How to Draw


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Category: Sketching

Sketching is a terrific way to start a drawing, because you don’t have to do a perfect sketch. Here’s how to get your pencil moving, and how to startle yourself with a great drawing done in seconds.

When is a drawing finished?

A drawing is complete when you have nothing more to add to it. It is finished when you feel you have done enough. It is as simple as that.

But one or two points occur to me that might help you arrive at that decision. Fill your page completely, from top to bottom and side to side. The reason for this is, that before you can confidently leave out, you must overdo what you put in. The same applies when you are concerned with studies of single objects, or details, that you are going to incorporate into a larger work. It is also easier to frame a completed drawing in your sketch book. But never tear out a picture if you can help it. Keep a sketch book intact.

If you want a particular scene framed do another version of it from the original sketch. Sometimes, however, it cannot be avoided. A sketch book picture has to come out. But do be careful when doing so. It is easy to tear your drawing and your sketch book as well. The binding will become loose and all the pages fall out.


I have suggested that using a viewfinder is helpful in settling the problem of what to draw. However you may want to do the view next to the one you have chosen. Add that view to the one you have already completed, either on the page opposite or by adding a further section. This can be attached with tape quite easily and will fold into your sketch book neatly. You can, if you want, continue adding as many
sections of views as you like, folding them into your sketch book and attaching them with masking tape Any change of tone, or even style, from section to section will not harm the total effect when you pull out the finished work. On the contrary, it adds something to it.

Remember, though, the view must continue from one section to another. The lines in a panoramic drawing must move easily from drawing to drawing, else it will look odd.


It is not always possible to devote hours to one work outdoors. This fact must be recognized. Rain, disturbances, limited time available, will tend to cut down the time you can devote to a picture or drawing. This need not deter you, however, from producing any finished work. If you are very short of time, go for quick lively sketches. Make lots of notes that mie:ht help you and finish them up at home. Also, with a more ambitious work, if you cannot complete it out-of-doors, finish it off at home.
It is best to do lots of rough studies of a scene, plus one or two careful details and a few written observations. Then, when you get home, assemble the material into a completely new picture.
Making up two or three half-finished sketches into a completely new work is one of the things I shall be discussing in the chapter on composition. For the moment, let me say
this. Outdoor drawing and painting is the best source of
ideas. It should be persevered with and will reward you in many ways. As you will have realized, there are few rules to bother about. The approach I have taken is purely practical.
If you have drawn inside, you will be able to draw outside.
There is no hard way and there is no easy way. There is only your way. And that is the only thing I want to encourage you to develop. If you are in doubt, or find your spirits flagging, go and look at the drawings and paintings of those great artists who have got their inspiration from working outdoors. Turner, Constable, Samuel Palmer, Cox, de Wint and, in our day, Carel Weight, Ruskin Spear, John Minton, Edward Bawden, etc. There are many of them and their works will help you. By relating your problems to these works you will find not only help, but appreciation as well.

Down and Up

Our usual level of looking is in front of us. Generally we look ahead. When you start to draw outside, you will find that you will be looking down, on to the ground, and up, into the sky.Both the ground and the sky are important to an artist. They are part of the world he is looking at. It is important for him to look at them.

The ground is fairly static, though it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the change of tone or color on the ground as it recedes from us. It is a good thing to study the ground and find out what changes do take place.

The sky is another matter. It is always changing, full of life, full of color and movement. But it alters so quickly that it can be difficult to grasp. As with drawing figures, it is better just to look carefully at the sky and then paint it quickly from memory. It isn’t necessary to know the names of the different cloud formations to be able to paint skies successfully. It is better to look at clouds, enjoying their colors and forms, noting the changes and the way the sun affects their contours and shapes. And it is also good to switch your eyes quickly from the ground up to the sky and see how they balance one to the other.

The ground is firm. It should look firm and solid in your drawings, unlike the sky which should look light and spacious.


The land is fairly static. The only changes that occur are caused by the change of light which are easily seen. They move slowly and regularly. This is not so with water. Water can be fast or still, rippling or gently undulating. Water is fascinating to watch and paint. Everybody at some time will want to paint it. If the water is very still, you will be able to see the reflections clearly. The water will act like a mirror and, except for a darkening of tone, will repeat more or less, upside down, what is around it. When the water is moving it is not so easy. The best way to tackle water is to study small sections of it, using your memory to put down what you saw. Then refer back to the water again until you have built up some sort of image in your mind. Then paint it completely from memory.

