How to Draw a Strong Focal Point

Focal Point—The part of a visual composition that attracts the viewer’s eye most quickly and holds it longest.

One of the things I like about graphite drawing is the range of values possible, especially with some of the softer leads.

One of the things I like about plein air drawing is the range of subjects. Yes, I gravitate most to organic things. Trees. Grass. Leaves. But there have been times when the door handle of a classic car or a crack in the sidewalk has sparked creativity. It’s a lot more fun than the serious work that is my day job.

How to Draw a Strong Focal Point

But it’s more than just a fun drawing exercise. Life drawing—even if it isn’t plein air drawing—is a good way to hone the skills necessary for more serious drawing or painting. Consider composition and ways to make the focal point stand out, for example.

How to Draw a Strong Focal Point

Let’s look at this drawing of a Poinsettia, drawn from life in graphite some time ago.

How to Draw the Focal Point - The Original Drawing

The only tool I used was my trusty 6B pencil and a finger tip or two. Nothing special and nothing fancy.

I began by sketching the leaves, concentrating on placement, shape, and size. A detailed drawing wasn’t the goal. I was just sketching.

The shapes and layering of the leaves quickly drew me in, however, and after I’d sketched the major leaves, I began developing a composition around the lightest leaves… the colored leaves that form the flower.

Tips for Creating a Strong Focal Point

There are a few things you can do with every drawing to emphasize the focal point. The techniques I used for this simple drawing can be used with any drawing of any subject and in most media and methods. What are they?

Line Quality

Since the flower was quite light and my paper was white, the first thing I did was outline the leaves. The “flower leaves” are outlined with a heavier, firmer line than the leaves immediately beneath them. The leaves below those leaves are outlined with an even lighter line and some of the smallest, least significant leaves are barely outlined or not outlined at all. Why? Because the heavier and darker a line, the more it draws attention. Since the focal point is the flower, that’s where I put the darkest lines.

Contrast

Next, I began shading, adding darker value to the green leaves and adding shadows where leaves overlapped. The darkest shadows are near the focal point; around the white leaves and in between them. As shadows move away from the focal point, I made them lighter even though they were all the same general value on the plant I was drawing.

In the areas immediately adjacent to the flower, I used heavy pressure, multiple layers, and blending to get the blackest black possible with a 6B pencil. In other areas, I reduced the pressure or the number of layers (sometimes both). I blended less frequently or blended with just one or two layers of graphite to make softer, lighter shadows. The reason behind this part of the process is simple. The strongest contrast—the lightest values and the darkest values—should occur at or around the focal point so they draw the eye.

Detail

The focal point of any drawing should contain the most detail and those details should be rendered more clearly and sharply than the details in any other part of the drawing. That means using line quality and contrast, but also minimizing or eliminating altogether details in other parts of the drawing. Why? Because detail naturally draws the viewer’s eye and holds it.

The small shapes at the center of this flower appear only in the center, so it was a simple matter to eliminate detail elsewhere. As already mentioned, I used lighter values and lines as I moved away from the focal point.

Edges

To make the flower even more dramatic, I shaded the negative space around the flower in the upper right corner. I didn’t want to make that too dark; I just wanted to emphasize the light value, so I did a couple of layers then blended with my finger, pulling graphite into the surrounding areas to keep the edges soft. The exception? The edges of the flower. They were kept as sharp and crisp as possible because sharp edges also draw the eye and put emphasis on the edge.

Finally, I rubbed in all of the negative space around the bottom of the drawing, including the lower leaves. I smudged the paper to darken it slightly by pulling graphite out of the leaves and into the background. Again, I kept the edges of the flower leaves as clean as possible, but even in this case, lightly shading the tips of them kept them from pulling the eye out of composition.

The Best Way to Draw a Strong Focal Point

Is to employ each of the techniques I described above.

You can make a strong focal point using only a few of these tricks of the trade, and there are other ways to also draw attention to your focal point. Each subject and each drawing will be different, so take a little time to decide on the best methods before you put pencil to paper.

To see how this process might look in color, read How to Make Your Subject Stand Out.

How to Draw Textures with Colored Pencils

CK provides the question for today’s post. Her question is about how to draw textures with colored pencils, but it’s more than that, so here’s CK to speak for herself.

Carrie,

First, I’d like to thank you for creating this website. You have helped me come so far in my colored pencil work, and I’d like to formally thank you.

Now, onto the more interesting topic: my questions on texture.  In my opinion, texture is both one of the easiest and one of the hardest techniques to master. While I have only been working with colored pencil for two years,  I find creating those realistic textures one of the hardest things to do with colored pencil.

I can say, however, that I have had one or two projects where I managed to create decent textures, the first being a pug and the second a pomegranate. The pug, I noticed, required lots of strokes to accomplish, while with the pomegranate, I utilized  the tooth of the paper.

These are probably the few times where the texture of the subjects have really come to life. Other than that, I have tried and tried to recreate it or even create something relatively similar. I’m thinking it has something to do with the pressure or how fast I am trying to create the project.


If you have anything you think can help with creating realistic textures (fruit specifically, if you don’t mind), I would love to hear your thoughts and tips on textures.

Thanks, CK

How to Draw Textures with Colored Pencil

I have already written posts on drawing some types of texture, including grass, dirt, stone, and even carpet, so what I’ll do today is share basic tips that you can use for drawing any type of texture.

Let’s get started.

How to Draw Textures with Colored Pencils

There are essentially two parts to drawing texture, no matter what type of texture you want to draw.

Laying down the base color or colors, and adding texture over that.

My first demo is cat hair and the second is a rug, but the same method can also be used for other types of texture.

Step 1: Draw a Base Layer

The base color should usually be a light middle-value or lighter color.

You can begin by laying down smooth color with light pressure with a single, “generic” color if you wish. This is the best way to begin with smoother textures. I sometimes do that when drawing landscapes, then I build texture on top of that. I did that for the eyes and nose on this cat.

In the hair, I drew the base layer with hair-like strokes, mixing colors stroke by stroke in the brown hair. I used three colors for this piece. A very light cream, a medium value earth tone, and a dark earth tone in the hair.

Stroke in the direction of the texture, whether you’re drawing hair, grass, foliage, or any other strongly textured surface.

How to Draw Textures with Colored Pencil - Drawing Fur.

