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A Course in Drawing

A Work in Progress


To learn the analytical and expressive language of representational drawing, including the following elements:

  • Geometry
  • Perspective
  • Anatomy
  • Proportion
  • Value (light and shade)
  • Gesture
  • Composition

Course Philosophy

We are interested in learning techniques for representational or 'illusionistic’ drawing. The focus is on the human form. One reason for this focus is that the figure is such a demanding subject. People that couldn’t tell one species of tree from another at any distance can tell if a person is sick or malformed at fifty yards. Human perception is attuned most acutely to the perception of other humans. This makes the figure an excellent teacher for all the aspects of the craft of drawing.

Since we are humans, much visual art uses the figure as its primary point of departure. The expressiveness and power learned from drawing the figure translates to many other kinds of drawing, from the architectural to the abstract.

If you can teach yourself how to draw the figure well, you can teach yourself how to draw anything else.

Most of the ideas in this course were gotten from various teachers at the Art Students League in New York, Robert Beverly Hale in particular.

The methodology of the course is to provide a series of exercises supported by basic explanations and supplementary reading. Any teacher will tell you that the best way to learn to draw is to draw as much as you possibly can. Many people are surprised to learn that just about anybody can learn to draw reasonably well. Like any complex skill, it is a matter of understanding basic principles, supported by practice.

Reading Materials

There are a lot of books on drawing, most of them not very good. Here are a few I think are worth studying enthusiastically.


Highly Recommended


  • George Bridgeman, Constructive Anatomy. Copy some of the drawings to get a feel for breaking down the large masses of the figure into component parts.
  • Kimon Nicolaides, The Natural Way to Draw. Take his program with a grain of salt, but read (and re-read) the sections on gesture.

One other resource of note is the original Famous Artists Course. Despite the goofy name, there are a lot of good tidbits in this resource. Much of it is available at Mark Kennedy’s Blog.

Suggested Materials

There are a lot of drawing materials, each with its own properties, strengths and weaknesses. In the beginning you should experiment quite a bit; you might find you settle down to one or two standard materials as you get more experienced.

My favorite drawing materials at the moment are:

  • Strathmore medium drawing pads, of various sizes;
  • Mechanical pencils, 0.3 and 0.5mm gauge, with the softest lead I can find for each
  • Other pencils of various hardnesses ranging from 9H to 6B or so
  • Electric pencil sharpener;
  • Kneadable eraser;
  • 'Helix’ battery-powered portable electric eraser.


The exercises described in the following sections are meant to be done quickly and playfully.

Lesson 1: Geometric Volumes

Drawing complex forms such as people, architecture, etc. is very difficult at the beginning, because there is so much to see. One primary task in representational drawing is to see the big forms first, and then worry about the details later. This is impossible if you focus merely on copying what you see. A camera will do that better and faster than you. Instead, you must do what no camera can — you must understand the language of three-dimensional form itself. And, eventually, you will have emotional reactions about the things you see or imagine and will use the language of form to communicate them.

This language starts with simple geometric volumes, or 'solids:’ the cube is most important, followed by the cylinder and the sphere. You will eventually learn to see every big shape as a modification of one or more of these forms, and every complex shape (such as the human body) as a set of refinements of these shapes.

Problem 1:

Draw a transparent cube. Your basic cube has six sides and 12 edges of equal length (count them!). Now draw several dozen from different angles. You can vary the length of the sides a bit, but practice making some of them actually cubic (equal length sides).

Simple cube-like forms

You will see right off the bat that you have to make a small number of decisions:

  • How big is the cube, relative to the whole page?
  • Where is it on the page?
  • How is it oriented in space? (Level with the eye, faces tilted in various ways, ...)
  • Are the sides equal in length or varying? Are the edges and faces
parallel or does the cube become wedge-like in various ways?

Fill at least two or three pages with simple variations on the cube. Attach some of them together in various ways. Do not worry about 'perspective’ at this time.

Problem 2

Same as Problem 1 but with cylinders instead of cubes. Note that the
end of a cylinder is a circle which becomes 'squashed’ (elliptical)
when seen any way other than face-on.

Simple cylindrical forms.

Problem 3

Draw some spheres. A sphere drawn without light/shade is just a circle on the page. However, you can add an equator to your sphere, and a few contour lines of lattitude and longitude, just like the earth. Fill a page with variations, changing the 'equators’ (contour lines) and making some spheres squashed in various ways.

Spheres with contour lines

Problem 4

Where ever you are, take a moment to identify an object of any sort, and visualize it contained in one of our three 'solids:’ sphere, cylinder or cube. It could be a cup, a building, a book – pick something at hand and draw the solid which best contains or 'frames’ that object. If you feel adventurous, draw the original object inside
of its frame. Don’t worry about making the drawing perfect, just get a general idea how the big 'solid’ contains or describes in a simple way the object you chose.

Do this for at least 5-10 objects.


Hale, Section 1 (13-16, plus illustrations up to p.31).

Lesson 2: Basic Perspective

Basic tools:

  • Horizon line and eye level
  • Vanishing points and converging parallel lines

Other ways of representing depth:

  • Atmospheric perspective
  • Overlapping shapes
  • Color
  • Line variation
  • Contrast

Lesson 3: Shading Blocks

  • Light sources
  • Shadows and reflective light

Lesson 4: Constructing the Head

  • Basic shapes
  • Refinement of shapes
  • Proportion of features
  • Construction lines

Lesson 5: Rough Anatomy

  • The big volumes
  • Basic proportion of figure

Lesson 6: Anatomy in Perspective

  • Foreshortening
  • Tricks for placing and sizing figures
  • Gesture and geometry
  • Simplified conceptions of the figure in three dimensions

Lesson 7: Working from the Model

  • Choosing emphasis
  • Lighting the model
  • Models move

Lesson 8: Gestural Geometry

  • Expressing intent with geometry
  • Large masses
  • Groups

Lesson 9: Composition

  • Geometry, focus and interest

Lesson 10: Anatomy Detail – Head

  • Overview of the Skull
  • Large mass conceptions
  • Bony landmarks
  • Simple proportional rules-of-thumb
  • Men vs. women; children
  • Facial muscles and facial expression
  • Hair
  • “Likeness” and caricature

Lesson 11: Anatomy Detail – Torso

Lesson 12: Anatomy Detail – Pelvis

Lesson 13: Anatomy Detail – Shoulder and Arms

Lesson 14: Anatomy Detail – Legs

Lesson 15: Anatomy Detail – Feet and Hands

Lesson 16: Drawing to Purpose

Lesson 17: Study of Master Drawings

Lesson 18: Refining Purpose


  • Solid: a three-dimensional form like a sphere, cube or cylinder.
  • Mass conception: a combination of one or more variations of simplified solids which best fit a form you wish to represent. See Solid.
  • Value: lightness or darkness of an area.