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.


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