How to Draw


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A teak chair, drawn with a soft graphite pencil

And today’s drawing is: a chair. This is one of a set of teak chairs that I got on eBay after we moved into the house. They have held up really well.

I like the way this came out, though the armrest on the far side is not so good. And I do wish I had drawn it using a pencil with a harder lead. I guess if you wanted to, though, you could invoke that Salvadore Dali melting look better with a soft pencil than a hard one. I just did not particularly want a melting chair. I wanted a realistic chair. But hey, it worked out good enough.

This is one of those subjects that you have to be calm to take on. I was tired, and just flopped down on the couch with a pencil and a pad of paper and kind of looked around the room, all but drooling from working too long on my computer, until my eyes settled on this. Not wanting to get back to the computer screen any earlier than I had to, I was willing to slow down and draw this, line by line.

Its funny how trust comes into drawing something complicated like this. Its completely different than sketching. You have to just take a subject like this line by line, copying each line as carefully as you can, being “honest” about how each line connects to the other one, without cheating. And you have to trust that all these lines going in all these different directions are actually going to end up looking like a chair on the paper when you’re done.

Its very different from sketching. With sketching, you don’t trust the lines to come together on their own – you make big, quick lines that kind of pull the whole thing together as fast as you can. Its kind of like just jumping into a situation and doing quick, from-the-gut changes to solve a problem NOW. Drawing – slow, detail drawing that follows the lines and stays true to them, as they are, makes you less in control of the outcome in some ways.

I must be feeling really philosophical today. All this from a chair.

Pencil drawing of Rufus lying down

This is today’s drawing: Rufus lying down. I went outside to try to draw the garden again. That did not work out very well, but I looked down and saw him, and so I took a shot at it. I think he came out okay, though I messed up his nose a bit, and his tail looks really weird because its filled in to look like fur and the rest of the drawing leaves his fur blank.

What I should have done (why do I see so many things once I scan something and upload it here that I never saw when I had the drawing pad out in front of me!) is just erased his tail completely and started over. Trying to erase just the inside of the tail is hopeless – there is not an eraser on the planet that is precise enough to get around the lines I want to keep and erase the lines I want to get rid of.

His nose is another problem. 95% of his head is invisible from this angle – all I could see was the far tip of his nose. This is one of those perspective situations when you HAVE TO forget about what you know (because you know nothin’) and draw exactly what you see, and hope that whatever comes out on the paper makes sense. This sort of makes sense, but it looks a little weird. And this is about the fourth try of drawing his nose… ironically, the first time I drew it I got it best.

There’s another lesson in this, actually. When I come to these parts of a drawing that really stump me, instead of trying to figure them out in the drawing, I do much better if I find a piece of scrap paper or a blank area of paper somewhere and then do a couple of studies of whatever the difficult subject matter is. This helps most because it takes the pressure of getting whatever the part is right, so I relax and have more brain function available for drawing. It also gives me the practice I need to do to get it right… which often means deliberately doing a bad version of it. That’s often when I do something new (if what you have been doing before was not working, in order to get it to work, you will have to try something new…) and so I do something new, and it looks weird, but I get to solution from it. And then I can go back to the drawing and make whatever two line mark is required to fix the problem.

Its enough to make you crazy when a drawing either works or doesn’t based on two little lines. Or perhaps I am becoming obsessive?

Seeing and touching

I was flipping through the book The Natural Way to Draw by Nicolaides today, and found this instruction in the very first exercise:

Place the point of your pencil on the paper. Without taking your eyes off the model, wait until you are convinced that the pencil is touching that point on the model upon which your eyes are fastened.

…keep the conviction that the pencil point is actually touching the contour. Be guided more by the sense of touch than by sight.

He says this THREE times in the instructions for the contour drawing exercise: “Be convinced you are touching the model”. He even puts it in all caps at one point.

