The second bit of advice a beginning artist usually gets is “draw from life”. And it is excellent advice! After all, if you can’t draw what is right in front of you, you certainly won’t be able to draw what you see in your imagination either. But the advice is a bit short, and will usually leave the artist behind unsure of what to do next. This chapter will help you to get started by explaining some different sketching methods you can use.
Materials? Ah yes. No tutorial would be complete without discussing the materials first. It’s tradition!
So… a ream of the cheapest copier paper you can find, or in a pinch, the inside of a pizza box. A pencil, a burned match, or anything else that leaves a mark. And a pencil sharpener or a knife to keep it sharp. Don’t worry about fancy stuff like erasers just yet.
The most important thing to keep in mind is to start with the largest shapes, and gradually work down to the small details. This allows you to regularly check your angles and proportions. The earlier you catch a mistake, the easier it will be to fix it. The idea is to draw imaginary lines through the important points of your subject, and use a couple of checks to make sure they are accurate, such as using easy divisions (halves and thirds), and checking against horizontal and vertical lines.
The best way to explain this is by example. Let’s make a sketch of what is possibly the fandom’s most popular critter, the red fox:
The first step is to block in the large shapes. On the left you can see the imaginary lines I’ve picked as the basis. The sketch is still very light at this point: the idea is to make the corrections on the fly, instead of slowing yourself down by erasing lines.
Now pause and check if everything is still correct. I’m going to give a few examples of what you could look for, so you can get a rough idea of this process.
The proportions are okay: the line through the eyes is supposed to be a bit below halfway (say, at 5/8ths) the lines of the ear tips and the chin. Also, if I draw an imaginary line from the intersection near the left eye to the right ear tip, or from the mouth to the ear’s base, the angle is the same on the sketch.
Eyeballing diagonal lines through your figure is called “caliper vision” by [Ryd]. Ryder uses the block-in and the caliper measurement only on the contour, not on features inside the contour such as eyes or a mouth. Personally, I prefer using the same system for the entire subject. It’s only a tool, how you use it is up to you.
The line through the eyes doesn’t have quite the right angle though. It should be rotated clockwise a bit. I’m keeping this in mind as I use this line to place the eyes in the next step:
With the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth indicated, it’s time for a check again. If we look at one of the original construction lines, it’s easy to spot the mistake here. The cheek is way too close to this line.
The top of the head seems okay; the distance to the eye line is the same as the distance from the eye line to the chin. Or, from the eye line up to the ear tip line, it’s approximately at two-thirds.
The cheek is fixed, and the sketch is really starting to take shape now. I added some details and shading to show how the process would continue.
I realize this bears an eerie resemblance to the many “How to draw a <insert subject here>” tutorials. But although I could add a jarring background, post it to DeviantArt, and call it a day (tempting, tempting…), I hope it’s clear that this is not the intention. I’m not trying to teach you how to draw a fox, not yet at least. I’m just showing you how to approach a sketch.
These techniques are not just for copying photos, you can also sketch from life in the same way. It is a little more difficult, so if you’d like to practice with 2-D references first that’s okay. Instead of drawing blue construction lines on a photo, some people use a thin knitting needle or a piece of thread. You hold it in front of you while closing one eye, and check if everything lines up the same way as on your paper.
Now go grab your pencil and your cheap paper, and sketch whatever you find interesting. It doesn’t matter if it is a pet, a person, or the spontaneous still life on your desk. The goal right now is to learn to draw what you see, develop your sense of proportions and angles, and train your eye-hand coordination.
A lot of subjects can be simplified to geometric shapes, such as boxes, pyramids, cylinders, and spheres. Instead of starting with the large shapes on paper, you simplify your subject in 3-D.
This section is also a crash course in perspective drawing. You’ll need this to draw the basic shapes, but it is also a useful tool in case you don’t have a reference for something, or if you don’t want to make a perfect copy. As long as you work according to the rules, it will look good.
We’ll look at perspective in more detail in chapter 9. All you need to remember for now is that lines that are parallel in the real world, will converge to a single point in your drawing. Such points are called vanishing points.
First, the cube. Here you can see how parallel lines intersect at a common point:
The cube is transparent, so you can see all its edges. There are four parallel edges with the vanishing point on the left, another four with the vanishing point on the right, and four edges that we are looking at straight on. (Their vanishing point is so far away we can ignore it, and draw the lines vertical.)
By placing the vanishing points more to the left or to the right, we can rotate the cube.
If we tilt the cube with the top towards the viewer, the third vanishing point (the one that was too far away at first) comes into view.
