10 drawing tips I wish I learned sooner
I’ve been drawing my entire life, but I never really had any formal instruction in it. When I was a child every few years I’d visit with an older cousin from England who is a terrific illustrator and I’d learn a little by watching over his shoulder, but he never really spent any time teaching me anything or explaining what he was doing.
Then in high school I was in an ‘advanced’ type of art program which basically meant they left us alone to do whatever projects we wanted- and again I never really got any specific instruction to improve my technical skills. After that I went to university and took the first year fine art classes only to realize that the whole fine art program was really much more conceptual than technical and they didn’t care if we knew how to draw or not, but only cared if we could write a (to my mind pretentious) artist statement and back up our projects as being about a ‘big, important, deep idea.’ (needless to say I didn't last very long in this program.)
Much of what I’ve learned about the technical aspects of drawing has been done the hard way, doing things wrong for years, stumbling around in the dark, finding nuggets of wisdom in books, online videos and tutorials and cobbling together my technical skills in bits and pieces over the course of many years. So much of the time I’d stumble on something and a light bulb would flash above me and I would think , 'WOW! I wish I knew this 10 years ago!’
In the drawing classes I teach many of the things I try to impart to my kid students are these things I've learned which I wish someone told me when I was their age. It would have saved me years of doing things the hard way or the wrong way, and given me a stronger foundation of technical skills at a far younger age. Many are very simple things that can be learned and incorporated instantly.
So here’s 10 things I wish someone told me about drawing when I was much younger.
1. DRAW FROM YOUR SHOULDER
This is such effective skill that once you implement it your lines will be smoother, more confident and more comfortable almost instantly. I think part of the problem is that as children most of the time we are using a pencil and paper in a school context for writing little numbers and letters, which then trains our hand to move the pencil with tiny little movements using our fingertips and wrists. When we are given paper to draw on it’s often small paper and I notice most of my young students draw their cartoons very small, using those finger and wrist movements.
Get yourself a nice big sketchbook and start practising making big sweeping lines and shapes with your shoulder muscles. I often start a drawing session now by just drawing huge loop-de-loops and circles and figure 8’s on a scratch piece of paper, just to warm up and wake up my shoulder muscle.
Now of course not every line will come from the shoulder, I often say ‘big lines, big muscles, small lines, small muscles’ so you will likely use a combination on shoulder movements, elbow movements, wrist movements and fingertip movements throughout a drawing session.
Seriously, draw with your shoulder muscle. If you need a reminder of that muscle, pretend you are a witch stirring a big cauldron full of potion, it's a big cauldron with thick potion stir it up! Now look at what muscle you are naturally using to do that, it’s your deltoid- or shoulder muscle-and it’s one of your best friends when you are drawing.
2. DRAW ON GOOD PAPER
As a kid I often was drawing on thin paper, computer paper, or cheap sketchbooks, and the problem with that is that the paper won’t stand up to erasing that well. I remember finally when I started using some thicker mixed media paper, bristol board and better quality sketchbooks that the quality of my art improved. It meant the page could take a bit more of a beating, a bit more fiddling and changing things along the way. It’s amazing what a bit of thicker paper can do.
My one caveat to this is not to spend a ton of money on a really expensive beautiful leather bound sketchbook. This can be intimidating to draw anything at all in, as you might be afraid of 'ruining it'. I think youtube 'sketchbook tours' have created an unrealistic image of what a real sketchbook looks like. They often aren't pretty, they are not full of final pieces, they are 'sketchy' for a reason. You should feel free to make ugly art in your sketchbook, and not worry about having to eventually post it online, or even ever show it to anyone at all. There is a freedom to knowing that the sketches won't be seen by anyone and you don't need to put pressure on yourself to make each sketch 'perfect'.
My current favourite paper to draw on is a 9x12 inch mixed media paper. It's smooth, thick and not too expensive.
3. FIND A PENCIL YOU LOVE
Some people love mechanical pencils, some go for fancy BlackWing pencils, china markers, or graphite sticks, but for me the magical pencil that improved my drawing a lot was finding the Prismacolor Col-erase pencils that are sometimes known as ‘animators pencils’. Particularly the light blue and the light red ones. Why do I love them? Many reasons, but one of the primary ones is they don’t make a smudgy grey mess on the page, you can erase them to basically disappear. And I often used different colours for different areas of the construction (i.e. blue for the body, red for the clothing)
Honestly it doesn't matter what pencil you use, just as long as it feels good for you. It might take a lot of experimenting with hardness and softness, size and shape etc. But once you find a pencil you like, buy up a bunch of them and settle into to the comfort of having a tool that you know well and can predict how it'll react.
