Do You Need to Outline Drawings? Expert Advice From a Pro

Baby elephant outline drawing and finished work.

I remember an art teacher telling me to soften my edges, fine but you have to know where the boundaries are first. So do you need to outline drawings? Certainly

You should outline drawings to get the correct proportions and overall shape. An outline is a scaffold for your finished work and helps you see how things fit together. Beginners must draw the outline first and add details later.

There are no rights or wrongs with drawing outlines, but there are proven, tried, and tested, methods that will speed up your learning and get results. Why reinvent the wheel?

For clarity let’s start with the basics.

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What is an Outline Drawing?

An outline drawing is usually the initial outline sketch before any shading or coloring has been added. The outline can be used for reference points when adding more detailed elements at a later stage.

outline drawing of a tortoise and another work in progress .
Using an outline drawing is essential

Drawing an outline allows you to focus on one element at a time without being distracted by premature detail. This means fewer mistakes and faster learning!

An outline drawing can be a preliminary sketch or a final drawing. Very accomplished artists have the ability to cut through the detail and recognize the most important lines that convey the message.

It is an enviable skill. Few artists can distill a drawing down to its elemental lines and retain its impact

Beginners take their time with this process because it’s going to make all the difference to the end result. Drawing an outline must be carefully considered, there’s no need to rush it.

If you are a beginner you should check out these classes by Brent Eviston on Skillshare

Different Types of Outline Drawings

These are 5 common ways to draw an outline:

1. Freehand Line Drawing

This is perhaps the most obvious method that comes to mind. An artist uses his or her skills to draw by eye alone. The artist uses their judgment to calculate proportions and sketches an outline roughly. 

The artist will lightly sketch several lines to gauge which one is the most accurate and emphasizes that particular line.

2. Blind Line Drawing

Is an exercise to help to develop and coordinate the artist’s eye and hand. The idea is to draw the subject without ever looking down at the paper. In theory, the artist can learn to draw with reasonable accuracy by sight alone.

It is supposed to teach a beginner how to see what is really in front of them as opposed to what they think they know already.

A crude example would be a child drawing one stick man behind another. Most kids will draw one figure floating above the other. That is drawing what they know. When they get older, they see that the front figure obscures the other or appears slightly bigger. They are beginning to draw what they see.

3. Continuous Line Drawing

Continuous line drawing is an exercise whereby the artist attempts to draw their subject without lifting their pen or pencil from the page.

If it has a purpose, it is to train the artist to adjust their lines from heavy to light and still produce an accomplished drawing. In theory, it should increase the artist’s finesse and dexterity. 

Try this Skillshare class (affiliate), it’s only half an hour long.

4. Mechanical Line Drawing

Mechanical line drawing is the precision mapping of a line without room for error. It’s usually associated with architecture, industry, or engineering. Mechanical or technical drawing aims to represent all parts of an object true to scale and in their true size relation.

5. Traced Line Drawings

Most tracing lines are strict guidelines used for the sole purpose of getting the proportions right as quickly and accurately as possible. They have little to no artistic merit. They are used to speed up the process of mapping out a piece of work that otherwise would take a great deal of time.

The lines are typically single, crude, and stilted. They are not intended to be seen beyond the initial stages. 

A gridded image is equally accurate but produces lines with more fluidity. Both methods are used as the first stage of a more complicated piece of work. 

Why is Drawing an Outline Important?

Drawing outlines help the artist to see and gauge proportions. The whole purpose of making outline sketches is to construct accurate guidelines at the earliest stage of the drawing. The outline drawing is the anchor that holds the rest of the drawing together.

If the artist spends time sketching the simplest shapes to scale, and to the right size in relation to each other, they can move on to define the outline with confidence. The strength of the drawing outline at this stage will determine the quality of the finished work.

If the artist decides to skip this stage, in favor of drawing more interesting detail, they invariably regret it later on. 

Typical portrait errors are eyes not aligning, the lips being too close to the nose, or being off-center. They are all preventable mistakes that can and should be avoided. 

As I said, Brent’s classes are worth checking out. He knows his stuff.

How Do You Create Outline Drawings?

Where Do I Start Drawing an Outline?

Keep it simple. If you have trouble deciding which way something goes then start by drawing the simplest shapes first. Drawing is all about breaking down basic shapes into progressively smaller shapes until you find the right proportions to begin adding the finer detail.

A confident artist will continually adjust these building blocks in the early stages and cross-reference key features, check alignment, and measure distances, to get the proportions right.

A beginner can be forgiven thinking that an expert has no need to double and triple-check anything, but that is not the case. Professionals get the basics right. 

Sketch out an underdrawing before you commit to any stronger lines. There is no need to erase the sketch lines that go astray. Leave them where they are and use them to help you find the right line. 

It’s trial and error. 

Once you’ve got your basic structure down, you can safely add the details.

What Tools Do You Need For Creating an Outline Sketch?

There are plenty of options, you aren’t limited to using Graphic Drawing Pencils (affiliate). You can use charcoal, carbon pencils (affiliates), or pen and ink. I used to enjoy using Sakura pigment liner pens (affiliate) for permanent black lines and applying watercolor (affiliate) over them. Urban sketchers love this method.

There are no rules as such, it depends on why you are drawing and the results you want to achieve. If you are making rapid notes in a sketchbook, you can draw an outline with a ballpoint pen if you want to, I do that if I suddenly get an idea I didn’t want to forget.

Plenty of artists make a light outline sketch with a graphite pencil before defining the lines with a pen. When the ink is dry you can erase the pencil. 

