the values in the light, which are more spontaneously drawn with hatching. On longer poses, the drawing’s three-dimensional illusion is expressed primarily through values of light and dark. The planes on the form that turn away from the light source darken as they approach the shadow line. These are the value gradations on the form that convey the illusion of roundness. The rounder the form, the more the gradations spread out.

Source: Adapted from an article by Steve Doherty on Jon DeMartin’s drawing techniques.

Learn to Draw Edges

Men Walking in a Field by Georges Seurat, 1883, Conté, 12 x 91/8. Collection Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland.
Men Walking in a Field by Georges Seurat, 1883, drawing, 12 x 9 1/8. Collection Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland.

Contour lines are a useful lie a draftsman uses to indicate the edge of a form in a line drawing. In truth, we don’t see a line marking the edge of a 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 and a light, thin line can indicate 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. In his drawing, Men Walking in a Field, Seurat made the closer figure move forward in the picture plane by increasing the contrast between darker planes and lighter planes and by using harder edges on this figure.

In his book Mastering Drawing the Human Figure From Life, Memory, Imagination, Jack Faragasso points out that one should always be aware that the most important edges are those that indicate light and dark patterns. He uses as an example the thick ruffled collars that often appear in Rembrandt’s paintings–the important edges in such collars are not the individual twists and folds, but rather the edge of the shadow as the collar moves into the light. Effectively depicting that line will do more to make the ruff convincing than a hundred detailed lines.


Where to Position Your Drawing on the Page

Nude Male Kneeling, Holding Fabric in Right Hand by Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1715-16.
Nude Male Kneeling, Holding Fabric in Right Hand by Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1715-16. .

You can always place the subject of your line drawing or contour drawing smack dab in the middle of the page. It makes a strong statement and, in some cases, most clearly expresses how you want the viewer to experience the piece. But placing the subject matter elsewhere in the composition can make the background work for you and create intriguing tensions, suggest narrative, and guide the eye to the focal point in a more subtle way.

The French term mise en page (literally translated, “placement on page”) is sometimes used in reference to this concept, but the idea has its roots in much earlier history–artists’ consideration of this aspect of composition is generally thought to have originated in the Renaissance. By the age of Watteau, its significance in an artist’s approach was firmly established, and today it’s nearly inconceivable that a working artist would neglect its careful handling.

Our natural tendency may be to place the subject matter in the center of the composition, giving it the attention it deserves in the middle of our “stage,” but this does not accurately reflect how we usually view the world. Unless we are extremely close to our subject, there is a great deal of information reaching us in our peripheral vision. We experience everything in context, and this context impacts how we interpret the focal point. As drawers we must fight what feels automatic and truly observe the entire scene to accurately describe the tableaux.

Periklis Pagratis, the chairman of foundation studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design, teaches his students drawing basics and beyond, including the idea that when designing a composition, they should think of the subject as Medusa’s head–don’t look at it directly or you will turn to stone (or your drawing will, at least). The negative space around the subject should play an essential role in your composition. There will be plenty of time to closely pore over the subject itself when the time comes for rendering it.

Flip through any art book and you are sure to see wonderful examples of compelling mise en page. Examine any painting or drawing in which the focal point is pointedly placed away from the center of the composition, then imagine how differently the piece would work if the subject matter were dead center on the page. You will readily see how the best artists make mise en page work effectively for them.

Source: Adapted from an article by Bob Bahr


Courtney Jordan

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.