Learning to draw – understanding form with all senses

Let’s do this! So when are these tutorials teaching me how to paint epic art? Calm down. There’s a reason why masters aren’t born as such

Many drawing lessons that start by teaching human anatomy. Of course, we all want to learn that eventually, as it’s learning to depict something we commonly relate to. While I think that is a motivational starting point, skipping the basics is never the way to go. First, we must instruct ourselves on the fundamental knowledge of form.

Three Dimensional Thinking

Many people tell me this is something they suck at when they’re starting out. If you have this problem, don’t panic, and don’t drown in despair. This is something that you can, and will, learn.

Training yourself to think in three dimensions is not something you will learn solely from this short course. It is a long process that requires a lot of training your brain to reconstruct passively observed forms in two dimensions. Following this are some exercises that will teach our brains how to do this naturally.

Origami

Say what? This ain’t drawing, get outta here! Crafting things from paper instead of drawing on it might seem unrelated to the topic, but in truth, these art techniques are closely related. Think about it; out of an almost two dimensional piece of paper, you can easily create something three dimensional. The form can change from flat to corporeal. In addition, the beauty of learning origami is that there are very clear edges, ridges and geometric proportions. It’s easy to understand the process as you perform it. Instructions will include measurements, like folding it “in the middle” or “along the border” – a perfect way for the brain to develop an understanding of relative space between elements.

The Ping-Pong Ball Exercise

Now you can grab your pen. Yeah, finally! Grab a few ping-pong balls too, then decorate them with different patterns. Try drawing some degrees of longitude and latitude, some cross hairs, circles of different sizes, and so on. Then take one of these balls and draw its features, while referring to it from different angles. Notice how the angle will alter the proportion of the pattern? Understanding this distortion is the nature of the beast we’re battling, but with easy-to-grasp objects like these balls, we can manage this.

Want to kick it up a notch? Give it some irregularities! For example, try applying some putty.

Freeforming

This is an exercise my father taught me when I started drawing. We artists are, like, doodling all the time, right? It’s often doodling what we might find interesting at the time, and we like to doodle what we can doodle-do best. Most of these times these doodles will be simple elements of larger drawings, like eyes, or flowers. But we can doodle and train our brain at the same time, too. Draw a random closed shape, then add a tilted grid in the background, or shading to emphasise its dimensions. Make holes in the object, give it curves, try pulling parts in different positions. The great thing about this exercise is that you can’t do it wrong, and there’s no other way of doing it, so you can’t trick yourself out of learning! You will naturally figure out how to work on three dimensional objects with your mind.

Predefined Shapes

Take any shape and try to draw it from different angles. I would advise starting with easy types, like cubes and cylinders. Go crazy with how you show perspective, try hyper angle viewpoints and fish-eye lens. Don’t use shapes that are too complex – this exercise will aid your perception of proportions and distortions when performed on simple objects. Here are some suggestions:

Speed Sketching

With your sketchbook in hand as you board a subway or bus, find something or someone that you want to draw. Take a moment for a critical once-over … and begin! Catching all the details isn’t important. What you’re learning is how to access your passive memory while it’s still “fresh”. The setting for this exercise isn’t necessary, but it helps; your time with the desired object or person is going to be very limited. If it isn’t, those strangers might start staring back! Try it out, these are great circumstances for working fast and ignoring unnecessary details.

This Is Boring

I get that. So you might be wondering, “how is this all supposed to bring me where I want to go?” I must admit, these tutorials are based on the assumption that you’re aiming to learn figure drawing. These figures can be animals, humans, monsters; it doesn’t matter. If these exercises feel boring to you, hopefully you can find inspiration in their application.

After following the suggestions on how to mess around with ping-pong balls, you will instinctively be able to draw eyes of all shapes, and from all angles. You can perceive that an eye is nothing more than a sphere with a circle on it. If you used putty to make a shape like eyelids on the ping-pong balls, that would become the perfect guideline to practice perspective shortening on eyes. It may be easier to practice without putty when starting out, though.

Many elements of anatomy are formed from the simpler, predefined shapes we discussed earlier. I regularly use these shapes for sketching chests and hips, for example. Having the ability to draw anatomical elements from all angles will prove extremely helpful once you start constructing bodies (follow-up tutorial spoiler alert?) In addition, speed sketching will teach you how to avoid getting stuck fiddling with details, and how to build the bridge between your passive and active memory.

All of these sub-skills are needed to develop a well-realised style of your own. It’s not hard to make a picture look better by adding lots of detail or fancy gradients. Many artists do just that. They develop solid rendering technique without the foundation of understanding three dimensional representation. Without this foundation, any effort spent on learning anatomy, natural movement or mimicking gestures can be in vain. You’ll hit this wall sooner or later, so why limit yourself in the first place? I am forever grateful that my father pointed out these basics early on, and I hope that I can pass these ideas on to aspiring artists like yourself. Repetitive practice is never very fun, but it will really pay off, I promise!

Thank you for staying with me, and special thanks again to my friend Kyle for helping me with the translation!

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