A lot of people who can’t draw well, teach art online, so how do you improve your drawing if the teacher isn’t very good? I’ve been drawing all my adult life, I’m nearly 60 now, and these are some practical drawing tips that will help you gain confidence and get better results.
There’s no substitute for practice, we can all agree on that. We learn best by our mistakes. I often think that a drawing is just a series of corrected mistakes. I build on small successes as I progress and that encourages me to stay with it.
As a wildlife artist, I like to get the eyes right. If I can do that successfully, from the outset, it gives me a boost. I can afford to invest my time when I know that the key focal point is correct.
Of course, that applies to me and my subject matter, but let’s cover a few tips that apply more generally.
Choose One Brand of Quality Pencils
This is an important step that beginners get wrong. Choose a quality brand of pencil and get used to them. It’s important because each brand has its own quirks. They are not all the same. The biggest difference between them is the grading system.
You would think that if a pencil is only made of graphite with a clay binder, there would be a universal grading system. Not a chance, that would make life too easy.
An HB in one brand is not an HB in the next one. That means when a learner wants to know what pencil the artist is using, they must use the same brand. It’s misleading otherwise.
I use Derwent graphic pencils. Why? because they were easily available when I started, so I stayed with them. I want my local art store to supply single replacements of my favorite brand. In my case it’s Derwent, in yours, it will probably be another brand. It Doesn’t matter.
I’m not interested in buying pencil sets and ordering everything online. I like art stores and browsing, it’s a simple pleasure.
Buy Less Kit
I’ve just said I love browsing in art stores, and now I’m going to suggest that you don’t buy too much.
One of the great giveaway signs that an artist is not confident is the amount of art equipment they carry. You don’t need so much.
You don’t need 20 grades of pencils. You’ll only use 3 or 4 of them. If you sketch outdoors, you’ll need a small drawing pad, a sharpener, and a kneadable eraser.
You can have more stuff at home but most things you buy are not magic bullets. There is only one gadget I like to use and that’s a Jakar Battery eraser. They are very cheap and brilliant for lifting fine highlights.
You don’t need an easel really. I use one now because I draw in front of people, but I didn’t use one before that. It’s an optional extra.
Rely on fewer tools and gain some confidence using them.
Hold Your Pencil Correctly
Another tell-tale signal of learners is watching them use a pencil. If an easel has any value, it’s training a student to step back and use the pencil lightly.
When an artist maps in the rough lines and shapes of their drawing it helps when they have a loose hand. Holding the pencil at the rear, with an underhand grip, trains you to draw with a quick and fluid line.
It’s only when you want to draw very tight detail that you need to pinch the pencil as if you were writing.
Try using different sizes of paper. Larger paper will free your arm to draw in bigger strokes. Small pads will force you to draw tightly.
Detail is drawn using short strokes, applied using wrist movements. Broader shapes are drawn with long strokes from the elbow.
Don’t make the mistake of touching the paper as you shade. That’s how you smudge your work.
Draw Simple Shapes First
Think of drawing as building in layers – gradually adding detail to your rough lines and shapes until you have the finished product.
When you map in the proportions of a drawing, simplify the largest shapes and rough them in. DO NOT draw detail at the planning stage. If you do, it will go wrong.
Draw shapes within shapes. Refine, adjust, and align those shapes in relation to each other.
There is room for error everywhere except the focal point. You must get that right.
If you are still at that stage of wondering why an artist holds a pencil upright with their arm extended, it’s to get the proportions right.
It’s easy to imagine a row of buildings. The artist holds up the pencil, as a measuring stick, and gauges the height of a building using the length of the pencil nib down to the thumb. The artist shifts their extended arm sideways to compare the height of the next building.
The same process is repeated everywhere as and when an artist is unsure.
Getting to Grips With Perspective
You always see buildings used to explain perspective. They use receding lines and vanishing points. That’s great in theory.
Perspective drawings are created by imagining lines coming from the corners of an object, then intersecting at one vanishing point as they get farther away from the object.
The real world is not so obliging. I can honestly say I have never drawn anything consciously using these rules.
I draw only what I see. I’m not drawing perspective, I’m drawing shapes. The perspective is the result of looking at the shapes properly.
In my book, if a line looks wonky, it’s because the line is wrong. The solution is to sketch several more lines and choose the one that looks right. I don’t look for vanishing points.
Rules of perspective only work clearly with blocks. Try it with a glass jar and see how you get on, you’ll get totally confused. If you concentrate on shapes instead of perspective, it’s a lot easier to see what you’re drawing.
Draw vertically. If you don’t have an easel, raise your pad higher.
If you lay your pad flat on the table you are in danger of distorting the proportions as you draw. Looking down at 90 degrees to your drawing pad foreshortens the image.
Only when you raise your pad vertically to check your progress, do you realize that the whole drawing is elongated. It’s a learner’s mistake.