Step 2: Use Strokes that Mimic the Texture

Use pencil strokes that mimic the texture you’re drawing. Grass or fur are both fairly easy and use similar strokes. Short (or long,) slightly curving strokes in which you start at the bottom of the hair or grass and stroke upward. The primary difference—other than color—is that fur is usually fairly uniform, especially with short haired animals. Grass, on the other hand, can be tall and unruly.

(I know. There is such a thing as unruly hair, too) but that’s almost a topic for another post.

You can create texture by hatching and cross-hatching, stippling (tapping), circular strokes, and random strokes.

Continue layering colors using those strokes. Each layer of color adds depth to the texture, creating patterns of light and dark that mimic the texture of your subject.

It’s important to follow your reference photo closely to make sure you’re stroking in the right direction. It’s also important to get the light and dark values in the right places. They’re more important than the colors you use.

Step 3: Blending Layer

A blending layer is a layer of color meant to smooth out strokes. A lot of artists use a light-value warm gray to smooth out strokes when drawing animal hair, for example.

The blending layer is applied with light or medium-light pressure and a sharp pencil so that the resulting color is smooth. It doesn’t completely hide the texture, but it does subdue it.

Step 4: Repeat

Follow steps 1 through 3 again, and as many times as you need to get the color, values, and saturation you want for your finished piece.

Another Example

Here’s another section from the same project. This is a fluffy white rug the cat was lying on.

First the reference photo.

How to Draw Textures with Colored Pencil - Drawing a Fluffy Rug

Then the base layer of color (white.) I added a lot of white in the foreground, where sunlight falls across the run. The shadows are the paper color showing through.

In the shadowed area, I used a dark medium gray to add shadows.

Notice how the shape and placement of the strokes creates the look of a fluffy rug. Is it exact? No, but it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to look like a fluffy rug, and even with just a layer or two of color, it does.

I continued layering white and a variety of grays over the rug until it looked the way I wanted it to look. For each layer, I used the same kinds of strokes to add depth to the pile of the rug.

I didn’t put a lot of detail into this area because I didn’t want it to distract from the cat. But I still matched the type of pencil stroke to the area I was drawing, then let the light and dark values do the rest.

Here’s the finished piece. I don’t know about you, but I like the rug better than that cat!

Yes, We Have No Bananas Today

I apologize for the lack of fruit in this post, but the closest I could come was these two textures, and basic tips that can be applied to any texture.

The main thing is to study your subject, look at the colors and the type of surface, then match the type of strokes you use to draw that subject. The smoother the surface texture, the smoother you color layers should be.

For example, if I were to draw this composition, I’d start with a base layer of yellow over all of the pomegranate, then layer red or red-orange in the darkest or brightest areas. Sharp pencil, light pressure, and work around the highlights with each layer.

Always pay attention to the edges of the highlights, since highlights often indicate the nature of the surface texture, no matter what you draw.

Then I’d continue to layer color until the paper tooth was filled in, and add those red spots with a stippling (tapping) stroke. The end result should be a nice smooth texture

How to Draw Textures with Colored Pencil - Pomegranate
Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

One Way to Draw Textures with Colored Pencils

The method I’ve described in this post is my favorite way to draw texture, but it’s not the only way. If it works for you, wonderful!

If not, then the best thing I suggest is to experiment with different types of strokes to duplicate different types of textures.

No matter what texture you’re drawing, the real secret is to look at your subject in sections, like a mosaic or abstract, and draw exactly what you see (or as close as you want to get.)

How to Draw a Wave Line Drawing

Welcome to Q&A December! We begin the month with a question I’ve been asked more than once: how to draw a wave. Here is Gail’s question:

Hi Carrie,

How do you do a line drawing of waves and then how do you draw the mist and foam from the water?


Overall… water is what bugs me. I never know how much to put into a line drawing when it comes to ripples and highlights, or foam or spray. 


Gail

Thank you for the question, Gail.

I know beyond all shadow of doubt that you’re not alone in wanting to know how to draw waves and water in other forms. In fact, questions about drawing water are among the questions most often asked most artists.

How to draw a wave line drawing

How to Draw a Wave

Since Gail’s question specifically deals with making a line drawing, I’ll show how I make a line drawing of a wave. I’ll also say up front that this is how I make a freehand line drawing of anything I might want to draw, but especially landscape subjects.

Before you start drawing.

Take a few minutes to look at your subject. I don’t mean a quick glance, either. Look for the big shapes. The colors and details are no doubt what first drew your attention, but ignore those for now. Instead ask yourself the following questions.

What shape best describes this wave? Is it triangular or more oval?

Which of the shapes is the largest, and how much larger is it than the shapes around it?

How do the shapes relate to one another in location?

If you have difficulty seeing the shapes, turn your reference photo upside down or flip it side to side. That gives you a different look at the image. Turning it upside down is especially effective in tricking your brain into seeing abstract shapes instead of a wave (or whatever else you’re drawing.)

And if you can’t get past those beautiful colors, make the reference photo gray scale!

Step 1: Mark the Borders of the Drawing

I’ve found over the years that the best way to get a more accurate line drawing is to first take a minute or two to define the picture plain (the drawing area.) You don’t need fancy tools to do this.

Two Ways to Mark Borders

A precut mat of the right size is an ideal tool for marking borders.

This is one of my precut mats. I have various sizes so I marked each one with the size of the opening so I could tell at a glance what size I’m looking at. Beats measuring them every time!

I lay the mat over the drawing paper and lightly draw along the inside edges. The result looks like this. Not very fancy, I admit, but this is just a line drawing after all!

How to Draw a Wave Line Drawing - Mark the Borders of teh Picture
Unless you’re drawing directly on the same paper you will be making the artwork on, you don’t need a fancy border. Just enough to mark the margins, as shown here.

If you prefer to draw directly on your drawing paper—which I do for landscapes—measure the picture plane on your drawing paper, then draw the borders more carefully. Or tape the paper to a back board so the tape marks the border, then proceed with the next steps.

How to Draw a Wave Line Drawing - Tape the margins when drawing directly on good drawing paper.
If you choose to start sketching your wave directly on the paper you plan to use for the finished artwork, mark the borders of the drawing with tape when you mount the paper to your drawing board. Measure it first, so the corners are square.

