Drawing Ideas for Beginners and Beyond
The thing about drawing is that it should be enjoyable. Sketching in particular should be fast, immediate and about catching a moment that can be developed later or simply for the joy of capturing a movement and attitude.
Most people think of drawing one way as a linear outline, starting at the top and then continuing through the full silhouette. It is entirely possible to draw like this but it is a difficult approach not to mention narrow. Because the reality is there are many ways to draw. In drawing workshops I ask people to work through a series of exercises based on ten approaches to drawing. This helps generate drawing ideas for beginners who are hesitant to explore and gives students with more background in drawing more ways to use their skills.
I have chosen a different subject for each technique, but as you practice them you can try mixing them up, or try picking one thing that you like to draw and working through the all the approaches applying the techniques to a single subject.
TEN — Maquette, or Shape-Based Drawing
The simplest way to start to learn to draw most things is by reducing complex forms to simple shapes. I was introduced to this approach as maquette drawing, but I have also seen it referred to by other names, such as construction, animé or manga. It is the same technique used by most animators.
Maquette Demo or Lucy on a Pony
1) With maquette drawing, the first stage is reducing the proportions and shapes to a series of rectangles and circles.
The body of a horse fits into a rough square. A pony is more rectangular and I draw Darcy on a slight angle so I put my rectangle into perspective, indicate a line halfway for the belly, a little above for the elbow, then halfway down from the elbow for the major leg joints. Three overlapping circles indicate the chest, belly/ribs and quarters (bottom).
2) I add ovals for the knee (hock on the hind leg) joints and the fetlocks (joint above the foot), then join them up to show the legs. The hooves are triangles, the chest a rough wedge shape and the neck places into the center of the chest wedge as a cut-off cone. A cheek circle, ear triangles and a crossed diamond shape suggests the head.
3) Now I can sketch in outlines of the neck, back, belly and head. The points of the crossed diamond show where to place the eye and nostril.
4) For Lucy, I take a fresh layout sheet with the outline from stage 3 and start with ovals for her head, face, shoulder, bottom, knee, heel, ball of foot, elbow and hands.
5) I add Darcy’s legs and arms with ‘lollipop stick’ shapes and linked my ovals for her skirt, hands and foot. A simple central ‘vertical’ line and cross lines indicate her facial features. From here I can transfer the outline to a fresh sheet of paper and continue on to completion of the drawing.
NINE — Keyline or Armature Drawing
This approach owes much to skeletal anatomy drawing. Artists who have that knowledge often find it a useful technique, and those who don’t can find it an introduction to that fascinating study.
It is an approach that is very useful for drawing gesture and movement, but even a static subject such as a building has a ‘skeleton’ and a plant or flow of water has a direction line of movement so it is applicable to those subjects too! Remember, keylines describe the structure not the outline, as that sits over the musculature.
Keyline Drawing Demo
Can you draw a stick figure? We all did as children – and figure 1 on the first image is one drawn by a child. If you can do that then it is not a large step to figure 2, which simply adds lines for the shoulders and hips and adds key-points for joints on the limbs.
Take this a stage further in figure 3 by making the head more egg-shaped, suggesting a rib cage and using two ovals for the wings of the pelvis, which sit more together at the base (groin). The rough proportions penciled on the far right are based on the head length as a measurement. I tend to elongate the legs a little (as in the rest of the figures) to stop the figure from looking stubby. Children, older people and some individuals do not fit this ratio, but that is OK. Seeing where an individual is unique and against the ‘norm’ helps you draw just that by seeing where the proportions are different.
Figure 4 shows how this can be applied to a side view. We don’t always stand as though we are in a police photo so figure 5 shows how you can practice looking at how someone stands. The angles of the hips and shoulders are key, as is where the weight falls.
Look at what bits stack up over each other! Also if the shoulder angle sits one shoulder up of the shoulder line, then the arm joints will also sit higher and the angle of the hips will counter-balance the shoulder line. Once you master the art of standing you can look at moving figures as in figure 6, where we really start to look to see how we counter-balance, in this case with the opposite arm swinging forward with the leading leg. With even more practice you might feel confident to attempt more complex movements like figure 7, a dancing figure.
