How Do You Learn To Draw? 5 Tips To Get You Started

How do you learn to draw? A header showing an adult drawing like a child.
‘It don’t look nuffink like it!’

I’m often asked how I can draw so well. Did I go to art school? Is it in the family? When did you first realize you could draw? These are easy questions to answer, but can anyone learn to draw?

Draw what you see and not what you know. Draw shapes and proportions before you add detail. Draw shapes within shapes. Draw light to dark and continue this process until something recognizable emerges.

Most people, who learn to draw well, discover their talent at an early age and the rest simply give up, but why is that? It’s because early setbacks convince people that they can’t draw, and that stays with them.

In this article, I will run through the basics of drawing. It’s very easy and then I’ll share my own experiences learning how to draw as a child. Let’s crack on.

Learning to draw example 1. Framed pencil drawing of two African Penguins by Kevin Hayler
‘Push and Shove’ A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

What Advice Would You Give to Someone Learning to Draw?

1. Draw What You See and Not What You Know.

We’ll use eyes as an example. Everyone knows about the whites of your eyes, except they’re not white at all.

They are flesh-colored, pinkish, or even light blue. They are never white. A  draftsman would draw the ‘whites’ as a light grey.

The only white is the sparkle in the eye.

Example 2 Learning to draw eyes. Close up detail.
Eyes detail from ‘Baby on Board’

OK, so this example is from my orangutan drawing. Don’t be picky. I want to show you another top tip. The iris is always lighter on the opposite side of the sparkle. That’s the key to a realistic eye. Remember that.

A tell-tale sign of an amateur is watching them draw or paint without studying their subject properly. Proficient artists are constantly looking, verifying, and scrutinizing. Their heads turn back and forth as if they’re watching a tennis match in slow motion.

An artist must concentrate and focus their attention fully. Impatience will only result in mediocrity.

2. Break the Subject Down Into Simple Shapes

Break the subject down into the simplest shapes. Look for the easiest and most obvious shapes first and draw them in lightly.

Using these tangible shapes as your guide, draw in the neighboring shapes, adjusting them until they are in proportion.

Adjust and re-adjust these preliminary blocks with a light sketchy touch. Leave the pencil marks, don’t rub them out. Among these rough guidelines lies the accurate one. The true lines become apparent as you refine the sketch.

Having blocked in, do the same again within the blocks. Break them down further and further.

You are not drawing the subject as much as drawing the shapes within the subject. Only as you progress and the shapes add up, does the subject emerge.

Example 3. Drawing basics using simple shapes to build form.
Find the simplest shapes and join them together.

3. Draw the Proportions Before the Detail

You have endless scope for correcting errors as you map out your drawing. At this early stage, there is no time commitment. If you make a stupid blunder it’s no big deal to start again.

It’s vital to layout the drawing accurately. Don’t be tempted to add any detail until you are sure the proportions are accurate. 

A classic error I see amateurs make is to add details way too early. They crack on with the focal point and ignore the placement. Then having spent so much time on the detail it becomes precious. 

They don’t want to lose all that work and try to draw around that early success. The student is afraid of correcting and losing the good bits. It soon becomes a rescue mission as things go wrong. The result is a disjointed wonky drawing, not even centered on the page.

The detail is the icing on the cake and it comes last.

4. Learn to Shade. Blend, Don’t Just Smudge

I would urge beginners not to smudge their drawings for effect. 

Smudging is crude. Blending, by contrast, implies a controlled finesse and it’s not something to hurry. 

Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming temptation for many newbies to cut corners and ‘rub-in’ the shading. The result is a dog’s dinner of dirty smears.

It’s better by far to learn to shade properly with a range of pencils. Start lighter and build up. Don’t start too dark.

Further Reading: How to Prevent Your Art From Smudging

Even the most subtle gradations can be achieved with the right choice of pencil. I will use the side of the hardest 9H to blend the faintest tones you can imagine.

Get to know your tools. Choose one brand of quality pencils and stick to them. Don’t mix brands, the grading system is not universal.

Experiment on different papers. Try rough and smooth. Build up the dark tones using layers instead of jumping in with the darkest grades first. 

Example 4. Framed picture of a leopard. A pencil drawing by by Kevin Hayler
There is no ‘smudging’ in this drawing. It’s all shading.

Cross-hatch using the side of the ‘lead’, not the point. Work with the paper grain. Make the speckled effect a feature of your technique. 

It’s only once you know what’s possible that you can go on to manipulate your effects confidently by blending.

5. Practice by Drawing From Photos

After their initial attempts at drawing from imagination, most children try copying from books and comics. Why? Because it holds their interest.  So why then, do we insist that students draw boring crap? 

Why not draw something that interests you? I am fond of wildlife so that’s what I do. It doesn’t bore me, and I definitely need photographs.

Further Reading: Is Drawing from Photos Bad?

It’s all very well thinking that you will take to the fields with a drawing pad and immerse yourself in the glories of mother nature, but I would advise against it at the beginning.

I think a beginner is better off taking some photos and working from those. I know the purists will have a hissy-fit but a learner has more chance of getting a good result from a photo, and that’s essential for motivation.

