Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

Learning to Draw: 9 Principles You Must Know


Occasionally someone will say to me, “I can’t draw a stick figure.” The intended meaning is that they have no artistic talent. This may be true or not, but the real reason is most likely they don’t have the desire to learn or have not been instructed properly. The principles of linear drawing can all be taught in a logical way, just like balancing a checkbook or adding up a column of numbers. In other words, it’s akin to learning any other skill, like playing a musical instrument, horseback riding or Karate; they are all teachable skills. To be sure, not everyone who tries is going to be a concert pianist, black belt or even a great horseback rider, but the rudiments can be learned by anyone who wants to put in the time. I hate to take the mystery out of the process, but drawing, in and of itself is pure mechanics, not art. The ability to read and write does not make one a great orator or writer. In the same way, art is made by those who have a “vision” that goes into the creation of art; our toolbox of skills is merely the vehicle to get us there.

The ability to create accurate drawings is a must item in any artist’s toolbox. The following nine principles will aid you in achieving competent drawings, which are the basis of any good representational painting. Keep in mind that shading, as well as other ways to create the illusion of light, form and detail in a drawing, has been purposely left out in order to focus on accuracy and placement of line. This is in no way a complete explanation of the topic and further study on the various principles is highly recommended to anyone wishing to further their skills in drawing.

  1. Measurement – This is the most important consideration, which runs throughout all of the other principles; when in doubt, measure using the handle of a brush and your thumb to check distances between two points.
  2. Arc – These are whole or partial circular shapes on the subject and their relative sizes. Artist and illustrator Joe Mugnaini, has written a book on the idea that drawing can be broken down to a series of arcs and angles. Though the idea is simple, it has far-reaching possibilities for a way of looking at the drawing process. An example of this could be a figure where the arc is the top of the shoulder and an angle is the position of the upper arm. Many examples can be found in the landscape as well. Look for arcs and angles next time you are drawing.
  3. Angles – Angles can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Using the brush handle to gauge a form’s tilt is an excellent way to help you arrive at correct angles in your drawing. The beauty of this way of working in the initial stages is that you don’t have to include all of the minor undulations and contours of the form you are depicting. You simply represent the major angles and directional changes of the form in order to place it accurately on the canvas or paper; embellishments can be added later. Remember to check one angle against others on your subject; these constant comparisons are what make for accurate depiction.
  4. Plumb Lines – The term is taken from the “plumb bob” in carpentry. These are vertical lines that are positioned up and down and used to align various points in a drawing on a vertical path. The plumb line also acts as a standard, used to “level or square” horizontal lines. Additionally, you can use the sides of the paper or canvas to align things on the drawing. In the studio, a T Square may be helpful to get your first correct plumb lines and horizontal lines on a large canvas.
  5. Level – In the same way that plumb lines are used to align vertical points on the drawing, level lines can also be used to line things up horizontally. Keep in mind that these lines can be real physical marks on the canvas or just mental notes.
  6. Mapping – The initial plotting out of important points on the subject. It’s the general placement of key drawing elements using dots, dashes and lines.
  7. Positive and Negative Shapes – These shapes help the artist to see relationship through a process of estimation as a way to enhance accurate drawing. Negative shapes are generally thought to be background shapes in and around various objects, which are your positive shapes. An example of this might be the space between two trees or the shape that is created in the crook of an arm when a person has their hands on their hips. There are many other possible examples. Artists need to use both positive and negative shapes because they are equally important in getting accurate drawings. The next time you are trying to figure out if your drawing of a positive shape is accurate, look at the negative space around the form; you may be in for a surprise!
  8. Triangulation – Like positive and negative shapes, triangulation helps the artist see proportions based on three specific points on the subject that the artist would like to gauge. Using lightly rendered lines that connect these three points the artist can then set up a triangle to judge relative proportion and distance between these points. Triangulation is just another way to step outside the visual box and see things differently to arrive at drawing accuracy, and can be used in the same way as checking for negative shapes.
  9.  Perspective – The illusion of linear space in landscape, cityscape or seascape from a certain position. Knowing where the horizon line is, along with understanding the principle of vanishing points helps in determining the perspective of various objects and their relative angles. Remember, the word perspective means, “what you are seeing from where you are standing, sitting or lying down in relation to your subject.” If you are looking down on your subject your perspective lines will be different than if you are seeing the subject looking up at it. If you are looking straight across at the subject or to the left or right of it, your perspective lines will change again. Remember, the horizon line always stays at eye level. The study of perspective is something that all artists should take the time to explore.

A few final thoughts . . . These ideas are the result of time-tested methods that have been passed down through the ages by gifted artists/teachers who are willing to share their knowledge. My only contribution is that I have organized this list of principles into a form that makes sense to me, and I hope to others as well.

(In addition to Joe Mugnaini, who explored the arc and the angle, another artists I would like to give credit for explaining, but not inventing, several of these time-tested ideas is John Howard Sanden, whose book Painting the Head in Oil does a good job of explaining the concept of angles, mapping, plumb lines, along with negative and positive shapes. To these two, as well as numerous other instructors I have had the pleasure of working with or reading their thoughts over the years, I am deeply indebted).

Categories: Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

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