Certain rhythms will occur time and time again. Certain formations will repeat themselves. The light will affect the waves in regular patterns. And it is in observing these regularities that you will be able to capture the fleeting image of water.

Drawing People continued

In these circumstances, it is better to train your memory. You will find that it is much easier to draw an image just after you have seen it. The longer you leave the impression the weaker it becomes. Train yourself to look at people and observe what they do.

First, just let the image soak in without analyzing it. Then, without referring back to the subject, try and jot down what you remember while it is still fresh in your mind. With practice you will get better and better at it and you will find you are remembering things quite easily. Don’t force yourself to remember. Let it come spontaneously. You will find, also, that you will be able to note exactly what people wear, what their faces were like, what poses they took up. People move so quickly that this is the only way to get to grips with drawing them.


The eye has a tendency to prefer little shapes to big masses. It also prefers to build up an image bit by bit. It tries to take in as much as possible, all at once; so that you can comprehend the scene immediately. This is the way the eye functions for the purposes of day-to-day seeing. The eye must be quick and alert and, in endeavoring to take in so much, it often gets confused. Consequently our picture of the world does not always tally with the real world. At best it is a makeshift picture we have in our mind.

But here lies the change which must take place when you start to draw outside. Once you slow down and start looking at the world in a more leisurely fashion, you have time to take in the scene, not only in its detail, but in its broader aspects. You realize that all the detail the eyes show you isn’t entirely necessary to build up a picture of reality. Even more so when you are drawing reality. Leaving things out in a drawing can be just as effective as putting them in.

A study of Chinese drawings will help you understand this. There, what is left out, is just as important as what is left in. They are counterparts to each other. Our eyes and mind cope with a vast amount of visual matter for the purposes of living. In a drawing, when there is time to look and digest what you see, too much detail can be irritating. The eye wants some rest, it needs emptiness as well as fullness.

Looking at drawings that are so cluttered up with detail that you cannot see the wood for the trees is not uncommon, and it is perhaps better to get over this phase by deliberately putting in as much detail as you can manage. Then, with practice, you will get to know what to leave out. You will know what will be confusing in your drawing.

This, I hope, will also help you to understand different types of drawings. Good drawings say more than is apparent at first glance (Fig. 24). Bad drawings say everything at once and become incoherent. A good drawing will, like nature, guard its secrets carefully, only letting out what is contained in it bit by bit. A bad drawing will disclose itself quickly. You will be bored with it just as quickly.

The same rule operates with drawings as with paintings. If you wish to pack your painting with all the detail you see, do so. But to control all the detail requires infinite patience. When you have completed the picture you may find the result doesn’t warrant all the labor spent. It is better not to have too strong a bias either way; one should strive for a nice balance between the effort expended and the finished result.

From this, we can infer that while it is an advantage to have something, it is also useful to have nothing at the same time (Fig. 25.)

Viewpoint and Color

The viewpoint you take up will affect the angles of the things seen. It will affect your foreground and, by being either up or down, change the middle and background too. If you are high up you will see more background; you will be looking right down on to things.

If you are set low you will be looking up at them. All this may sound obvious, but it is amazing, when we first start drawing outdoors, how easy it is to forget the obvious.

In selecting your viewpoint don’t be timid about letting any object, a tree or a lamp-post, sit right in front of your vision. An object, close to you, that you have to see round or through, makes an excellent foreground, and will create an interesting lead into the middle distance.

Similarly, a line of the road that shoots away and enters into the center of the picture, will give movement. Avoid the viewpoint in which all the angles are either horizontal or perpendicular. This tends to create monotony. Look for angles that move down or up. Movements that are inherent in nature, but which are so difficult to pin down into a small rectangle.


Color should be used sparingly on the first few outings, and at best should not be used too lavishly. If you start flinging color all over everything, you will destroy the very point of using color. Color can be very effective for giving just that extra kick to a black and white drawing, as long as it does not swamp the drawing altogether. Restraint when painting is necessary. Your control over what you are doing is lessened if you use too many colors. Mix, at first, only the very obvious colors you can see, avoid attempting all the subtle halftones. Better to draw those in, than to try and work out how to do them. If you have one or two important colors to deal with you will find that they will be sufficient to give liveliness and sparkle to your sketch.

This applies to both opaque and transparent watercolor, though it is probably easier to get the halftones more successfully with transparent washes, it is still better to use restraint.