Step 2: Rough in the Basic Shape

Start with the biggest shapes. Use light pressure to outline them. I’ve drawn this wave a little darker than I usually would so you could see it. I have such a naturally light hand, that my scanner cannot see my first marks!

Pay close attention to the relationships between the big shapes. Draw them as close to the reference photo as you can, but let’s be honest. No one is going to know if your shapes are not 100% accurate.

In the beginning, concentrate on the big shapes, their size compared to one another, and their placement to one another.

Vary the type of strokes to draw different parts of the wave.

Use different types of strokes to draw different parts of the wave, so you can tell the difference between rolling water, foam, and mist. Since mist rarely has clear edges, use dotted lines or simple dots to mark out where it will be in the drawing. You might even want to do this first, since mist will hide or obscure whatever is behind it.

This detail shows the types of marks I used to sketch this wave. The wave itself is a series of short, straight or slightly curving marks. The foam is sketched with wiggly or curving strokes that are also short.

Vary the way you make marks for the different elements of the composition.

The mist is barely suggested with a series of dots.

If it helps, draw these shapes with short lines as this detail shows. For some of us, it’s easier to draw short, straight lines rather than working out longer lines. Especially with very difficult subjects like this one.

Step 3: Add Smaller Details

When you’re satisfied you have the large, basic shapes correct (or as correct as you want them to be,) begin adding smaller details. Continue looking for shapes, but now look for the smaller shapes within the large shapes.

Also begin refining all the shapes. If you used short straight lines for the big shapes, start smoothing them out and making them look more like the curved shapes of the wave.

Continue using light pressure so you can draw over these lines if needed. Drawing with light pressure also means you can erase mistakes more completely.

This is also a good time to start creating the illusion of space or distance to your drawing by making the foreground shapes a little darker and more detailed than the background shapes.

I added a line in the left background to suggest another wave coming in and made the similar line on the right a little crisper.

Continue using light pressure and varying marks to add smaller shapes within the larger shapes.

Step 4: Refine Shapes and Continue Adding Details

Refine all of the shapes and continue adding details until you have as complete a drawing of the wave as you want. That will differ from artist to artist. Some prefer to keep the line drawing loose and to fill in the details at the rendering stage. Others want completely detailed line drawings before starting with color. The choice is yours.

However you draw a wave, it’s important to aim for capturing the character or personality of the wave rather than making an exact drawing.

Develop details as you refine shapes. Continue until the drawing is satisfactory.

One Note About Mist

When you start doing color work on your wave, it’s very important to mark out the mist first. Mist can be pretty opaque or fairly translucent, so you may be able to see some things through it. The best way I’ve found to draw believable mist is to work around it with the first few layers. Then lightly layer color over it and then lift color with mounting putty.

In Answer to Gail’s Question About How Much Detail to Include in a Line Drawing When You Draw a Wave

I have two answers to this part of Gail’s question.

Personal Preference and Line Drawing Detail

The first answer is that this is a personal preference matter. Some artists draw every visible detail, and with good reason. It’s so difficult to preserve some of those details if they’re not in the line drawing. It’s also very difficult to add them later if you accidentally cover them!

Some artists find highly detailed line drawings an absolute must. Other artists find them confusing and unhelpful. This won’t help you at all, but I have had occasion to experience both!

Style of Drawing and Line Drawing Detail

The second answer is that the level of detail you draw depends on your style of drawing. If you want to render highly detailed artwork, then it’s probably going to help you to draw as much detail as possible from the start.

But if you prefer a more painterly and less detailed end result, then you don’t need to draw quite as much detail in the line drawing.

Subject and Line Drawing Detail

I tend to draw detail based on my subject. For animals, and especially for portraits, my line drawings are much more detailed.

Most of my animal line drawings are quite detailed. That’s because everything needs to be in the right place in order to draw the proper likeness of my subject. From Palomino Horse Tutorial.

Landscapes, on the other hand, are usually just quick sketches and are drawn directly on the drawing paper!

This is the type of line drawing I typically do for landscapes. The details in landscapes tend to take on a life of their own and I prefer following to see where the details lead rather trying to force them into place.

That’s One Way to Draw a Wave

It’s not the only way, by any means, but when it comes to freehand drawing most types of landscapes, this is my go-to method.

When you’ve finished your drawing, it’s a good idea to set it aside for at least a day. Letting a fresh drawing sit overnight allows you to review it with a fresh eye the next day. That’s the perfect time for spotting errors in the drawing or finding things you might want to change.

And when it comes to colored pencil work, finding and fixing those mistakes before you start work with a colored pencil is far better than trying to fix the mistake after a few layers of color.

How to Draw EXACTLY What You See

Dan Duhrkoop, founder of EmptyEasel and author of How to Draw Exactly What You See, asked if I would provide a review of his book if he sent me a copy.

I love books, reading, and art, so I said, “Sure!” (Who doesn’t like free, if it’s something they can use?)

Ordinarily, I don’t accept freebies because it almost always leads to unwanted obligations. But I’ve been freelance writing for EmptyEasel since 2012 and have a good working relationship with the author of this book, who is also the founder of EmptyEasel.

Even so, my review is unbiased. I’d say the same things if I’d purchased the book on my own, and didn’t know Dan!

So let’s get to it, shall we?

How to Draw EXACTLY What You See - Book Cover

How to Draw EXACTLY What You See – My Review

From the Introduction:

Whether you’re a brand-new artist with zero training, or a more experienced artist looking to improve your drawing skills, this guide will teach you everything you need to know to look at a still life scene and draw it EXACTLY as it appears.

I’m not a still life artist. I love looking at well done still life artwork, and I can look at the produce section in the grocery store and see sorts of possible subject. But that’s as far as it usually goes. I have next to no interest in drawing my own. So I wasn’t sure what this book could offer me or how it could help me improve my drawing skills.

One look at the cover, and you may be thinking the same thing. Don’t let that put you off. If you do, you’ll be missing a great opportunity.

And if you do enjoy still life drawing of any kind—in studio or plein air—then you’ll want this book. It covers every step of the process from basic composition and setting up your own still life to sketching what you see and rendering it realistically in graphite.

If you’re just getting started drawing, the book also contains over a dozen high-quality still life images from very easy to quite complex. You’ll start out ahead of the game!

