Drawing Basics: The Beauty of a Block-In

Today’s newsletter is from our archives and originally ran in September 2014. In this post, you’ll learn Sarah Parks’s drawing basics for creating a block-in; her drawing advice is included in an exclusive Top 10 Art Techniques: Pencil Drawing video workshop, newly available at North Light Shop.

An Important Lesson on How to Draw for Beginners

My homemade jelly didn’t win in the town fair this year. Even as I admit this, I realize that it’s a minor let-down; the first-place prize was a meager $4, but the blue ribbon is what I had my eye on. My family and I grew the grapes ourselves, and so I was completely invested in having the satisfaction of knowing that they were some of the best in the Bluegrass.

There’s at least one reason that I took home a humble jar of jelly, naked of its expected ribbon: I entered it in the fair too late. It was my first time; I didn’t know that I had to register ahead of time, and I simply showed up at the fairgrounds after the opening parade. I used my sweetest plea to have the staff accept the entry, even though the cut-off was prior to the parade. They accepted it all right, but at the end of the fair, I saw that the jelly hadn’t even been tasted.

Shame on me–but you better believe that next year, I’ll plan ahead. That’s today’s advice from Sarah Parks, and while it has nothing to do with jelly, it has everything to do with learning how to draw.

Drawing basics with Sarah Parks | ArtistsNetwork.com

Images courtesy Sarah Parks

The Beauty of a Block-In by Sarah Parks

The biggest hindrance to students’ progress that I’ve seen is that they usually start with small details and then try to build their whole drawing on those details. When drawing a face, they start with the eye; when drawing a flower, they start with a petal. They inevitably get the proportion and scale wrong or run out of room on the paper because they’re working from small to large. Focusing on details early in the process is a lot of fun, but it invariably turns out a drawing that doesn’t look right.

You have to start big and work small, which is why most skilled artists always start their drawings with a block-in. A block-in is a light sketch of your whole composition before any details or shading are done to make sure it’s placed correctly on the page and that the proportions and distances are accurate. If you rush into heavy shading and detail before you’ve done a proper block-in, erasures will leave a ghost image.

Drawing basics with Sarah Parks | ArtistsNetwork.com

How to draw for beginners: This is an example of a typical block-in. (Pin this!)

You can see from the block-in above that this light sketch doesn’t incorporate any refined shading or details, but it gets all the elements of the composition placed and sized correctly. The proportions and distances are accurate: the girl’s head isn’t too small for her body, the focal point (her body and the couch) are placed in the middle of the paper, etc. It’s the same idea as lightly sketching in the letters on a poster. We’ve all been there: you just start drawing the letters and then you find you’ve run out of room and have to cram the last few letters in or write them down the side of the poster. The concept of the block-in applies here, too.

Drawing basics with Sarah Parks | ArtistsNetwork.com

Drawing basics: A reference photograph and a block-in, both with corresponding axis lines

The block-in above is a typical example of how most professional artists block in a drawing. They’ve honed their observation skills and, as you can see, can get everything well-placed on the page. But many beginning artists would find that still too advanced for their skills.

So here’s a straightforward tip that will enable you to lay the foundations of your drawing before you get too invested: use axis lines.

Draw a single vertical and horizontal axis line, placed exactly halfway between the edges of the drawing paper, giving you a center point. Do this on both your reference photograph as well. Using these axis lines and your center point as reference points, begin to draft your drawing by gauging the distances of your objects from those reference points. After you’ve checked your work and everything is placed correctly, you can erase the axis lines then and start to shade.

This method also divides the composition into four quadrants, breaking it into manageable parts and training your eye to analyze and observe shrewdly. Doing a block-in may seem like it takes longer to get a drawing done, but in the long run it will save you a lot of time and erasing. ~Sarah

I hate to admit it, but I’ve absolutely committed the crime of running out of space when drawing artful letters and words. It’s reassuring, isn’t it, to know we’re not alone in doing something that seems so silly? We can skip many mistakes by following the drawing tips from expert artists. In this Top 10 Art Techniques: Pencil Drawing video, learn from some of our most popular instructors: Lee Hammond, Grant Fuller, Mark Menendez, Mario Robinson, Claudia Nice, Carrie Stuart Parks, Debora Stewart and Sarah Parks. Double your lessons when you also get the Top 10 Art Techniques: Surface & Texture Secrets DVD at North Light Shop.

Here’s to planning ahead,
*Not to brag, but in 2015, my concord jelly won third place. 🙂 There might have only been three entries. But still! #nevergiveup
Cherie Haas, online editor
**Subscribe to the Artists Network newsletter for inspiration, instruction, and ideas, and score a free download on Human Figure Drawing: A Two-Part Guide by Sadie J. Valeri.

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