Help! I Can’t Draw
Video Lesson by Vladimir London
As one of the Drawing Academy’s tutors, I receive questions from art students who admit that they can’t draw.
Despite attending contemporary art colleges or being self-taught, they cannot make high-quality, realistic drawings from their imagination or from life. Many artists have to resort to copying from photos, using projectors, or tracing an image to reproduce it.
The many questions asked of me can be summarized in one phrase:
“Help! I can’t draw; how can I improve?”
I have also discussed drawing skills with professional artists already graduated from art colleges and starting their creative careers. One day I asked an artist with many art exhibitions in his portfolio to make a realistic drawing of a horse from memory or imagination. He couldn’t.
How do you develop your drawing skills so you can draw whatever you want?
If this question resonates with you, then I hope this presentation will be helpful.
I will be very honest here – there is no magic pill you can take to become a skillful fine artist overnight. Drawing is a skill. Like any skill, it can be learned and perfected. And there is only one person who can make it happen: you.
If you have a burning desire to become a better fine artist and are willing to dedicate time and effort to learning how to draw, I can help you get started.
Before we begin with your drawing education, I want to manage your expectations and tell you what to anticipate.
There are certain things about learning drawing that you need to know:
1. You need a good art teacher – a professional fine artist who can draw and knows how to teach drawing.
2. You need to practice drawing, it will not happen by itself.
3. You need to progress from simple to advanced drawing topics. Even if you are already an established artist, you might need relearn the basics.
4. Learning to draw is a life-long process. Continue learning and practicing no matter how skilled you may be.
5. You need to learn the time-proven rules and principles of drawing that have been developed since the time of the Old Masters. You can improve your artistic skills by building on a solid foundation, the rich heritage of classical art.
With these points in mind, let’s begin with the foundation of your drawing education.
I will suggest a series of drawing exercises that you can do to improve your drawing skills. These assignments start from basic and progress to more advanced topics.
1. Learn about drawing materials and how to use them.
There are many misconceptions on this subject. Some so-called art teachers advocate a five-pencil drawing method; others suggest using rulers, compasses, builder’s line, gray-scale values, and so on.
The truth is, you don’t need all those aids to learn to draw. An abundance of drawing materials will not improve your drawing skills, but might make you dependent on certain techniques. You could find yourself relying on five pencil grades or judging tones only with help of gray-scale values. If those tools were taken away, you would be left unable to draw as you used to.
In the Drawing Academy’s Guide Book, which provides the Academy’s curriculum and assignments, you will find all the necessary information on various drawing materials.
For the purpose of the exercises I’m about to teach you, you will only need one or two pencils (HB or 2B are sufficient), a couple of erasers (white-rubber and kneaded), and drawing paper.
When it comes to drawing paper, go for a moderate price range. You don’t want to over-spend on high quality paper for disposable sketches, yet going for the cheapest option is a false economy. Sizes A3 and A2 (about 12×16 and 16×23 inches) are what you will need.
2. Sharpen pencils correctly.
Your first step in using a pencil is sharpening it. Buy a good pencil knife. Don’t trust art instructors who advise you to sharpen pencils with a sharpener. It is only good for children, and only for safety reasons.
A well-sharpened pencil needs to have about one centimeter (0.4 inches) of lead exposed. You may sharpen exposed graphite with fine sandpaper.
It is a good habit to always use a sharply prepared pencil. When it goes blunt, re-sharpen it immediately.
Another good piece of advice is to draw with long pencils. When a pencil gets short after multiple re-sharpenings, use a pencil extender. This way you will have a comfortable pencil grip and prolong the life of the pencil.
3. Arrange your workspace effectively.
Correct drawing position is important.
Drawing on a flat desk is not ideal. This position distorts your view of the drawing and out of alignment with the model.
The best way to solve this issue is to use a drawing easel. However, you don’t have to buy a professional one. A simple and cheap substitute is to find a regular drawing board that is larger than your paper size. You can place this board upright on a chair, so that the board is tilted about 20 degrees from vertical.
Fix your paper to the board with paper tape on both the top and bottom. Alternatively, you can use bulldog clips.
