What skills are needed to draw?

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Translations available: Polish on Rydyger Art 's blog here


It's rare to get a big picture of the skills you need to learn when you start to draw or paint figurative art from imagination... I receive many emails about it ; beginner are often lost, and miss a sort of general page. That's what I'm trying to solve here with a sort of table of content : to list the skills you need to know and practice to get better at drawing and painting figurative artworks. Each mini chapter attempt to explain with my words the 'what', the 'why' and the 'how' in the clearest and shortest possible way. So, then it's easier to get the big picture and search for specific tutorials with your favorite search engine. I propose also this 'map' to anyone wanting to improve or perfecting their drawing/painting skill. I'll use this overview myself to drive my training exercises or review missing or weak points on my artworks. If you start drawing from scratch here is my advice : be generalist at first and learn a bit of all to get the basics, then focus on specific areas one by one.

1. Perspective

  • What is it : The art of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface.
  • What's the purpose : Do not draw flat, simulate depth on your 2D paper surface.
  • What's to learn about it : The perspectives grids, how basic shapes ( squares, circles, etc... ) behave on perspective and how to keep proportions.

an artwork built with two vanishing points ( green and red )

2. Proportions

  • What is it : The comparative relation of size between all the object in your scene.
  • What's the purpose : Draw objects with recognizable identity thanks to a set of respected relative measurements.
  • What's to learn about it : Learn by memory the proportions, find mnemonic to remember the relation easily, build a proportion vocabulary.

highlight with orange lines of a basic set of proportions and relation over painting ( left ) and a sketch ( right )

3. Anatomy

  • What is it : The study of the structures.
  • What's the purpose : Draw things that look believable ( humans, animals, plants but also vehicles, etc... ).
  • What's to learn about it : Joints, bones, muscles, how it works, how it breathes, how parts are fixed together, etc...

  • left : studies of hands on left, center : studies of skeleton posing, right : muscle study

4. Composition

  • What is it : The placement or arrangement of the visual elements.
  • What's the purpose : Serve the artwork to the viewer eyes in a pleasing or expressive way.
  • What's to learn about it : A set of recipes and a general vocabulary of how a picture organization and framing impact the meaning, or the ease of reading.

various thumbnails done before starting an artwork ; composition research

5. Lighting

  • What is it : Lightness or darkness expressed with values of colors.
  • What's the purpose : Create the illusion of light, trace properly casted shadows, reveal the volumes and set an expressive mood.
  • What's to learn about it : Values, shadow casting, material surfaces, light bouncing, light properties ( underwater, threw materials, aerial perspective, etc.. ).

left : light source revealing various materials, right : light usage to introduce a second character outside the frame ( casted shadow )

6. Edges

  • What is it : A way to split silhouettes and shapes of the objects in your scene.
  • What's the purpose : To ease the reading of the picture, split overlaps of objects or shapes and increase feeling of depth.
  • What's to learn about it : Edge style ( hard / soft / lost ) for paintings, Lines style ( weight, speed, ghost ) for line-arts.

left and center : edges in painting, right : line-art thickness

7. Colors

  • What is it : Art of choosing efficient colors ( hue, shade, tint ).
  • What's the purpose : Add more vibrancy, mood and emotional impact to your artwork.
  • What's to learn about it : Color systems ( monochromatic, complimentary, etc... ), emotional impact of colors and traditional meaning.

top-left : 3 circles of colors representing the palette used for this artwork ; three complimentary tones.

8. Gesture

  • What is it : Art of rendering movement or dramatic pose in a static drawing.
  • What's the purpose : Inject life, flow, expression, energy into static shapes and capture action or movement.
  • What's to learn about it : Expressive sketch, rapid execution drawings, studies of anything in movements. Often a warm-up exercise.

left : Gesture of pinguin at the zoo, center : action gesture study, right : warm-up sketches for posing

9. Style

  • What is it : Aesthetic, taste or style. It often depends of fundamental standards ( ethic, historic, societal, symbolic ), art or cultural groups, art market.
  • What's the purpose : Serves the artwork in a appealing way to an audience.
  • What's to learn about it : your own taste, culture, artistic group as both an audience and a creator.

left : classic portrait in black and white , center : heavy stylized ( and weird ) character and painting style, right: my comic stylization.

10. Concept

  • What is it : A drawing can abstract development of new concepts, ideas associations, inventions and propose new design. It's an overall engineering process.
  • What's the purpose : Propose new visuals, objects, characters, creature to entertain or inform an audience.
  • What's to learn about it : how things works, how to create new things, association of ideas, happy accidents, creative process.

A new type of vehicle ( left ) a new type of dragon ( center ) and a medieval house that never existed before this drawing ( right ).

11. Communication

  • What is it : A picture can transfer a complex and large amounts of data quickly. The adage "A picture is worth a thousand words" describes it really well.
  • What's the purpose : An artist can communicate ( intentionally or not) to an audience.
  • What's to learn about it : Reading images ( decoding messages sent, nonverbal means ), encoding meaning, storytelling, message.

A leaf artwork doesn't communicate a lot ( left ) but the accumulation of elements and facial expression can create a complex storytelling ( center ). Association of symbols as a vulture made of journal paper ( right ) can create a deeper meaning to speak about unethical journalism.

Conclusion : a meaningful illusion

If you can mix with success all the discipline above, you'll be able to achieve the feeling of volumes, depth, texture, light, gesture, movement and life on a static surface. This will immerse your audience into a universe and ease communication of your ideas, storytelling or message. And by the end, that's how I consider the global skill : a capacity to create meaningful illusions. All this palette of skills will train your mental intelligence ( memory, management, decision ) but also your emotional intelligence ( feelings, emotions, subconscious ), this is a complete exercise requiring knowledge, observation, imagination but above all you'll need to PRACTICE, PRACTICE and PRACTICE. Drawing skill is like a muscle (and you obviously don't get stronger by reading books about weightlifting or watching online videos about it) so have fun drawing and painting and build your unique skill.

( Sorry for my mistakes, I am french and my english skill is far to be perfect. I appreciate corrections )

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