How to Draw


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Author: rufus0705

Two sleeping cats

These are two drawings I did of Max and DeeDee, my two cats. I would have rather drawn them sitting up, or looking at me, or doing something more active than sleeping, but it was almost impossible to draw them when they were doing anything. Even trying to draw them when they were cleaning themselves did not work.

Deedee came out better than Max. Finally, she curled up nicely on the couch and I had enough time to get this drawn:

This is how Max came out. He was sleeping on the floor nearby.

Both of them had one ear turned around toward me. I think they knew I was looking at them. Getting the ear to be the right shape was really hard – it took at least 3-4 tries for each ear! Deedee’s far ear came out best; its actually perfect. At least it happens sometimes.

I drew these with an HB pencil on my new, “nice” sketchbook. The paper is pretty good – good enough that I can draw on both sides if I don’t press down too hard.

I am also using an eraser, lightly, to clean up stray lines. Sometimes this means that I have to erase all the lines I’ve drawn, even the good one/s in a certain part of the drawing, and then go back in and put “good” lines in only. It works, but sometimes when I go back in to draw the correct-looking lines, I screw them up too. That’s when it ends up taking 3-4 tries to get a line right.

By the way… in real life, cats are hard to draw. They don’t stay still, for starters, but they also NEVER sit in a way that does not involve some foreshortening. Their bodies also slope in ways that can be confusing and hard to draw (all that loose furry skin… it is like drawing drapes… or cat’s pajamas).

However, cats are beautiful. When you can get the lines right, they make great drawing subjects. Especially for pencil work.


This is the birdhouse I drew today. I am pretty happy with how it came out. Some of the lines could have been erased, like on the top right side and the round base (which I completely mucked up…), but a lot of the lines came out right the first time.

The shading worked out really well with this. Another reason that I like light “H” or “HB” or “H2” pencils – they shade really evenly.

My favorite part of this drawing is on the right side of the roof. The actual bird house has these drop-like things on the roof, and so on this side I tried to shade the drops to make them, not to draw lines to make them like I did on the left side. It is hard to see it in this image, but the real drawing shows those shading-for-shape drops really well. They came out almost exactly how I wanted them to.

I got to pay closer attention to shadows and highlighting in this drawing. The way shadows and highlights appear sometimes is really wacky. It does not make sense, for example why the highlights and shadows on the round part of this bird house (the dowels, I guess, you would call them) go from very faint shadows on the left edge, to bright highlights, then bleed into the darkest shadows of the whole dowel, and then fade back to lighter shadows by the time you get to the far side. Its not supposed to be like that! It supposed to go very light, bright, very light, dark. Not very light, bright, very dark, very light.

I hope people know what I’m talking about. It you don’t, study something round in the nexy hour or day. Really look at how the light and dark parts work. I almost want to go find a science teacher to explain to me why the lightest and darkest parts on the round dowel are next to each other. But they’d probably just look at me funny.

You know you are deep into drawing when things like this really get your attention and stump you. Fortunately, I just drew it the way I saw it, and somehow it looks right. Go figure.

If anybody can tell me why the shadows go from the highlights into the darkest parts so quickly, with the medium tones on either side, I would appreciate it.

Rhinestone purse

This is what I drew today. Its an old rhinestone purse that my mother gave me. I never use it, so I was thinking about selling it, but I wanted to check with her first. At first I was just going to photograph it, but for some reason two tasks got crossed in my head (draw something and photograph purse) and the idea of drawing the purse came up. So I did.

This is the drawing:

This is the photograph:

There were a number of things that came up while drawing this. One of the simplest things to note is that most of this is drawn with colored pencils. I started with an H pencil, but for some reason that really didn’t seem like enough. I wanted to show the gold in the purse, and by some very cool blessing my set of 72 colored pencils had a gold. Yeah! So I used it. I also used a yellow for the highlights, and a dark brown for shading and also for drawing many of the triangle “detail” marks that are along the edge of the purse. Mostly, though, it was the gold that got a workout with this.

The real issue/problem with this, at least initially, was the mind-exploding detail of the rhinestones, and how to convey that on paper. I started out the way most people start out with puzzles: define the edge. Once I got that done, I was tempted to just leave it there. But… the near side of the purse had some perspective issues going on that made it thicker, and also showed the metal lip of the purse going into the side.