Putting the Draw EXACTLY What You See Method to the Test

As I mentioned, I’m not a still life artist, but I did intend to do some still life drawings just to see how they turned out. A number of things derailed that plan, so my first trial with the author’s drawing method concerned a dog portrait I’d been having fits trying to get right.

That difficult portrait line drawing turned out so well using Dan’s drawing method that I decided to try another one for this review. I am so glad I did!

My Demo Subject

This is the reference photo I chose for this demo. I chose it for two reasons.

The first and most important is that the cat is our oldest cat, Thomas. We’ve had him since mid-2003, when we saw him and a litter mate playing in the gutter while we were out walking. They were our first rescues. Thomas recently died and I wanted to do his portrait.

Second, I have always loved the golden light of late evening and liked this photo of Thomas, taken when he was at his prime. Now that he’s gone, that westward gaze into the sunset seems somehow appropriate.

How to Draw Exactly What You See - The Reference Photo
Thomas, Photo by Carrie L. Lewis

Second, the drawing method described in How to Draw EXACTLY What You See starts with marking off each of the places where the subject leaves the composition. This photo of Thomas focuses so closely on his face and eye that one ear leaves the composition as well as the back of his neck and his upper chest. That made it perfect for this demo.

Preparing the Image

Since I wasn’t working from life, I had to make a few adjustments. But I prepared the reference photo as much according to the steps in the book as possible.

I used GIMP (a free photo editor download) to add a wide white border around the reference photo and then mark with a red line each place where an edge leaves the composition. Edges included Thomas’ markings.

Marked up reference, showing each of the places where an edge goes off the picture.

Then I printed the reference photo above, and the picture plane (below) on a blank sheet to draw on. I was able to do that because I put the border and marks on a separate layer added to the photo in GIMP. All I had to do was hide the image and print the new layer. (If you’d like to see a tutorial on that, let me know.)

Picture plane with edge marks. I don’t have to worry about measuring because the black border and red marks are the same ones I put over the reference photo!

How to Draw EXACTLY What You See

Step 1: Start with negative spaces

The first step is to make a contour drawing of the negative space using the edge markings as a guide. However, I was so focused on drawing Thomas that I totally forgot that step.

Had I remembered, these blue shapes are the shapes I would have drawn. All of the light blue is negative space. Just two large, fairly simple shapes. (That’s another reason I chose this reference photo.

Draw the negative spaces as accurately as you can. According to the author, this is a good way to “trick” your brain into accurately drawing shapes instead of drawing what it thinks it sees.

Don’t be frustrated if it’s difficult at first. Just choose a mark and draw the shape as best you can. Measure and erase if it needs correction.

The negative space in any composition is the space around the subject.

Step 2: Rough in the subject

Next, block in the subject with light pressure and loose lines. I didn’t draw very many interior details and instead focused on the big shapes. The eye, the ear, and the nose and mouth.

I roughed in the dark patches of hair, too, but only because they’re such a big part of the drawing.

Step 3: Start drawing details

When the rough sketch was as accurate as I could make it, I went back over the entire drawing again. I corrected and adjusted lines by measuring the distance between edges on the reference photo, and then on the line drawing.

This step involves a lot of erasing. You can see faint smudges and even a few eraser crumbs around that off-side ear. That’s why I used an ordinary number 2 pencil. I can make light lines to begin with, then draw steadily darker lines, and I can also easily erase mistakes.

Besides, I have a drawer full of ordinary number 2 pencils; why not use them!

Step 4: Fine-tune the drawing

After that round of work was done, I went over the drawing again and fine-tuned it still more. I added interior details like whisker lines, creases in the fur, and other things. The outside lines are darker, but those interior details will help me when I get started with colored pencil work.

How to Draw Exactly What You See--The Finished Line Drawing

It took three days to develop this drawing of Thomas and I confess that when I stepped back and looked at what I’d done, I cried. It looked so much like Thomas.

That’s How to Draw Exactly What You See…

…even if it isn’t a still life!

As I said before, the book focuses on drawing still life subjects, but as you can see here, it can easily be adapted to other subjects. Even portrait work!

Whether you’re new to drawing or just looking for a better way to create line drawings, I recommend this book. You can get the first three chapters of How to Draw Exactly What You See – A Drawing Guide free!

You can also see my first trial with this drawing method.

Drawing Studies For a Large Portrait

Master artists and others have been drawing studies to work out more complex compositions for centuries. It’s one of the most basic, most important, and most often neglected tool in the artist’s toolbox.

I should know, because it’s the tool I ignore more often. Why?

Because it takes time to draw studies, studies usually focused on parts of the composition I didn’t want to draw, and because I never thought I was that good at drawing studies.

NOTE: This post is based on my experiences with one of the last portraits in oils I did, but the lessons I learned apply to all mediums. In the years since, I’ve learned to draw from life, which improves my artwork at all levels.

It will yours, too. So read on!

Drawing Studies for Large Portraits

But you know what? It turns out drawing studies aren’t all that difficult.

What’s even better? The more studies you draw, the better you get (and the faster.)

Why I Started Drawing Studies Again

Some time ago, I did something I never thought I’d do: Accept a commission of a personal portrait in oils. A large portrait.

It was a full figure portrait that included lots of flowers, an outdoor setting, and, well, a real live human being. Nary a horse in sight.

Like I said, something I never thought I’d do.

Because it was a long distance portrait, I worked from photographs. The photographs were high-resolution, and the work of a professional photographer. In other words, excellent references.

But that didn’t diminish the scale or scope of the portrait. Or the Fright Factor. (The Fright Factor, by the way, was huge!)

To prepare, I looked online for anything I could find relative to doing human portraits in oils. Among the things I found were a series of videos that were not only very helpful, but also motivating.

One of them was a Russian artist, Igor Kazarin. He works in oils and one of his videos features a head and shoulders portrait.

I’ve also found the tutorial videos of David Gray. He uses a technique similar to mine, so watching his videos was also helpful, and encouraging.

I watched at least one video every work day I had the time. Especially the drawing videos as I worked my way through the new commission.

Drawing Studies Help You Get Familiar With Your Subject

Those videos motivated me to start drawing studies of my subject. My hope was to get comfortable drawing these parts of the portrait, and gain confidence in my drawing skills. I wanted to get familiar enough to be able to paint with confidence.

