4 Easy Steps to Learning how to draw


  • Learn to handle your Tool of Choice
  • Seeing and Drawing Relations and Proportions
  • Learn what to Leave out
  • Compose a Scene

Currently I am practicing to draw with a pen on paper, more specifically I am working on the technique of five minute sketches to be able to draw street scenes that I observe quickly into a sketchbook, striving not necessarily for absolute realism, but for something that is recognizable and interesting.

As a tool, I am mostly using a gel pen, which is easy to handle, does not need as much pressure as a regular pen, and can mostly bring one single level of darkness and thickness to the paper.

In some way a gel pen for drawing is a very “digital” tool, it knows exactly two states: Black or not black. Unlike a pencil, it is not possible to draw shades of gray by pressing harder or gentler onto the paper.

In a way, it removes one complexity for me, as I no longer need to decide if I want to have a stroke light or dark, the decision is reduced to “stroke” or “no stroke”.

Because there are already many complexities involved.

Taking the drawing process apart, there are several different skills involved, that fortunately can be practiced individually.

The first step is simple learning to handle your tool. If you have practiced very little drawing, or come from a background where most of your drawing needs are about drawing boxes and connecting them, you will likely find it quite hard to get the pen to draw on paper what you had imagined in your head.

I used to work around that problem, usually by drawing a line, looking at it, and drawing another line, that seemed closer to what I imagined and then repeat that process, until the stroke was approaching what I had in mind. Of course this led to messy results, where I would start with a light stroke, and pressing increasingly harder, as I approached my ideal line.

First, learn to be able to place a single stroke at exactly the place you imagined it at the first place.

And for this you can do little practices. Like filling a part of the paper with something like parallel lines. In the beginning, if you do it quickly, sometimes your lines might cross each other by accident, some lines might start further left or right than the others, the distance between the lines might vary, they might be wobbly rather than straight, and so on and so forth.

That is one area to practice.

Another one that I like to do is to draw simple circles, small ones and bigger ones, and here I try to get them really into circle shapes, and especially try to match the beginning with the end of the circle, without leaving a gap or overdrawing. Ideally you would be unable to distinguish the beginning and end from any other part of the circle. A gel pen can be quite unforgiving in this area. If you press too hard while putting the pen on the paper, or when taking it away, you might leave an ugly speck.

The goal with all those exercises is to practice the handling of the tool, to train the muscle memory to observe your intentions and to be able to start a line where you intend to start it, and end it where you intend to end it, and to be able to keep the stroke going where you want it to go instead of diverting from the path. And with closing to circle to hit a spot and connect two lines where you want them to connect.

It is a basic skill upon which you can base your further study.

And fortunately it is an easy practice, that does not require to much thought or concentration. You can doodle during meetings, on the train, while eating, etc. etc.

It is a bit like being a warrior or sword fighter. You need to become familiar with your tool of choice, you need to keep it on you all the time, handle it all the time, have it lie next to you when you sleep, in case you wake up in bed and need jot down a few ideas. It needs to become a new body part for you.

If you are on a train that is wobbling and shaking see it as an additional handicap or challenge to overcame and keep your straight line.

No matter what tool you chose, if you go for the gel-pen, as I did, or if you prefer the pencil, the next skill you need to master is shading, that is getting different gray levels out your tools.

In the case of gel-pen, that does not allow greater or smaller pressure for controlling the shade, you need to resort to other tricks, like drawing lines in varying distance to make it look like different shades from the distance, or making crosses, etc.

There are many ways to practice different ways of drawing patterns and shading, I usually try to shade close to a line, without over spilling on the other side of the line.

After having honed some basic skill to be able to handle the pen and draw, the next, learn to see relations and proportions and be able to bring them to the paper. When sketching faces it is quite vital to get the proportions right, and when I started out with sketching, it might happen quite often that I started with drawing an ear and then the head, and suddenly I would have a tiny head with a giant ear on my paper.

