What you should know before you learn how to draw

So, you want to learn how to draw? Congratulations, you’ve taken your first step on the path of an artist.

Before learning how to draw

While some artist may have consistently been working on their skills from the moment they could hold a pencil as a child, for many this is not the case at all. For most people, drawing was simply something they made you do at school, or which you sometimes did with parents or relatives to keep you busy.
But now you’re here, so you probably want to get better at it. Right now you probably feel as if you’ll likely never reach the level of those amazing, talented artists, who have been working on it all their lives…

Well, you’re wrong! If you work hard and allow yourself the time, you’ll get there. Is it going to be quick and easy? Absolutely not. Those artists you admire have been working on their skills for years, and you’ll have to do the same. Like PixelSensei says: “By nature, people are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart”.
But it’s important that, while you can certainly strive to reach their level, you don’t compare your own work to theirs yet. Learn from what they’ve made, certainly, but don’t feel like you’re inferior because your work isn’t as polished or as anatomically correct or whatever. When they had the amount of experience as you do right now, their work was just like yours. They, too, started drawing stick figures.

Perfection is in the eye of the beholder

And here’s a thing: you probably feel like those people you admire are masters of their craft. Nope! Or at least, to themselves they probably aren’t. You’re taking your first steps on the artist’s path, but it’s a path without an end: you’re never, ever, done learning. There is always something you can improve upon. You’ve probably heard the saying ‘an artist is their own worst critic’. To outsiders a piece may look perfect. But the artist knows exactly what’s off, exactly what isn’t quite the way it was in their mind. So to the artist, the piece isn’t perfect.
Depending on your level, you may have already experienced this yourself. Perhaps a friend has been amazed at something you’ve drawn, but to yourself it’s clearly not right. Those you see as masters are experiencing the exact same thing.

Iron Man digital painting
A digital painting of Iron Man, from 2012.

Let’s quickly look at an example of this. See the Iron Man to the right? To you it may look like an awesome piece. But to me, it’s full of mistakes. By now the piece is many years old and while I’m still proud of the progress it showed at the time, I can’t look at it without cringing at some things. The anatomy and perspective are way off, to name but two things.
Don’t worry if you don’t see any mistakes in it. You’ll learn to see them eventually!

Learn to Look

Earlier, I told you not to compare your own work to that of the artists you admire. I stand by this, but I want to expand upon it a bit. While you shouldn’t compare your own work to that of theirs, you should definitely spend a good amount of time looking at it. And not in the way you probably usually do; glancing, admiring the craftsmanship, marvelling in the beauty of it. Now… beware, because there’s a chance that what I’m going to tell you to do is going to ruin many works of art for you, but it’s important in developing your own skills.

Look at the details, how everything connects to each other, why everything is the way it is. And constantly ask yourself: is that the way it should be? Is that arm anatomically correct? Shouldn’t that shadow be more to the right? Why is that belt buckle curving that way? In other words: learn from what others have done. Learn from their mistakes!
In order to be able to apply something to your own work, you first have to be able to see it. I don’t mean see as in having an example in front of you (though good references are invaluable and you should never feel above using them), I mean see as in being able to imagine it in detail. Once you can do that, your hands can start catching up to your eyes, until you’ve drawn something you feel good about.

Of course once you look at it again several years later, when you’ve developed your skills more, you’ll see a million flaws in what you thought back then to be a perfect work. You’re never done learning, and you’ll never truly feel like you’ve mastered the art of making art. When this happens to you, challenge yourself to remake the piece – you’ll be surprised at how well this shows your progress!

Learn by Observing

Glass on desk

To develop your skills, you don’t have to actively be drawing or sculpting or looking at other art. A very important skill an artist should have, is the skill to observe. Observe your surroundings, wherever you are, whenever you can. Don’t just look at how pretty the light hitting that glass on your desk is, but look at what’s happening and why. Think about how you’d draw it. A big part of learning how to draw happens when you’re putting your pencil on paper, but a huge part of it happens just by really looking at things.

Referencing vs Copying

This is also why using good references (preferably photographs or real life) for your drawings is a good thing. Now, there’s a very clear difference between copying something, and referencing it. When you’re referencing something, you’re looking at it and figuring out how the part you’re interested in works exactly. Where you should put the pencil stroke to get the effect you’re going for. You’re learning from what you’re seeing.

Copying, on the other hand, is something you should avoid when making a piece. It certainly has its place in learning art, but should be shunned when making your own work to show to other people. Copying is taking something someone else has made – a photograph, a drawing, a painting – and making the exact same thing, maybe changing a few small things. Copying can be tracing the work, or it can be looking at it and trying to draw the same thing.

Copy when you’re sketching, when you’re learning. Copy something to learn how it works. Then take that newfound knowledge, and apply it to your own original work.


Sketchpad and pen
A simple sketchpad for practicing is hard to beat!

Something else I find important to mention, is that the medium you use doesn’t really matter that much. If you’re looking to learn sculpting, you probably want to practice while sculpting; if you want to make digital paintings, you probably want to practice with your chosen software. Still, pencil and paper are hard to beat. You may not always have a slab of clay to sculpt or a computer to draw on nearby, while it’s very easy to carry around a pencil or two and a small sketchbook or stack of papers. It’s a relatively cheap medium – you don’t need those special pencils and expensive sketchbooks just for practising; a standard number 2 pencil and printer paper are perfectly fine for that. 