So I started drawing some of the less scary things.

I chose this study of the subject’s handbag because I’ve discovered I can draw almost anything that’s organic, but give me something man-made and it’s a nightmare!

Drawing Studies - Handbag Study

Once I got comfortable with the handbag, I also drew studies of the subjects eyes, and of other parts of the portrait.

Drawing Studies - Eyes

Drawing studies came into play at all phases of this project, and even while I worked out the overall composition on gridded paper. If I had doubts about an area, I developed it as a more complete study.

Drawing Studies - Foot & Sandal

Most of the studies involved unusual parts of the composition, such as the foot and sandal above. But I also worked out the details of more familiar, but complex areas, such as the palm fronds shown below.

Drawing Studies - Palm Leaves Study

Most of the studies were drawn while I was working on the line drawing, but I also did a few studies during the painting process.

You Can Do Drawing Studies to Improve Your Drawing Skills and Confidence

It’s not that difficult to get started drawing studies, as you’ve seen in my example.

Are you working on a drawing that has some difficult parts? Draw a few studies of those areas before you tackle them on the finished piece. You can do graphite studies like I did, or use colored pencils.

Maybe your next project is a portrait or commissioned piece that has you worried. Identify the parts that have you most concerned, and draw a few studies.

You don’t need to do large studies, or get fancy. The study of the eyes I shared above were all drawn on the same sheet of paper. And you don’t even need a lot of expensive supplies. A small sketch pad or inexpensive paper is sufficient. After all, these studies don’t need to be archival.

“But I’m not working on a complex drawing right now,” you say.

That’s okay.  Do a few life studies instead. The drawing will do you good. If you need a little motivation, you might check out the plein air drawing in colored pencil group on Facebook.

So how did the portrait turn out? Here’s the finished painting. All 24 by 36 inches of it!

Drawing Studies - Finished Portrait

Taking the time to draw studies of the parts I wasn’t sure about took a lot of time at the beginning of the process, but ended up saving time overall. The details I’d drawn studies for proved easier to paint than other areas.

It all contributes to improving your drawing skills, and that increases your confidence.

Both prepare you for the next big challenge on your colored pencil journey.

The Benefits of Using a Drawing Grid

For any artists working in realism, an accurate line drawing is essential. There are many ways to produce accurate line drawings. Today, I’d like to share a few benefits of using a drawing grid.

The post is written in response to a reader, who asked:

I want to ask you about [the] grid technique, can you … explain the benefits of the grid technique in drawing humans?

I used the grid method for years, so can happily describe just a few of the benefits for the portrait artist and any artist who wants accurate line drawings.

The Benefits of Using a Drawing Grid 2

There are, of course, a number of ways to develop accurate line drawings. Tracing from a reference photo and drawing freehand are two common ways to create a line drawing.

Drawing directly from life is another way to create a line drawing, and you can also use a more technical method of measuring with drafting tools.

So what makes a drawing grid so great? Just what are the benefits of using a drawing grid?

The Benefits of Using a Drawing Grid

There are as many benefits to drawing grids as there are artists, so let me focus on a few that have been of special help to me.

Composition & Design Tool

You may not think of it this way, but a drawing grid can be used as a design tool.

You’ve heard of the rule of thirds, right? That’s the rule that divides any composition of any size and shape into horizontal and vertical thirds. The idea is that the center of interest should fall on or near one of the places where a horizontal and vertical line cross.

In this photo, the tree falls right on an intersection.

Also notice that the horizon is near the lower horizontal line. That’s a good thing, too. The composition is not divided into two equal halves, which can make for disjointed drawings.

Using a Drawing Grid - Rule of Thirds

Those lines form a very basic drawing grid. So even if you don’t use this grid to sketch out the landscape, you are still using a grid.

It doesn’t matter what subject you’re drawing, you can design the best possible composition by using a simple grid as shown above.

Reference Points

The lines and intersections of the grid also provide reference points for placing the features of the face and other details. If, for example, the subject’s eye falls at the intersection of two lines on the reference photo, you can place it at the same intersection on the drawing paper.

Not only does a drawing grid provide a map of sorts for placing the features of your subject’s face and clothing; it provides a map for the position of your subject within the composition.

Simplifies Drawing Complex Subjects

For me, using a drawing grid was a good way to draw complicated subjects more accurately. After I’d drawn enough horses using the grid method, I could draw them more accurately freehand or from life. So it’s also a training device.

But when it comes to complex subjects, like this one, a drawing grid is a must!

(Personally speaking, a drawing grid is a major help in drawing mechanical subjects, too.)

Using a Drawing Grid - Complex Compositions

There’s nothing wrong with using a drawing grid for all of your work, though. Especially if portrait work is your specialty.

Accuracy

The grid method of drawing allows you to produce an accurate line drawing by reducing your subject to a series of small squares. You can then draw the shapes within each square, a technique that is often easier than trying to draw the entire subject all at the same time.

Read How to Create an Accurate Drawing Using the Grid Method, a tutorial I wrote for EmptyEasel.

Conclusion

Those are a few of the benefits of using a drawing grid. I’m sure there are others, but you get the point.

Now that you know some of the benefits of using a drawing grid, you might want to learn how to put a drawing grid on a digital photo. You’re in the right place. I can show that, too, right here.

How to Draw Like an Expert

Welcome to May, and another May Question-and-Answer month! Today’s question is from a reader who wants to know how to draw like an expert.

That’s a good question, and one we all want the answer to, right?

How to Draw Like an Expert

We’re all also looking for an easy way to draw like an expert. Don’t deny it; I know it’s true because I still look for shortcuts!

I have bad news.

Drawing is like running a marathon. You don’t get out of bed on Monday, decide you’re going to run a marathon on Saturday. Even if you do buy the proper equipment, you won’t do very well when Saturday comes and the race begins. It takes training, discipline, and time to prepare. That’s just the way it works.

How to Draw Like an Expert

The same holds true for drawing. It takes time, training, and practice. Lots of practice!

In other words, there are no shortcuts. None.

But there are a few things you can do to improve your odds of finishing the race (or improving your artwork.) Here are a few that helped me.

How to Draw Like an Expert - Old Drawing
Drawn in 1968

Training is important in marathon running and colored pencil drawing.

