There is no golden rule for the best angle for drawing but there is good advice that will help you to avoid some elementary mistakes. This is a question worth asking and one that is often overlooked.,
In general, you should draw at the same angle to your subject. If you draw from life, set up an easel at 90 degrees. If you draw from references, lay your photo next to your paper and tilt your drawing board at 30-55 degrees.
Of course, it’s all about personal choice and comfort. It’s not a rule, it’s a guideline. Only practice will inform you which is best for you. That said, let me explain why you must find the best angle for drawing that suits you, and what can go wrong.
What’s The Best Angle for Sketching? Flat or Tilted?
It’s generally accepted that sketching at an angle is going to offer you, the artist, the most comfort. It’s a matter of personal preference how steep the angle should be, but personally, I prefer a 30-degree incline.
I have a tight style of drawing that requires me to get close up to the paper. I tend to hunch over. More so as I age and my eyes get worse.
To be honest with you, I’m an easel man these days, but in the past, I used an angled drawing board perched upon the dining table or a simple drawing board tilted on my lap. The former was best for detailed studies, the latter was more suitable for sketching.
Drawing on a flat surface presented problems, not just an aching neck and back, but also the distortion of the drawn image.
The Problem With Drawing at a Flat Angle
It’s a rookie’s mistake and we’ve all been there. You spend an age carefully observing your subject, everything is in proportion, well-spaced, and the shading is bringing the drawing together nicely.
Then you tilt the board to inspect your work and it’s elongated to hell. You could scream. What happened?
When you look at your subject face-on, such as when you are drawing a portrait, you observe that person at 90-degrees. When your drawing pad is horizontal at 180-degrees, it’s foreshortened as you look down upon it.
Inevitably, you’ll draw exactly what you see in front of you as if the pad was also at 90-degrees, and the result will be an elongated drawing.
Further Reading: How to Draw Realistically
It’ll look great if you look at it from 45-degrees, but totally wrong when you hold it up.
If you must draw from life on a flat surface, get into the habit of tilting up the pad every now and then and correct your errors as you go along.
This rule does not apply when you use a reference photo alongside your drawing. The only issue is your poor posture. As a person who doesn’t listen to his own advice, I know how bad posture can make your life very uncomfortable.
The Reason Why Drawing at a Tilted Angle is Better
Learning to draw using a tilted surface will not only help you to sit at a less stressful angle it will all but eliminate the distortion you encounter when drawing on a flat surface.
The drawing pad doesn’t have to match the angle of your subject, an angle of 45-degrees will be fine. It’s the same as a slight nod of your head as you look up and down.
Ideally, you would have a fixed support to work on. Easy enough in a studio or at home, not so easy in the field.
Some people will carry a sketching easel and set it up, I use my lap. It all depends on the type of art you are doing.
If you are using watercolor or gouache I would consider a sketching easel. You can sketch without it but it’s easier to step back and evaluate your painting from afar. You are also standing, which gives you a different perspective from sitting on the ground.
What’s The Best Angle For Drawing at an Easel?
There’s more than one reason for tilting the easel. I like to draw my detailed pencil work at a slight angle. If the pole is 90-degrees and the horizon is 180-degrees my easel is tilted at 100-degrees.
I like to sit on a high stool and use a wooden rod (mahl stick) to lean my hand on. It allows me to step away seamlessly without an effort and stand if I so wish.
Further Reading: Prevent Your Drawing From Smudging
A studio easel can be tilted fully and most artists will draw on a 30-55-degree angle. It’s a matter of personal comfort, I know that making art is a sedentary pursuit so I am conscious that my body seizes up if I’m hunched over for long periods of time.
Watercolorists need to adjust the angle of their paper to manipulate the paint as it dries, which means working on a horizontal surface for at least some of the time.
Pastelists, on the other hand, need to work upright with the easel tilted slightly towards them, at about 10-degrees. This is because chalk dust and particles fall away from the surface.
Without a tilted angle, the pastel dust slowly builds up in layers over the image. It’s imperceptible at first but the dark areas gradually lose their tonal values and become milky. Just like household dust on a wooden surface.
It’s almost impossible to resist blowing the fine dust away, it’s only partly successful, it displaces the particles and they settle elsewhere. Besides you end up spitting on your work.