Drawing people outdoors is a little difficult for the one good reason they never keep still for one minute, and as soon as they spy you doing a sketch of them either take umbrage or hare off immediately. It is possible to go into a crowded place with a small sketch book and discreetly draw people as they move about. But this is not easy. It needs an iron nerve and a good eye.


There is no such thing, for our purposes, as accuracy of vision. It is not so much that we don’t all see alike. We don’t. But nature is constantly moving and changing all the time. What we see rapidly alters from minute to minute.

All we can do is to compromise between the movement of life and the static nature of our rectangle of paper or canvas. We can only aim at a generalization, at most, of the scene before us, or a distillation of the character we can observe or feel. Nature is complex; never still, guarding her secrets closely. We won’t be able to make her give those secrets up, as the Pre-Raphaelites wrongly thought, by copying her with minute accuracy. Instead, we must take her unawares – almost casually, in fact, and then some of her spirit will infuse our efforts.

What I have just said will again help you to understand what some modern artists are aiming at. When you see their apparently distorted visions, you will come to realize that they, too, are trying to find that exact equivalent between painting and reality. Through a study of nature, by drawing and painting yourself, you will begin to understand the problems involved and be able to assess the work of others better (Fig. 21).

It is an easy mistake to make, to think that accuracy, or getting things ‘right’ is one of the aims of an artist. A thing can only be ‘right’ according to you and how you see it. Accuracy under the conditions stated, of an ever-changing ever-moving, ever-complex nature is impossible. However clever you may be, you won’t be able to compete. What is at stake is not being accurate but getting pleasure from observing these changes and movements in nature and trying to express them on paper in your own way.


One can write volumes about the problems of eye-levels, vanishing points and all the other paraphernalia concerned with perspective. Frankly, I think it is best ignored. It will only muddle your eyes and lead you into all sorts of misconceptions.

Perspective is at best a device for the use of architects who wish to impress their clients with their drawings and need not seriously concern an artist. Use your viewfinder to assess any sloping of angles on buildings or streets and roads. If you put down what you see, it will not only look in perspective, it will, in all probability, be in perspective. Get used to noting how angles change with a new viewpoint.

Note how things look different when you are high up and when you are down low. If you pay particular attention to these changes you will be understanding perspective and what happens without a lot of unnecessary theory.

Foreground, Middle and Background

A good, flexible rule for settling the main shapes of the subject is to have a good foreground, a middle distance and then the background.

It is easy to ignore the foreground and only look at the middle or background. Because our eyes take in a scene so rapidly we take the foreground for granted and concentrate only on the view, that is, the background. In sketching one must be careful not to do this.

A good piece of foreground will give space and distance to your background. Leave it out and the picture will look flat. Also, if we only concentrate on the background, we will not be able to distinguish the different shapes and colors properly, or the details. It is a strain on the eyes to do so. So if you want to draw something with great wealth of detail in it, and wish to avoid eyestrain, get up closer to it. Your eyes are not magnifying lenses. Don’t treat them as if they were. If it is the background, leave it there. If you want to see more of it, get up close and make it into the foreground.

Better still, always have, if possible, those three things in this order: foreground, middle and background, in everything you do. You will be surprised how convincing it will make your sketch (Fig. 20).


The eyes take in too much. They see the small shapes first; the details of a scene are recognized more quickly than the large overall shapes. To start off a drawing by putting all the little things first will lead you into all sorts of muddle and make you discouraged too quickly. Better to lay in, with a light wash, all the large shapes and then, if you want, put in all the detail after it has dried. I have seen this method of working in practice and can recommend it. However detail-conscious you may be, this way won’t lead you into any trouble.

Going for the large shapes first is very important. Your viewfinder will help you in this. Trees, for instance, consist of tiny units that make up the character of the tree. Plot this large shape first and you will be less likely to miss the character. A wall, too, is made up of tiny shapes. Get the shape as a whole first; leave the bricks till last. This applies to all things. First grasp the large shapes, relating them to one another boldly and lightly, then reinforce them with the detail, the small shapes, later.

This applies to painting or drawing and I cannot stress it strongly enough. In time, with experience, you will be able to recognize the large shapes quite naturally. But at first be very careful to make allowance for them.

Realistic Drawings

In the Victorian era a sweet, sentimental subject received the accolade. An honest painting of something really seen and experienced would be by-passed or condemned.