You can adopt a sitting or standing position in front of the board. Just make sure the paper is at your eye level so you look at it straight-on. This way, you will see the surface of the drawing with the least distortion, have freedom to stand back and consider your drawing, can draw at an arm’s length (which also improves your view), and align the board so you can see the drawing and model simultaneously.
4. Grip your pencil correctly.
When I see art students drawing with pencils, I am surprised how few of them use the correct grip. It is another symptom of the faults in contemporary art education, where art teachers do not bother to show the proper techniques.
In the Drawing Academy course, we set this rule straight from the very beginning – in order to draw freely and skillfully, you need to employ the correct pencil grip.
There are two main methods. First, when your drawing board is upright in front of you, grip the pencil like a candle. In this grip, the pencil rests on four fingers and the thumb holds it from the top. This grip works best for large-scale pieces and when the drawing surface is in a mostly vertical position.
When you work on smaller scale drawings or draw on a horizontal surface, use a “writing” grip, as if you were holding a pen. There are certain rules for this grip as well. Hold the pencil with three fingers – support it from below with your middle finger, hold it with your thumb from the side, and push it from the top with your index finger. Make sure the rear of the pencil is pointing directly to your writing hand’s shoulder. This way, when you flex your fingers, the pencil lead will glide parallel to the paper surface without you having to correct your hand’s movements.
With the “candle” pencil grip you can make wider strokes in all directions, and you can freely move your wrist, hand, and arm from the elbow or shoulder while drawing. This grip gives greater freedom while you are drawing and allows you stand or sit further from the artwork, offering a better view.
The “writing” grip is good for precise pencil strokes on a small scale. This is ideal grip for pen-and-ink technique, drawings in silverpoint, and calligraphy.
5. Draw flat geometric figures.
Finally, with a well-sharpened pencil, good drawing position, and the correct pencil grip, you can begin the first exercise.
Let’s start with straight and curved lines and basic geometric shapes. Although this exercise doesn’t sound too creative, it is indispensable in improving your drawing skills.
Get used to the correct pencil grip by drawing short and long lines in various directions. Draw them straight and curved, vary the angles and curvature, use both constant and variable pencil pressure. You can start a line with greater pressure and ease up as you end the line.
Continue by drawing various geometric shapes: squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, ovals, and so on. Vary the shapes’ sizes, rotate them at different angles; continue drawing them until you are comfortable with the pencil grip and have confidence in drawing simple shapes.
Get to the point that you can draw any flat shape precisely as you intended.
6. Draw simple three-dimensional geometric objects in perspective.
When you are ready to advance to a higher level, start thinking three-dimensionally.
In this exercise you will draw “wireframe,” transparent objects in perspective.
In the Drawing Academy video lessons on how to draw in perspective, I explain the main perspective methods, including one-, two-, three-, and four-point perspective, as well as aerial perspective, and I show how to use those rules of perspective in drawing.
Equipped with the knowledge from those video lessons, draw simple geometric objects, like cubes and cuboids, in one- and two-point perspective.
Draw a cube as if it were completely transparent, with all its edges and corners visible – in other words, draw a “wireframe” cube. Apply the rule of drawing not only what you see, but also what you know; this includes drawing imaginary helping lines, like the horizon and rays formed from the edges that continue to vanishing points on the horizon.
Draw cuboids at different angles of view, below, at, and above the level of the horizon; rotate those cuboids to achieve different vanishing points.
Find some household objects that resemble cubes or cuboids. You could use a stack of books, a box, or anything similar. Observe how it looks in perspective. Measure the angles of its edges from various points of view and in different relations to the viewer, such as whether it is seen from above or below.
Continue to more complicated objects, like cylinders, cones, and spheres. Such objects have axes of symmetry; draw those axes as if they were real lines. With ovular shapes, you will need to include additional virtual lines, such as the main and secondary axes.
A cylinder can be inscribed in a cuboid. Draw a cuboid in perspective and construct a cylinder inside it. See how perspective affects your view of the cylinder.
A circle in perspective is depicted as an oval or ellipse. As such, it always has rounded ends. Don’t make the amateur’s mistake of drawing a “tuna” shaped oval with pointed ends.
A sphere will always look like a perfect circle from any angle. Nevertheless, it has volume and can be drawn in perspective. Draw a sphere, indicating its main vertical and horizontal axes, as well as its widest horizontal contour (this will look like an oval). The part of this oval that is closer to the viewer will appear slightly larger than the other half.
