How to Start Drawing: Part I

A Guide for the Complete Beginner

If you are eager to start up a rewarding hobby that is both relaxing and challenging, you have found the right article. Maybe you do not know where to start, maybe you just want some practical tips… or it may be that you feel a little anxious or frightened: Creative processes can arouse many emotions. It is not uncommon to be performance-oriented, which could make it quite daunting to put the pen to the paper and start trying to shape something you already have a clear picture of in your head.

“Koi Fish”, 2015; pencil drawing.

With this guide, I hope to give you an encouraging little push into this fun activity, provide you with some practical tips for the road, and hopefully inspire you to a continued life as an artist or illustrator – whether it be as a hobbyist or a professional. The article consists of two parts. In this first part, I have collected the purely concrete, practical tips. In the second part, I will address some of the “mental tools” that may be useful along the way.

Well then, let’s get started!

Materials

A rather obvious first step is to acquire the right materials so that you are properly equipped for your new journey as an artist. As you will very soon see, this really does not have to be too expensive.

A Pencil Can Take You Far

The pencil to the artist is like the runner’s shoes to the runner.

I really mean it when I say that a pencil is all you need to express yourself visually in a satisfying way. The foundation of all artistic activity is namely – the sketch. This applies to everything from pencil drawings and digital illustrations to oil paintings. (I’ll talk more about this later on, so keep reading.) With a pencil, you can easily draw as many lines as you need (erasing those that don’t turn out to your liking) and shade areas either roughly or with razor-sharp precision. I often say that the pencil to the artist is like the runner’s shoes to the runner.

So which pencil should you choose, then? You may have come across some strange letter and number combinations on pencils, such as HB, 8B, 3H and so on. These codes are there to tell you how hard or soft the lead is. The more H’s, the harder the lead – the more B’s, the softer. HB marks the middle of the scale.

The HB pencil comes with the best of both worlds and works well for most purposes.

A pencil with hard lead is rather bright, and does not smear very easily. This means that you can close your sketchbook without being afraid of your lines and shadows smearing all over the paper, making your drawing look messy. Softer lead, on the other hand, has a richer blackness, which makes it easier to smear. This can of course be either an advantage or a disadvantage. The great thing about this is the soft shadows and rich contrasts you can create; the downside is the smearing thing, which requires a little bit of finesse to handle…

If you want a flexible pencil, which in my opinion is the best alternative for beginners, you may well choose an HB pencil. It comes with the best of both worlds and works well for most purposes.

So, we’ve covered the hardness/softness thing. But which kind of pencil is best: the mechanical or traditional one? Personally, I use mechanical pencils with 0.5 millimeter leads. The reasons for this are: 1) draw in a certain style that sometimes demands fine lines and high precision, 2) I stick to the HB leads. In addition, I think it is convenient not having to constantly sharpen a pencil. If you want to draw more dynamically with really large contrasts between light and dark, however, I recommend traditional pencils, because a soft lead places higher demands on the robustness of the pencil to “hold it in place”, so to speak.

I usually use this type of pencil for simple sketches and whole pencil drawings alike:

The Paper

You may have to try different types of drawing paper. Personally, I think that plain ol’ printer paper is actually quite sufficient (as long as your need for exploration does not grow too big). So then, what exactly is my point suggesting something so… unorthodox as printer paper?

Bright paper with a slightly smoother texture is my personal recommendation, but as with everything else, this is extremely personal.

It can be very tempting to buy sketch pads with thick, parchment-like, yellowish paper of high quality. These are often very good indeed – make no mistake about it – but one of the cons about this kind of paper is that the lines of your drawing easily get smeared out if the surface of the paper is too rough and “scaly”. Right at the beginning of your drawing career, this can be experienced as quite frustrating – at least according to my own experience – especially when you’re already overwhelmed by the chaos in your head that’s emerged out of the lack of control you sometimes experience as a beginner… Oh, now I’m just waffling about. However: Bright paper with a slightly smoother texture is my personal recommendation, but as with everything else, this is extremely personal. Thus, I highly encourage you to try different kinds of paper out once you think you’ve got a hunch of what style you’re going to draw in.

For the moment I am using an A4 graduate sketchbook from Daler Rowney. The pad contains 45 sheets of acid-free paper and cost me SEK 149 (just below 13 GBP/18 USD). The sheets are quite thick but they do have the right texture and brightness for my personal liking and taste.

The Eraser

I’m going to put it bluntly: There is nothing worse than an eraser that, after some time of use, becomes dry and lifeless and that leaves ugly, dark marks on the paper when used. Should this happen, the day is nothing short of ruined.