The center of one of the sides of a box can be found by drawing a cross between the corners. If we know the exact middle of the top side of a cube, we can use this point as the tip of a pyramid:
By adding two more lines through the center, you can divide a side into 4 smaller squares. You can use this as a guide for drawing a circle in perspective. The circle will always touch the edges of the square in the middle, at the point where we have drawn the extra two guidelines. And it will cross the diagonals at a little less than three quarters from the center.
The cube is drawn transparently here to make it clearer how both the top and the bottom face are turned into a circle in correct perspective. Note that the straight sides of the cylinder are parallel to the upright edges of the cube, and therefor have the same vanishing point.
Cylinders of various lengths are often used to draw a character’s body. So practice a bit with drawing them at different angles, this will help you with foreshortening later on.
Here you can see a longer, thinner cylinder drawn at three different angles. Two are exactly perpendicular, so they use the same two vanishing points (which are located outside the drawing). The one that we are viewing lengthwise has its own vantage point.
Now let’s draw something! Man-made objects are great subjects to simplify to geometric shapes:
This photo has been taken from up close with a wide angle, to exaggerate the effect of perspective. Don’t put your vanishing points this close together in your own drawings, unless you’re using the exaggeration for some effect.
The edges of the table and the base of the laptop share the same two vantage points. They are outside the paper, to the top left and the top right. There’s also a third vantage point for all vertical edges (such as the leg of the table and the sides of the bottle), far down.
Start with the basic shapes: a flat box for the table, another one for the base of the laptop. And just like Juan Gris, we’re going to make a bottle out of a cylinder. Some construction lines end in an arrow; if the drawing were bigger, these lines would be longer and meet at the vanishing point.
I’ve drawn crosses on the laptop base and screen to find the line that runs right through the middle. I use this line to place the latch, and to determine where the curve at the top of the screen reaches its highest point. More guidelines towards the vantage points are used to draw the keyboard and the trackpad.
The top of the water bottle was added using the center line as a guide. The center line runs through the middle of the top and the middle of the bottom, and we already found those by drawing crosses.
Spheres and Guidelines
A sphere with guidelines is a popular basic shape for drawing heads. While it is not as important as the other sketching techniques, you are going to see it a lot throughout this tutorial, especially in the chapters about animal anatomy and anthros.
Now a sphere is easy enough; you grab a compass, draw a circle, there’s your sphere. However, we’ll also need some guidelines, and that’s the tricky bit. Here, take a look at some examples.
As you can see, I’ve drawn three lines on the sphere. A horizontal one, and two vertical ones. Also, there’s arrow sticking out. This indicates where the nose points to. We’re going to use these guidelines to locate the facial features, and make sure our characters don’t end up looking like a Guernica reject.
A guideline on a sphere will look like an ellipse if it turns away from the viewer. Drawing an ellipse takes some practice, and I’ll show you a couple of things you’ll need to keep an eye on. First of all, there are six points on the sphere’s surface where the guidelines cross each other. The point where the arrow is sticking out is one of them. A straight line between two opposite intersections passes through the middle (where you put the needle of your compass). You can see that in the next figure on the left:
On the right you see something similar, but this time it’s for the points where the ellipse touches the outer circle. Again, a straight line through two opposite points goes through the middle.
The ellipse must also be symmetrical. Check if the distance to the center is the same on both sides:
Don’t sweat it, though. These are just a couple of things you can use to judge your ellipse by eye. You shouldn’t go and break out a ruler to get it absolutely perfect.
Okay, let’s do something useful with it. The horizontal guideline is used often for placing the eyes. You already know in what direction your character is looking, so all you need to do is to place the eyes at the same distance from the center. I’ve indicated the measurements in red, and the eyes themselves in blue:
Using the two vertical guidelines, we can do the same for ears. Again, the red arrows show the measurements taken to make sure everything is symmetrical.
This was only a quick introduction to drawing faces, there’s much more to come in chapters 3 and 4.
- Draw from life and from photos. If I had to write a tutorial in six words, this would be it.
- If you are using a reference photo, copy it upside down. This way, you force yourself to concentrate more on the edges and proportions, instead of what they represent. This also makes it easier to spot your own mistakes when comparing your sketch to the photo right side up.
- After drawing from a photo, or even better, from real life, look at your sketch in a mirror. This is a good way to spot if your drawing is slanted. Next time, keep this slant in mind and try to compensate for it.
- Drawing a straight line is easy, they invented rulers for that. But you can save yourself some time if you can do it freehand. You’ll have to work from the shoulder and the elbow for this, and it may take some time to get good results. Try drawing your guidelines without a ruler, and use a ruler afterward to check how close you are to a straight line.