Practice this exercise until your ‘wireframe’ drawings look realistic and believable. Draw from life as well as from your imagination.
7. Draw a still-life consisting of simple geometrical objects.
It is time to arrange those three-dimensional objects into still-lifes.
You can make a still-life from simple household objects, like books, vases, bowls, etc. Make it uncomplicated; two or three items will be sufficient to start.
Draw the still-life as if all objects were transparent. Make sure you draw all imaginary and real but non-visible lines – axes, the footprints of the items, composition lines, any lines connecting the key points of the still-life, and so on. Depict the relationships between the objects in your still-life; make it clear which items are closer to the viewer and which farther away, which are higher or lower, what the distance between objects is, and how they look in perspective.
Measuring proportions is critical here. Learn to judge sizes, angles, and proportions by eye. Draw what you measure visually, and then double-check those proportions with a pencil, using it as a measuring tool. I explain in detail how to calculate distances, angles and proportions with a pencil in the Drawing Academy course.
The objective of this exercise is to construct every item and to compose a realistic still-life in its entirety.
8. Draw architectural elements.
When you are comfortable with simple geometric still-lifes, you may advance to more complex arrangements of objects, or you can move to drawing architectural elements, like corbels, classical column capitals, rosettes, and the like.
The same principles of constructive drawing apply here. You should draw what you know rather than copying what you see. This process requires you to know the rules of perspective and to understand the non-visible parts of shapes, as well imaginary lines like axes and helping lines.
You can do drawings from life or from your imagination. It helps to make preliminary drawings of the item in two dimensions, without perspective first. Such sketches will help you stay on track when you begin depicting this object in perspective.
Measure the relative proportions of an architectural detail first by eye, and then double-check with your pencil. Do not use rulers or other tools apart from your pencil and eraser.
The objective of this exercise is to improve your skill at constructive drawing in perspective.
9. Draw simple organic items with planes.
So far, you have drawn geometric shapes and objects. It is time to progress to organic shapes.
Draw simple organic items from life or from your imagination; most vegetables will be perfect models for this exercise.
Do not just copy a vegetable’s outline, but construct the item’s volume in perspective using the principles of constructive drawing. Imagine that the cucumber or pear you’re drawing has multiple flat surfaces – planes. Depict these planes as you did with the geometric shapes previously.
The purpose of this task is to recognize the geometry of organic objects and learn how such objects can be simplified using planes. Understanding this will help you to draw complex organic objects constructively.
In the Drawing Academy course you will find out how to draw portraits and human figures using the rules you start learning in this exercise.
10. Define the contours of geometric and organic objects
To depict any three-dimensional object realistically, you need to have a good understanding of its contours. In this exercise you will learn what contours are and how they can be used in drawing.
A contour is not the same as an outline. An outline is the visible outer edge of an object. Contours however, can be found anywhere on the object.
Here’s how you find a contour: Imagine that a flat plane slices through a given object. The cross-section of the plane and the object (the line formed from where the object’s surface and the plane touch) is the contour. Change the plane’s location or angle, and you’ll get another contour. For every item, an infinite number of contours can be defined.
Why is it important to understand contours and to be able to draw them?
To realistically depict a three-dimensional item on a flat surface, you need to convince viewers that the object has volume. This effect is achieved by the use of perspective and contours. You will also see how contours become useful in rendering tonal values.
So, let’s draw some contours. Make a sketch of any object. It can be a household item, or some organic shape, like a vegetable. Imagine that you slice that object with a multitude of planes positioned at various angles, and mark the cross-section lines that those imaginary planes would leave on the object’s surface. Don’t forget about perspective while you do this!
Also, draw the contour as if you could see it entirely, even those segments that are on the far side of the object and thus invisible. This will give you a better understanding of the object’s shape and volume.
I will explain here some examples of contours.
Let’s start with a cube. Imaginary planes cutting through a cube will always produce shapes with straight sides. Horizontal planes will leave horizontal contours, while vertical planes will produce vertical ones. In both cases, the contours will be either squares or rectangles. All the opposite sides of these shapes are parallel to each other; however, you have to apply the rules of perspective here, so these lines will converge in a vanishing point on the horizon.
