Six years ago, I gave up on drawing, convinced I lacked the natural talent or the “10,000 hours” of practice required for mastery. Some time last year I stumbled upon a TED talk by Josh Kaufman titled ‘The First 20 Hours — How to Learn Anything’ that eventually convinved me that drawing, like most things, a learnable skill that can be improved rather quickly by:
- Deconstructing it into the key subskills, and
- Sticking to practice just long enough to see some actual progress.
Though I still have a long way to go, here’s how much I’ve improved my drawing skills over the past 20 months.
I think I am low-key proud of my progress so far 😊.
In this post, I’m excited to share the most crucial drawing skills for beginners based on my art progress and some exercises that I have found most helpful in developing those skills quickly.
11 most important drawing skills to learn
Here are some perceptual, technical, and creative drawing skills that I believe are crucial for drawing well.
- Observing and blocking in tonal values.
- Understanding and measuring the proportions and scale.
- Visualizing a subject into basic shapes and using those to structure your drawings.
- Drawing objects in space, considering perspective and foreshortening.
- Learning to see the edges, shapes, negative space, and relationships within a scene.
- Capturing the essence of a drawing subject quickly.
- Ability to find good references and improvise.
- Drawing fluidly with confidence and precision.
- Understanding the basic anatomy of what you’re drawing.
- Applying different shading techniques for realistic rendering.
- Ability to compose a drawing with good balance, emphasis, art style, and shape language.
8 Exercises to Elevate Your Drawing Skills
8. Sculptures sketching.
Drawing sculptures is fantastic for learning anatomy and structure. It’s a perfect way for beginners to ease into drawing values without worrying about color, texture, or the likeness of an actual person.
One thing I’m trying to get better at when drawing sculptures these days is blocking the shadow shapes of a reference quickly before detailed rendering. What I find makes it easier to draw sculptures is finding references with a single light source that creates clear shadows and highlights and this helps to read and group the tonal shapes better in your drawing.
You can check out my favorite sculpture references on this Pinterest board for some inspiration.
7. Practicing the Loomis heads.
The Loomis method is an excellent starting point not just for learning portrait drawing but is also a great resource for developing your overall approach for measuring proportions, visualizing complex forms, and reconstructing drawings from simple shapes.
One way you can practice the method is by drawing Loomis Heads over photos from old magazines, and this really helps to see how the system ties in with the different landmarks of the face as well as understanding how the face proportions are affected by the perspective of the head.
Here’s a quick guide on the Loomis Method that I recently wrote if you’re interested.
6. Master studies.
Recreating artworks by other artists is a great way to learn different drawing tecniques and also teach yourself different aspects of composition such as how to arrange a drawing to guide the viewers eyes or using the shape language to convey a certain art style.
When doing master studies, don’t just copy for copying’s sake though; try to deconstruct the artwork to understand what appeals to you and the thought process behind it.
I love studying paintings by the old masters like John Singer Sargent and J.C. Leyindecker; no matter how many times I study their art, there’s always something new to learn by drawing them again.
5. Anatomy studies.
The human anatomy has a reputation for intimidating beginner artists like myself, but learning it is indispensable for drawing believable and dynamic figures.
While I think it is possible to create visually appealing drawings intuitively without formally studying anatomy, learning even the most basic aspects of human anatomy such as structure and interdependency of the skeletal and muscular systems, and what muscle group or bones are activated in a certain pose can help you so much in expressing the incredible beauty and complexity of the human body.
I love how Stan Prokopenko teaches anatomy on his Youtube Channel and explains its subtleties in a way that is a lot easy for beginner artists to understand. If you’re new to anatomy, I suggest you to check out Proko for a quick introduction.
4. Gesture sketching practice.
Gesture drawing is a fundamental art exercise to observe the essence of what you’re about to draw and capture overall impressions, volumes, movement, and flow in a handful of pencil strokes.
For those of you that unfortunately struggle with perfectionism like me, gesture practice can help you let go of the stiffness in your art and embrace drawing more loosely.
The only way this works though is if you set time constraints on yourself that prevent you from going too detailed on a reference. Here’s a nice video by Jess Karp for inspiration, where she shares insights about gesture drawing practice as she tackles 1-minute and 3-minute poses.
3. Draw from life.
While drawing from photo references is super convenient, training yourself to draw from life offers value in improving observational skills, hand-eye coordination, understanding perspective and space, and building a strong visual library.
When drawing from life, actively consider different aspects of its composition by thinking for example about your position relative to what you’re drawing, the lighting set-up, or how you want to frame the scene on paper.
If attending a life drawing class feels intimidating
(I still haven’t found the courage to attend one 🙈 ), start with a simple still life scene of your breakfast, the stuff you find in your backpack, or something from your wardrobe to ease into it.
2. Value drawing practice with white chalk and toned paper
Using white chalk on toned paper alongside your preferred drawing medium (graphite or charcoal) is an excellent exercise for drawing values.
Since toned paper takes care of most of the midtones in a drawing, it helps you concentrate on the most impactful shadows and highlights.
Another benefit of drawing on a toned paper is that it forces you to be draw with more intent because from what I’ve experienced drawing faint marks on it are not as noticable, and I think this is useful in improving your line quality.
Here are some tips for drawing on toned paper that I shared recently on this blog if you’re interested.
1. Perspective drawing.
While learning to draw perspective is something many beginners find boring or challenging, it is undoubtedly necessary for improving the believability of your art.
There are different ways to learn perspective and one way I find intriguing is how late Kim Jung Gi figured out a system of visualizing everything he was about to draw inside simple imaginary boxes visualized in perspective considering his eye level and just extrapolating from there. I think Kim’s ability to draw perspective intuitively so well is just beyond legendary.
Here’s a masterclass on perspective by Kim Jung Gi, and I hope you find it helpful too (he discusses perspective at 2:17 onwards). Still can’t get over the fact that he left us so soon.