How to Draw Faster: 14 Expert Tips For Sketching at Speed

How to draw faster header with 5 pencil drawings by Kevin Hayler

If you want to learn how to draw faster, then this article is for you. In this post, I’m going to teach you how to draw faster using 14 expert tips and tricks that I’ve learned from over 20 years of drawing professionally.

Schroll through and cherrypick the tips that relate to you the most. Let’s make a start.

Sketch Faster by Drawing From Life

It is important to sketch from life, especially moving objects. This will force you to capture fleeting moments as quickly as possible. It will train your mind to filter out all the unnecessary crap and concentrate on key lines and spaces.

The emphasis is on speed, getting the maximum amount of information drawn on the paper in the minimum amount of time. 

Get outside and draw. Don’t sit in a studio or at the kitchen table and try to speed draw. There are so many distractions outside that you’ll be forced into making faster decisions.

Ideally, you should try drawing living things, but it could be the shifting light in a landscape, drifting clouds, or moving water. 

Further Reading: How to Draw Water: The Rules

A good exercise would be to draw a street scene using the static bold shapes of the buildings as a backdrop, with the road and paving providing your leadlines. With the structure quickly mapped out, rapidly add the people passing by. 

Forget about detail. 

Draw Faster by Simplifying Shapes and Forms

All artists draw using the same basic principles. You start off with the boldest, most basic shapes first and refine them down into progressively smaller shapes until you get to the detail.

The initial shapes serve two purposes, to adjust proportions accurately at the earliest stage of the drawing and then those blocks act as the scaffold to build upon with confidence. 

This is the most critical part of the process. The last thing you want to do is get the proportions wrong and have to correct the details later. That is making work for yourself and besides, when you go too far along the wrong path you get possessive about the good parts and try to preserve them.

This invariably fails. 

You can ‘cheat’ in the studio by tracing and measuring, but you will benefit most by learning these skills from life first. 

Draw Faster by Blocking in and Lifting Out

As you learn to draw the simplest shapes you can block them in further with some basic shading.  

Do yourself a favor and draw subjects with high contrast and strong shadows. The shapes will be easier to discern. All artists look for strong shapes, when you have some experience you will appreciate how dramatic lighting speeds up your drawing immeasurably.

Further Reading: How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil

Having shaded your outline drawing into bold tonal blocks, try gently lifting out the lighter areas.

Painters (not watercolorists) have an ugly underpainting and use it as the base to build upon with tone and color. You can do something similar except you gently erase areas to adjust the tone.

It is far quicker to lift out tone than to draw it in. It may not be photographic, but that’s not the purpose. It will look more painterly, have more atmosphere and take less time, and that’s the point.

Remember the detail comes last. 

Don’t Correct All Your Drawing Mistakes 

The key to drawing fast and lose is to draw several lines lightly and choose the define most accurate. That’s the secret of sketching at speed. 

Embrace your mistakes and use them to filter out the best lines. Your sketch will benefit. Let the viewer see the process, it adds drama, life, and movement to the scene. 

Further Reading: How to Make Your Drawings Interesting

Boring subjects can be brought to life with a vibrant, and fluid, use of lines. Far from getting in the way, they emphasize the beauty of your drawing. Your mistakes add character to an otherwise bland subject. 

Don’t Over-Finish Your Drawings

I have a character flaw – I’m a perfectionist. I will draw a sketch over and over until the sketch is the right kind of sketchy! I know it’s crazy.

Listen, if you want to get quicker at drawing you must resist the temptation to add detail and finish things off. You will be digging a hole for yourself and I know from experience, it gets harder and harder to climb out.

Nine times out of ten, your perfect drawing will not look any better than it was halfway through it. You will be doubling your time to achieve nothing much more.

Further Reading: Hyperrealism: What’s the Point?

In reality, the viewer is only interested in the main focal point, all the rest is padding. They are very forgiving about the outer edges. You can do what you like as long as the key area is good enough.

Many portrait artists draw the face brilliantly and only suggest the shoulders, hair, and body; WHY? Because it doesn’t matter. The viewer is only interested in the face.

I get obsessed about getting everything just right, and while I’m doing that, I’m beating myself up for taking so much time!

Do as I say, not as I do.

Choose the Right Pencil and Paper for Drawing Faster

It’s all very well telling you what to do but it won’t work without the right sketching materials.

You need a softer grade of pencil for fast drawing. I use an HB or B usually, but many artists prefer something punchier like a 3B. 

As I’ve said countless times, all brands are different. I use Derwent pencils and their grades differ from other brands. It is a case of choosing a brand of pencils and getting to know them. 

Hard pencils are useless for fast drawing. It might be tempting to use a light grade for drawing rough outlines but applying any pressure will score the paper and that can ruin everything before you begin.

Further Reading: What’s the Right Paper for Pencil Drawing?

I go no lighter than F in the Derwent range, and that I use that only if I might add some watercolor washes. Generally, I sketch in HB or B and use cartridge paper that has some ‘tooth’.

