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6 Things Beginners Should Learn to Draw First

A sketch of a chair by Vincent Van Gogh.

Since returning to drawing one year ago, I realized I needed to gain some fundamental art skills necessary to create good art. I feel like I had been overly focused on drawing faces and skipped some basics that didn’t seem very interesting to me at the time. So, for the past month, I have been revisiting the basics and thinking of the best way to learn drawing while having fun.

Your first drawings can be critical in setting the right expectations, building confidence, and forming habits that put you on a lifelong journey of creating art. So in this post, I explain what I think are the six best things to learn drawing as a beginner artist and the specific art skills and exercises you should plan to incorporate in your initial drawing practice.

What should beginners learn to draw first?

Beginner artists should learn to draw different types of still life of varying complexity to learn basic drawing skills, including mark-making, structure, perspective, values, shading, and composition. Here are examples of six common things beginner artists can learn to draw first:

  1. Chairs
  2. Shoes
  3. Fruits
  4. Drapery
  5. Sculptures
  6. Your main art interest

Before I let you know how I approach drawing each of these, here are a few things to keep in mind to make the most of your first drawings.

First, try to find things to draw from life around you instead of finding reference photos whenever you can, at least initially, until you get the hang of drawing objects well in space. I didn’t think this was too important, but now I realize my art has suffered because of exclusive reliance on Pinterest for finding references to study art.

Second, remember that your first drawings need not be a perfect replication of what you see, so don’t feel pressured to make your drawings perfect and try to draw more loosely, as these habits will likely stick with you for quite some time.

1. Chairs

Chairs are deceptively hard to draw! This is my attempt at drawing a chair. I think I should practice drawing chairs more loosely.

Drawing chairs is an excellent exercise for building your observational drawing skills. Chairs are deceptively complex for beginner artists to draw because it requires careful observation of the changes in angles and proportions of the different parts of the chair, which can vary depending on the perspective.

One thing that will help you draw chairs more efficiently is to focus on the overall structure of the chair and base your drawing on basic box shapes. You can later refine and build up from this basic outline instead of copying what you see without getting the underlying structure down on paper first.

Here are some things you will learn by drawing chairs and other simple pieces of furniture:

  • How the perspective varies the proportions of the object depending on where you are positioned relative to the object;
  • How to deconstruct an object and divide it into its most basic shapes;
  • How to construct an object by drawing simple three-dimensional shapes;
  • How to use negative space to help draw out complex details;
  • Basic mark-making skills.

2. Shoes

Surprisingly, I enjoyed drawing these shoes.

I found shoes interesting to draw because they combine boxy shapes with more rounded forms and ellipses, and it’s a fun subject to experiment with different hatching techniques to show the various textures of materials.

When drawing shoes, I find it helpful to think about not just the apparent planes of the shoes that you can see but also visualize parts of the shoe that are hidden from view when sketching the outline, as it gives the drawing a better structure.

Once you’ve drawn a bunch of shoes, it can be fun to draw your shoe design by thinking about the purpose and aesthetical qualities of each element of the shoe, like the sole, leather, buckle, laces, and shape. Full disclosure, I still need to attempt my first shoe design which I I hope to draw soon.

3. Fruits

These sketches look stiff to me and lack a darker value range. I need to practice drawing more of these.

I’ll be honest, I don’t enjoy drawing still lifes, but I forced myself to sketch a bunch of fruits a few times, and now it seems to be growing on me.

Unlike chairs and shoes, fruits have a more organic shape, so it is great to practice drawing them to understand how you can combine generic shapes like boxes and spheres to construct more organic forms and study how lighting creates different types of shadows and highlights. Plus, arranging your still-life scene makes you think about art composition early in your art journey.

Also, if, like me, you’re interested in learning how to draw faces and figure drawing, this can be great practice for drawing overlapping shapes.

4. Drapery

I found mannequins draped in cloth really interesting to draw.

Drawing drapery forces you to carefully observe the shapes and forms of what you’re drawing because it is usually so random that we don’t have a preconceived idea of how it should look like saved in our visual library.

One thing I learned by doing drapery studies is to avoid getting too caught up in the details and embrace any imperfections in your drawings. Going with the overall flow of the drawing usually leads to better results instead of trying to get everything right which can be a really hard, frustrating, and time-consuming process.

Although my initial studies of drapery looked a bit flat, I feel like I was able to improve the sense of volume of the draped cloth in later studies by:

  • Blocking in the primary forms.
  • Breaking down the primary forms into basic shapes.
  • Improving the range of values.
  • Varying the line weight to suggest the dominant folds.
  • Allowing myself to depart from the reference.

5. Sculptures

I can’t seem to draw enough of these.

Sculptures are an excellent reference for your first drawings, especially if you’re interested in drawing people because they are usually easier to draw than people due to their simplified forms and reduced textural details.

Drawing sculptures also removes some pressure from you in getting the likeness right compared to if you attempt to draw a self-portrait which many art instructors often suggest as a beginner’s exercise. I found drawing self-portraits pretty intimidating as a beginner artist.

When studying sculptures, it is helpful to start learning basic head construction techniques like the Loomis and Reilly Methods and familiarize yourself with the basic proportions of the human face.

6. Your main art interest

I am constantly fascinated by the complex rhythms of the human body.

Most artists have one or two things they really enjoy drawing and are particularly interested in getting better at. For example, some artists like me love to draw people; others like drawing animals, while others are captivated by landscapes, architecture, characters, etc.

Finding one subject of drawing besides academic drawing practice that you can focus on at the beginning of your art journey and trying to learn everything you can about it can help you improve your drawing skills more quickly. This can help beginner artists overcome the frustrating phase of learning to draw and enjoy drawing.

I love drawing portraits, and after about a year of drawing them and learning what I can about them, I have reached a point where I don’t find drawing frustrating anymore, and I feel a lot more confident in drawing something new.

And from my experience as a beginner artist, if you push yourself to learn to draw one thing well, you can easily replicate that process in learning to draw another thing more quickly than if you try to learn drawing multiple things simultaneously.

Having a defined area of interest not only helped me apply what I learned about art, it also became my comfort zone that I could fall back to for a while if I wasn’t particularly enjoying academic drawing practice.