So I stared at the purse for awhile, trying not to get overtaken by the urge to go eat something and not deal with what looked like an impossible level of detail. I resisted the urge to go bang my head against a wall. I decided I was going to cheat. By “cheat”, I mean that I decided I was going to come up with a pattern that I could draw that would estimate all the detail that was going on with those rhinestones. The parts of the pattern in the real purse that popped out were the angle that the rhinestones themselves made. The other thing was the round brass or gold-colored metal parts that held the rhinestones in place.

So I made a line of gold dots to show the metal holders. And I tried making some angled lines (like a bent wire) that might look like the angles in the rhinestones. It kinda worked, so I did that around the edge of the purse. I did a few extra rows on the near side, and did only one tapering row on the far side.

I went back again and added some lighter angled lines to kind of blend between the first row I drew and the blank space on the inside of the purse. And I added some lines of gold dots to see how that would blend the edge and the center. I’m still not sure which technique/approach looks best.

You may also notice the chain. At one point I thought using only half circles for the chain would look better, but now looking at this on the screen, doing the full circles seems better.

I really like the way this came out. At first, I thought (as usual) that it was going to be terrible, that it was already terrible, and I was going to just keep doing it because I had to get my daily drawing out of the way, and this was all just a learning exercise and it didn’t matter if it was terrible or not. And then about half an hour later it looked pretty good. I left my office for a break and then walked back in about an hour later (this is what happens during weekends… I get distracted and feel like I show be spending time with people) and the drawing kind of popped off my desk.

You just have to plow through that “this sucks” thinking and keep going. Sometimes, yes, the drawing does end up terrible, but then once in a while – WHOA!

About Buying Sketchbooks

Are you the sort of person who feels like you need to go get something – buy something – before you can begin a new undertaking? For instance, do you feel a strong need to go buy a sketchbook before you can start drawing?

Me too.

And I did buy a new sketchbook when I started drawing in earnest. The totally amazing thing, the thing that stumps me every time I think about it: I actually filled it. About ten days ago. I went through a whole, think sketchbook in less than a month.

That’s pretty unusual for me… to start something and actually follow through like that. But this time it happened.

Back to buying sketchbooks. I went to the local art store (support your local businesses!) and spent half an hour flipping through and touching all their sketchbooks. They have nearly a hundred different kinds. I really wanted to touch them first, though it was tempting to just get something from Amazon fast.

I found a nice, square sketchbook that was about 10 inches square. It was thick, and had a really sturdy cardboard back cover, so I could hold it on my lap and draw and not worry about it bending. It was not a spiral binding, but a glue binding.

It worked really well. It cost me about $14.

I got a bit stressed while I was using up the last pages. Especially when I had just finished drawing FIVE WHOLE PAGES of bad cats (the drawings were bad… not the cats), and nothing came out really well. A lot of the drawing tutorials I do seem to require enormous amounts of paper. And just when I’ve been reading about how the Sumatra tiger is critically endangered because its forests are being cut down by paper companies…

I bought a new sketchbook on Amazon. Its an 8.5 x 11 size “Sketchbook” by Sterling (whoever they are). Its got very sturdy, heavy covers on front and back, and 176 sheets. That’s an important thing to check when you’re buying sketchbooks – how many sheets.

Its a good sketchpad, but the paper is still thin enough that if I press down hard when I’m drawing, the pencil impressions show through on the next page. And it does not take watercolor, which is something I used to be really, really interested in, and am getting interested in again now. (I am now coveting watercolor and drawing sketchbooks) The new sketchbook is good, but the spiral wire “binding” is not so hot for scanning my drawings, and I scan almost all of my drawings.

There is another, smaller, sketchbook that I have not used yet. Its blue, and about five by eight inches. Its a landscape or “reporter” binding depending on how you hold it, which means that the bound side is one of the short edges, not like a standard book shape where one of the long sides is bound. I got it to be able to draw when I’m out and about. I just keep forgetting to put it in my truck so I have it when I’m out and about. Hopefully, that’s embarrassing enough that I will now remember…

Anyway, I like this little travel sketchbook, but the shape bothers me a little. I wish it was even one, preferably two inches wider. Just five inches seems really skinny. It is made by “Hand Book”. I don’t know much of them, but though this is well made, Hand Books are clearly Moleskine knockoffs.

