a personal art course, but with too many words and not enough drawings

Basic Shapes and Forms, Part 1

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My apologies for the long delay between Line Quality, Part 1 and this post – there was much more to do in China than I’d anticipated, and then some stuff over the new year. Thanks to those who sent me reminder messages ūüôā Quite a substantial number of exercises in this post to make up for the delay, so the deadline is in 2 weeks, 18 Jan.¬†¬†The illustrations for this post are done digitally and are hopefully easier to see. I’m crap at drawing from scratch on the computer though, might have to look into getting a proper scanner.

So, basic shapes. These are the building blocks of pretty much everything that can be drawn, so taking some time to understand them is important. The three big shapes (2D) are the rectangle, triangle and ellipse (oval). From these you can get basic forms (3D): cuboid, prism (many kinds), cylinder, sphere and ovoid.

Why think in terms of simple solids? With basic forms we can break things down into planes, which helps immensely with shading. It’s hard to shade a horse from imagination, but it’s easier to do the same thing with ovoids and prisms. A poorly executed example:

‘Random shading’ looks sort of right, but also sort of iffy – ‘Semi-random shading’ looks a little bit more solid. The shadows cast by the nose and hair are wrong, by the way – sorry, wasn’t really thinking.


When just starting, it’s easier to copy from pre-drawn samples, because a) they usually show ‘pure’ basic forms, and b) the artist has already translated the 3D form to a 2D image for you. Copying then helps familiarize you with the actual process of drawing those forms. Attempting to draw directly from life may result in a lot of flailing about and wasted time because you don’t know what to do. But drawing from life is also one of the best ways to progress in drawing once beginning hurdles are out of the way, and pretty much the only¬†way beyond a certain standard. Anyway, if you have access to books or images (e.g. the ones in assignment I) , you can try doing some copies.


I. Look at these renders of basic shapes under strong light sources: (these renders by ChristerMLB and these by Henrik Wann Jensen: 1, 2). You can draw copies of them if you have the time Рshould be pretty useful.

II. Find some objects that closely resemble the basic shapes, e.g. book (cuboid), computer mouse (ovoid), tall glass (cylinder). If you have a table lamp (like the kind in the Pixar logo) or a flashlight, set the objects up, dim the lights and just move the light around, watching what happens to the shadows – which sides get darker? Where does the light fall? If you want to draw them, assignment IV has instructions.

III. Now get a photo of a fairly simple subject – simple buildings, stuff on a desk etc. It can be digital or physical, doesn’t matter as long as you can see what you are doing over the photo. Try breaking the forms in the photo down into the basic forms covered above.¬†Architecture is good for this, because you have not only blocky cuboids but also spheres/hemispheres (domes) and prisms (pediments, roofs) to work with. If you’re using more organic subjects, like a pony or a person, you’ll be working more with circle-based forms: sphere, ovoid, cylinder.

An example. This is a photo of a lovely hotel in Hangzhou, which I’ll be posting 5-star reviews of once I remember its name. First, draw in shapes¬†that face the same direction (the right):

Breaking 3D forms down into 2D shapes isn’t enough. So¬†add in the sides to turn the shapes into forms.

We also have to actually be able to imagine what they are like in 3D space. What would it look like from another angle? With a different lighting setup?

Here is the fun bit, which is easy to do on a computer and a bit harder if you weren’t working on tracing paper: choose a direction for light, and use just one dark tone to put in shadows. Ignore cast shadows (= shadows cast by something on another object) for now – they’re complicated and hard to do without reference. In my first image the light comes from the right; in the second it shines from the left. If you have trouble figuring out where to put the shadows, try using the objects from assignment I to construct an approximation. That provides a model for shadows, and also helps you to feel the depth and relative position of the basic forms. This is also why ‘drawers’ see improvement after trying out sculpting – it makes you think in 3 dimensions,¬†not¬†‘one curved line here, an ellipse there, some hatching, another line…’.


Another useful thing to remember when breaking down weird forms is that all polygons can be broken into a number of triangles.

IV. Try to draw one of the objects from assignment I…from life¬†(dun dun dun!). If you’re up for a challenge, pick a more complex object that’s made of several basic forms joined together. Eleanor has also suggested an alternative of sorts, which you can also apply the basic form idea to:

one or more careful studies of a stuffed toy. They’re brilliant subjects for wannabe cartoonists as the proportions are made but they still have their own sense of weight. One can pose them, or, if one knows a child, scatty toy collector and/or dog one can likely find one ready posed in an hilarious ‘crime scene’ like fashion. I’ll own that there’s a possibility that not everybody in the thread has accesss to a stuffed toy but you can get some goofy ones dirt cheap or usually find somebody to lend one to you. Temporarily.

