Figuring out what makes a drawing ‘good’ is obviously very subjective, and depends a lot on the aesthetic preferences of each artist. However, I believe there are some fundamental qualities that make certain drawings more attractive to us, especially when judging a drawing from an academic perspective.
To illustrate, below are two drawings created by me about 18 months apart. I think it’s safe to say that the recent drawing (on the right) is more appealing due to improved shapes, values, confident mark-making, and so on.
So, in this post, I’m breaking down the 8 qualities that, in my opinion, can either make or break a drawing. I’m sharing side-by-side examples of some (relatively) better drawings from my sketchbooks, comparing them with a few (definitely) bad ones. I’m still debating whether to showcase my worst art here. 🙈
8 Line Quality ✏️
A key feature of a good drawing is fluid line work. The ability to draw lines and curves of varying lengths, shapes, and directions with confidence and fluidity enhances the overall impact.
Something that I find helps the line quality is embracing a loose drawing style when doing the initial gesture as it sets the tone for the rest of your drawing.
Above are a couple of studies I did of the plaster casts of the Statue of David. In the older drawing (on the left), my line work seems a bit stiff and lacks the flow, spontaneity, and confidence that the more recent drawing (on the right) exudes.
7 Depth 🌘
The ability of a drawing to convey the depth of forms is crucial for achieving realism and believability. Value control between areas of light and shadows plays a crucial role in conveying the three-dimensionality of forms and can be enhanced by edge control (lost and found edges).
Notice the variation of depth in the following drawings.
The lack of contrast between shadows and highlights in the drawing on the left makes it hard to read its forms, whereas pushing the values in the other drawing has helped me convey the depth of the forms better.
6 Accurate proportions, perspective, and anatomy 📐
No amount of shading finesse can save a drawing with wonky proportions, perspective, and anatomy. These are the foundational pillars of a good drawing, in my opinion, and they are often the first things anyone notices when they are wrong in a drawing.
For comparison, here are two attempts at drawing the head of David by me.
The proportions of David seem off in the drawing on the left because the mouth and chin appear too small compared to the rest of the face. 🙈
I tried to improve the key face proportions in the drawing on the right by considering the overall perspective of the head and splitting the face into equal thirds (the forehead, the nose, and the mouth/chin), and I feel this is one of the main reasons why it looks better.
5 Focus on the key emphasis 🔎
As a beginner, I was obsessed with packing the whole drawing with as much detail as possible, in the false hope that it would somehow look amazing. However, doing so can make your drawings look cluttered and rather distracting.
One thing I am constantly learning from the artists I admire is that drawing well requires you to focus on a certain aspect of a drawing and make that the emphasis of your art. To make it work, however, you need to be willing to sacrifice details in areas that are less important to guide the viewers’ eyes toward the focal points of your drawing while allowing some space for the eyes to rest.
Here are a couple of drawings by me with very different compositional emphasis.
I drew both these portraits in a variation of a semi-realistic art style. Overall, I think the drawing on the left seems too busy, with the hair, flowers, leaves, and face all competing for attention. I guess when you try to emphasize everything in a drawing, it has the unwanted effect of negating the prominence of everything.
I feel like the drawing on the right has a better composition and is more impactful despite being more minimalist because I have been able to emphasize certain sections of the face during shading while leaving out the rest to the viewer’s imagination.
4 A creative exploration of an art style 🎨
Having a consistent art style, in terms of, for example, the shape language and the style of rendering throughout your drawing, can help to make it look more unified as a whole. What I like to see in a drawing is a bit of creative exploration within a certain art style that makes the artwork unique as well.
From the feedback I have received from other artists and art enthusiasts on my drawings so far, I feel like people are generally attracted to drawings with an art style that is creative and distinguishable from others yet not too different from everything out there if that makes any sense.
Here’s how my art style has evolved over the last couple of years.
The sketchbook page on the left shows some of my drawings with a drawing style that seems too generic and a bit hit-and-miss at best. The thumbnail portraits on the right contain some of my recent drawings in which I have tried to explore and refine my art style, and I think these look a lot better than the drawings on the left.
3 Movement, balance, and harmony ☯️
A hallmark of a good drawing composition is the sense of movement, balance, and harmony that you get from organizing different elements of a drawing like the background, positive and negative space, line flow, and tonal shapes in a dynamic way while capturing the overall rhythm of the subject.
Form the drawings below, which one do you think has a better balance?
The drawing on the left is my horrid attempt at a portrait that I did last year 🙈 and to me, looking back at it now, its composition just looks all over the place and rather distracting. I feel like there’s nothing to unify the whole drawing.
In comparison, I do like my recent portrait drawing on the right (at least until now), and I feel like the lighter shadow shapes under the face and behind the head help to balance out the darker shadows on the face, which I feel helps to bring this drawing together.
2 Rendering skills ✏️
For illustration, here are a couple of studies from my sketchbook with an obvious difference in rendering skills.
The drawing on the left is a study of the Asaro Head I did a while back. Needless to say, its rendering looks rather sloppy. I recently did a study of one of the Bargue Plates on the right, and compared to the first drawing, I seem to have improved my command over different shading techniques like blending and hatching over time.
1 Fulfilling the objective of drawing 🎯
Ultimately, what makes a drawing successful or not depends (subjectively?) on whether it fulfills the purpose it was created for. So, it is quite understandable that not all factors need to be equally evident in a drawing to consider it successful and that different aspects need to be prioritized when approaching different types of drawings.
Quick gesture studies of fleeting birds in motion, for example, need to prioritize anatomy and movement over detailed rendering or depth. Conversely, the compositional balance or emphasis might be the dominant priority in say a commissioned portrait.
To me, a drawing is successful even if it doesn’t look polished, as long as it fulfills the purpose for which it was created in the first place.
At the end of the day, as an artist, you have to figure out what you want to get out of a certain drawing, and that’s what I think is the ultimate measure to gauge its success or failure.
Let me know what you consider most important in determining the success of your drawings in the comments below. Happy drawing! ✏️