Tips to start drawing

Whether you’re new to drawing or haven’t done it for a while, starting drawing can be overwhelming. How do you even begin? What can you draw and what on earth do you use to draw with? As someone who reconnected with drawing recently, here’s some advice.

Not everyone draws in the same way. Some people have beautifully loose lines, some are exact, some are naturally good at their linework, while others are masterful with shading and tones. You don’t have to be good at all these things to be able to draw. In fact, there’s no end to improving your drawing. What’s most important is to keep a sense of playfulness and to know that each time you get to drawing, you are creating something that is a symbiosis of how your eyes, mind and hand relate, which improves the more you do it, and that’s something really quite marvellous.

Do I need a space for drawing?

I find it’s a good idea to have one. The kitchen table is okay but it’s better to have somewhere that is just yours to use. Find a nook. Somewhere you can keep your art materials, where you can leave your drawing and know that it won’t be disturbed. Most importantly, it signals to yourself and the people in your home that this is your special space. Make sure it’s well lit and somewhere you’re less likely to be interrupted. It’s your space, listen to your favourite tunes to get in the mood.

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani.

What do I draw with?

Markers, pens, pencils, pacers, crayons, pastels, oil sticks and fountain pens are all fine things to use, and you don’t have to stock up on conte crayons and fancy drawing paper if you don’t already have them. Start with whatever is at hand. Use biro on photocopy paper. Coloured markers on lined paper. There are many artists who are known for working with exactly these things. Sometime later you might want to get more things to use but don’t limit yourself in the first instance by thinking you need all the accoutrements of an artist. When you’re starting out, try as many different mediums as you can to find out what works for you.

Pastel drawing of flowers by Odilon Redon.

What can I draw?

What can’t you draw? When you’re starting out, there really is no limit to the stuff and things you can look at, which can be quite daunting in itself. If you don’t know where to begin, start with what’s in the third drawer of your kitchen, in your children’s toy box, your pantry, fridge or toolbox.

Drawing is a process of learning to see and record scale, proportion and perspective. Then you include things like texture, light and shadow and composition in the mix and it starts to sound like a lot to get your head around. But all these things are learned through practice and like my partner and I say to our daughters when they’re learning anything new, practice is the most important part.

Draw what is already familiar to you. Think about what other interests you have, such as gardening, fixing up furniture, fishing, sports, baking, mechanics. All these things have their unique objects and tools that you’re familiar with and that can be a great starting point to help you improve. So if you’re a gardener, draw all your gardening tools, gloves, packets of seeds, pots of plants. It’s a nice way to see your world with fresh eyes.

Draw from books or magazines. Earlier in the year, I went to a fun drawing class run by illustrator and artist Oslo Davis. One of the exercises we did was to draw from old National Geographic magazines, which I really enjoyed as I used to do exactly this when I was a teenager drawing in my bedroom. They’re full of great pictures of ordinary people from all corners of the world going about their lives. You could even take your own photos to use as references. Australian illustrator Guy Shield does precisely this.

Draw from life. I’d recommend to anyone to go to a life drawing session. Nothing beats drawing the human form when it’s in front of you. Or take yourself out to a park or botanical garden. Go down to the river or sit beside a bridge.

Warming up before drawing

Like training for anything, you have to warmup before you start. Drawing is the foundation for much of visual arts practice. When I wanted to get back into painting I didn’t feel comfortable even touching the brushes until I had a solid block of drawing behind me. There is absolutely no good in trying to launch into something ambitious from the get-go. Sometimes I watch videos to see how other people use their materials before I use them myself.

Spend some time doing several two-minute rough sketches. Kids and pets are handy for this as they don’t have to keep still for too long. Or look at yourself in a mirror. Get your eyes used to seeing shapes relative to each other. Get your hand used to moving on the page. Then do a couple of five-minute sketches. And that should be enough.

The importance of mark making

When people start drawing they tend to treat their drawings in the same way. They hold their pencils in exactly the same way, sit the same way, and make their marks the same way, but drawing can involve the whole body.

Take a look at Van Gogh’s drawing of an olive garden below (I’ve pinched this image from Oslo’s drawing class). There are short lines, little scribbles and zig-zags, a bit of stippling (or spotting), dark heavy lines, soft fine lines, curvy and straight lines. It seems like no two marks are the same. Always keep in the back of your mind how to approach the marks you make to build up the drawing.

You can approach your mark making in a physical sense. Stand up. Hold the pencil between two fingers and draw from your wrist. Hold it like a knife shucking oysters. Play around to find the different types of marks you like to make and how you make them. These experiments can help you get a better understanding of your range and provide clues to your style.

Drawing with a friend

Drawing doesn’t have to be a solo activity. Video conference with a friend or friends and hang out while you work, then share your drawings at the end. You can find an image that you can all use as a source material or you can work on different things. There are also drawing classes that you can do online.

The one who draws

Drawing is one of those things you can do to help you better understand yourself. It gets you into a flow state. It forces you into a dialogue with your inner critic, which can be quite scary as many of us haven’t started drawing earlier because we’ve always told ourselves we’d be no good at it. A handy way to think of drawing is that it’s a process where you’re trying to solve problems or asking yourself questions: Where does this go on the page? What do I leave out? What do I embellish? What marks do I make here? How do they complement the marks over there? Does this edge need to be soft or sharp?

Questions like, Is this any good? Why am I doing this? Why am I so bad at this? will inevitably arise but you just tell that inner critic to shut up and push on through. Then the surprises will come.

Drawing is always about a relationship with yourself, the one who learns, so keep the pressure off yourself and have fun.

A line drawing by Paul Klee.

These tips were first shared on ABC 774’s Evenings show with Brian Nankervis on 22 August 2021.

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