A good example of this was with the movement known as Impressionism. The Impressionists wanted to go out and see the world with their own eyes. They were tired of sitting in the studio all day making up nice subjects for the Salon which was the accepted practice of the day. They went out and looked. They made little or no distinction in what they looked at. Light and color were their subjects.

Consequently their paintings were judged ugly by their own age.

Times have changed. We don’t call them ugly any more. We don’t ridicule them and say they were wrong to have done them. We put them in all our public galleries, pay high prices for them and see them reproduced time and time again.

So that if you choose a subject that you have come upon and which you feel will make a good picture, go ahead and tackle it. Be unconcerned with the judgments, real or imaginary, which you think will be made on what you do. Concern yourself only with the use of your media and tools. Let your hands speak through them and keep those critical faculties quiet.

You will find that you get great satisfaction. You will discover many things you were unaware of before. A whole new world will unfold itself for you. You will be seeing more and more each time you go out. Your confidence will grow and you will really be fulfilling yourself.


Having considered what to draw or paint, let’s see how we can get down to practical matters. What are the things we should do first? You have settled on your subject, you are excited by it. Then move around it, see it from different angles. It is a good idea to have a viewfinder with you. A piece of card, about 3 inch x 4 inches, will do. Paint it black and then cut out a rectangle 1 inch x 2 inch. This will make an excellent viewfinder. It will help you avoid what you don’t want, guide you to the view that you can best manage on paper.

The eyes, because they can rove about and change focus so quickly, take in too much. The viewfinder will simplify the scene for you and help you to get an interesting composition. A viewfinder has many other uses. It can help you to judge perspective: the changing angles on objects as they recede into space. It can help you really see what you are looking at, by concentrating your eyes on that piece alone. It can also help you to ascertain the tone and the colors. It is invaluable for the beginner and the experienced alike.

If you keep it always tucked in at the back of your sketch book, it will always be handy when you need it. A diminishing-glass viewfinder, or a camera viewfinder, can be used likewise. In short, anything that serves to put a rectangle round what you are looking at will be of great assistance (Fig. 19).

Picking Subjects to Draw

For instance, you might be walking along, not thinking of anything. You turn into a side street and there, at the end, is a rubbish dump leading on to a railway yard.

You stop, surprised. It looks wonderful. All those shapes and textures and the pattern of the railway lines and the wires in the sky. The light striking across the grass. How marvellous to draw, you think. It has everything an artist could want.

Then you pause. Your mind steps in. Now, now, it says, you can’t paint that. It’s ugly. It’s horrible. What will the neighbors think? In short, it’s a disgusting subject to choose. Who would want to look at that? and so on and so on.

Nuts! Who cares what the neighbors think? It’s none of their business anyway. Who cares if it is considered a disgusting subject? It isn’t a disgusting subject at all. The disgust comes from the prejudiced mind. The subject, in fact, is a good one for working out colors and shapes and tones and patterns and the like. Now what could be better than that?

It is the associations that make a subject seem unpleasant and associations don’t make good pictures. You have to shed those associations slowly if you want to enjoy working outdoors, otherwise you may have to walk for miles and never get anything done. If you can gently persuade your mind to accept the idea that it is not the niceness of the subject that matters but the inherent qualities in the objects, their shapes and colors and so on (because these are the qualities you will be dealing with) you will have no difficulty at all in choosing subjects.

All subjects, then, will be grist to your mill. Canals, stations, streets, scrap-heaps, junk-yards, landscapes, rivers, docks, backyards, alleyways, car parks, roadside cafes, ruins, derelicts, new buildings, old buildings, small parks, large parks, looking up a hill, looking down a hill, rain, sunshine, autumn and winter, all the things around you that make up our daily life. All this will supply you with the stuff of painting and sketching. How you treat it and in what form is entirely up to you.

The acceptance of shape and color, tone, and so on, over preconceived notions of beauty and ugliness will also help you to understand a great deal of what has gone on in art in our time. Gone are the notions that it is the subject which is chosen which ultimately grades the picture into good or bad art.

Where and What to Draw

Often, traveling on a bus, I spot places that I think might make a good subject. Then, when I have time, I go back, look the place over, like a burglar casing a joint, for possible intrusion and, if it looks safe, I fetch my gear and start to work.