EIGHT — ‘Engineering’ Drawing
‘Engineering’ is my term for a more mechanical approach to drawing. It covers two approaches that can be used for constructing the basis of a drawing and is a useful exercise but I find that it can lead to stiff, stilted results so I use it more for checking my drawings rather than constructing it when drawing animals and figures.
City Square in Leeds is very near my studio and hosts a variety of architecture and statuary including a famous statue of Edward the Black Prince. My original sketch for this was done on site, but then re-created in studio for this demonstration.
Stage 1. Starting with the statue I pick a point – the top of his outstretched hand, and using a pencil (in studio I use a longer chopstick), I hold it with my arm outstretched to show the angle between that and the top of the horse’s head, then sketch in a line at that angle. From that second point I repeat the process to form a line to the horse’s hock (bend in the back leg) to give me point 3 then repeat from pint 1 to point 3 to make a triangle. Where the lines intersect gives me the three points. As you can see, I then use the same system to set other key points and start to sketch in the statue.
Stage 2. I have added some shading so you can see it working and started to take lines out from key points on the statue to key points on the surrounding buildings. As I have the statue and its plinth in place I can also pick a measure eg the height of the plinth and use it to check distances or building heights. When I am drawing animals or people I use a head height measurement for this.
Stage 3. I have left in some of the triangulation lines but added shading to the drawing. This approach gives a key to understanding and making sense of relative scale and proportion. The angle measured lines can also be taken from points on the horizon to work out perspective.
SEVEN — Linear Drawing
Although I am naturally a linear draughtsman I have had to work employing other techniques and approaches to improve my linear work. When I work in a linear way I am looking for lines of movement and lines that describe what is under the skin as well as outline: the vigor of working muscle, the cable tautness of tendons and the sharpness of tonal change where a bone sits close to the skin. Sometimes I will use the point and sometimes the side of the media to denote form, texture or edge.
Try to find a line that inspires you! If I am drawing a figure it is often the line of the back or shoulder that catches my attention. Use long lines, faint at first if you are not confident. You can go over them later.
SIX — Negative Space
The ability to see and use negative space is a very good talent to have for an artist. Some say that the natural ability to do so is one of the things that marks out an artist. Simply put, the negative space is the area and shapes outside of the main subject mass. If we can see the negative space shapes and ensure that they are drawn correctly, it assists the correct proportion and shapes in the ‘positive space,’ or that of the subject itself.
You could think of it a bit like pieces of a jigsaw. As an exercise I can draw the negative space to create a silhouette, but in day-to-day drawing I more often use it to ‘check’ the subject shapes that I am making.
If you struggle to see negative space then close or cover one eye. This replicates stereo-blindness: the inability to use both eyes to construct a three-dimensional view of the world. Instead you see things more as a set of interlocking shapes.
Negative space demo
Chairs are perfect for demonstrating this approach because the negative space is so integral to their design.
1) I draw the negative space of one chair – that is the shapes that are NOT the chair. Notice there are no chair silhouette outlines –in this exercise I need to find negative space shapes around the chair to create those. To help you I have denoted the negative spaces with Xs.
2) Help yourself further by adding the chair silhouette outlines as needed.
3) I have added in two other chairs using the same technique as stage 1 and this time I have also made the silhouettes by adding the negative space created by the tables, posts and lines of the road behind the tableau. I have also included some shadow negative space: the lights between the shadow shapes, for example.
4)This is where YOU decide where you want to go with this drawing. You can just leave it as a rather graphic design type of image, or you could carry on with shading the drawing to make it more realistic, or you could use flat color to create a faux-abstract image. The exercises are good practice, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get to play as well!
Negative Drawing Tip
Look for a rhythm in the spaces that you are making – see them as abstract shapes rather than as chairs. As you practice this approach you will find yourself checking the positive and negative spaces against each other. It is habitual for me to do that now whether I am drawing the negative space or the positive subject.
FIVE — Scribble & ‘Blind Contour’
This approach is drawing with a ‘scribbling movement.’ Tone and texture can be built by working over the same area, but ensure that you have a paper tough enough to withstand that.
As I work I start to edit so I keep the lines light at first. I can then work over the same areas, gradually strengthening the weight of the line as the image is refined and built. The scribble marks can be random, or can follow the direction of mass or movement for a more sculptural feel.
In the lamb’s head drawing examples, both are made with continuous line using a fine art-marker. The pen has maintained contact with the paper during the whole of the drawing.