Sketchbooks that never get used because they just don’t feel right… kind of like nice clothes that never get worn.

What am I drawing on now, mostly? Printer paper. Standard, multi-use recycled paper. The kind you can buy for $3 for 500 sheets, and for even less if you buy a box at a time.

I like this paper a lot, because it does not feel so precious. I hate the anxiety that comes from “you better not mess this drawing up… this is expensive paper” and I’m so broke right now that even paper has to be cheap.

What is the printer paper like to draw on as opposed to proper sketchpad paper? Well, its thinner, for starters. But if you draw on a little stack of it, you won’t notice the difference much. You will also definitely need to use only one side of the paper, but I find that to be true even of the highest quality drawing papers. Again, I scan my drawings, and anything on the other side of the paper typically shows through in the scan. I can usually sift the shadow drawing out with Photoshop, but sometimes it does not work, and its just generally a pain.

The biggest difference with printer paper is that it is so smooth. Higher quality drawing paper is just a big rougher. This has yet to effect my drawing, but I’m not a pro.

I’ve noticed that I do draw more with cheap… ahem, inexpensive paper. There’s less pressure, and I don’t draw well under pressure. And I’m happier because I don’t have to worry about finding the money for $30 or more a month of sketchbooks. Right now, $30 is half to a third of a day’s pay. And I’d rather be drawing on cheap printer paper than having to work another 3 to 5 hours to afford a new sketchbook twice a month.

Skull drawn in one line with “H” pencil

This is a skull that I drew today while I was lying on the couch again, too tired to sit up at the table. I may end up drawing a lot of things from the couch.

My partner thinks this is the best drawing I’ve done to date. Maybe… not sure. It does not really matter whether these are good or not – the whole point is just to keep learning and practicing. For the moment, I just want to keep up with at least one drawing a day. Whether its a good drawing or an awful drawing really does not matter a whole lot to me.

This did come out fairly well. I especially like it because I drew it all from just one line. I never picked my pencil up drawing this. There’s a little handwritten note near the base of the left horn that has an arrow pointing to the place where I started and stopped the line.

At first I thought doing this one line exercise was going to mean I would draw one of those line drawings that looks like a wire sculpture, but then as I kept going with this, I realized I could do shading very well without lifting my pencil up. I was even able to do the softer shading by rolling my pencil over on the side.

The softer shadows on the right side were hard. It was hard to keep my hand steady. Don’t start one of these kinds of drawings if you have not eaten in awhile, unless you like the shaky hand effect.

The softer shadows were also hard because they were a second set of shadows. The light was coming from two directions on the skull, so I had the harder-edged shadows from the brighter light source on the right side of the skull, and those softer, more diffused shadows on the left side coming from the less bright light. I was worried having two sets of shadows would be confusing, and maybe it still is. I tried to just go ahead and draw what I saw as closely as possible, and just hoped that the end result would look okay.

This image is also a little off in terms of the shadows, because the paper I was using is rumpled. I have started going through a lot of drawing paper now that I really am drawing a lot, and so I was using an old sketchbook that had gotten rumpled.

Another thing about this drawing is that I used a different pencil weight. This was done with an “H” weight pencil. It makes a lighter line, but the pencil lead is harder, so you don’t have to sharpen your pencil every two seconds. See my earlier posts about how I don’t like soft pencils.

I think this came out well because I didn’t rush it. Even unrushed, it took less than half an hour. Drawing something as detailed as this is best done if you’re feeling patient. Otherwise you might as well just do a sketch.

Drawing of the front garden, with a space for new roses

I drew this a few minutes ago. I’m trying to build the habit of drawing first thing in the morning. It seems that in the late afternoon and evening, almost anything I try to sketch comes out awful. Not always, but I did five whole pages of bad cat drawings yesterday around four pm until I decided it was time to give up and just do something else.

This is what a corner of the front garden looks like. Sort of – its just a line drawing, and obviously the real thing is much more interesting. For instance, the tree does have leaves. Sure, it is dry here in New Mexico, but in case some of you were concerned… yes we do have trees.