First draw in basic shapes, then build up to the basic forms underlying the object (post a photo and ask if you’re not sure), and then add details on top in a darker color. You can shade as well, but keep it simple and only shade the large masses. For instance, there was a lighter shadow on the unshaded side of the harmonica case, but it only made things look confused, so I didn’t include it.

Ellipses are my nemesis, so naturally I picked two cylinder-based forms for the demo -_-||| Also sometimes drawing a basic form container doesn’t actually help, as in the cup handle, so just use them as you see fit. Here’s another example (which ended up deviating significantly from what I saw – bad!):

By the way, construction isn’t something that comes naturally when drawing from life. For more rigid forms (buildings, manufactured objects) like in the example above, constructing the basic forms before laying on details is a great way to ensure things look more or less ‘right’ in the final drawing. But doing it for organic forms is, in my opinion, a waste of time, and isn’t going to get you anywhere. When drawing from imagination, however, construction is your best friend.

Example of what I do when drawing from life (or in this case, a photo I took):

Get rough outline – I recently started doing the enclosing-box thing, and it helps for irregular shapes.

Add details.

Sigh and hit Delete (or you can continue refining and shading).


No seriously, one of my goals is to get accuracy to a passable level. I don’t believe in measuring obsessively (sight-size, I’m looking at you) because it generally screws things up for me and takes all the life out of a drawing. But this level of inaccuracy is really quite unacceptable, especially for someone who’s setting exercises and doling out advice.

Resources¬†is a place to find pictures to draw from, though I’ve stopped going there as it’s usually overrun by pictures of babies and/or family gatherings and/or weddings. Also try looking under Stock/Resources on deviantART, and Google Images for private practice. (If you’re going to post it publicly, make sure you credit the photographer – if you don’t know who did it, best not to post).

Whew! Long post. Have fun – I’m looking forward to doing these.

P.S. I have Skype and MSN in case anyone wants to talk about drawing.


Line Quality, Part 1

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I started a little group project. We’ll be going through exercises aimed at building our drawing (and eventually painting/vectoring/comics whatever it is that people want to accomplish) skills. Hosting my posts here because WordPress is more reliable, and this makes them easier to keep track of.

Line Quality, Part 1

Here is a drawing by Paul Gustave Doré. There are several types of lines here, serving different purposes. For instance, the thin, even and somewhat bland lines suggesting the background make the foreground figures, who are depicted with far more vigorous and bold lines, come forward.

Another example of different line quality, this time by R.O. Blechman. Squiggly, broken, fairly even lines.

Line weight (thickness), shape, etc. is known as line quality. Hopefully you can tell that having some variation in line quality generally makes things look more interesting.

Here’s a drawing – bonus points if you can identify who it is – done with three different types of line. The leftmost is an even line, an effect you can see in the way OOTS figures are outlined or if drawing digitally without pressure sensitivity turned on. Even lines can be used to great effect but they tend to make work look lifeless and coldly precise. Good if you’re a technical illustrator, less so for what we’re trying to achieve here. Even lines are usually caused by pressing down too hard (because it’s harder to maintain even lines with a lighter touch), so lighten up.

In the middle is the infamous fuzzy line. This appears a lot in expressionist art – Kathe Kollwitz, Willem de Kooning etc. – but again, should be avoided unless you are intentionally going for that look.

On the right is my attempt at drawing with variations in line weight. The way I do it is to imagine I’m physically tracing the contour of the subject with my crayon. Where it turns (e.g. the curve of the nose), I generally press harder to get a better ‘feel’ of the form.

I don’t have much more to say so let’s go on to the exercises.


These are really just to get you familiar with your tools, and to give you some practice with controlling your hand and arm.

Get a largish piece of paper (no smaller than A4/letter size) and put it up on a wall if you can. Otherwise just draw on a flat or slightly inclined surface. You could do this with a large tablet, say Intuos4’s medium size or above, but I strongly discourage it if you have little experience controlling your lines traditionally.

I used china marker (trying to use up the stubs of my broken one) on newsprint (because it’s cheap and big). Any support (the surface you’re drawing on) will do, and you can try this exercise with pencil, charcoal/conte, pen (not technical pen/fineliner), brush, digital ink or all of the above.

