This is the compilation of a series of 10 posts indicating steps and tips that (according to me) would put almost anyone on a mental mind-frame that with enough time and patience will allow us to draw anything. For comfort purposes I’m putting them all together.
1. Understand drawing as a process
Drawing, like all of creation, is a process; it scales from simple to complex on rounds of iterations. Think of literally anything in nature: a tree is first a seed, then a sprout and only after it has a strong enough trunk it gets branches. Could a real tree be born without a seed? Could a complex drawing be born without a previous sketch? (the sketch is sometimes invisible if you’re like https://www.instagram.com/kimjunggius/)
Therefore, we can see virtually anything as gesture lines, flat shapes, volumes in space, weights in composition, and then as particular and distinctive things. If we get a good grip on this mindset drawing won’t be as daunting. What’s a table but a square and four lines? What’s a car but some cubes and 4 cylinders?
Starting any drawing process on a shape and volume-oriented mind will unlock the magic of understanding that leads to being able to draw anything, from simple shapes to complex detail. Just like a tree!
A huge part of learning to draw is starting at a comfy place from where we can dig deeper into complexity, climbing a stair to something awesome one step at a time. This first issue of 10 on How to draw ANYTHING focuses on the first step, understanding that drawing can start really simple before getting really flashy.
2. Decide on something to say
If we speak without previously thinking we might get to say something that sounds good, but probably lacks substance. Same as that, drawing without a clear intention to communicate something will probably render us a pretty but not meaningful drawing.
To avoid this “sense of void” or “walking without direction” we just need to think about: what’s going to happen here? What should someone think or feel when they see this?
- Are we just going to do some anatomy practice sketches? cool, then that’s what we’re doing.
- Are we mixing random words to draw some fun ideas? cool, then that’s what we’re doing.
- Are we making the first page of a long and complex story that will turn into our first million dollars graphic novel? Wow, ok cool, that’s what we’re doing.
Establishing a goal and running towards it helps inspiration to give us a boost instead of trying to push us outside the bed.
Pencil, paper, software are just tools. Talent and a trained eye and hands are but a medium. Without an essence or an intention behind those, they are not really useful. Therefore, before drawing (or doing anything) we should set on a proper intention to communicate something.
3. Look for references
Every good project starts with some previous research on the elements that compose it; no one should build a house without knowing what material will hold the ceiling in place. Think about your drawings like successive projects and your research a measurement, so they don’t fall apart midway.
Taking a few moments to find references on the elements we want to include will save us lots of time and frustration in the future. As a result, we won’t get those blank off-putting moments of trying to remember how to draw a leg horse or a particular face. We can just look at it, get what we need and continue without breaking the drawing flow.
At some point, many of us have thought that we should practice to avoid using references, that having something to look at while we draw is cheating. This is nonsense. As we grow and practice we’ll memorize many things, and at that moment, we’ll just use different references.
4. Respect your sketch
A good sketch is not a perfect sketch. Sketching is about actively looking, trying, failing and trying again. To make good sketches we must abandon fear and embrace a little chaos, set aside complexity and embrace simplicity, focus on the flow of the overall volumes that compose our drawing and how the silhouettes of things start to appear.
At this stage making light and loose lines is the way to go, we want lines that we can easily erase. Sketch lines are not definitive, they’re rather suggestive of where things should go once we start adding more detail.
While sketching we should expand our attention to the whole instead of working too much on particular points. A good sketch is about looking at the whole picture instead of the details, it allows us to check if something is going to look ok or not fairly quick without investing too much time and effort.
Good sketching is the foundation of all good drawing while practicing it we get to understand at a practical level that at the early stages of creation is ok to experiment and make multiple attempts to get something “there”. We don’t have to start perfect, we just have to start.
5. Be mindful of basic geometry
90% of the time or more we’ll be able to abstract almost everything we’re planning to draw in circles, squares, and triangles. Therefore, when we start a sketch, we should approximate what we’re looking for parting from these basic shapes.
Basic shapes not only apply to how we build things, but also how we place them; spaces or alignment between elements is also perceived as shapes (unconsciously for the untrained eye), and the most basic shapes always make up for good composition, guiding the viewer’s attention discreetly.
If we first build our drawing thinking on how the overall shapes of things affect the whole perception of it, we’ll be making sure that everything looks like it belongs to the same place without investing too much effort.
Starting any drawing with basic shapes allows us to place our elements and check on our composition quickly, it helps us check how well things can work as a whole without investing too much effort and develops our skill to plan properly before executing. Taking advantage of the natural flow of things.
6. Think about weight and balance
Shapes and volumes, just as in the real world, carry some weight to them; when we’re placing shapes and volumes on our drawing, depending on how we do it, we’ll be creating balance or unbalance.
