It’s been said that the beginning is “a very good place to start,” and true enough, it is. But only if we know where or how to find it. In drawing, figuring out where to begin is one of the most difficult questions we face.
In Keys to Drawing, artist and author Bert Dodson tackles the question head-on:
Sometimes the hardest thing about drawing is beginning the process. The subject is before us, the blank white paper stares at us, and our pencil is poised. All we have to do is start. But where? How?
His answer — start with large shapes — is only one of many ways in which we can approach a drawing. Sometimes that’s the right approach; at other times, a different approach might work better. Here’s a look at several ways you might want to consider when you’re starting a new drawing.
According to Dodson, we can use contour lines to define shapes — not just a single shape, but several shapes together. He uses this illustration to suggest how an artist might begin drawing (a) a vase of flowers, or (b) a figure seated in a chair.
“You can draw several objects in a single, combined shape”, he tells us. Yes, of course, this is one quick way to begin. A rough sketch of the contours can be helpful, especially with fitting the entire drawing on the page.
I know there have been a lot of times when I’ve started a drawing — a vase of flowers, as an example — only to find that after I’ve completed the flowers, I haven’t left enough room on the page to draw the complete vase. Has that ever happened to you? Probably so. It seems to be a common drawing problem.
Starting with an overall contour can help us keep our work on the page, but for me, this approach usually just leads to a lot of problems with proportion. I try to create an accurate “outline”, but then as I fill in details, I learn that the individual parts — such as I’d have with that figure seated in a chair — don’t line up with where they’re really supposed to go. For this reason, I’m not comfortable using contour lines like this to begin a drawing.
Of course, Dodson points out that wherever we begin, it is only a beginning. Much like writers are taught to “get something on paper”, artists, too, need to make a few marks to get started. Writers can then go back and edit their words. In the same way, an artist can “build on” to those first marks. We can erase lines that are obviously wrong. We can adjust lines as we compare one part of the subject to another. We can break our big shapes down into smaller ones. All true, but if we’re having to make multiple changes and corrections when we use this “contour” method to begin, are we maybe making more work for ourselves? Maybe another method would be better.
Look at Individual Shapes
For me, this is usually the most practical way to approach a drawing, especially if I’m doing a landscape drawing. In Drawing: Landscapes, William Powell suggests sketching the basic lines, angles, and shapes we see. From that starting point, we can gradually refine our drawing, turning shapes into forms, and adding the necessary details.
We’re still looking at and drawing shapes, but focusing on smaller shapes, not one overall shape represented by a contour line. This was the approach I took during my morning drawing time today. Before I began my drawing practice, I was online reading about Savannah cats — hybrids between a domestic feline and an African Servel. They are beautiful animals. When it came time to choose a subject, I glanced at the photos on my phone and began to draw. Here’s the reference photo I used for a silver-spotted tabby.
Now, drawing animals is something I’m not good at — another reason why I chose this beautiful cat for a subject. This would be excellent practice for me.
I looked first at the almost rectangular shape of the cat’s body, then “built-on” the additional shapes I saw — a somewhat rounded head, triangular ears, a curved tail. I never felt I had the shapes quite right, and I did erase a few lines here and there. This was my result:
It looks like a cat. Not a sleek Savannah with its elongated body, but a cat nevertheless. As Dodson and Powell both point out, this is a start — yes, I could continue working from this initial shape. I could make corrections. I could check proportions. I could start here and go on to create a better drawing of this incredibly beautiful animal.
Starting with a Small Shape
In complete contrast to the approaches of Dodson and Powell, art instructor Mandy Peltier presented another option for starting a drawing. She was the artist who demonstrated the “drip” technique in the online class I recently attended, and as we drew our raven she suggested starting with the eye.
The simple line drawing here is from a downloaded set of templates for the class. Participants could trace the outlines, if desired, or we could draw them. I chose to draw my raven. I did this several hours before the class began so that I would be prepared.
When I drew the raven, the eye was the last thing I added. I would never have thought of using it as a starting point, but once Mandy suggested it, I saw that it could, indeed, be a good way to begin this drawing.
