Top ten drawing exercises


Yesterday was my first class of the new term and I thought brushing up on drawing skills would be a good way back in. Drawing is a muscle which needs exercising to stay strong. Anyone can learn to draw – but don’t expect to be able to run a marathon if you haven’t walked to the bus stop in a while….


There are two main hurdles – hand/eye coordination and overcoming perception to see reality. We need to learn to ‘forget’ what you are drawing and instead focus on the reality of the subject.

Top Ten Exercises (use pencil, charcoal, pens….)

  1. Measuring

Decide on a unit within the subject you are drawing – it could be an apple within a still life, the length of a nose in a portrait etc. With your arm out straight and one eye closed hold your pencil and mark the length of the unit, now with your arm still locked compare it to other objects. On your paper use the same proportions to accurately represent the objects you are seeing. Keeping your arm locked means the pencil is always the same distance from your eye and will make your measuring accurate.

    2. Gesture drawing

Imagine you are describing the object to someone who doesn’t speak English – you might use your hands to describe it. Capture these expressive movements on paper. Now you could try this – you will need plenty of paper and a timer. The first drawings you only have 30 seconds to complete. Repeat. Increase the timer to a minute, but keep the drawing like when you had half the time. Be bold and forget about mistakes. Repeat. Now increase the time. You will notice your lines becoming more confident. Look at what you are drawing as much as the drawing itself and do not stop moving your hand when you look up. You can do this at a bus stop. Draw people using a small post-it pad and then you can have a great reference library of poses for future paintings or drawings.

  1. Contour drawing

It’s very likely that you’ve been drawing contour lines all along because it is the simplest form of art. A contour is a line which defines a form or edge. Essentially, it is the drawing of an outline of an object with no shading to suggest form.

  1. Continuous line drawing

Create a drawing without lifting your drawing utensil from the paper – use a pen to stop the urge to rub out mistakes. Here’s my husband reading a book on holiday, doing his best to ignore me:


  1. Blind continuous line drawing

Take it a step further and do a blind contour drawing. To stop you ‘cheating’ and looking put a hole in a paper plate and put your pen/pencil through it, hold the pen under the plate and you can’t see your drawing. You can do continuous or not, but if you take your pencil off the paper, will you be able to feel where to put it back down??  This trains your hand and eyes to work together. Here’s my husband, still ignoring me, done in about 15 seconds blind:


  1. Negative space

Negative space is the area around the main subject of the image, the shapes and spaces that define the subject and various elements within your drawing. Choose an object or scene with interesting shapes within it – I think leaves on a plant or tree are interesting. Decide on what appears to be the main area of negative space around the object and try to draw this; forget about the subject of the image and concentrate purely on the shapes and angles that make up the picture.

  1. Upside down drawing

Find a picture of a person’s face, turn it upside-down and start copying it in a drawing. The important thing is to try to forget that you are drawing a human face; instead concentrate on the shapes, lines, angles and patches of light and dark. Don’t think about the facial features, simply explore the details of the picture. When you have finished turn your drawing the right way up – you may be surprised at how accurate your copy is. This is a pretty famous exercise from the book ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain’ which uses Picasso’s Stravinsky drawing. Here’s my demo (left), which I was pretty chuffed with!


  1. Non-dominant hand drawing

Using your non-dominant hand should loosen up your drawing making it more fluid and intuitive than normal. The practice of drawing involves studying information visually, processing through the brain and controlling the hand to make marks. When we make pictures with the hand we are not normally used to drawing with the images are less controlled.

  1. Grid drawing

If you want to transfer a drawing or alter the size, gridding up can be helpful. Draw squares on the original image and squares of an appropriate size (bigger, smaller or the same) on the new piece of paper. By copying one square at a time, you can transfer the image. Pic from the newspaper of Kate Bush. Of course if the original is small it is hard to see the detail to enlarge, but you can see the principle:


  1. Drawing with a long stick

This exercise is essentially about making marks with varying amounts of control by altering the distance between your pencil point and your hand. The nearer you hold your drawing implement to the point, the more control you will have and vice versa. Start by holding the pen/pencil as if you are writing, draw your object. Then hold it at the far end. Next use an over hand grip, not a writing grip – you will draw from the elbow. Next tape a pen or pencil to a stick and put your paper on the floor – you could try different length sticks. Keep your arm straight to get maximum distance between you and the paper. Less control will produce exciting, awkward marks that have a unique gestural beauty about them. Value these qualities, and try to use them in future drawings. You could start with a long stick, then gradually get shorter, putting each drawing on top of the previous one as they get tighter…. Or use a brush taped to a stick and ink on newsprint.

Bonus: Checking accuracy

Trick your brain into seeing what is there, not what you meant to put down. You can do this by turning the picture upside down, look in a mirror, simply leave it for a while and look at it with fresh eyes, ask someone else (far easier to spot other people’s mistakes than your own), draw diagonals/verticals to see where lines cross on the actual object and if they do so on your drawing…



Above all, practise!

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