The strands of what looks like beads hanging from the trees are just that. They’re Mardi Gras beads. I collected them in New Orleans about a week after Mardi Gras this year. Was there for a bachelorette party and decided to come a few days early. Had a GREAT time, and these were the second best things I brought back. The best things were pralines. Forget drugs – give me pralines!

I added a handwritten note in the lower left hand corner to show where the roses are going. If they live. They were dug up and put in garbage bags with some dirt and water and have sat like that, in the sun, for two days. I am picking them up this afternoon… not sure if they are going to make it, but I’ll try.

I like the simplicity of line art drawings. The problem is that there is NO room for mistakes. I drew this with a regular writing pen – a Uniball Vision Elite, actually, with the fine point. I have about two dozen of these pens in different colors around the house. They’re what I make lists in and write everything in. They are pretty good for drawing, too. I’ve been wondering about getting a “proper” black drawing pen. Am going to the art supply store for an erasable marker today anyway. Hopefully I won’t get anything that I don’t need… the plain old black pen I did this with is completely acceptable, and I don’t have to worry about losing some expensive pen.

Contour study and second drawing of my keys

I noticed my keys yesterday, and how interesting they are visually, so I decided to draw them today. Keys are a good subject for a drawing exercise – just about everybody has a set on hand, they are a good size for a detailed drawing, and they usually have a lot of interesting shapes.

When I first sat down to draw these, though, I got a little intimidated by how complex all the lines actually were. I tried one little drawing, and it was awful – I abandoned it within three minutes of starting. Because I had learned the blind contour palm exercise from before, I decided to do one of those, but on the keys.

This is what I ended up with after about eight minutes:

That calmed me down a bit. The biggest problem I have with drawing is not technique, or skill, or time or talent. Its chilling out enough to sit still and stop worrying or doing things long enough to do a drawing. In other words, its not a lack of talent that seems to hinder my drawing. Its a lack of patience.

So after I chilled myself out and re-taught myself how to see for drawing by doing the contour study, I started this. It took about 20 minutes or so.

I’m not entirely sure what to say about this, but I guess a few things pop out. Making a few of the items dark (and they are dark-colored in real life) made the drawing look a lot better. Using different textures helped a lot too. I did not do a lot with different kinds of lines, but it just didn’t occur to me.

Really, the biggest takeaway from this was doing the contour drawing first. It really, really, really helped the second drawing come out better. I ought to make a rule for myself to do a contour drawing before I draw anything. Let’s see if I actually follow through on that.

Toned Ground Exercise

This is a very simple drawing exercise that will be helpful for super beginning drawing students. It requires you to pay more attention to shapes than you normally would.

The term “toned ground” means that the paper you are drawing on is colored, or “toned”. In drawing and art, a common term for the paper or canvas – or whatever you are painting or drawing on – is called the “ground”. So in painting, you might hear the words “preparing your grounds” which means getting your canvas ready to be painted on. We don’t typically do a lot of preparing grounds in drawing, but for this special exercise, we are actually preparing our ground.

You prepare your paper by softly making a tone with your pencil across the space you’re going to be drawing on. The easiest way to do this is to use a graphite stick, because its all pencil lead (which is graphite) and you can just lay it down sideways on the paper and move it back and forth, making huge 3-4 inch marks to tone the paper.

If you don’t have a graphite stick, you can use a regular pencil. Your stroke widths are just going to be a lot smaller. Just like with the graphite stick, try to hold your pencil so that the edge of it is against the paper. If you held the pencil normally, so only the tip of the pencil touched the paper, you could still tone the paper, but it would take many, many more strokes.

You fill in the whole space you want to make your drawing in. When you’re done, you get an eraser. This is going to be used like a pencil, but here you are going to be drawing by taking away the tone you just drew in.

Here’s what my toned ground drawing looked like:

Can you tell what it is? Its a cat lying down. This is the same pose that Max the bad cat held for another drawing I did earlier.

You can also go in and add pencil marks like a regular drawing if you want to make the shape and the image “pop” more. A lot of artists use this technique with colored paper, like light blue construction paper. If you were using colored paper, you would make the highlights with a white colored pencil or pastel crayon, and then make the darker parts with a black crayon or ink or just a regular pencil. These type of drawings are more suited to more advanced drawing students.

Here are some ideas of things to draw with just the simple toned ground, like the “drawing” of the cat I did above.