Highly unbalanced things create lots of visual tension, and by contrast, evenly balanced things feel more calm or plain. You can think of this as a direct analogy to contrast among colors; high contrast (such as yellow and black) creates tension, while low contrast creates uniformity and calmness.
Managing weight and balance (or shape contrast) will help us determine how much stress or calmness we put into our drawing.
Understanding the basic principles behind visual communication can make the most simple drawing a superb vehicle to get a message across, the management of weight, balance, and contrast is one (if not) the most basic tool in a visual artist’s cabinet.
7. Learn to use focal points
Every element that’s placed on a drawing is calling for attention; let them all yell equally loud and the viewer won’t be able to discern what they’re saying (like on the looking for Waldo books). A good way to guide the viewer’s attention through our drawing and increase the readability of it is to set defined focal points and attention hierarchy among them.
To define focal points, just think of what should be noticed first and what should be noticed later, then organize your shapes and lines to create contrast in there. This could be achieved through clearing the surroundings of a shape to make it pop against void space or placing the other elements somehow as lines that point to it.
Our eyes will naturally go to the most “stressful” point of what we’re seeing, that meaning: where something breaks a uniform pattern, gets framed, or where two lines cross.
The best way to emphasize a focal point is to organize everything else in the drawing around it; making everything else to be a support element to it, like a clear statement on a speech to which every phrase leads.
To make a quick check on how effectively we’re guiding the attention we can do this:
- Get far enough to see our whole drawing and stare at it.
- Close our eyes firmly for a few seconds.
- Open them suddenly and pay attention to what our eyes notice first while our vision stops being blurry
That pop up spot is our focal point.
Once we learn how to say stuff with shapes it becomes necessary to say it in proper order. Learning to manipulate the focal point of our composition automatically improves all of our visual communication and offers an overall better experience for any viewer.
8. Understand 3d volumes
Just as our initial approach to the overall composition of the drawing was based on the use of basic shapes; we can approach the construction of each element drawn as an abstraction of basic 3d volumes: cubes, spheres, cylinders, cones, etc. Unless, of course, is our express intention to create a completely “flat” illusion.
Building a house? What are the basic volumes that compose it? Building a monster? How can his body be abstracted to some deformed cubes and spheres?
Drawing while keeping in mind how 3D elements should behave on space will help us place detail on our elements coherently and cohesively, giving a proper first overlay to our drawing. Once these placeholders are set drawing details is fairly easy. Just a matter of adding lines and little things where they should be.
Learning to visualize and rotate shapes on our imagination is a symbiote skill, it feeds our hands and our hands feed it. It’s especially helpful to draw directly from our imagination and helps us take advantage of visual references; letting us comfortably build new elements and accurate compositions.
9. Build and use grids
When we start working with 3D volumes, perspective and things rotating on space we’ll likely get somehow lost on the placing of elements over them or in relation to them; for this, we can build and use small grids.
Building a grid is just a matter of tracing light lines over the surface of our shapes to divide it into smaller blocks, making it easier to understand and draw upon it. This will help us see how the surface of something behaves and facilitate the accurate placing of things. Also, if we can visually manipulate the properties of the space we’re drawing on; creating visual distortion effects becomes far easier.
Grids can be applied to anything: from characters to the whole space they interact upon. Tracing spatial grids and establishing vanishing points (where all lines for a particular dimensional axis meet) we get to accurately set a base for perspective drawing.
Grids are a great way to help keep things in place consistency wise, by building a grid we get a referential surface to work upon, helping us place, rotate and distribute elements over our drawing; they’re not always necessary but can always be helpful.
10. Redraw and improve
The first draft of everything is normally pretty lame. When we write something we normally have to rewrite it to make it better. “Nailing it” on the first try is fairly uncommon, and drawing is not different.
To do this we just need to add our first draft to our reference panel and do it again tweaking everything we judge necessary to get our message across or achieve our objective with greater clarity.
Actually, redrawing and “pushing” something through multiple iterations to achieve clearer readability is a common practice in the animation industry. And hey, if we didn’t want to do something over and over again to improve at it we might as well not breath regularly.
And that concludes this small trip! At some point, each one of these concepts was an “eye-opener” for me, I share them with you hoping they’ll also be of help on your journey to the mastery of drawing; something that has led me not only to live mostly under my own will, but to understand life itself.
If you have any thoughts, opinions or will like to consult me at something you can DM on twitter at @manuelberbin or email me at email@example.com, if you got here and want to know a little more about me:
My name is Manuel Berbin, you can call me Manbe for short. I specialize in 2d vector cartoon illustration and concept development. I’ve been drawing cartoons my whole life and illustrating professionally at digital media for over 9 years. I was born in Venezuela but I’m currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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