What I look for mostly are easy access, places to sit down comfortably and not be too conspicuous. If the season is inclement – and mostly it is – I make sure there is some shelter about and that the nearest cafe is not too far away. A hot cup of tea, after a few hours drawing in the damp, can be a tonic for the waning enthusiast.

This, of course, applies to drawing and painting in town. In the country, watch out for unsuspected streams underfoot and roaming bulls, irate farmers and odd picnickers. You want to make yourself as small and invisible as possible. Succeed in this and you will be uninterrupted and able to get on and enjoy what you are doing.

When drawing or painting in strong sunshine try to get under some shade. Strong sun on your paper will not only distort your tones but the glare can be very unpleasant to your eyes. It might even give you a bad headache into the bargain. A pair of sunglasses that are not too dark can be helpful if there is no shade near.

You can also shield your sketch book with your body.

Bearing these few hints in mind, what should we look for when choosing a subject?


Edging yourself easily into outdoor sketching starts with working near to home, choosing subjects you are familiar with. When the excitement of sketching these has gone it is time to move farther afield. What are you going to look for? Picturesque views, thatched cottages, sunsets, windmills, punts on the river, sunshine and autumn leaves, pretty sights, sentimental animals, peaches and cream. . . careful! You might be sick.

No! Once you prejudice yourself with a fixed idea you will never find it. Your ability to create will dry up. The ability to create is a natural thing; therefore, when you look for subjects, finding them should be natural too. Picasso has been reported as saying ‘I do not seek. I find.’ This is certainly good advice for outdoor sketching.

Turn a corner and be surprised at what you see. Be taken unawares by odd pockets of life. Not the obvious. We are always seeking the obvious. But the surprise that is always lurking about, when you least expect it, will make the most enjoyable picture.

What do our eyes see? Shapes, colors, tones, patterns, textures, lights, darks, masses, spaces, solids. . . they don’t see trees, fields, people, buses, trains. These are names we give to shapes and forms. The eye consequently does not form judgments. The eye sees a shape and it doesn’t say ‘this is a bad or good shape’ or ‘this is an ugly shape’, it says ‘this is a large or small shape, dark or light shape’, and so on. It is our minds that form the judgments and sometimes our minds trip us up. What does it matter if the shape is beautiful or ugly, nice or nasty? What matters, surely, is whether I will enjoy painting it. Will it make an interesting hour’s study? Will it open up my eyes?

Where to Draw

When you first go out it would be unwise, obviously, to start by going straight to the most crowded place you can find, however attractive it is and however much you want to put down that particular place on paper.

I am referring to such places as a popular park, a famous landmark, a church or a public building. These places are invariably crowded and will put you right off your stroke. You will have to edge yourself gradually into the world, gaining confidence and experience as you go along. The shock of drawing outside for the first time can be severe if, when you first begin, you attract a crowd of critics and advisers which is what you will do if you are rash enough to choose a busy thoroughfare.

Everybody, as soon as they spot someone sketching, cannot keep their curiosity in check. They must have a look. I know I can’t help doing it myself, though I generally try to be as discreet as possible so as not to disturb the artist. But I get an eyeful nevertheless. It must be something we have in all of us – to overlook what someone else is doing. Look how a building site or a demolition crew attract a crowd. So much so that whenever a large building is being constructed nowadays, a special viewing balcony is fixed up for the sightseers.

When you begin drawing for the first time outdoors, the strain can be acute, not necessarily from the drawing point of view but from the fact that you are virtually on show and are performing in public. When working outdoors any shyness you may have is accentuated at first. To expose your work to all and sundry may put you off for a long time.

Most people, if they don’t draw or paint themselves are singularly unaware of their effect on an artist trying to work under unusual conditions. They will engage you in all sorts of idle chatter and they are quite unconcerned about interrupting you or of wasting your precious time. They will criticize and offer advice and give you a resume of their family history, invariably pointing out an uncle or relative who could sketch marvelously, meaning, of course, better than you.

This, of course, is an exaggeration. I have met some quite nice people who have looked over my shoulder and said a kind word or two and passed on. But, in the main, an artist working out of doors is the target for every bore, pundit and juvenile delinquent available. It would be much better to start off in some quiet field or back garden where the chances of being spotted are remote. In fact it is better anyway to start off near to home. You don’t want to trudge around for hours looking for a likely spot to start your experiments, tiring yourself out and getting sore feet into the bargain. Much better to stay nearer home and whenever
you are out and about on other business make notes of likely places you would like to draw or paint.