How Can I Improve My Outline Drawings?

The classic way of adding interest to your outline drawing is to vary the line width, add breaks to the line, and vary the tone. 

You can create the illusion of depth with a fine liner pen by using strong bold lines in the foreground and thin lines to indicate the background. With graphite pencils, you can use a softer and lighter grade of pencil.

You can experiment with the fluidity of the line. Some lines will be too rigid and will benefit by adding some artistic flourish.

Check out this post for adding some spice to your drawings: How to Make Your Drawings Interesting: 14 Ways to Improve a Drawing

You guessed it, Brent has another course that will help.

A street scene can look very dull if you are too accurate. Sometimes it is better to add a few quirky angles, even if it’s bending the truth.

I used this technique all the time when I drew street scenes. I doubt if I ever drew a vertical lamp post, gates were always higgledy-piggledy, trees were always leaning.

Buildings are boring if you draw them perfectly. A photographer will use a wide-angle lens and distort their image, there is no reason why an artist has to be different. 

Can You Add an Outline Drawing to a Painting?

Yes, you can. Just as you can make a line drawing and paint it in, the reverse is true, you can outline a finished painting. There are times when a painting is perfectly fine but lacks any punch or drama. Outlining the image can bring it to life.

I must mention Arthur Rackham, one of the most brilliant illustrators of his day. He was famous for illustrating children’s literature and fairy tales. He combined a bold use of line combined with a mastery of watercolor.

In a similar vein, I’m reminded of the posters of Alphonse Mucha. He was a master of the fluid outline and his Art Nouveau style has never been surpassed

Both were very accomplished artists, and both were famous for their colorful line drawings.

Just a word of caution should you wish to draw over a painting. Watercolor is easy to draw over but gouache can quickly clog your pen, so be careful.

Which is Better: Outline a Drawing or Color it First?

It will always depend on your choice of medium. If you draw with impermeable Indian ink you would draw your picture and apply color washes over it.

You need to be more cautious when using a pencil. Watercolor will paint over the lightest grades well enough, but not the darker grades. The water will disperse graphite and result in a dirty mess.

Likewise, a light grade of pencil must be used gently. Any pressure will score the paper and when a wash is used, the pigment settles in the grooves. Another disaster in the making.

When the watercolor is dry, it’s safe to draw over your painting to your heart’s content.

Can You Use Reference Photos to Create Outline Drawings?

Why not? It’s the easiest way to learn and for some subjects, like birds and animals, it’s hard to do it any other way. 

Take my advice and take your own photographs, not only will you avoid any copyright issues, but it’ll also give you much more satisfaction knowing the picture is truly your own work.

This post covers everything: Is Drawing From Reference Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?

Select an image and apply a grid. If you are old school, you can make a photocopy and draw the grid by hand, or add a grid layer using an image editor such as Photoshop or the free version of Pixlr.com (affiliate).

If you want to learn about photoshop check out this class on Skillshare (affiliate)

Pixlr has two free versions, Pixlr E that’s very basic, and Pixlr X which has more features and does most things you’ll need. These are supported by ads.

If you buy the premium (downloadable) version you get many more bells and whistles and no annoying pop-ups. Take your pick. At £49/$65 per year, it’s far cheaper than photoshop.

Draw a very light grid on your paper. You will need to erase the lines so don’t press too hard and score the page. Then draw the outline, box by box.

What’s the Difference Between a Line and an Edge in Drawing?

Purists might admonish an artist for the overuse of hard lines. My old teacher certainly taught us that there were no outlines in a good drawing, only edges. He argued that there are no real lines in nature, only the edge of a tone.

I appreciate that he had a point, but not a very convincing one. He might’ve been technically right, but the illusion of lines exists and I have never been bound or limited by such a rule.

There are times when the transition from one tone to another is subtle, which becomes apparent when you convert a color image into greyscale. Two different colors, sitting side-by-side, with the same tonal value, can merge together as a black and white image.

The only solution is to increase the contrast and/or add an outline.

Can You Learn to Draw Outlines by Tracing?

Not easily. You will have an outline, what else can you have, but a very primitive one? There is nothing about tracing that gives life to a line drawing. It is stilted and rigid. 

Tracing will give you a boundary for adding color or detail, but even then an inexperienced hand will still go wrong.

Most people who can’t draw, can’t trace either.

Let me explain.

Tracing an image may look accurate but an inexperienced artist tends to trace the inner line of an image. The eyes, for instance, will be ever so slightly smaller than they are in real life. An artist who knows their craft will compensate for any errors as they occur. 

If you know what you are doing, tracing is a practical way to outline a drawing quickly. It’s only a shortcut, not a substitute for drawing.

A learner is well advised to practice outline drawing without tracing. 

Do you feel uneasy about tracing? Read this: Tracing Art – Is It Good or Bad? When Is Tracing Cheating and Is It Ever OK?

Should You Outline Drawings? – Final Thoughts

Most artists use outline drawings as the primary structure for a painting or as the first stage of a more detailed pencil drawing, but in the hands of a master, a line drawing is an art form in its own right.

I’ve heard people say that they can paint but they can’t draw. Well, abstract expressionists might have you believe that drawing is redundant, but if you want to create art that is more than making colorful patterns, you can’t afford to ignore it.

The outline drawing is part and parcel of the drawing process. If you want to make representational art you will have to learn how to construct accurate proportions and draw outlines.

There is no other way.


Giraffe pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘The High Life’ by Kevin Hayler

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Do you need to outline drawings?