I did the exercise per the instructions, and did pause to try to believe that I was touching my subject. In this drawing, it was three glass bottles, and I started at the top lip of the tallest bottle, and paused there thinking about touching it: cool smooth blue glass.

Nicolaides talks later about running your fingers over a surface, first fast and then slow, before you draw it. There is also a bit of luridness about this touching stuff, because he mostly assuming you are drawing a live, nude model. That might heighten the sensations of touching! My glass bottles aren’t quite as compelling as touching someone’s naked arm, but the concept still worked.

I’m still not sure what, entirely, to make of this drawing from touch idea, but it is really interesting. It does affect how you make lines, and it brings your focus and your senses much more into play as you – or at least as I – draw. In other words, it works.

I’m starting to see how it is really critical to learn how to make different kinds of lines. When you learn how to do that, you can convey touch – a wooly sweater versus a slick leather coat – in a line. And you don’t have to overdo it. You don’t want to overdo it, and even trying to do it will make you overdo it. But if you are thinking “smooth leather” while you make the line, experiencing the seeing of the line as if you were touching it – you make a smooth leather line. And if you focus on the nubbly wooliness of a sweater, you can do that too. But if you get too committed to trying to show it, you muss it up – like messing up a tree limb of leaves by trying to draw each individual leaf.

There is a sensory phenomena called synesthesia which is not unlike this touching with your eyes idea. Synethesia is experiencing feelings or sounds with colors – like feeling blue, or blue jazz. It is most often experienced as linking letters or numbers with colors. It is not the same thing as touching your drawing subject with your pencil as you draw something, but the two ideas are on the edges of a very interesting landscape.

Anyway – this is a good trick, and it has helped me draw a little better.

Exercise: Shading an Egg… or a Stone

Being able to create effects of light and shadow is tremendously important in drawing. Even if you never attempt to draw and shade folds of fabric (which is a challenge, trust me), you still need to be able to make simple effects that will suggest light and shade to a normal viewer. This takes practice.

There is a classic exercise for shading that will give you some excellent practice. It is so simple that many people dismiss it, and never actually do it, but if you become one of the students who does actually start and complete this exercise, you will have improved your shading skills dramatically. Do the exercise more than once and you will reap further benefits. Do it a third time and… I’ll let you guess what happens.

The exercise is to get a plain sketchbook, a simple drawing pencil (any #2 pencil will do) and an egg. If you do not have an egg, a large smooth stone like a river stone will do. Even a ball with a smooth surface will work. Having a good eraser (like a kneadable eraser) is helpful, but not necessary.

You sit down and begin drawing your egg, but you may not make any lines. You are forming this image of the egg purely with shading. You will probably have a few false starts, but don’t worry about that. Just crumple up your mistakes and start again.

As you really settle into doing this, you will immediately realize it is much harder than it sounds. Here are some hints. First, you can use the side of your pencil to create a wider, softer “line” or mark with your pencil than the tip will make. You can also use the tip of your pencil to create extremely light lines that blend together to make the shadows of your egg. You can even make your shadows using “cross hatches” which is when you make a series of light parallel lines in one direction, then make another set of lines over the first set, but at a 90 degree angle. The overlapping sets of lines create the effect of a very light woven pattern.

When you are really good, you will be able to show the little bumps and pock marks in the egg with your shadows. Most people just ignore these little imperfections the first time they do this exercise.

Drawing of my hand

This is a pretty standard early drawing exercise. Its a good way to record where you are at the beginning of your study of drawing. So I did a drawing of my hand to show you how badly I draw when I’m out of practice. Alas, getting into practice may take several months, but if that’s what it takes, then fine.

So here’s the badly drawn hand:

It you look at this and think “Wow, that’s terrible! I can do SO much better than that!” then great. Do get out your pencils and show me up. Part of the reason I show these terrible drawings is to make you guys feel better, to lower the bar, so you don’t feel like you have to be some great talented artist in order to draw stuff.