Draw From Light to Dark
Build your drawing lightly and in stages. It can be a big mistake to block in dark areas too soon. It’s easy to draw from light shades to dark ones, but it’s difficult if you need to work in the opposite direction.
Give yourself some wriggle room and sketch with a light touch. Start by drawing lightly and gradually increase the pressure. The lighter tones should be put down first, then gradually make them darker. Work your way up from lighter shadows.
I like to map in the basic contours and make sure the focal point is accurate. Then I block in the shaded areas light hatching. Nothing that cannot be erased later.
Knowing where the light and dark values lie helps me to see the drawing as a whole. It gives me some clue as to the balance of the composition. I can readjust everything at the early stages before I’ve drawn something I’m reluctant to lose.
Further Reading: What’s the Right paper for Pencil Drawing?
Darks look better if they have been shaded in several layers. It’s tempting to use a soft pencil and block in the darks on one go. There’s a good argument for doing just that with pastel, but not so convincingly with graphite.
It’s almost impossible to regain the whiteness of the paper if you use soft graphite. The stain is permanent.
Therefore you have far more control if you darken the drawing as you go. I draw my darkest areas in several layers of neat cross-hatching. I use 0.3mm Pentel mechanical pencils most of the time and go no darker than 2B.
The leads are so thin I have to have a light touch or they break. I hatch in one direction across the drawing and cross hatch in the opposite direction until I reach the tone I’m after.
If I need to go back and erase any of the black tones, it’s far easier to remove several layers of lighter shades than it is one heavy one. The paper is almost as new if you erase small areas with a battery eraser.
Don’t Rely on Photos
Use photos by all means but being dependent on them will stunt your learning. I use photos all the time, but I know how to manipulate and edit them. They are an aid, not a prop.
Taking photographs can give you a false sense of what your skills really are and get you into bad habits. Try sketching from life and use photos only as a reference for you to make some finishing touches.
Further Reading: Is Drawing From Photos Bad?
Use photos as a pick and mix. Take what info you need and discard the rest. If you use photos, take your own. Don’t use other people’s images and think the drawing will ever be your own because you’ll be disappointed.
Draw From Memory
I’m not a great advocate of drawing from imagination. It implies that you have an intuitive knowledge that can be expressed in doodles and scribbles.
Learning to see, copying, and studying should embed the drawing in your mind’s eye. Certain themes, forms, and shapes will recur over and over again. There will come a time when you can draw certain things from memory alone.
It’s good practice to try and memorize as much as possible and see what you can draw yourself. You will learn how shadows lie, how certain shapes are drawn, and where the light falls.
When you don’t think about it too much, drawing from memory is a lot of fun because there’s no fear that your work will be shown to other people. You can just enjoy yourself and draw without worrying what others might say.
It comes in useful if you ever have to improvise and draw something without any references to hand. It will also speed up your drawing skills because sketching will become more intuitive.
Learn to Shade Properly
Staying on the theme of shading, many beginners have trouble making their shading look convincing. The main reason is the random nature of the hatching.
There are a few hacks worth remembering.
Hatching lines in parallel look neat and tidy. I tend to draw diagonals from left to right and that style carried over the whole drawing gives it some coherence.
If I want to darken an area I can cross-hatch the other way, in a reverse diagonal, from right to left.
If the shading lines are neither parallel nor directional the marks join badly. The blotches look patchy, uncoordinated, and dirty. It can work if you deliberately want that effect, otherwise, it’s a dog’s dinner.
Some people stipple with small dots, I don’t see why you would want to, not with graphite pencil. I create a stipple effect by lightly shading with the side of a pencil over textured paper.
Graphite can be blended with paper stumps, cotton buds, and soft brushes. It looks great for subtle gradations of tone. It’s particularly useful for skin tones and can be removed entirely if you go wrong.
Further Reading: How to Draw Realistic Shadows
If you like realism, shading hair and fur can look more authentic if you draw in the direction of the growth. In this case, the hair should criss-cross slightly to look authentic. Highlights can be lifted off with an eraser.
Most smudging is a result of poor practice and laziness.
Try to avoid resting your hand on the paper if you can. Plenty of tutorials suggest laying a piece of paper under your hand but not all of them tell you that the paper must not move. You must use your free hand to keep the paper firmly in place as you draw with the other.
If you draw at an easel, holding the far end of the pencil will keep you from smudging the work. If you need more control use a (mahl) stick or ruler rested in front your drawing and rest your drawing hand away from the paper.
I also use acetate and cellophane to protect the paper surface instead of a piece of paper. I like to see the drawing beneath.
Use the ‘Lost and Found’ Technique
Let’s use the example of a building again. If you draw a building with a ruler and perfect lines you will produce a stiff, lifeless, and soulless drawing. Accurate but boring.
The same building drawn freehand is better but still lacking in something. All the lines are in place but still it’s dull.