– a dog
– a landscape
– a person’s face
– a simple house
– the batman symbol

Those are just a sprinkling of ideas to get you started.

Max the bad cat lying on my sketchbook

This is a pencil drawing of Max the cat. The very bad cat. He was lying on top of my sketchbook when I came into my office after getting a cup of coffee. I pushed him off (gently), and he just went limp and kind of lolled on the desk a few inches off the sketchbook. He kept putting his tail on the paper while I was drawing this.

This came out okay. I really like how his eye turned out – its so nice when the lines fall in place the first time you put them down. His tail I had to re-do twice, but it looks pretty good now. I got his hips a bit wrong, and they still look a little off. He also has a funny udder-like paunch on his belly. His sister’s is even worse… she looks a little bit like a cow… we sometimes call her “moo-moo kitty”. She does not appreciate the name at all.

I have been doing contour exercises, and actually did the exercise where you move your notebook out of site and draw about one square inch of your palm and the lines in your palm just before I drew this. I think it helped me get the front leg tucked under his chest looking right.

I probably should have taken out the line that’s near his left shoulder… its the one that makes his main body shape into a modified pear shape. The drawing would look a lot better without it. I also should/could have made his far shoulder a bit larger – there was a definite mound shape there that I wanted to show, and the line that’s showing it now was the first one I drew – could/should have gone back and reworked that to look a little more accurate.

All in all, though, its okay. I had one of those usual panics while I was drawing it, thinking “d—, I can’t draw cats at all. How I am supposed to be doing a drawing site if I s— so much? This is awful. And then I just kept with it and reminded myself that this could be a sacrificially bad drawing. Those do happen. I draw a lot more now that I just let myself do awful drawings.

Max, by the way, is wearing the collar so he’ll have less luck killing things. He wanders in and out of the house during the day (not at night… we have great horned owls around here, and they can do unspeakable things to little kitties in the blink of an eye). He’s a hunter. He also likes to bring things into the house. I find a loose lizard somewhere in the house at least once a week that I have to capture and then release.

Yesterday he really took the cake, though. He jumped in through the window in my office, just over my shoulder, with a live bluebird in his mouth. I was working on my computer, and he very nearly landed on my elbow. I see the bluebird, yell his name (the poor bluebird, as if it was not traumatized enough), sit up to grab him, knocking my computer on the floor, get a hold of his shoulders with my left hand, and then brace the bottom of his jaw with my right, and then move the left hand around to secure the bluebird so she won’t fly away, lose in the house (this has happened before with mice). I get the bluebird in hand, Max pinned on the couch, and then put my hand back out the window and let the bluebird go. She dropped about two feet to the ground, but then fluttered up and got into the apple tree. Her mate was right there, and they flew off into the larger willow tree a few feet away. Max was grounded – housebound – for the rest of the day. My computer is fine… at least so far.

Like I said, he’s a bad cat.

My office door

This is a really simple line drawing that I did for my daily drawing. I was just sitting on my couch, stumped about what to draw, and so I drew this. It came out better than I expected. Its weird how I struggle with finding things to draw, and then all of a sudden I just focus on something I saw before, but was ignoring, and ta-da: I have found something good to draw.

The tiles in the floor of the hallway worried me at first, but they actually weren’t that hard to do at all. I just copied exactly what I saw, and they worked out fine.

I did cheat on the door itself. I actually have a photgraph on the top part of the door. I got lazy and decided to just skip over it – the photo is of a stream with a lot of large rocks over it. I should have put it in there… was just being impatient.

Another thing that I skipped over was the paint. The two walls of the corner (but not the wall that the calender is on) are both painted blue. The other walls in the drawing are actually white. I could have shaded the two walls with the side of my pencil lead, but I skipped it because I was worried it would not come out even, and that it would make the drawing confusing somehow. However, now that I’m looking at this drawing, it would have been worth the time to do the shading – it often looks really good if you shade one distinctive shape in a drawing – it seems to make the shapes pop in a better way.

The worry about not getting the shading right is a cop-out, too. Being able to shade a space evenly is one of those little drawing skills that you just have to know how to do. It requires no talent, just practice.

But, hey. I got my daily drawing done. Even when I was tired, and didn’t want to draw anything. And that’s WAY better than nothing.