I did not put my hand in too challenging a position. If I was feeling more confident, I could have curled a couple of the fingers, or twisted the hand into some interesting position that would have created some foreshortening to deal with. But this is just a beginning exercise, and I am just posting this to show where I started from.

Self portrait

This is so bad I almost don’t want to post it, but it is important to put it up here, because I have to start somewhere.

I drew this self-portrait as the first exercise from the book The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Its my favorite book on drawing and has been for now, decades, actually, so it seemed like the right place to start now that I am returning to drawing again.

Anyway… after much hedging and explanation, here’s the drawing:

I guess if I have to go looking for something good about this, it would be that I committed to those lines – this is not a sketchy haze of lines. Not that there’s anything wrong with sketchy hazes. I like the way the shape of my face came out. The eyes are weird, and the hair was a problem, but I just kept at it and continued until it looked sort of finished.

Its a pretty rough version of “finished”, but I didnt want to drag out the agony any longer than I had to. And, in regards to this post, I don’t really want to drag this out any longer, either.

Framing Drawings, Watercolors and Oils

It is not easy to frame your own watercolors. For one thing, unless you are an expert carpenter, you not only have the labor of cutting the molding, but you have to cut the glass and the mount as well. Instead, it is better to go to a competent frame maker. If he is a good one he will know just what moulding and mount to suggest, but if you are doubtful of his judgment, these are the points to remember:

1. The moulding must be neat and simple. Any fancy carving will detract from your picture. The moulding should be natural wood, or, if colored, neutral in tone. If the coloring becomes dirty, it should clean off easily if the moulding has been well treated. Fancy moulding is difficult to keep clean.

2. The mount should be off-white, or colored only if it does not clash with your watercolor. A bold gouache or tempera may be enhanced by a colored mount, but not a delicate watercolor. Unprimed, unbleached canvas makes a good neutral surround to a watercolor, but the frame maker must be skilled at fixing it on to the mount. A badly mounted canvas surround will ruin your picture. The mount should be generous in proportion. A thin mount looks mean and won’t show off the picture to its best advantage.

It used to be fashionable to put lines round the mount, making a frame within a frame. But this I find fussy and distracting and entirely unnecessary.


Again, unless you are a good carpenter, it is better to go to a good frame maker for your frames. And, like water color frames, they should be simple. A highly decorated frame is often expensive and hard to keep clean. A simply designed frame will suit nearly all types of paintings, whereas only a few can stand up to masses of curls and squiggles. They are heavy to handle and difficult to hang. Unless you have the good fortune to live in a mansion, they will look out of place in a modern house.

Gold in small proportions enhances an oil painting but it must be gold leaf which is expensive. Other kinds of gold paint or leaf tend to tarnish and look shoddy after a while. So if you cannot afford pure gold leaf, it is better to leave the substitutes alone entirely and have them colored in a simple neutral tone to go with the scheme of your painting.

No painting, whether large or small, looks well in a mean frame. Have a generously proportioned frame. If you have painted on canvas, instead of a frame a strip of wood neatly tacked round flush with the surface will stop the painting from looking raw. However this method won’t work with board. Board should go into a proper frame.


Framing a watercolor will obviously be different from framing an oil. For instance, it is usual to put drawings and watercolors under glass for protection. An oil can be left exposed, so long as it is given a coat of varnish. This does not keep off all the dust from obscuring the painting, but will protect the painting from harm.

It is, therefore, a good idea to clean the surface of an oil painting from time to time with a mild solution of soapy water that is gently wiped over the surface of the painting and gently dried off. If the painting is thoroughly dry before final varnishing (that is at least six to nine months after completion), any wiping of the surface will do no harm. I have even used detergent on a varnished painting with no ill effects.

Before framing drawings, they should be thoroughly fixed, and if the drawing has not been trimmed, the area to be framed must be clearly. marked. The sort of drawings that frame up well will be the bold and vigorous ones. It is a good idea to put up all your drawings on a wall at one end of the room, then stand well back and see which drawings read across the room. This could be done with your watercolors as well.