That’s another variable you will have to consider. The paper surface will affect the tone. A smooth Bristol Board has no tooth for the graphite to bind onto, consequently, your line will be lighter.

The advantage of Bristol Board is the beautiful blending that you can achieve and if you use blenders a great deal you will be able to blend and draw at speed. It is particularly good for clean pen and ink drawings.

I like the middle ground and use cartridge paper mostly. I can blend well and get rich dark tones. On occasion, I will draw on a coarser surface, I like to use Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper. I use an off-white tint. There are two sides, I use the grainy side, the other has a criss-cross pattern.

What I love about heavy grain is the immediate atmosphere it lends to a drawing. Grainy pencil shading gains instant depth and interest without having to do anything more to it. It looks and feels much more spontaneous.

Choose a Faster Drawing Medium

If speed is what you are after, it might be time to abandon conventional graphite pencils and start using graphite stumps, powder, and charcoal.

Drawing with solid graphite can be messy but you can cover a large area with little effort. I don’t use them as often as I used to, but there was a time when it was an essential part of my kit. Why? Because I used to draw much faster than I do today.

When I first started to sell work I wanted every piece of artwork completed within a day. If I took two days I would curse. Now I take longer and make prints.

Graphite stumps create fantastic texture and I used them regularly before I moved over to try my hand at photorealism. I continue to use them, but more judiciously.

Graphite powder is useful for laying in a light undertone. You can blend it with a soft brush and lift it clean off the paper with an eraser. It takes a lot of getting used to and I don’t use it so much, simply because it goes everywhere.

Charcoal dust is another messy but beautiful way of applying tone. Anyone who has been to the Far East, and seen the portrait artists draw, will see them painting with dust as if they were using paint.

They dip their brushes into the charcoal powder and build the tones up in layers. The blending is so gentle that the paper doesn’t stain. The powder lifts away with an eraser.

Finally, there are Charcoal sticks, the original spontaneous medium. You will get covered in charcoal but you’ll be forced to choose your lines with confidence and draw using your whole arm. The medium dictates how you will draw.

I usually advise artists not to use their fingers to smudge their drawings for fear of leaving greasy marks on the paper. Ignore that advice with charcoal sticks. They demand that you get dirty and blend with your fingers.

Further Reading: How to Stop Your Drawings From Smudging

You can shade whole backgrounds in a few strokes. Hair can be blocked in and shadows are drawn in moments. In the hands of an expert, charcoal is unsurpassed in its immediacy and subtlety of tone.

For most of us, it’s usually a disaster!

Draw Quickly From the Arm and Elbow

Your drawing technique will have a direct bearing on your ability to draw quickly. If you draw from the wrist you will inevitably slow down. It will force you to draw precisely and with more care. That’s fine in the final stages when you’re adding detail, not so good for sketching the outlines.

You will draw much more quickly from the arm. You will need to have the paper at an angle, or upright at an easel, and that way you can step back and see its perspective properly. It’s easier to draw on a larger scale.

A loose arm action will allow you to draw with dynamic movement. The line will flow across the page and your quick arm movements will allow you to flick, and dab, and smudge freely.

You won’t have to worry about being distracted by detail because you won’t be able to do it.

Practice Fast Gestural Drawing

Gestural drawing is just a fancy way of describing the drawing of movement. The idea is to draw a figure or animal in various positions.

Comic illustrators are experts at gesture drawing. They have the visual memory and basic knowledge of anatomy to improvise drawing a figure in any position. It’s a skill that can be learned with practice.

You can learn from life classes if they are informal enough to let you sketch rapidly, alternatively, there are mannequins you can pose in any way you like.

Another way of quickly drawing gestures is to draw a basic skeleton and flesh it out. You need to know the basic skull shape, breastplate, and hips. As long as the limbs are the right length you can add the muscles with quick ellipses.

You need a basic idea about anatomy, but that’s possible with a few references to help you figure things out.

The advantage you will gain from gesture drawing is the visual memory you will develop. If you draw regularly you will be able to guess and draw any missing detail with more conviction.

It’s very handy should you want to change a pose for dramatic effect. You have enough knowledge not to be a slave to photographic references.

Draw Negative Spaces to Speed Things Up

Looking for negative spaces helps you to see shapes in a different way. When you draw, you are not only looking at the spaces within your subject, you are also visualizing the space outside too.

Imagine an animal running, let’s use the image of the zebras below. The negative shapes are the spaces between the limbs. It’s just as important to draw the empty spaces as it is the limbs themselves.

You can also use the same method to draw the stripes. Are they black on white or white over black? In fact, it doesn’t matter as long as you treat both areas as just shapes and draw them in proportion.

Zebra drawing demonstrating negative spaces for drawing faster

Drawing a combination of negative and positive spaces will speed up your drawing and help you to get the spatial relationships in balance.

Work on Several Drawings at Once

It worked for JMW Turner. He would work on multiple paintings at a time. He had a conveyer-belt approach that increased his output, and his income. He also happened to be a genius and that helped.

I’m not a genius and I can’t multi-task, so it’s not a technique I’ve ever used to increase my productivity. I can only draw one thing at a time. The compromise is to draw multiple rapid sketches, one at a time, as a drawing exercise.

