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How to Get Better At Drawing

Charcoal on newsprint I did in 8th Grade

Do you want to know how to learn realistic drawing?  Realistic drawing is really desirable to people newer to art.  It is a good foundation skill to have.  Back in the day, art students were drilled in realistic drawing, especially figure drawing and perspective, then branched out to their own personal styles after they were accomplished at realism.  Getting competent with realism takes time and plenty of paper.  Everyone can achieve realistic drawing.  When you were little, holding a pencil and writing your name was hard because it was unfamiliar.  Drawing is just training your hand-eye coordination, just like a professional baseball player is not born knowing how to pitch.  Here are 8 tips to help get you there:

  1. Draw from life.  The more you draw from life, the better you get.  My junior high school teacher made us draw crushed pop cans, wrinkled paper bags and the same boring pile of bottles over and over.  I benefited the rest of my life from this.  It also helps if you have some bones laying around, too.
  2. Draw big.  Get out from under just using your fingers and wrist to draw.  Use your whole hand and arm more.  Also, see the lines better because they are larger.  Half of drawing well is seeing what does not look right; the other half is making it look right. Use a large pad of cheap newsprint paper, a chalk board or anything you have that allows you to draw as large as possible.
  3. Use photographic references.  I lean heavily on reference photos.  If you draw from paintings, cartoons or other drawings, your drawing will look less realistic and more cartoony.  Photographs have already taken one step for you, they are flattened into two dimensions and easier than drawing from real life because you get edges where color planes meet.
  4. Trick to fast skill improvement.  Do this exercise: take a photograph you want to draw.  Get your pencils and paper.  Now turn the photograph upside down and draw it.  Keep your photo upside down the whole time you are drawing.  Turn it around, does it look great?  It will if you try this.  The verbal side of your brain is an evil control freak and bent on constant identification.  You have to train your brain to let the non-verbal skills kick in and take over.  If you are drawing a person, your brain is still in the background saying “eyes”, “nose”, “face”, etc.   By drawing the photograph upside down, you are turning the verbal identification skills off and looking at shapes and colors.  The more time your “right” side of the brain gets to be in charge, the easier drawing gets.
  5. The slow road.  Learn grid drawing and do it until you feel confident enough to stop using a grid.  The straight lines help you with seeing where things are being drawn.  If you liked drawing on ruled notebook paper this is going to make sense to you.  Use a ruler and draw boxes over your photograph (a magazine page works well.)  Then make boxes on your drawing page and tackle them one by one.  Give your reference photo one inch boxes; make the drawing larger with the same number of two or three inch boxes.  Also, make the boxes light on your drawing so they can be shaded over or erased when you are done.  Just because you used a grid does not mean it has to be seen in the finished art work.  From Renaissance painters to living artists whose work is currently in museums, a lot of art had grid drawing as its backbone.
  6. Train your brain.  Take a cheap ballpoint pen and a pad of paper.  Take something from real life to draw, it can be anything you want to draw.  You are going to train your brain with what is known as “contour line drawing”.  Draw your object but do not look at the paper.  You want the pen to stay on the page as much as possible.  You will make a lot of drawings that look terrible with lines going all over the place.  The point of this exercise is to train your hand-eye coordination and observation skills.  I also took to cheating by using my left fingertip to hold a place on the page where I left off with a line.  You really want to keep your eyes fixed on the object you are drawing and not look down at the paper as much as possible while you are drawing.  It may feel frustrating.  If you stick to this, if you do it enough times, you will see a big improvement in the contour line drawings.  You will get really good at drawing something by just looking at it and not the page.  This exercise will help your overall drawing skills.  It helped me overcome an ongoing habit of very light, scratchy lines to make shapes.
  7. Learn to render graphite.  Make light circles of pencil that get heavier where the shadows and darker areas of your drawing are.  Even if you only have a standard #2 pencil, you can render very well.  A paper blending stomp helps to smooth out rendered areas but I have also used a paper towel wrapped around my fingertip.  Learning the different kinds of graphite pencils from a very hard [like F] to a softer [like 8B] helps.  Buy a basic drawing pencil set; the HB is closest to a standard #2 pencil.
  8. Draw, draw, draw.  Unlike the adage about riding a bicycle, drawing is a skill that degrades pretty fast.  If you do not draw a lot or have not drawn in a long time, you will be out of practice.  You need to put time in on the clock to be good and to stay good at drawing.  If you are out of practice or your skills have lapsed behind what they once were, don’t panic.  Just put the time in to train your skills back up and concentrate on getting better.

Graphite pencil [rendered] drawn from life done the next year, freshman in high school

Categories: Painting
  1. November 7, 2015 at 10:56 am

    Really good references to drawing. I am going to try the upside down one as I already did the not lifting pencil on paper.

    • November 7, 2015 at 8:21 pm

      That’s great, Di! ☺ I sent you a mail art envelope today, so keep an eye on your mailbox down there. ☺

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