Now break a few lines up. Instead of one continuous roofline, try drawing two lines with a small gap. Or try drawing two lines overlapping at slightly different angles. Now your drawing has movement and personality.
Use that device with your contours. Break up and lose some edges. Make static lines move.
I’ve been using this technique for years and I always thought it was a contrivance and masked my lack of any real spontaneity. That was until recently.
I discovered that John Singer Sargeant, one of my favorite artists, and one of the greatest painters that ever lived, did exactly the same thing.
Further Reading: How to Make Your Drawings Interesting
He labored over his brush marks to get them looking just right. I had always assumed that each and every stroke was impromptu genius. He had the same problems as the rest of us, except his results were better.
Draw From Life
If you want to improve your drawing, learn from life. It trains your eye and your hand to capture the shape, texture, and depth of field.
It distills the scene in from of you down to the most important elements. Photos give you too much information and it can be impossible to capture the essence of the scene.
It’s far better to sit in front of something in real life and learn to see it. Drawing is all about studying and really concentrating on a subject.
I can still remember faces from years ago because I studied them so intensely as I drew them from life.
Drawing focuses your mind on what’s most important.
If you are very inexperienced don’t try copying something too complicated, not to begin with, your failure will demotivate you. Do not go to a life drawing if you can’t draw very well. It’s too advanced.
I suggest you learn to draw in your garden or in the countryside.
Draw With Your Eraser
An eraser is a drawing tool, it’s not just for correcting mistakes. Use an eraser to highlight individual parts of your drawing and to readjust tonal values by partially lifting away some areas.
Kneaded erasers are flexible, so they’re perfect for most jobs, and great for broad erasing, especially if you are not drawing super detail.
Other types of erasers create different effects.
I use a Jakar battery eraser to lift off the tiniest dots and lines imaginable. I could never draw the brilliant highlight in an eye with any other tool. I’d have to draw around it. It allows me to draw individual hairs and whiskers with no risk to the paper surface at all.
A standard Tombo Mono eraser pen lets me draw lines that are sharp but not quite as white. They are great for creating texture and depth in hair and fur.
Blu-Tak is another great drawing tool. It kneads to a finer point than a kneadable eraser. Try pressing or rolling knobs of putty into graphite and see the marvelous random textures it creates. Experiment. Use it for walls and rocks and tree bark and you will be amazed.
The great advantage drawing landscapes has over other subjects, is how forgiving it is as a genre.
There is no pressure to be accurate with every line. No one cares if you leave things out or add them. All landscape artists lie. They move things around if it makes for a better composition. Why not?
Landscapes are romantic, the feeling is more important than reality. You can draw what should’ve been there. Most photographers feel bound by recording the truth, a constraint that most artists don’t have.
Sit down in front of an old tree. Draw the trunk and all its shapes and shadows. Draw the branches and foliage breaking away at every angle, and remember, it doesn’t matter if it goes a bit wrong. Who cares?
Stop looking at the trees and learn how to draw shapes instead. Draw quick sketches a few minutes at a time and that will train you to see only the bigger shapes.
As you gain confidence, extend your time. Always draw shapes within shapes.
As a practice, it doesn’t get any better.
Don’t Erase Sketchlines
Don’t feel compelled to erase every mistake you make. Your sketches will retain a life if the construction lines are left alone. Include them.
I’m a fine one to talk and it’s easier said than done. I’m such a perfectionist that I get obsessed with getting things right and rub out the rest. That being said, and in retrospect, I can see that my most polished drawings are not always the best artwork.
Less is usually more. Knowing when to stop is a nut that’s hard to crack. I have a habit of over-finishing my work. I know that most of my drawings were better before I finished them.
Sketching quickly encourages you to leave the lines where they are and to pick the best and emphasize them. I urge you to learn your craft drawing by trial and error. You will learn so much more.
If you want to improve your drawing you need to practice. Draw from life and do not give up, even if it does not live up to the standard you set yourself at the beginning.
Don’t try to do too much too quickly. Advance in small steps and build upon your successes. All skills take time to learn. If you put in the effort your drawings will improve dramatically.
Aspiring artists should be patient and realistic about what they are going to accomplish. Believe me, the goalposts move. People look at my stuff and assume that I intended to draw the image they see. In truth, they only see the best I could do at the time, and that’s not the same thing.
Everyone is critical of their own work, don’t think it’s unique to you. Think of it this way, you have already started out with some drawing skills that many people would count themselves lucky to possess.
Hopefully, there is a nugget or two in this list of drawing tips that will help you to advance forward.
You’ll also be interested in these posts. Check them out:
- How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings and Avoid Disaster
- How to Scale Up a Drawing in 4 Easy Ways and Save Time
- Can Anyone Learn to Draw? 5 Great Tips to Get You Started
- Is it Cheating to Trace Your Art?
- How to Plan and Compose your Art