A photo doesn’t move, the light doesn’t shift, and you can stop and start at will. It fits in with our busy lives. You can dedicate your head-space in concentrated 20-minute bursts and get results.

Think of a camera as just another tool. It provides the artist with a reference to be played around with as they see fit.

Kevin Hayler drawing elephants from a reference photo
I originally used a grid to map it out.

Learning to draw exclusively from photographs does, however, present some dangers. You can end up being a slave to the image. This is a constant problem for me. There is too much detail. 

Further Reading: How to Plan and Compose Your Art

In true life, the brain distills the most important elements from the view, a camera, in contrast, captures everything. And a lens distorts perspective. A camera lens is not the same as a human eye. Amateurs don’t always recognize the difference and don’t compensate for it.

It’s wise to practice freehand first by using the ‘blocking in’ method but it WILL go wrong. It takes time and practice to ‘see’ properly.

A shorter learning curve is to grid the photo.

I like to make a black and white photocopy of my photograph and enlarge it to the size I want to draw it.

Line drawing of a lioness and her cub. How to draw with a grid
Very light grid lines that can be rubbed out

Grid the copy. Try drawing either side of a ruler for accuracy. Do the same very, very lightly on your drawing paper. It must be accurate.

A learner will want to draw a very small grid but resist it. The idea is to learn to see the ‘shapes’.

Now instead of drawing the whole picture as we would from life, we draw each box. The same rules apply inside the box. We look for shapes and join them up.

Imagine each side of each square is divided by 10. A line will cross at some point along the scale. If it intersects halfway, it crosses at 5. Mark the point and gradually join up the dots. 

Demonstrating how to draw using a grid. A detailed close-up of a lion cub.
If it gets tricky divide it up

So what happens if the shape is still too hard to discern?

Ideally, you should rough in the lines until you find the correct one but if that’s too frustrating you can draw a diagonal line from each corner of the square. Now you can draw the contents of each triangle. 

Another method is to use a compass or a pair of dividers to measure the distances between two points. That’s the reason to draw from the same size photocopy. It’s much easier.

Further Reading: How to Scale Up a Drawing in 4 Easy Ways

As you gain in confidence you can make the grid bigger and bigger. At some point, your brain will click-in and you’ll ‘see’ how to break up everything into simple shapes.

At What Age Did You Learn to Draw?

I was seven. I know that because my first conscious memory of being complimented for drawing was when I moved to a new school.

I distinctly remember my new classmates gathering around to watch me draw an airplane.

Everyone else drew an aircraft body with one wing stuck vertically on top of the carriage and one stuck vertically below. I, on the other hand, drew a foreshortened wing as a parabola. I’d already discovered some basic ideas about perspective.

From there on in my identity was ‘the kid who can draw’.

It’s easy to look back and apply some pseudo-psychology but I’m convinced that having a reputation to live up to, developed my talent.

All kids want to be accepted and to ‘fit-in’, and we all cherish praise. That was my way of being liked and admired. What better incentive is there for getting better at anything?

I believe that practice at that early stage of life made all the difference. As my young brain grew so did my talent. I became good because I was constantly drawing and trying to get better.

Did You Inherit Your Ability to Draw or Learn it?

Anecdotally, my father was very good at drawing but if that was true, I never saw any evidence. 

I wasn’t brought up in an arty culture at all. My family was thoroughly working class. My Dad was a bricklayer and my Mum worked in a fish and chip shop! There are no obvious influences or inheritance that I can point to with any conviction. 

I can’t identify any link to nature or nurture. Maybe I’m a genetic throw-up or put another way, a freak of nature.

All I know is I grew up loving animals and I learned to draw them, it’s as simple as that.

Did You Learn To Draw At Art School?

No, I’m self-taught and decided not to go. I’ll never know if it was the right decision or not. It would’ve been good socially, but artistically? I have my doubts.

I meet so many embittered graduates that got nothing out of their education or were steered in a direction they had no wish to go. Formal art instruction was rare then and it’s almost gone now.

Personally, I think there’s more value to be had learning in an evening class and Youtube than having an art degree. 

Think about it. A young 18-year-old borrows a huge amount of money to have their skills rubbished by patronizing art snobs who can teach them how to think pretentiously but can’t teach them how to draw. That’s not my idea of value for money.

Further Reading: Is Art School Worth The Money?

I think it’s important to learn from someone who is better than you and able to demonstrate a technique. I was better than my art teacher by the time I was 15 and he couldn’t teach me by example, he could only critique. That wasn’t good enough for me. 

Wouldn’t it be great to have had a mentor or be apprenticed to a master? It would have cut years off my learning curve.

Conclusion

Can anyone learn how to draw? Yes. The theory is easy. Can anyone learn to draw well? No. Just as everyone can play sport, only a few are really good at it. You can progress and get better and better. Drawing is easy, excellence is hard work. How much work will you put in?

There is more to drawing than tuition. There are other limiting factors at play. You might be able to draw but have you got the personality to pursue it? Will you take the time? Have you got the patience?

Only you know that.


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