There is a further exercise called ‘blind contour drawing’ where the pen maintains contact with the paper, but the artist only looks at their reference, not at the paper. When I am sketching quickly, for example a horse jumping or playing polo, I often draw in blind contour.
To practice blind contour start by just writing without looking at the paper. You can then move on to drawing small simple shapes, gradually building up to more complex forms.
FOUR — Tonal Drawing
The best purely tonal drawings are worked without reference to outline, or rather the outline is created by change of tonal value. It is easier to use charcoal or pastel to make a tonal drawing, but if using a pencil it is better to use the side of the lead rather than the point.
This sketch of an egg is a good starting point as it uses a simple shape. I have noted where the light source is and to get a single source I put cardboard around the back of the egg before drawing it, then placed a lamp above and to the left of it. I used a graphite pencil to draw my egg, really looking at where the light and shadows (lack of light) sit.
‘Lines’ are created by higher contrast of tone (shading) rather than by drawing them. Once you have your egg in graphite, try again with charcoal or pastel, or even better, with your finger dipped in powdered charcoal or pastel to really try to draw tonally without lines. Once you are confident with the egg you can try more complex shapes, but try to keep to a single light source to start.
Keep a pestle and mortar in the studio and collect pastel dust and tiny end pieces too small to use in it, then grind them into powder to use with your finger or with a pad or brush.
THREE — Subtractive Drawing
You could create a tonal drawing on dark paper with white pastel or chalk, in which case you would be looking at the lights rather than the shadows to sculpt form, but I prefer subtractive drawing.
For this approach the whole sheet is covered in charcoal or graphite and an eraser is then used to ‘lift out’ the lights. Once the subtractive part is done, you can then add more charcoal or graphite to create deeper darks where needed.
This approach gives a softer, more expressive and atmospheric feel to the drawing than using the starker white on dark background and is good for looking at the way light defines volume and mass. It is a quick, immediate way of drawing and is a very good drawing exercise for painters. The key to this approach is bold confident drawing.
Subtractive drawing demo
My subject for this drawing is one of my many orchid plants, which seem to thrive despite, or maybe because of, my neglect.
Materials for subtractive drawing
The paper I use is A2 cartridge from a tear-out sketch pad. I more usually use a sheet of watercolor paper (rough or not) as it gives a nice soft surface with a good ability to lift the charcoal, which gives crisp whites. But for your first attempts, use a large scratch sheet of paper.
Be aware though, paper that is too smooth or shiny can cause the charcoal to ‘skid’ and that grease or moisture on the paper can make the eraser smudge rather than lift – so wash your hands before starting.
You can also use a charcoal pencil or compressed charcoal for the finishing touches, though I did not do so in this demonstration. You can use a kneadable putty eraser for the subtractive marks or even Blu-Tac. I tend to use inexpensive erasers and slice wedges off with a scalpel to give finer edges to work with.
When the eraser gets too dirtied by the charcoal, I either clean them by rubbing against wood or simply slice off a layer to get a cleaner surface again.
1) I cover the whole of the paper in charcoal to create a mid-tone value. You can just leave the charcoal base rough, or you can rub the charcoal to a smoother surface. This is where you get to play and end up with delightfully messy hands! While I photographed the charcoal only half rubbed in, I did rub in the rest before I started to work with the eraser.
2) Now I start to draw using the flat side of the eraser looking for the large mid-light shapes first. Next I picked out the brighter, smaller lights with my smaller cut wedges. If you make a mistake you can simply add more charcoal and then rework. This stage took me about 35 minutes, considerably less time than it took for me to set up the orchid how I wanted it!
TIP: Half closing your eyes or squinting makes it easier to see the large shapes and tonal contrasts when you look at your reference. Doing this desaturates color so helps you see in a more tonal way.
4) Now I work back in with the charcoal to correct any errors and create more darks. Adding lines can destroy the tonal effect so keep those to a minimum. In fact, the closest I got to a line in this piece was the charcoal mark of the shadowed side of the stem.
Drawing round the petals would defeat the purpose of the exercise so I have left them as changes of tone rather than defined by outlines. You could also add some white chalk sparingly to accentuate little highlights, but as my friend and life drawing mentor, Andrés Jaroslavsky, says, “You need to make the cake before you can decorate it with the icing.”