By tilting the planes, you may create shapes with three, four or even five sides.
A sphere’s contour is always a circle. This circle, when viewed in perspective, looks like an oval. The direction of the oval’s main axis depends on the tilt of the plane dissecting the sphere. Keep in mind that perspective applies to ovals as well. The part of an oval that is closer to the viewer will look slightly larger than the part that is farther away.
Consider also the cylinder. An upright cylinder has rectangular vertical contours and circular horizontal contours. Perspective makes these shapes look like trapezoids and ovals, respectively.
Tilted planes that dissect a cylinder produce ovals and truncated ovals.
The contours of a cone are circles, egg-shaped ovals (wider on one end, narrower on the other), and parabolas.
Organic objects will have more complicated contours.
Make constructive drawings of various objects in perspective and mark several contours at different angles. This exercise will be particularly useful in your next task, learning how to depict the three-dimensional nature of objects with tonal rendering.
11. Rendering tonal values
There are certain rules and techniques you need to know to render tonal values properly. The information on this topic is covered thoroughly in several of the Drawing Academy course’s video lessons; therefore, I will summarize the main points only briefly.
Here are some rules and techniques for rendering in graphite pencil:
- Always use a well-sharpened pencil for rendering tones.
- Do not smudge pencil marks with a finger or paper stump – this is an amateur’s technique.
- Lift the pencil at the end of each stroke before making another one; do not scribble.
- Apply pencil strokes along the object’s contours. Every object has an infinite number of contours, so do not limit yourself to making pencil strokes in just one or two directions.
- Make every pencil stroke visible. The variety and beauty of well-drawn strokes make a work of art interesting. This is where your “hand” and style becomes visible.
- Work in a wide ‘gamut’ of strokes – vary the length, direction, curvature, and pencil pressure of your strokes.
- Work in layers; come back to the same part of the drawing multiple times, slowly building up the values.
- Do not spend too much time rendering a single part of the drawing; work on different areas in quick succession.
- Do not finish rendering one part of the drawing before moving to another part; work on the whole piece, gradually developing all the tonal values.
- Keep a piece of clean paper under your hand when using the “writing” grip.
It is important to feel the drawing pencil and get a feel for the full range of tonal values that it can give.
There is a common mistake that beginners make – using the full strength of the graphite grade from the beginning.
Here’s a good exercise for developing a “feel” for a given pencil. Render long rectangles with tonal gradients ranging from the darkest to the lightest. Work gradually, with multiple layers of hatching, starting at the dark side. Build up your tonal values layer by layer, applying pencil strokes with light pressure. Your aim is to achieve a very smooth gradation. Repeat the exercise with harder and softer graphite grades.
12. Going forward
You’ve just started the process of learning time-honored drawing techniques.
The eleven skills outlined in this presentation, however, barely scratch the surface of what you need to learn to master drawing.
- There are many topics left uncovered here, including:
- The rules and principles of drawing in perspective.
- The principles of golden proportions and their use in drawing and composition.
- The rules and principles of constructive drawing.
- The proportions of the human head, face, and body.
- Human anatomy for artists.
- Step-by-step techniques for drawing portraits.
- Drawing the human body.
- The rules of composition.
- Techniques for drawing in charcoal, red chalks, silverpoint and other media.
- Special creative techniques that are not taught in any contemporary art college.
All of these topics are available and expertly presented in the Drawing Academy course.
This course has been created in such a way that anyone can improve their drawing ability.
If your ambition is to learn how to draw whatever you see, think, or imagine, the Drawing Academy is the course for you!
You will benefit from the personal support of Academy tutors, an unlimited service that extends beyond the duration of the course.
The Drawing Academy is not just a drawing course. Here, you can benefit from the Art Community as well. In the community, you can ask tutors questions, receive critiques on your drawings, exhibit your artwork in the Academy Gallery, and get in touch with your fellow students and art enthusiasts.
The Drawing Course delivers immense value and is available for you right now for only $257. The tuition can be spread out over three monthly installments of $97.
After completing the course, you will receive the Drawing Academy Diploma in your name. You will also enjoy a free lifetime membership in the Academy.
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