The only way to draw like an expert is to train for it.

That begins with the proper tools (artist-quality pencils, good supports, and a comfortable and functional drawing set up) is only the first step.

No, you don’t have to run out and buy the best of everything. You don’t even need to buy full sets of pencils, or a lot of expensive paper. A handful of good quality colors and a pad of good drawing paper gets you started.

In fact, unless you’re absolutely certain from the start that colored pencil is what you want to do, you can learn quite well with good pencils on newsprint. You probably shouldn’t buy those scholastic pencils because they don’t perform the same as better pencils; but you don’t need to buy top-of-the-line, either.

How to Draw Like an Expert - 1990
Drawn in 1990

A regular routine is important in developing drawing skills (and running marathons.)

The next step is a regular drawing routine, and the discipline to maintain that routine.

If all you can do is draw for an hour or two each week, do it. Mark that time in your weekly schedule, then guard it carefully.

Obviously the more you draw, the more quickly you’ll be drawing like an expert, but every drawing gets you closer to your goal.

So find a regular time that works for you, and draw, draw, draw.

How to Draw Like an Expert - Bottoms Up 1994
Drawn in 1994

Finding a good teacher (or trainer) helps you avoid a lot of pitfalls.

You can learn on your own—I did—but you can learn more quickly by finding a teacher to guide you. Look for a teacher who:

Is creating the kind of artwork you want to create (representational, abstract, etc.)

Works in the medium you want to learn

Knows the subject you want to learn (if you want to learn a specific subject such as flowers or horses)

Teaches in a way that makes sense to you

Is more interested in students becoming well-rounded artists, rather than carbon copies of the teacher.

Beginning artists today have a world of options available online. Tutorial videos offer a variety of instructors unheard of when I was getting started (I didn’t even have the internet!)

Make use of those resources, but don’t try to learn from everyone. At least at the beginning, focus your attention on one or two artists who fit the guidelines above, then learn everything you can from them.

How to Draw Like an Expert - 2002
Drawn in 2002

Focus, focus, focus.

You can learn more than one medium at a time, but if you’re just getting started, it’s probably best to pick one and focus your attention on that medium. At least until you learn enough to know whether or not it’s for you.

The illustrations in this post document my journey as a colored pencil artist, beginning with the earliest pencil drawing I have in my possession. I was 7-1/2 years-old when I made that drawing in 1968.

This drawing is my most recent horse drawing. I’ve made a lot of progress in 50 years.

How to Draw Like an Expert - 2017
Drawn in 2017

I would have made progress a lot faster had I focused on colored pencil from the start. Instead, my primary medium was oil painting until 2014. I began “serious dabbling” with colored pencil in the 1990s, and didn’t switch entirely until 2017.

The lesson for you? You can learn more than one medium at a time, but if you really want to learn how to draw like an expert as quickly as possible, focus on one medium.

Have I mentioned practice?

Oh. I did?

Well, it bears repeating here. The more you practice anything, the better you get at it.

The only caveat I’d offer is that you practice the right way. If you practice drawing, but you’re only repeating drawing errors, then you’re cementing those areas into all future drawings.

And that will only hinder your efforts to reach expert status.

So draw often, but also draw smart!

How do you do that?

Work from good reference photos

Draw what you see in those reference photos every time you draw (even if you draw from the same photo over and over again)

Practice drawing from life, even you do quick sketches or 5-minute studies

Master these three things and practice all the rest, and your drawings will improve! You won’t be an overnight expert, but you may very well be surprised how quickly you reach that goal.

 

The Importance of Drawing From Life

Let’s talk about something most artists don’t appear to give much thought to these days: the importance of drawing from life.

I know this topic is put on a back burner for most artists because I gave it little or no thought for most of my artistic life. My focus for nearly 40 years was portrait work, and I had a full-time job, drawing time was dedicated to portrait work. It never seemed important that I draw from life or do any art that wasn’t directly related to whatever portrait I was working on at the time.

The Importance of Drawing from Life

But I was in error thinking that way. I short-changed myself by focusing so tightly on art for business, and may have actually hindered my progress as an artist.

Then came the acceptance of a large portrait in which the subject is human in 2013.

With a lot of flowers (hundreds of white roses.)

And a lot of palm fronds.

And a beautiful porcelain vase, a banner, bows, and…. (You get the idea.)

I did a lot of study sketches for that portrait. Mostly facial features, which had to be spot-on accurate. Those studies are all from reference photographs provided for the project, and they were invaluable (a topic for another post.)

But they didn’t quite get the job done. I needed something more. Something that stretched my ability to see what I wanted to draw, and to draw it more accurately.

So I turned to drawing from life.

The Importance of Drawing From Life

Since the portrait subject lived hundreds of miles away, I found other things for life drawing. Things not related directly to the portrait, but that would improve my ability to see, as well as my eye-hand coordination.

I learned valuable lessons through that experience. Here are a few of them.

Drawing from life develops observation skills.

This drawing is a life drawing. It’s not complete because I was walking the cat when I drew it (yes, on a leash). Thomas decided to lie in the shade, so I took advantage of the half hour to draw.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Leaf Study

This particular drawing shows the growth end of one of the branches of a Mock Apple. I’d never before noticed the leaflets at the base of each leaf. Now I notice them all the time.

And that’s part of the reason for doing life drawings. Observation. You can see things in life—little details like leaflets, or color gradations—that are often vague or missing in photographs.

Learning to see and accurately draw values is also a reason to draw from life.

I drew the Mock Apple in strong light. I drew many other things in strong light, too, as well as in filtered and flat light.

If your subject is in strong light, it’s easy to see not only highlights and shadows, but middle values and reflected light. We all know about drawing accurate shadows and highlights, but the middle values and reflected light really bring a subject to life.

There is no better way to view how light illuminates objects than in real life.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Value Studies

But you don’t have to go outside to see strong light. I drew this egg indoors. I arranged it under a single bulb lamp and positioned it on a white cloth, so there was plenty of light bouncing around.  Not only was it a great study of drawing white objects on white paper; it was an ideal light study.

It gets you out of your usual art routine.

Drawing from life is perfect for forcing you out of your usual art habits.

Some of you know that I’ve been an equine portrait artist since high school. Suffice it to say a long time. Since art time was such a premium most of those decades, I did very little art that wasn’t equine in nature.