On a similar note I don't think there is any 'correct' way to hold a pencil. the only wrong grip is one that gives you arm or hand strain and pain. If you are holding it too tightly after hours of drawing you will find your whole arm and wrist in pain-which obviously isn't ideal.
I've seen various pro artists using all sorts of different pencil grips and I've concluded that if it works for you, and doesn't cause you pain, then it's fine. Don't let anyone tell you there's a 'right or wrong' way to hold a pencil. That being said, don't be afraid to experiment with a different grip now and again, you just might find a different grip is conducive to making certain types of lines a lot easier.
4. USE CONSTRUCTION LINES
When I’m constructing a drawing now, usually starting with a light blue pencil and big swooping shoulder movements, I’m not thinking of the contour edge much at all. I’m almost thinking like a sculptor and starting by adding big blobs of ‘clay’ before i carve out the details. Getting good at 3d shapes will really help with this, but part of it is just the mindset. Start with big simple shapes, and they can give you a good sense of if your proportions are working before you spend too much time getting into the fiddly details.
Wrapping some contour lines around those shapes will also help you to visualize the curve of the shape in 3 dimensions. Practice wrapping lines around shapes, I tell kids imagine you are putting elastic bands around the object, and draw the bands. Being able to do this is actually harder than it seems but once you get the hang of it it will help so much to make your drawings feel like they have dimension and help you to know where to place the light and shadows as well. Adding centre lines can also be really helpful for things that are symmetrical like faces. Once you realize that all of your construction lines will be erased and unseen in the final piece then you have permission to just really start adding whatever constructions lines you feel will help you figure out where the final lines will go.
I often tell my students, think of the construction lines like the scaffolding that is erected around a construction site, it’s only there for as long as it takes the workers to put up the building, once the building is done the scaffolding gets taken down. Your construction lines are the scaffolding you use to build the rest of the drawing. Use them.
5. DRAWING AND INKING REQUIRE VERY DIFFERENT MINDSETS
As I find myself often saying in class, ‘drawing is like building a mountain, and inking is like getting to ski down the mountain you built’ I feel like its a useful metaphor because it helps to think of the two stages as totally separate. First of all, the drawing part always takes way longer than the inking, and is far more frustrating. You are having to pull something into existence that doesn’t exist yet, and there will be lots of things that are ‘too big’ or ‘too small’ or just feel wonky or off that you’ll need to correct along the way. This is the part where your eraser is your best friend and you don’t need to be as confident and certain in your strokes. You can make a bit of a mess drawing and it's all fine. Try not to get discouraged when drawing, chances are your first attempt won't be perfect and will need some tweaking or redrawing later on.
Inking is very different. The other metaphor I use is to think of the drawing as the rehearsal and the inking as the performance. When you are inking you want to make each line as confident and clean and clear as possible, and for the most part if you mess up, ignore it and just keep on moving. With permanent black ink, if you go over and over the area you are unhappy with all it does is point a big arrow at that area of the picture to alert the viewer ‘i really messed up here’.
Like a piano player that flubs a note in a performance, if they just keep moving forward like nothing happened a good amount of the audience will never even notice. If they stop and go back over that section a few more times until they get it right, then everyone knows there was a mistake. Same thing with inking.
Also with inking I find I’m constantly rotating my paper around to get the right angle for each particular line. Take each line one at a time, and try not to run all the lines together without picking up the pen. Consider the line you are going to make, consider the best angle, and confidently make it then move on. Similar to skiing down a mountain you want your inking to feel fluid and with a bit of speed to it to capture a sense of energy and movement. In the end it doesn’t matter how scratchy or loose or worked over your drawing lines are if the final inking lines feel smooth and confident.
6. FLIP YOUR PICTURE HORIZONTALLY TO REVEAL MISTAKES
When you are drawing digitally you can easily flip your canvas horizontally and keep working on it. (but remembering to do it often can be an issue.) When drawing on physical paper I find the best way to do this is to hold your drawing up against a window and looking at it through the back of the paper. It’s amazing how when we look at a drawing for many minutes or hours we become unable to see some of the obvious flaws that will then jump out to you instantly once you see it reversed.
It can actually be a painful thing to do because the information you might get are things like ‘one eye is way lower than the other’ and require significant adjustments that you’d rather not have to do. But once you become willing to face your flaws and fix them then it becomes and invaluable tool to quickly diagnose what you need to do to fix your proportions, and end up with a stronger drawing. Once the drawing looks right to you normal and flipped, then you have likely fixed some of the glaring issues.
7. USE REFERENCES
It’s amazing to think back to myself as a kid who liked to draw but believed that copying someone else’s drawing or using a reference picture was somehow cheating. Do music students not ‘copy’ Mozart and Beethoven? Why with music are we fine to learn by studying pieces written by others but with drawing we seem to think that everything must spring up from our own brain.