It is a good thing to have a little private unframed exhibition of your work every so often. It is interesting to see all your works together and you can plot your progress and development. At first it is unlikely that you will want to frame the lot, but you are sure to find one or two works that will warrant it. Then do so. There are always those favorites that you would like to preserve out of a period of three or six months’ work.

Summing up about composition

If you have stained your canvas with a tint derived from your color scheme, you will see that unlike painting directly on to a white surface, the colors you start with don’t seem so out of place. They sit nicely on the canvas. On a white surface they would stand out sharply and only settle back after you had covered the canvas completely. This is another advantage of staining your canvas with an underpainting. It allows you to judge your color better.

Whatever you do, it is a good idea to paint in the largest shapes first and then the lesser shapes, finally finishing off with all the smaller stuff, detail and so on. You can try to paint up all the detail from the word go, but it is not recommended. The difficulties in controlling and shaping your picture are intensified if you do.

If you paint up one part too thoroughly and find that when you have finished coloring your canvas it doesn’t fit with the other parts, you have to go through all the business of scraping it out and repainting it. The best approach is to paint up each part, but only up to a point, leaving the final surface details until the very last when you are sure that everything is working together.

With your color schemes and cartoon drawings always by your side, you need have no fear in letting yourself go so that in turn the picture will let itself go as well. There comes a point in any painting when, however carefully you have worked out what you want to do, the painting wants to take over itself. Let it. From this point onwards all the surprises and excitements start happening. Should the picture run away with itself and get out of hand, you can always go back to the original idea contained in the cartoon.


You will see from all this that you will have to be more patient in the initial stages than with other forms of painting and drawing. If you take care with all the stages of building up your picture you will not only gain valuable knowledge about painting, and get into good workmanlike habits, but you will be more assured of a successful result.

Composition is not easy to get into, but once you have acquired a little experience, you will find that the enjoyment you derive will be much greater than any other form of improvised painting. Possibly for the first time, you will be really in control of what you are doing. Perhaps this is the reason why so many artists have elected to work away from nature. Because then they can be truly creative, like nature.

Completing the Picture

When painting up the picture on to the canvas, you may find it useful to have all your drawings ready to hand to refer to. You may also wish to have a color scheme to work from. You will get a better result if you have some idea what colors you are going to use, rather than if you muddle on with only a vague idea of what you are going to do.

The notion that inspiration will descend on you once you hold a brush in your hand is better replaced by the more practical one of knowing a little about what you are going to do. If you have spent so much care in arranging your picture, you may as well spend just that little bit longer and do a color scheme as well.

A simple scheme of color, one that can be added to later without any disastrous effects, is one that relies on two colors and white at the most. Or, if you have a natural way with colors and feel more adventurous, keep your colors in families: browns, reds and ochres; or blues, greens and lemon; or browns and yellows, with just a touch of red. You can even work out a scheme with greys and black, adding just a touch of pure blue or red. Whatever you decide to do, remember to keep it simple, keep it fresh and have some idea what you are going to do.


To paint directly on to a white canvas can be disconcerting, although if it can be managed without a great deal of overpainting the result can look fresh and charming. But with oil the most exciting qualities lie in its ability to cover well and to be used thickly and juicily. So that it is sometimes more useful to stain your canvas with a light wash of umber, or any other fairly quiet color you like, and stain it over your drawing. For convenience, have a number of canvases ready stained and draw on top of the stain. However, if you stain over your drawing you can select a tone or tint that will be in keeping with your color scheme and this will aid you when you start painting.

When your stain is dry, you can then start. You will find that however lost you may get when painting, if you have done your rough composition and your color scheme, you will always be able to refer back to them. You may want to enlarge and alter your original idea. This often happens. It is a good thing it does. It means the painting is growing.