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Tips to Improve your Drawing: How to See

June 3, 2009

I have decided to start with the most general lesson I could think of: how to see. Before learning about materials and techniques, there are some fundamentals to drawing that you should be aware of. Drawing is not a talent; it is a skill that can be learned. As with any skill, there will be those who pick it up more quickly than others, but it’s important to remember that anyone can learn how to draw. The key to becoming an artist is not so much in technique and how you use your tools. Instead, learning to draw requires that you re-train your brain to understand a  few simple things:  1) there are no outlines; 2) you need to draw what you see, not what you know; and 3) objects are made up of groups of basic shapes.


No More Outlines
No matter how well-done the shading is, a heavy outline will flatten a drawing.

A heavy outline will flatten a drawing, even when shaded.

The shading behind the hand defines the edges of the fingers.

The shading behind the hand defines the edges of the fingers.

As well as being useful in early sketches, the line is a very important drawing element that I will be talking about in the future. Outlines, on the other hand, have no place in your drawings if your goal is realism and depth. An outline does an excellent job of flattening a drawing, negating all attempts at shading. In truth, there are no outlines around anything. Take a look at your own hand. What defines the spaces between your fingers? Not lines: shadows. Shadows are what tell us what a thing looks like, how big it is, whether it dips in or sticks out. A strong light source and high contrast will help create the kinds of shadows that provide depth. When drawing an object, don’t try to draw the shape of it, look for the shadows that define its edges. Shadows around and within an object give it dimension. Aside from sketching the placement of elements within your drawing, try to avoid the urge to draw using outlines.


Draw What You See

When it comes to drawing from a reference, how you see is just as important as how you draw. You need to pay attention to the way a thing looks, and do your best to draw it that way. The human brain has a tendency to try to “fix” things that don’t look quite right. Sometimes, the angle of a limb can look awkward and we can be tempted to draw it the way we think it should be. The thing to remember is that the arm makes perfect sense in the context of the entire body, and to draw it any other way will make an awkward drawing. In other words, what appears strange on its own works as a whole. I’ve done portraits where the angle of the face makes one eye appear very short and slanted. Part of my brain wants to draw the eye as it should be, level and just as big as the other eye, but if I don’t draw the eye short and slanted, the entire portrait is off. You will have no problem with this as long as you carefully study your reference, and trust yourself enough to draw exactly what you see, no matter how unnatural it seems.


Everything is Made of Shapes

Drawing a duck can be overhwelming.

Drawing a duck can be overhwelming.

This topic relates to training your brain to see things in a new way. When a person sees a duck, he thinks to himself, “there’s a duck.” When an artist sees a duck, he thinks to himself, “a circle for the head, a rectangle neck, and an oval body with a triangle tail.” Everything can be broken down into an arrangement of these basic geometric shapes. Once you can train your brain into seeing things this way, it greatly simplifies the entire drawing process.



But drawing the shapes is much easier.

But drawing the shapes is much easier.

Knowing what shapes make up an object tells you how the object should be shaded. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the details of how to draw a certain subject, but by starting with the basic shapes you’ll be able to overcome that initial challenge. A trick to help train your brain to stop seeing “the duck” and start seeing the shapes is to turn your reference upside down. By looking at something upside down, you separate the image from what it actually is, allowing you to focus solely on the shapes involved.

By focusing on shapes, drawing what you see, and eliminating outlines, you can greatly improve your drawings. Try to keep these drawing fundamentals in mind as you practise, and stay tuned for more articles to help you develop your drawing techniques.


From → Art General, Drawing

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