Trust me, our brains are not as smart as we wish they were. Don’t believe me, take out a piece of paper and without looking at any reference draw a bicycle. Unless you are a bike mechanic I bet partway through the drawing you’ll realize that even though you’ve seen thousands of bicycles over your life you don’t really know all the little details and how they all fit together.
Since we live in a world where you can just Google image search anything you want and instantly see hundreds of pictures, there’s no excuse to not look things up. One of the first things I do in every project now is spend a good amount of time looking at and collecting references, then putting them together into reference boards. I like the app PureREF which I use to quickly build a reference board to look at while I’m drawing.
The very best references are the ones you make or find yourself, take your own pictures, pose or get a friend to pose for you, go outside and observe nature directly. The next best is to collect and combine a bunch of references together to come up with something new. If you have to just copy a reference directly, try to change a few things about it so it’s not just a complete direct copy. But that being said…
8. DO STUDIES BY COPYING YOUR HEROES
Now of course the caveat here is I don’t think its cool to do a direct copy of another artist's work and try to pass it off as your own, or worse yet try to sell it. But I’ve learned so much from taking a piece of art I love and trying to recreate it as close as possible to the original. It’s like you get to live inside the mind of a master for a few hours, getting to see the decisions they made and understand a bit of what makes their style and process work.
This is one of the fastest ways to improve because the master artist is years ahead of you in skill, but you are getting to walk a few miles in their brushstrokes. There are two ways to do this- one is to try and recreate the original image as exactly as possible, the second is to think of your copy like a musician doing a cover song, you take their composition and colours and ideas and put your own spin and style on it. Both are really valuable exercises to try, and you will learn a lot and improve fast!
9. START WITH THUMBNAILS
This is another one of those so simple but so important steps that I neglected to do for way too many years and once I implemented has improved my pieces by leaps and bounds. Start a drawing by not starting on the actual drawing but by making a bunch of 1 inch boxes on a scrap piece of paper and trying to figure out the composition first in thumbnails.
The benefit of this is that you can do many of these really quickly and start to mine your imagination for more creative ideas. Often the ‘first idea’ we have isn’t the best idea, sometimes its the 3rd or 7th or 15th idea that really starts to feel like we hit on something good. Often the first few ideas are 'shaking off the cliche’s', and by banging out a few thumbnails before starting on the final piece you are starting with a more interesting composition or idea than you would have if you just started without the thumbnails.
Thumbnails are also really valuable for showing how the image will read from a distance without all the detail added in, if a thumbnail is reading well without all the final polish then you are on to something.
So many of these tips are about holding off the satisfying part of drawing, those fun details to last so they can be built on a strong foundation. To that end...
10. BIG SHAPES FIRST, SMALL DETAILS LAST
As a kid I would often spend a bunch of time making a great drawing of facial features, and then try to attach them to a head and then try to attach the head to a body after the fact. This is totally backwards and comes from wanting to rush to the final stage of the drawing to soon.
It’s a lot harder and more frustrating, but ultimately much more valuable to start with the big simple shapes first. Get the proportions of the body, head, limbs all in place before adding the facial features or hand details or fun costuming accessories.
The metaphor I use to get this point across to the kids I teach is to say that starting with the details is like trying to decorate a cake before it’s even been baked. You have to bake the cake first, then you have something to put the icing on. The baking of the cake is getting those big simple shapes in place first. Then once they feel right then you can go in and start with the details.
The benefit of this is that when you only have simple shapes its a lot easier to erase and change proportions. When you have spent a lot of time on details you will be more resistant to changing things even if later on your realize something like ‘the head is too small for the body’. Start with big simple shapes, use that shoulder!
These are the first 10 tips I could think of that have made a big difference in my drawing skills. When I teach classes I’m often hammering these points over and over.
Because learning to draw is a lifelong pursuit, I’m sure there will be things I learn in the future that give me that light bulb moment again and make me wish I had known them all along, but ultimately that’s the process of learning anything that’s complicated.
There is no end point, no ‘there’ to get to. Every step you take makes you realize there are many more steps in front of you. You never really arrive at a perfect understanding, and I think in the end having a growth mindset is the most important thing.
Be constantly looking for how you can be a little bit better tomorrow than you were yesterday. Even though I’ve been drawing for decades now, there is so much I have yet to learn, and I’m excited to discover.
Wherever you are on your art journey, I hope there is something you can take away from this that helps you a little bit and I wish you the very best in your pursuit.
TIP 11: Don't stick pencils in your ears, at least not the pointy part.