TWO — Drawing Planes
Planes are a form of perspective. Imagine a child’s mobile with the fasteners hung from a frame. The nearest fastener to the viewer is on the near plane, the farthest is on the far plane and the ones in between will be on their own or shared planes.
Understanding planes in a drawing is an excellent preparation for painting, but also makes the aim clearer for shading as, although I am working on a two-dimensional surface, I am mapping where the elements sit in space.
This approach helps with understanding a lot about drawing, but also about painting in any medium. We are usually trying to render two-dimensionally, what we are seeing in three dimensions and breaking this down and understanding it can help, especially with shading and painting tones and color.
Torn paper exercise
The six-piece torn paper exercise is an example of that same flattening of the planes into strips of color working recessively. You can play with the layers and colors of the various papers, do the exercise tonally with grey papers, or paint your own paper. This is a good thing to do alongside a value sketch.
You can also use this to help with portrait or more subject based paintings and drawings. Using the same six colors I have applied the same idea to the jumping horse drawing to help me use planes to break down where I am seeing things in space.
The jumping horse would not usually have the numbers on it. They are there to help you see how I have divided the planes, like the fasteners on the child’s mobile [drawn at the side] they sit in space relative to each other. This helps me organize how I will approach the full drawing or painting and where I want the focus to be.
I have shown simple examples here to start. This kind of drawing can become much more detailed as you introduce planes within larger areas like contours on a map, which can lead to an interesting drawing in and of itself as in this contour plane sketch of pears.
ONE — Your Own Art Drawing Style
There are considerably more than ten approaches to drawing, but in my mind the last in any set should be the artist’s personal approach to the subject.
I like to think of approaches as ‘colors on a palette’. Which color you choose at any given time is up to you, but to have the color there in the first place takes practice. You can select and combine ‘colors’, either for your own notes in sketchbook from life, or to create a drawing with interest, movement and inflection.
Often when I am working from life I have to work very quickly. Having worked on all the approaches I don’t have to think about ‘how’ to draw – I just draw.
Your Drawing Mindset
– Do not think of a finished drawing but as many small steps. Think Process not Product.
– The value of the exercise is in what it produces/how it improves your work not in the exercise itself.
– There is no right or wrong, just steps on the path – an error is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.
– Sometimes perfection is found in the imperfection.
– Just begin.
– Draw anything and everything – draw whatever is in front of you. If you are cooking a meal, illustrate the recipe by drawing the ingredients.
– Learn to look, there are wonderful drawings all around you just waiting to be sketched.
Once you get bitten by the drawing bug, you begin to see drawings everywhere: from the small asides that most people don’t even notice to the majesty of the big picture. Each has its own appeal and can become your own little world away from the world as you lose yourself in the magic and mindfulness of the sketch.
Meet Ruth Buchanan
Ruth Buchanan started her career as a graphic designer and illustrator, making a living drawing anything she was asked to draw. She became best known for paintings of historical architecture while working for corporate financial institutions and private city regeneration contractors.
Ruth became a full-time artist in 2001, taking inspiration mainly from equine and figurative subjects. Her work is exhibited in traditional art galleries as well as at international equestrian events and features in private and corporate collections in the UK, Europe and United States.
Ruth has won many awards and prizes for her paintings, drawings and sketchbooks. Her work has been selected for the past five consecutive years as one of fifteen artists to represent English watercolor at the ‘Fabriano In Acquarello’ International Exhibition In Fabriano, Italy. Ruth lives and works in Yorkshire, UK and balances her writing, leading workshops and commissioned work alongside her own drawing and painting.
Ruth is leading her popular Different Approaches to Drawing workshop at The Oregon Society of Artists in Portland, from August 11th to 13th, 2018. She will be covering a lot more than the ten approaches we’ve discussed here, diving deeper into the huge and fascinating topic of drawing and how it can lead to stronger paintings as well as more confident drawings. Sign up now to participate in the workshop!
If you want to explore Ruth’s 10 approaches even further, take them into figure drawing territory. Demystify the human body through your own sketches and discover the power and eloquence of the figure. Use the Figure Drawing Essentials digital kit as your guide. You’ll learn how to hone your drawing with accuracy and expression. You can’t go wrong!