The most basic proportion to start with, when sketching faces is usually the eye ear line that can be imagined across the head, and quite surprisingly it is about in the middle of the head.

As I sometimes find it quite hard to estimate proportions when looking at the real scene as a beginner, I found it a bit easier to start with photos which are already in the 2d space, and start practicing estimating proportions from there.

You could also take your fingers to measure a proportion with a pinch grip or a small ruler.

There is also the way to draw a grid over a photo, and transfer the image using a grip. Also a great exercise, although I would put this exercise more into the “handling the pen” category, rather than into the “estimating proportions”, because for me it feels quite unnatural to try to mentally overlay a grid over a real scene. While it comes easier to me to see proportions in the relationship between objects and features in the scene.

So one thing is to see proportions and another thing is to be able to put them ob paper. So this I guess needs practice, but I guess one starting point could be to try to draw two or more lines on a paper, one twice as long as the other and one three times as long as the other, etc. Or to place objects in a specific distance of each other.

The next exercise would be to learn what to draw, and what to leave out. Here I found it quite interesting to look at comics, or graphic novels, and try to imitate how faces and characters are often draw with few and simple strokes in a comic.

When sketching from photos or real life, in the beginning it is often quite hard to distinguish what details are defining for the overall appearance of an objects, and what details can be left out or are even distracting.

Comics help to see that, and as a practice, I like to draw over photos from magazines, like the free ones, you get on trains or in the mail.

What to leave out is especially important when drawing with a tool like a gel pen, where you cannot get very small and light strokes, and where a too small detail would look out of place.

Often, it is not even necessary to draw a thin line, it might be enough to draw the beginning and the end of an edge, and the imagination of the observer will fill in the rest.

The next step in the skill ladder is the ability to compose a scene. To decide what to draw from the higher level view. While the part before was about what to draw in terms of details, the next thing is to learn what to draw in terms of the overall scene.

And to be able to see that, I find it quite useful, to get into the habit if taking a good photograph every now and then. Apart from looking at scenic sketches and good photography of course. Taking good photographs of people and scenes comes down to two basic factors, and that is the framing and the composition of foreground and background. And for the framing it comes down to a similar thing as before, the question of what to leave out. Learning to let go, and be bold in keeping objects and details out of the frame.

When I was much younger, I often imagined photography to be about capturing everything of am interesting scene, rather than creating a good picture, independent of what the whole scene was about. So I when taking a photo of friends, I would try to capture all of said friends from head to toe, and keep everything in the frame, rather then selecting or curating the contents of the picture. Later I learned that capturing just a face and a bit of the torso of a person, while the person was engaged in something interesting would produce a much more satisfying picture.

In addition to the focus on something specific, like a face, it would also be important where to place that detail in the frame. According to the golden rule you would place the focus point not in the middle of the frame, but rather divide the frame into thirds and put the focus point into one of the dividers of the thirds.

Selecting a focus point would also mean making a decision of what should be in the foreground.

And that would make the second factor to take into account, selecting a background for your focus point. As a naive photographer, I would always be so interested in the object I was about to picture that I did not pay much attention to the surroundings of said object. So today I usually also take that into account. If I find that background of my object of interest is boring, I usually move around it in a circle, trying to find a more satisfying composition, while keeping the focus the same.

And usually I would also try to emphasize the focus, be trying to keep the sharpness of the picture there. A simple trick to do that with a zoom lens, is to zoom in as much as possible, as this will usually make the field of focus more shallow, so you would find it more easy to give a slight blur to the background.

Learning to frame a picture and select a composition is probably not of so much use to a beginner, who will be happy to get a sketch of a face, but it will make it easier when moving on to creating whole scenes, because extracting to interesting parts of a scene means less work sketching out the details and everything.

And it also shows that sometimes a detail is much more interesting than trying to cram everything into a picture. And dividing background from foreground and putting things in a blur also highlights where in a picture less detail might be necessary.