I mainly use erasers from Faber-Castell: both a regular PVC-free eraser, and a kneadable one. These keep soft over time and do their job very well. Kneadable erasers are very flexible and can be shaped into basically any shape you want. For example, you can create a very fine tip to erase details with high precision. This is how I prefer to have my eraser shaped:

Things to Keep in Mind When Starting Out

I’ll just write down a few start-up tips on this, as there are tons of practical issues that I will address more in-depth in upcoming guides. The most important thing is that you dare try things out! However, these tips might prove useful to keep in mind, somewhere in the back of your head…

Focus on the Sketch

The first thing you should keep in mind when starting out as a pencil-drawing artist is (you may have heard it a thousand times already, but it is oh so important) – the sketch. I could give an entire series of lectures on this, and in the future I’m going to post more guides that address the subject in detail. But just to boil it all down to a few points, here’s a list that may prove useful…

  • Don’t rush your drawings. Always start with loose lines before you are sure which ones you want to put on the paper permanently. You don’t need to put that much pressure on the pencil right away: Instead, let the sketch build up gradually. This will help you avoid troublesome traces in the paper or pencil residues that are difficult to completely erase. Once you’ve got the grasp of how you want your drawing to look, you may re-outline the important figures and shapes with a bit more pressure – and then remove the guidelines.
  • Observe – a lot. Observation is, in my opinion, the most important ability to develop to become a good artist. You’ll need to be actively involved in what you are watching. Consider where the light falls on objects and how the shadows are cast. Look at the curtains of your home and study how the fabric folds. Observe the lines on people’s faces: How exactly is the nose connected to the eyebrows? What does the curve of the mouth look like? (… But remember to be discrete while doing this so that you don’t come across as rude.)
  • Draw from reference. This is very much related to observing. The use of references really comes in handy when you don’t really know what to draw. Choose a photo featuring a motif that is not too challenging, or an object near you, and just draw it. It is important to keep looking at the reference: You don’t want your own imagination or subjective knowledge of what things look like to take over while you’re doing this. We humans are not as good at remembering visual information as we think… So, at least while doing this exercise: draw what you see, not what you “know”. (The latter you can of course do, depending on what style you develop or how much experience you have built up. I do not mean that all art must be completely realistic – mine sure isn’t… My point is that it’s a good thing to first learn the rules – and then you can break them… with pleasure.)
  • Learn about basic perspectives and three-dimensionality. This too is a matter that I could keep talking about indefinitely… But to at least get a good foundation, you can start by looking at this video, for instance. (There are tons of other great videos out there, so… enjoy!)
“Wedding”, 2017; pencil drawing.

Draw Every Day

You will be amazed at what five minutes of drawing a day can do to improve your skills.

As frightening as it may sound… No, you don’t have to draw every single day if you don’t want to, but I highly recommend drawing at least on a regular basis. You may at first find it scary to sit down and face the “truth about your skills” (at least if you’re an achiever like me), but this will become a lot easier after only a few days. In fact, this quickly develops into a bubbling feeling of freedom and creative joy. In addition, you will be amazed at what five minutes of drawing a day can do to improve your skills, compared to drawing for – say – an hour on a single occasion. Believe me! You will evolve at a furious pace, as long as you manage to build some momentum. In fact, most learning is based on this. So, make sure to always keep a sketch pad, a pencil and an eraser in your bag. There may be moments in everyday life that you would have otherwise just sat or phubbed away: Use these moments to draw! You don’t have to create something great and it doesn’t have to be perfect. Draw your coffee cup or just make a quick doodle. It will greatly improve your eye-hand coordination.

In addition to the learning aspect, it is good to build consistency in your drawing hobby for a few other reasons:

  • Eventually, the habit will become stronger than the resistance you feel before starting.
  • It helps to keep the dreaded “creative block” at a safe distance. If your channels of inspiration are clogged, it could prove difficult to start a sustainable routine, but continuity can in itself this prevent this. Getting into the “creative loop” is a good thing!
  • Drawing is relaxing. When you reach the feeling of flow, you suddenly find yourself in heaven: The pencil moves all by itself and your thoughts flow freely and easily. My personal recommendation is to draw while listening to music, and preferably instrumental songs. The thing about human attention is it tends to draw toward voices – it seems we are programmed that way – and that’s why instrumental music works great. At least it does for me. Try and see what works for you!
  • Developing and learning new things is a good thing. In doing this, we as human beings may broaden our repertoire and explore new parts of our brains, which comes with a number of positive consequences. I think we may expect positive health effects as long as we do not stagnate and stop learning. There is actually a bunch of psychological research on this, but that is a completely different story…
“The Dragon and I”, 2020; pencil drawing.

Conclusion

Phew, that was all for part one! Now, I really encourage you to go and get yourself some drawing materials! Don’t be afraid to try out different things, but neither should you feel that you have to buy a lot of expensive stuff to get started. Go visit your local art store and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Did you find this article helpful? I would be overjoyed if you gave it a like and a share. This simple action may help other people find their new passion as well!

Thank you so much for reading this entire post! You’re well on your way now. I’ll see you in “How to Start Drawing: Part II”.

Cheers!

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