Learning to Draw: Understanding the Three Fundamentals of Drawing

learntodrawDrawing is a wonderful and rewarding hobby. It requires little in the way of resources and can give you hours of joy. Get good enough at drawing and you can even turn it into a legitimate career.

Learning to draw is incredibly easy. A dedicated student can pick it up in just a few days. 3-4 months of regular practice can turn a complete newbie into a consummate professional.  You can speed up your progress through Frank Reilly’s from-life drawing masterclass, or learn the secrets to figure drawing in this course.

In this blog post, we will cover the three fundamentals of drawing – perspective, proportion and lighting – and how they can help you become a better artist.

What You’ll Need

Drawing is one of the cheapest hobbies around. You don’t need to invest in expensive equipment and tools. After all, if your early ancestors could draw on cave walls with sharpened rocks and plant pigments, surely you can get by with a few pencils and a sheet of paper!

As a beginner, you only need the following to start with:

  • A set of graphite pencils. Graphite pencils are available in 20 different levels of hardness ranging from 9H to 9xxB. 9H is the lightest, 9xxB the hardest. As a beginner, you only need HB, 2B, and a couple of harder grade (5B or 6B) pencils.

  • A few loose sheets of paper – your standard printer paper will suffice.

  • A clean desk

That’s it. Buy specialized equipment (light desks, expensive pencils, thick drawing sheets, etc.) only once you actually get the hang of this hobby.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into the three fundamentals of drawing:

1. Perspective

Perspective drawing is the process of representing 3-dimensional objects on paper. Perspective is what gives drawings that dimension most vital to realism: depth. Instead of laying flat on a surface, such drawings pop out of the paper and appear lifelike. A thorough understanding of this technique is usually what separates the amateurs from the professionals.

Perspective drawing follows a simple rule: the further an object is from the viewer, the smaller it appears. Try this right now – hold your pencil right before your nose. It appears huge and occupies nearly your entire field of vision. Keep the pencil on the desk ten feet away, and it appears tiny. This is all because of perspective.

Practice Drawing Geometric Perspective

Sketching out geometric perspective can be a very useful exercise in understanding how perspective works. But before you can start, there are a few technical terms you must understand:

  • Horizon: This is an imaginary line that determines the line of vision of the represented object. It is sometimes also called the ‘eye level’. Like real life, the horizon is where your field of vision appears to end.

  • Perspective Lines: These are straight lines, drawn at angles from the edges of the represented object. These appear to converge at some real or imaginary point on the horizon (called vanishing point – see below).

  • Vanishing Point: This is the real or imaginary point on the horizon where all perspective lines converge.

You will use these three elements extensively in all your geometric perspective drawings. A very rough illustration can be seen below:

Practice creating similar geometric drawings to understand how perspective works. When you get a little familiar with this process, try to decipher how perspective is used in famous artworks. For example, in Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, Jesus serves as the vanishing point, there are clear angular lines along the walls, and you can even see an actual horizon in the window behind Jesus.

Keep this in mind the next time you draw. It can give your drawings a rich, 3-dimensional depth.

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2. Proportion

Proportion is a representation of the different sizes of different objects in a drawing. It springs from perspective – objects closer to the viewer appear larger than those further away – but also depends on symmetry and size ratios (like the ‘Golden Ratio’). Most amateurs struggle with getting proportion right, especially for more complicated subjects.

The most famous example of a proportionate drawing, of course, is Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’.

Every part of the figure is perfectly proportionate. In fact, the figure’s dimensions even line up with aforementioned ‘Golden Ratio’. When drawing human figures, the Vitruvian Man is as good a place as any to start.

Understanding how proportion works takes a keen eye, practice, and a willingness to whip out a ruler to make measurements. When starting out, don’t be afraid to measure objects before drawing. It’s a good idea to start with small objects (a box, a phone, etc.) that can be translated exactly as they appear onto paper. Try copying existing drawings verbatim to see how professionals utilize proportions. You can also use tracing paper to copy complete drawings.

Learn how to draw with step by step lessons from professional artists!

3. Lighting, Shading and Texture

Shading is the translation of light and its corollary, shadow, onto paper. Shading gives your drawings depth, volume and personality – three crucial elements for lifelike drawings. As an artist, it is one of the most valuable skills you can learn. Good shading can even make up for poor perspectives and proportions.

Every subject in a drawing has to be illuminated by a light source, either real or imaginary. The fundamental rule of shading is that parts of the subject facing away from the light appear darker than those facing towards it. No matter what technique you use, every drawing will follow this same basic principle.

Picking up shading is easy; mastering it incredibly difficult. Start by drawing simple objects and unidirectional light sources – an orange illuminated by a focused light bulb, for instance. Try using different pencils to achieve a gradual transition from light to dark. You can also use techniques such as cross-hatching to make shading a little easier.

Texture refers to the feel of an object. Sandpaper feels rough; marble is smooth.This is what gives your drawings that lifelike feel, as if you could reach out and feel every contour on an object’s surface. Translating texture onto paper can be challenging, but it’ll make your drawings much more ‘real’.

There is a golden rule for texture in a drawing: smooth, fluffy textures should be drawn with lighter strokes, rougher textures with darker strokes. A marble statue, for instance, should be drawn with thin, light lines; a rough hunk of coal with thick, dense strokes. As always, there are many exceptions to this rule, which is why texture is one of the last things you should attempt in any drawing as a beginner.

That’s it for this tutorial. We will share more practical tips on drawing in future articles. Remember that these fundamentals are true not just for drawing, but for almost any other visual art form, including, but not limited to painting, 3D model design, etc.

If you want to jumpstart your new hobby, try this tutorial on learning to draw and paint from your imagination.

Do you have any secret tips and advice on learning to draw? Share them with us in the comments section below!