It’s far better to tilt the drawing/painting forward and tap the back to remove loose chalk dust.
The Best Angle for Drawing in Comfort
It might seem trivial at first, but if you do the same things every day in the wrong way, your body will react.
I like to sit upright on a stool because my posture is better. Even then I catch myself slouching but at least I can consciously make the effort to straighten up. I even wore a posture strap for a while.
My colleague, who draws pastel portraits, sits on a low stool at a French Easel. I’ve noticed he tilts his board ever so slightly forward and it’s slightly elevated. He looks up to draw, his sitter is more on eye level, and he has a much better posture than I do.
Further Reading: Best Pastel Pencils For Beginners
Bending over a table can be very uncomfortable and drawing for long lengths of time can also take its toll. Breaking up the drawing time into shorter bursts not only helps with your concentration levels but also stops you from seizing up.
Neck pain is my bugbear and working in modest bursts certainly helps to relieve the strain.
As a side note, but related, I find that my fingers also begin to cramp up when I draw too much and I’m very aware of repetitive strain injury.
If I feel pain, I take a rest. I what to avoid hand problems at all costs.
I also stand around a great deal, It’s better for your back but harder on your feet. Comfy well-padded shoes help or alternatively, get something soft to stand on.
I sell on a street market and the authorities have laid that spongy tarmac they put in playgrounds; it’s a Godsend.
What Support Do I Need to Draw at an Angle?
Your choice of support is going to be dictated by your circumstances. Working in the field is very different from working in a studio.
Outdoor Easels and Supports
I work outside so I use a lightweight aluminum easel. I have an obscure British-made Frank Herring Easel because it’s both stable, has a broad back, and is portable. Most importantly my easel allows me to adjust to any angle and it’s great for securing a drawing board.
Personally, I avoid those sketching easels with one central supporting rod. They are not robust enough to withstand heavy usage. They rock when you apply any pressure.
If I didn’t have my old faithful I would buy a French box easel. They fulfill all the functions I need in a field easel, except that is, for the weight. When your box is full of art materials you can feel it.
The obvious alternative is a drawing board. This can be as simple as a board-backed drawing pad. I use an A3 acrylic sheet of plastic. I clip it to my drawing pad with bulldog clips and use it as my portable drawing board. I like to draw on one sheet of paper over a very hard smooth surface.
The separate acrylic sheet serves two purposes. It brings out the grain of your paper when you draw and it also pinches the pad so tightly when it’s clipped to my pad, that it prevents any completed sketches from smudging in transit.
Most artists would bring a small camping stool and rest the board on their knees. You will have to hold the board with your free hand at the angle of your choice.
You can draw it in two positions. You can lie it flat on your lap, or perch it on your legs and hold it upright. Secure the board by gripping the top edge. If you use pastel pencils, carbon, or charcoal you will get the dust all over your knees, so be warned.
Indoor Easels and Supports
The studio options are a drafting table, an adjustable drawing board, table and studio easels
You need plenty of space for a drafting table. If I had the space I would enjoy using one, but they are expensive, and not an essential item for most artists. Before the advent of computerized commercial technical drawing and graphics, they were needed, but not so much these days.
A smaller drawing board is fine for most artists and it can be tucked away when not in use. If you like the idea of having a slide ruler, these types of drawing boards are for you.
Table easels are designed to hold a board or canvas. Some have boxes in the base so you have the convenience of storing your kit all in one place.
For artists who make large artwork, or need to stand, a larger A-frame or H-frame easel will be necessary, but boy do you need plenty of room. There is no tucking these things into a quiet corner.
They are adjustable but the very nature of their design and purpose limits your options. There are hybrid convertible versions that mimic drafting tables.
Your choice is determined by the style and size of your work, your available space, and your pocket.
There is no right and wrong angle for drawing, there’s only helpful guidance and good practice. You can break any of the so-called rules, as and when it suits you.
I will draw at any angle if it helps me to draw more easily. Oftentimes I will turn the drawing upside down or lay it flat if a technique requires it.
As with everything in art, it’s all about experimenting and seeing what feels best.
Now take a look at these articles:
- Can Anyone Learn to Draw?
- 15 Ways to Get Better at Drawing
- Do You Need to Outline Drawings?
- Is Drawing From Photos Bad?
- Drawing and Sketching: What’s the Difference?