Line Drawing Basics

Line Drawing Basics

When most people think of fine art, I think they see great and glorious paintings, full color drawings, or exquisite sculptures. They don’t usually think “simple line drawings,” but you know what? You can do a lot with lines just by making use of a few line drawing basics.

September 1 marked the beginning of this year’s colored pencil plein air drawing challenge. I set aside time last year to draw outside at least once a week, just because it was something I’d never done before, and because I wanted an excuse to enjoy cooler autumn temperatures.

I enjoyed it so much, I decided to do it again this year.

But just because it was designed for fun doesn’t mean it’s not also a learning experience.

Or maybe a reminding experience would be a better way to put it. The first drawing I did (on Labor Day, no less) was one of those drawings that started out basic, but reminded me of something wonderful.

You can do a lot with nothing but lines!

A Basic Line Drawing

This is my first plein air drawing for September.

It’s pretty simple really. One color—Prismacolor Chocolate—and a small piece of Stonehenge in Fawn. It took about an hour to draw.

No, the trees aren’t really bare, not yet. But I could see enough of the branches through the foliage to be intrigued by the pattern of criss-crossing branches.

What makes this drawing work for me is the way line can be used to create pictorial depth.

3 Line Drawing Basics

Interestingly enough, there are very few lines in nature. Take a look around you. No matter what you see, you’re unlikely to see lines. The lamp across the room, the view through the window, even the cat or dog sleeping nearby. They all have shape, but there are no lines defining their shape.

In drawing, however, lines are the most basic tool at your disposal. Lines mark the edges of things. You use them to indicate the shape of the lamp, window, cat or dog you’re drawing. The line marks where the lamp ends and something else begins. Knowing how to use those lines to define shapes makes drawing what you see easier, quicker, and more fun.

Once you master these three line drawing basics, you can make your line drawings come to life!

Line Value

Line value refers to the darkness of the line you draw. A simple rule of thumb is that darker lines look closer than lighter lines.

(This also applies to colors. Lighter colors look more distant than darker (or brighter) colors.)

Notice the range of light to dark values in this sample. The darkest lines look the closest, don’t they? The very light lines look further away.

Line Drawing Basics

Just changing the pressure with which you draw lines can help you draw the illusion of distance in even the simplest drawings. The lighter the pressure you use, the lighter in value the resulting lines are.

You can also use colors that are lighter in value.

Line Weight

The weight of a line is its thickness. The thicker a line is, the “heavier” it appears to be.

The lines that are thinner in this illustration appear to be further away, while the heavier lines come forward in the drawing.

You can draw thick and thin lines in a couple of different ways.

The first way is by paying attention to the sharpness of your pencil. A very sharp pencil produces a thin line. The sharper the pencil, the thinner the line.

A dull pencil (a pencil with a slightly rounded tip) produces a thicker line. If you draw with a blunt pencil (with a flat tip,) you get an even thicker line.

The second way to draw thicker lines is to go over a line more than once with a sharp pencil. Unless you’re extremely careful, your lines will not overlap exactly, so the resulting line will look thicker.

You can also draw thicker lines by increasing pressure, but this isn’t the best way. If you use too much pressure, you could impress the mark into the paper. Once you do that, you have to be careful to fill it in with each new layer of color.

In the sample above, some of the lighter weight lines are also lighter in value. That makes them look even further away.

But even if they weren’t they would still look further away than their thicker counterparts.

Overlapping Lines

Of course, the best and easiest way to draw the illusion of space is to overlap lines and shapes. Even if the line value and line weight is the same for every line, the lines that overlap other lines appear to be closer.

It’s easy to tell which branches in this sample are in front of other branches, isn’t it? They’re the branches that overlap the branches behind them.

Even the lines that are about the same value and weight (where two nearby branches overlap at the top of the sample) clearly show one branch in front of the other.

Putting it All Together

The best drawings are those that put all three of these line drawing basics—value, weight, and overlap—together in a single drawing.

The basics work with any drawing, large or small, simple or complicated. These basics also work for every medium.

Even if you know nothing else about line drawing, mastering these line drawing basics can help you map out compositions more quickly and easily than almost any other art skill or tool you may possess.

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10 Comments

  1. Jake Knip

    A really fantastic guide, really. I love that simple line drawing. And you are correct, those basics make EVERYTHING. If you’re going to draw, you have to see things like an artist, see trees through the leaves, see lines through the blur, and see nature how others don’t: in a way that we can actually express as artists.

  2. Vickey Stamps

    I am a 78 year old retired nurse, small time author of 2 books, a simple sewer, knitter, crocheter and Learning more about drawing and watercolor. Google vickey stamps. Author to learn more. Thanks so much for this tutorial. Have a wonderful time with special upcoming holidays. GOD BLESS YOU AND YOURS. VICKEY

  3. Shirley Clement

    Thank you for this. In retirement I have returned to drawing and taking some lessons in various drawing and painting techniques but have learned drawing simply is my favourite. Your article provides a beautifully understandable approach to drawing.

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