I live in a residential area where dogs and cats are the most common animals, followed by birds and other small wildlife.

So when I started drawing from life, I was forced to draw something other than horses. Things like utility flags, the end of the porch railing, wood planks, and a loop of orange extension cord lying on the ground.

Here’s a bonus for many of us. Drawing from life means getting outside. Away from technology and into the fresh air and sunshine. I don’t know about you, but that’s reason enough for a 20 to 30-minute break most days.

How to Fit Drawing from Life into Your Art Routine

Draw outside once a week (or as often as possible)

Now that you know why I think drawing from life is so important, let me share a few ways I’ve found to fit it into my art routine.

A couple of autumns ago, I started a plein drawing challenge. I took myself outside each week for two months to draw. The goal was to produce one plein drawing a week.

I did it again last year, and I plan to do it this year.

After last year’s challenge ended, I decided to continue through the end of the year.

I’ve fallen down on the plein air challenge this year, but I do still draw outdoor subjects as often as possible. Even when I have to do it through a window!

Importance of Drawing from Life - Plein Air

Even when I haven’t been able to get outside every week, the motivation still exists. The fact of the matter is, I now see potential drawings almost everywhere I look!

Do small studies whenever (and wherever) you can

At the beginning of this year, I decided to finish one small piece every week this year. Most of those pieces have been smaller than the maximum of 4 x 6 inches I set for myself. The fact is, most of them have been ACEOs (3-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches.)

But most of them have also been life drawings.

The personal challenge and the small size make it easy to dash off a drawing—even a detailed drawing—in 30 minutes or less.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Small Drawings

Collect interesting potential subjects

A reader asking how to draw wet stones led me to collecting stones. I had to have a subject for that post, after all.

Once I got started, I looked for stones every time I went out walking. I even went out a time or two just to look for stones.

As I write this, I have a collection of seven stones of various sizes, shapes, colors, and textures to one side of my drawing desk. So now I don’t need to leave the house or the drawing desk in order to draw something from life.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Collect Interesting Objects

But I still do. I’ve found several places around the neighborhood where there are plenty of stones to pick up! I would never have noticed them in the past.

Look for interesting subjects all around you.

You don’t have to leave the house to find interesting subjects. You don’t even have to start a collection.

Just look around you!

For instance, I look around where I sit at this moment and I see my pencils (some in interesting containers) and the old crank sharpener I use. There’s the computer mouse, a brick (yes, an actual brick,) a coffee cup with a spoon in it, those stones, a piece of cloth, a power strip, the modem and router for the computer, the computer itself, some paper, and some power cords and internet cables on the floor.

The Importance of Drawing From Life - New Subjects

In other words, I don’t have to go anywhere, or even move out of this chair, to draw something from life.

Conclusion

Drawing from life is an important part of the artist’s life. Or it should be. It’s perfect for honing skills, exploring new or potential subjects, and just having fun.

And as you’ve seen, it’s easy to fit into your schedule whether you’re a full- or part-time artist.

What are you going to draw from life this week?

For more tips, read Three Ways to Draw Plein Air on EmptyEasel.

Getting Past the Amateurish Look

One of the biggest problems facing beginning artists is getting past the amateurish look. I wrestled with that for some time, and even gave up on colored pencil for a while because of it.

So I was glad to see the following question from Kae.

I am very new to colored pencils. As I learned my drawing skills, I wanted color to ‘pop’ my drawings. So enter colored pencils. But they seemed to look so amateurish, but being such, I guess that is the only way they might look. To use them seems so laborious and I don’t know how to make them be fun in creating the color. Any suggestions?

Kae asks some great questions, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to answer them.

But she’s actually asked three questions, so I’ll break my answers up into three different posts. Today, we’ll talk about getting past the amateurish look with your colored pencil drawings. In the weeks to come, I’ll address each of the other two questions.

Getting Past the Amateurish Look

We all want our art to look more professional. Even if we’re not professional artists—or don’t consider ourselves professional artists—we want to make art we can be proud of.

Getting past the cartoony stage is the first big hurdle we face, isn’t it.

The Best Way to Get Past the Amateurish Look is Practice

Colored pencils are slow by nature. Making art with colored pencils is sort of like mowing the lawn with a pair of scissors. You can get a fantastic look, but it takes a long time! There are methods for speeding up the drawing process like working on colored papers, blending with solvents, and using other mediums for under drawings.

But little as we want to hear it, the best way is simply to keep drawing. The more drawings you do, the better your drawings get.

Watching videos, studying books about drawing, and reading blogs about drawing (yes, even this one) are all good ways to learn about new techniques. But in the end, if you don’t draw, you don’t improve.

Most of us begin with drawings that look amateurish (my early drawings certainly prove that point!) If you don’t give up, you will get better. And so will your drawings!

Getting Past the Amateurish Look - Old Drawing

So how do you do more drawings (so you can get better faster) when colored pencil takes so long?

Work Small to Finish More Drawings Faster

Consider working small. Small drawings take less time, so you can do more drawings. You improve your skills much faster by completing a lot of small drawings, than if you work for a long time on one large drawing. (I wish I’d known this when I started!)

The great thing about colored pencils is that you can do really fantastic drawings that are no bigger than 4×6 or 5×7. This drawing is 3-1/2 by 5 inches.

Getting Past the Amateurish Look - Draw Small

Art trading cards are 3-1/2 by 2-1/2 inches in size. They’re great for finishing drawings quickly.

 

A Few More Tips For Getting Past the Amateurish Look

Other than finishing as many drawings as you can, you can do a few other things to get you started properly.

You Learn More From Mistakes than Drawings that Go Well

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Yes, you’ll find a lot of things that don’t work, but you will also find things that do work. I know I learn more from my mistakes, than from the drawings that go well. So try things and learn from the mistakes!

Remember those little drawings I mentioned above? They’re ideal for trying out new pencils, new drawing methods, and otherwise just experimenting.

Use the best pencils and paper you can afford.

When you buy pencils, the very least you should look for is student-grade pencils. Artist-grade pencils are best, but can be expensive. Scholastic-grade pencils are made for grade school kids. They still color, but they have more filler than student- or artist-grade pencils, so they don’t cover the paper as well.