These three positions apply whether you are standing or sitting. The size of the stroke you want to draw determines which part of the arm you use – keep the highlighted part relatively rigid and pivot from the joint on the other side. For large lines draw from the shoulder, using your back/waist/knees (for really big lines) etc. to help. As the lines get smaller we move to drawing from the wrist and finally the fingers.

Fill up a few pages with line exercises. That just means draw different kinds of strokes, try using different pressure, hold your pencil differently etc. Avoid the even line and fuzzy line – keep strokes as long and smooth as you can. Some examples below:

Lines can convey speed. As something gets slower or heavier the lines get weightier too.

Exercises to practice arm motion. Don’t forget to do these in all directions – left-right, up-down, corner-corner.

Written by krysjez

December 3, 2011 at 12:13 am

On hiatus (obviously)

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here, have some figures

Written by krysjez

June 12, 2011 at 10:25 pm

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James Gurney on creative block

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Source: Birge Harrison's Landscape Painting, reposted from Gurney Journey

Somewhat related to the last incomprehensible post about being crippled by uncertainty, here’s a reply from James Gurney from his blog. Yes, I quote him often and I should really look into diversification. Call me a fangirl but it’s truly a treasure trove of excellent advice and inspiration. After you finish reading the posts – I for one don’t think I’ll ever be able to finish reading everything there (goodness knows I’ve tried) – look in the comments for even more discussion from the other artists that frequent his blog.

A comment from me. I’ve really got to start putting what I say into practice more.

I need more people like Tom Hart to remind me to stop worrying and start drawing! It’s good advice. I feel like it’s too easy – especially for beginners – to read all the advice there is but not actually apply it, because after seeing the generally splendid work that comes with such advice you are paralyzed with the fear that your work will never be able to match up to that standard. Every mark you put down on canvas makes you feel like a failure. At these times it’s important to remind yourself that every mistake you make is going to help you improve on your next work.

My favorite art-related quote now is the oft-paraphrased “everyone has a hundred thousand bad drawings in them, so start drawing now and get them done with”.

A few days later I went back to save the post in Evernote. To my delight I found a reply:

Jess, what you say is so universal to everyone who wants to do art after spending time being a fan of art. The critical facility gets sharpened to a high degree, but the practical, intuitive, hand-skill side of us takes a while to catch up. I think it helps to lock the internal critic in another room for a while to let yourself play and take a few chances.

To this I add one caveat: Make sure not to lose the key.

Click here for the full post in which he answers some questions from a diligent high school student.

Written by krysjez

December 17, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Protected: Woes

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Written by krysjez

December 16, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Digital vs. Traditional

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The fantastic Paul Lasaine has put up an interesting acrylic vs. digital post. The most interesting bit for me was how so little detail can suggest so much, something I just can’t get to grips with yet. I know that less is more, but it’s so very hard to avoid the temptation to use a tiny brush and start detailing one portion of the work while ignoring how everything fits together in the big picture.

Can you tell which is which?

Edit Of course you couldn’t. I uploaded the same image twice by accident. Fixed now.

(C) Paul Lasaine

I remember always going ‘hmm, this is probably Photoshop‘ whenever I saw concept art in ‘The Making Of…’ art books in the past. Then I looked more closely at the LOTR ones and realized they weren’t. I don’t quite know why, but it had a pretty profound impact on me at that moment. Maybe it’s because I was still thinking of art media as ends, not means.

Original post: PAUL LASAINE

Written by krysjez

October 24, 2010 at 9:38 pm

‘Sticky’ acrylic paints

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Helpful notes on acrylic paint from Ilaekae of the ConceptArt forums. I went searching after noticing that my acrylic-painted Sculpey dinosaur was still sticky after a week.

I think what you’re questioning isn’t a “drying” problem as much as it is a natural tendency for many plastics to be “sticky” or “soft” to the touch. The copolymers used in painting don’t become “hard” the way an oil painting or varnish does, especially in heavy straight applications, but have a through-and-through softness that is normal to the medium. That’s why your fingernail mark pops back out to some degree, and why you can make a mark in the first place. This causes problems with dirt and nicotine/smoke in the air collecting on the paint surface faster than with varnished pieces and oils. It also causes MAJOR problem if acrylic paintings are stored face to face, or pushed up against each other front to back. NEVER stack paintings on canvas panels on top of each other–the weight of the pile will make them stick together enough to damage them when you try to separate them. This isn’t as big a problem when additives (sand, glass beads, dirt, etc.) are added to increase the texture/thickness of the paint since it breaks up the slick uniform surface.

Written by krysjez

October 23, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Posted in Painting, Tips

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