I had to “figure out” where to place the eye in my drawing. By drawing the eye first, Mandy was able to “draw around” it to get the proper shape of the head and the correct position for the beak. Maybe it’s “six of one, half-dozen of another”, but once she explained her way of thinking, it seemed to make a lot of sense. Starting with a small shape can be an effective way to begin a drawing.
In some respects, this technique — which Ashley Bane Hurst has referred to as a form of “academic drawing” — is similar to the “small shape” method described above. I’ve thought of it at times as a sort of “inside out” method of drawing.
This was the approach Hurst taught during a session of “Getting Sketchy” last spring. Our subject was fairly complex — the hands of a guitar player. This was especially challenging because it was an exercise not only on drawing hands, but on foreshortening, always a difficult element in drawing. Here was his completed sketch, which was done in less than 45 minutes:
And, for reference, here was the sketch I completed during the session:
My sketch obviously lacks the strong values Hurst achieved, but overall I was successful in following along and completing this drawing, one that was much more complicated and detailed than I would have attempted on my own.
I shared this in a post last spring — Academic Drawing — which you can revisit if you like. I went over the drawing session and shared a few thoughts from the instructor:
Most beginning artists, Ashley explained, would likely approach a drawing such as “The Guitarist” by attempting a sort of contour sketch, trying to get the outermost lines of the man’s body positioned. While that might seem like a straight-forward and simple approach, it usually doesn’t work. By the time we’ve drawn our way around a subject or a series of objects in a still life, for example, we can find ourselves wildly out-of-proportion so that the bodies or objects or the landscape elements we’re trying to draw don’t “line up” with our reference.
This was the exact problem I referenced earlier in this post regarding Dodson’s “contour lines” approach. Maybe it works in some instances, but there are other methods that might be better.
More from my previous post:
…we began our drawing of “The Guitarist”, not by trying to carefully draw fingers and thumbs, but by laying-out a basic, triangular shape suggesting the area of the hand. Our unit of measurement for all else in the drawing was the distance from the tip of the guitarist’s ring finger to his wrist. With this unit definitely established in our drawing, and with careful use of our pencil, we could measure and compare, measure and compare, and line by line, working in a sort of odd “inside-out” fashion, we were able to see this man and guitar taking shape, even in its odd, foreshortened stance.
This “academic” approach is a bit more challenging, to be sure. It does require patience and careful measurement. Still, it’s a useful method to know, especially for those tricky, complicated subjects where we’re not sure how to begin.
Continuing on with my drawing session on “Where to Begin”, I grabbed another photo reference from the article on Savannah cats. Take a look at this handsome fellow:
So, where to begin? Contour? Large shapes? A small shape? Should I try “academic drawing” and make comparative measurements? What would work best for me?
Now, I was doing this drawing session while sitting in the lobby of the Carondelet Medical Building. My husband was visiting Dr. Fletcher, his retinologist, and due to Covid, I can’t join him in the doctor’s office. So I wait outside, doodling, drawing, or sketching. It’s not an ideal drawing set-up, but I do the best I can.
Here was the brown tabby I drew:
In seeing them here together, I can immediately see that my proportions were off, and honestly, I think this looks a bit like a fox, but I couldn’t have drawn this a few years ago. I see signs of progress. I enjoyed making this drawing because I was practicing observation. I was carefully looking at the reference photo, noting the shapes, the markings, all the things that make this cat… this cat. I even played with adding a “furry touch” to the drawing.
The drawing session today was all about finding a starting point, yet in another way, it was a starting point for me. The cat drawings I made this morning represent my new willingness to try different things with drawing, my attempts to become more observant, my desire to do the best I can without pushing myself beyond my comfort zone.
Not the greatest drawings, but that’s all right. I didn’t stress about mistakes or worry about results. I just did my best.
And then, I made one more drawing before my husband’s appointment was over. I was having such fun drawing cats, I drew one more. Our own little Flower Child.
Not great. But recognizable. Ask me if I care that the eyes may be a bit crooked. Ask me if I’m concerned about the shape of her head or … or anything else you see wrong. Nope, I’m not going to fuss about the imperfections here.
Why? Because this is Flower Child. This is our cat, and she’s perfect to us. I was proud to draw this quick little portrait of our beautiful kitty. She means a lot to me, and so does this drawing.
Thanks for letting me share!