If you can switch focus between several images at any one time, I can see the benefit. In theory, you would look at each drawing with fresh eyes every time you come back to it.

The same thing happens when you walk away for a few hours and revisit any drawing. With fresh eyes, you can see obvious mistakes that were not apparent when you were lost in the process. It’s easy to become blind when you are deep into a drawing.

If you step away long enough to forget about the anxiety of going wrong or getting stuck, you can return to the work with a bolder approach. You stop worrying about the time and emotional investment that you put in and just crack on with fixing it.

Further Reading: How to Get Better at Drawing

I cant see how the Turner production-line approach would work for me, or for most artists, but I can imagine how returning to a drawing every few days could be a good idea. It might speed up your work, and prevent you from getting bogged down.

Use a Tinted Ground for Quicker Drawings

Another way you could increase your drawing speed is to use a toned, or tinted, ground to cut out the mid-tones. It’s an age-old device. You can layer a white page with a flat-ish grey tone or use pre-made tinted paper.

You can layer a tone with a soft brush dipped into graphite or charcoal paper. In the Far East, they use very wide brushes to layer a soft tone in minutes. I’ve seen artists use makeup brushes in the same way. You can also experiment with layering a mid-tone with pastel pan colors.

If you are drawing on watercolor paper or board, you can use a gouache wash or diluted Indian ink.

It’s far easier to buy your paper ready-made. Strathmore sells mid-grey and tan sketching pads. The 400 series is very thin but great for practicing your techniques. For serious work, you might prefer the 500 series.

A toned ground has a number of advantages. It removes the need to draw all the mid-tones yourself, it binds the image together into a cohesive whole, and it teaches you the importance of using highlights to give the drawing true depth.

Tracing Images Cuts Out Time

It may be sacrilege to purists but tracing has been used for centuries. The assumption that great artists did everything by eye and skill alone is a myth I’m afraid. Time was money then as it is now and any shortcuts towards a quicker end result were acceptable.

You only have to look on Instagram to see how many commercial artists are using a traced image at the early stages of a drawing. Some mention it, many don’t. Let’s face it, there is a stigma attached to tracing.

There is no doubt that tracing an image will dramatically speed up your drawing but there is a downside. It’s crude, clumsy, and stilted. It has no merit beyond being an alternative scaffold waiting for paint or detail to be applied.

Further Reading: Tracing Art – Is It Good or Bad?

There is nothing ethically wrong with that in my book because it still takes a very accomplished artist to use that simple scaffold and bring the art back to life. Drawing over an initial tracing and constructing a sense of motion is not easy.

Tracing a photo makes you insecure. It’s almost impossible to know what to draw in and what to leave out. Inevitably you draw everything you can, just in case you miss something important. You lose your spontaneity. It becomes an illustration, which is fine, but you lose the artistic flourish.

It’s a trade-off.

Now before you wag your finger at me, I use a grid to draw my illustrations. It’s no better than tracing because it has the same inhibiting effect.

Sketch of a lioness and her cub. How to draw faster using a grid
Mapping in faster using a grid

I still have to labor away to try and recapture the life and soul that attracted me in the first place. It is much slower than tracing but faster than drawing freehand. For me at least.

Plus, very few people see it as cheating.

Use Dividers to Draw Faster

Dividers allow you to measure two points on an image and mark those points out on the drawing paper. It’s simple measuring. You can draw any photographic image to the same scale

Dividers or a good compass will do

Proportional dividers are pivoted along a slider and that allows you to draw at a different scale. You line up two points with one end and measure out a larger or smaller version with the other end.

Good dividers are cheap enough, good proportional dividers are expensive. I like to print an image to the required scale and use normal dividers. Much easier.

Further Reading: How to Scale Up a Drawing

In theory, you can get stuck in without any preparations but it might be easier to draw one horizontal line crossing an eye and one vertical line at 90 degrees.

You must draw two IDENTICAL guidelines on your drawing paper very lightly.

These are your anchor lines. If one eye is lower than the other you can see it clearly. You can use the fixed lines to double-check and cross-reference that your angles are correct between any two given points.

This method allows you much more freedom to draw naturally. You are taking out the trial and error but retaining the sketchy, artistic feel.

TIP: The dividers must have a tight mechanism, or buy a precision compass with an adjustment wheel

You tick off the crucial points of the drawing such as the distance between the eyes, the tip of the nose, and the mouth, and draw them all, knowing they’re in the right position.

Dividers allow you to draw freehand within a simple framework and any errors can be corrected by measuring.

It’s a brilliant way to draw faster.

Conclusion

We all get into bad habits and drawing faster is more easily said than done. Once a style has set in, it becomes your comfort zone. You want success so you play it safe. It can be scary trying out new ideas because the fear of failure puts you off.

In reality, if you look at it logically, even failure provides a useful lesson.

If you can free up your mind and alter your expectations then you can only benefit from experimenting. You never know it might take your drawing in a whole new direction.

That AH-HA moment could be a game-changer.


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