If you want artist-grade pencils, but money is tight, take a look at the Dick Blick colored pencils. They’re an artist-grade pencil, but are very competitively priced.

The same goes for paper. You can draw on newsprint or ordinary sketchbook paper. The fact is, I do a lot of plein air drawing in my sketchbook. But the better papers handle more layers of color, and some work with water media.

Getting Past the Amateurish Look - Use Good Paper

You can get good pencils and papers at places like Hobby Lobby and Michael’s. If you shop at Hobby Lobby, print a 40% off coupon before you go, and you can get 40% off the highest priced item you buy. That’s always a good deal!

Don’t leave outlines in your drawings

Outlines are what makes most beginners’ drawings look amateurish.

You can outline before you shade (I do that all the time,) but the outline should disappear as you add layers of color.

I’ve outlined part of this drawing before shading the shapes, but I used the same color on the outline that I’ll use to shade the shapes. When I finish, there will be no outline; just the edge between the dark and light shapes.

Getting Past the Amateurish Look - Avoid Outlining

Take your time with each layer of color

If your color is splotchy when you finish—if some areas are lighter than others and you don’t want them that way—it may that you’re rushing through the drawing.

It doesn’t have to take hours to do each layer, but you should work carefully enough to fill in each part of the drawing with even color. Usually, the best way to do that is to draw with circular strokes. Circular strokes don’t leave start-and-stop marks like back-and-forth strokes do, and you can overlap them to create darker values.

The type of stroke you use matters less than taking the time to cover the paper, though. So just slow down a little. When you find yourself hurrying, take a break.

This is a difficult thing to train yourself to do, so that’s why I usually recommend that artists new to colored pencil do small drawings first.

Conclusion

There’s a lot more to getting your drawings past the amateurish look, but these things give you a place to begin

If you do nothing else, do this: Don’t expect your first drawings to look great. They probably won’t.

But they can if you keep drawing.

So keep drawing!

2 Easy Ways to Draw Distance

It can be difficult to accurately draw distance, can’t it? But creating the illusion of three dimensional space in a two dimensional drawing or painting is essential to creating a successful piece of art.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to learn how to create pictorial depth in even the most basic line drawings.

2 Easy Ways to Draw Distance

In a previous post, I mentioned an article written for EmptyEasel and titled, How a Birds Eye Point of View Can Improve Your Landscape Drawings. The article was based on an online class I audited at Craftsy.com. The class was Perspective in Landscape Drawing and it was an excellent class for anyone interested in improving their drawing abilities.

One of the primary purposes of the class is helping artists improve their abilities to create pictorial depth.

There are a number of ways to depict pictorial depth in a landscape drawing (or in any drawing). One of the simplest and most basic is the way you draw a simple line.

Take this drawing, for example.

2 Easy Ways to Draw Distance - Example 1

This is a fairly detailed, but very basic drawing. It shows grass and hills and trees. Even with such a simple drawing, overlapping shapes creates a sense of pictorial depth. You know that some of the hills are further away than others. But there’s no real way to tell how close or how far away some of those things are.

The biggest reason for that is that the lines are all the same weight and about the same quality. I used medium pressure (regular hand writing pressure) throughout the drawing. I also drew unbroken lines for everything and although some of the lines are straight and some are not, there just isn’t that much variety. Although it’s a nice drawing, there isn’t much pictorial depth; no sense of distance.

2 Easy Ways to Draw Distance in Simple Line Drawings

Here’s the same drawing reworked. It more accurately shows pictorial depth because I’ve paid more attention to a couple of easy drawing methods to draw distance.

What are they?

Use Darker Lines on Foreground Objects To Bring Them Forward

The darker a line, the closer it seems to be. Use this simple detail to give pictorial depth to a line drawing.

For example, in my example, I drew the group of trees in the center with the darkest lines. The further into the background an object was the lighter lines I used.

2 Easy Ways to Draw Distance - Darker LinesNotice how the objects that are drawn with dark lines look closer than those drawn with light lines.

Decrease the Amount of Detail to Make Objects Look Further Away

Another to create “space” in a line drawing is with detail. The more detailed an object is drawn, the closer it seems to be.

The trees in the foreground show a lot of details. The shapes are more irregular and there’s more detail within each of the shapes. They appear to “move forward” in the composition. To further tie them to the foreground, I added grass shapes leading to the lower left corner.

The trees on the right are drawn with little less detail. The edges of those tree shapes aren’t quite as detailed as the edges of the first two trees. Nor is there as much interior detail. I drew grass here, too, but notice it’s drawn more lightly and the strokes are shorter. All of those things tell you these trees are a little bit further away than the first two.

2 Easy Ways to Draw Distance - More DetailNext furthest away is the tree group on the left. Notice the ridge line is a straight line with just a little bit of “grassy strokes”. The trees are lighter in value and show even less detail than the group on the right.

Combine Line Value and Details for the Best Results

You can, of course, use either of these two methods alone to draw a composition with pictorial depth. But you’ll get the best results if you use both methods. The combination of varying line darkness and details convey the best sense of distance in even the simplest line drawings.

I continued to work toward the background lightening the weight and value of each hill I drew. The trees also become less and less individual trees and more and more groups of trees. By the time I got to the horizon, the lines are very light. The horizon line is actually slightly broken. I used very light pressure to draw it and allowed the edges of the line to be very soft and vague.

2 Easy Ways to Draw Distance - Dark Lines & DetailThe result is that even though both drawings show roughly the same scene, there’s a much greater sense of distance in the second one than in the first. The vast openness of the Flint Hills, which were my subject, is much clearer in the second drawing. You already have a feel for what the final painting or drawing might look like.

Conclusion

Can you draw a composition without depicting pictorial depth through line quality? Absolutely. I worked that way for years without significantly affecting the end result of the final painting.

But if you enjoy drawing and if you really want to learn your composition, it is helpful to begin developing pictorial depth as soon in the process as possible. For many of us, that means the line drawing.

Besides, the old adage practice makes perfect is true. The more times you work your way through the space of your drawing or painting, the more familiar you become with it. The more familiar you are with your subject, the more accurately you can convey exactly what you want to convey to your viewers.

That is never a bad thing!

If You Would Like To Check Out The Class Yourself

The class I audited is Perspective in Landscape Drawing. Patrick Connors teaches the class, which you can work through at your own pace.