One step at a time

All of this might sound a bit overwhelming to you. Do I really have to do all of that? Don’t worry about it too much. Take it slow. Baby steps! Don’t feel pressured into feeling like you have to create masterpieces in a short frame of time. Learning to see takes time, learning to do takes time. As PixelSensei says: It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. Don’t stuff your head full of knowledge right away, but slowly build it up. Make sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing! If you love horses, practice drawing horses. If you’re really into lamps, that’s what you want to practice with. Nude men and women totally your thing? There’s your subject!

But the most important thing when learning to draw, is to just do it already. Don’t be ashamed of your stick figures. You have to start somewhere and if you never apply what you’re learning, you’re never going to get there.


By now you’re probably wondering where you should go from here. The answer is: you’ll want to learn about the fundamentals of drawing.

So what are they? Let’s have a quick look at them. 


A good first step, is to have a look at your technique. How hard are you pressing on your pencil? Are you using guidelines to help you place your final lines? Do you put down only the line you envision, or do you allow yourself to practice it?

Sketching Technique

Good sketching and drawing technique is important. You want to press your pencil lightly. Have you ever drawn or written something, then turned over the paper and seen the bump of your lines? That’s what you want to avoid. Lighter lines are easier to fix.

Think about drawing a curve. Do you envision yourself drawing one single line? If so, when you actually draw it, it’ll probably look wobbly and not quite how you wanted it. Instead, you want to put down multiple, light lines which all together create the curve you’re looking for. If you don’t like the way it looks, you can always erase the bits you don’t like. But make sure you work with longer, flowing lines! Using very short bits of lines often results in a wobbly overall look.


What you really shouldn’t be afraid of, is using guidelines. You can always erase them (but there’s no shame in leaving them, either!) or draw something else over them.


One thing I’d like you to start avoiding, is the eraser. Yes, you heard that right. At least in the beginning. It’s important to see your mistakes and to learn from them later on. The eraser definitely has its place and sometimes a wrong line just really needs to disappear, but you’re no longer allowed to erase the way you used to. Sorry!

Form and Perspective

You’ve probably heard about perspective before, and possibly know what it is: the technique of representing a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface. That is certainly one way to describe it, but personally I feel that definition is too easily confused with form, which is also a technique of representing three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional surface.

So, I prefer to define them as follows:
Perspective is making two-dimensional things seem as if they are actually in a three-dimensional space.
Form is making two-dimensional things seem as if they’re actually three-dimensional objects.
Do you see the difference? Perspective is the environment and how it influences things in it, while form shows the mass and volume of the things themselves. They’re closely connected, but not the same thing.


Light is a highly important, highly interesting, and highly complex subject. Correctly applying light and its effects on an environment and the things in it, will help your drawings become more realistic. Even if realism isn’t what you’re going for, I highly recommend learning about it.
Light encompasses subjects such as highlights, shadows, lightsources, reflected light… there’s a lot to talk about. Far too much to sufficiently summarize it in a small paragraph in a bigger article.


Grey square optical illusion
Square A and square B look like completely different shades, but are actually identical.

So far, all the fundamentals have been best practiced in greyscale (black and white). For some that’s enough, but most people want to make art with colours. Your first instinct might be that colour is an easy subject (I know I felt that way at first), but that’s so far from the truth it’s hardly even funny. Colour is, just like light (which is in fact closely connected to colour, as well), a highly complex subject. Colour theory can make one colour look completely different depending on the colours around it, just like in the image to the right. It’s a lot of fun to learn about, but it will take a lot of time and practice.


At first I was going to call this part anatomy, but that doesn’t completely cover what I mean with structure. Structure is how something is made and how it fits together with other bits. For instance how a foot is made and how it fits together with the ankle and the leg. Human anatomy is only one example of structure, however; the way a building works is structure, too. Where do pillars have to be placed to prevent the roof from falling down

One thing you should definitely be aware of, however, is that learning the anatomy of one creature (a good one for this is human anatomy) will also be useful for correctly learning and drawing the anatomy of other creatures. There are more similarities in the structure of a human and that of a horse than you’d expect at first.


The fundamentals so far have mostly dealt with the different parts of a drawing. However, to really create a good piece of art, composition is very important. Composition is where you put the different elements of your piece on your canvas. Why would you put that person in the corner, and the car in front of him? While a lot of this is simply doing what looks good to you, there are some very helpful rules and guidelines which can help you create visually pleasing pieces.

I hope you’re not too overwhelmed by the things that lie ahead. I promise you, though: it can be a lot of fun to learn about these things and seeing yourself evolve!

Picture credit:

Iron Man by Rhynn
Inkception photo (glass) via photopin (license)

About Rhynn

Rhynn picked up the pencil as soon as she was physically able to, and never put it down again. She currently focuses on pixel art, but is trying to brush up on her digital painting skills and general art skills at the same time. In her daily life, she's a canal boat skipper in Amsterdam.
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