Heather Harding: 5 Exercises to Help Improve your Drawing Skills

Heather Harding: 5 Exercises to Help Improve your Drawing Skills

1. Continuous Line

This is a lovely warm up exercise to do when your sketching a model in a life class, but you can also apply it to drawing pretty much anything. It will help you to loosen up, make you more aware of where things are in relation to each other and more sensitive about where you put your lines.

At first you may think your finished drawing is a mess, but take time to study what you’ve done and you should see that what you’ve created is a mass of beautiful flowing lines.

Exercise: Very simple. All you need is your subject, a sheet of paper and a pencil (I’d recommend at least a 2b or graphite stick).

Put your pencil on the paper and start to draw BUT you must NEVER take the pencil off the paper the whole time you’re drawing. Not until you’ve completely finished. You can move around the page to different areas, but you must keep the pencil on the paper the whole time.

This is also a great exercise for making you much less precious about getting every line perfect and as you can’t take your pencil off the page, there’s no chance you can use an eraser either. Yay for that!!!

2. Upside Down Drawing

This is a good exercise for improving your drawing accuracy.

Exercise: You’ll need a pencil (HB or 2b is good), a piece of A4 paper to draw on and a black and white line drawing to work from. The size of the line drawing should be smaller than the size of your A4 paper.

You can use one of your own line drawings or find a picture on the internet. Draw a line around the outer edge of the drawing to frame it then turn the drawing upside down. Now on your piece of paper draw a frame the same size.

Study the upside down line drawing for a while, looking at the shapes. When you’re ready, start to draw them inside your frame. Be aware of where the lines intersect each other and where they meet the sides of the frame. Don’t try to make sense of the shapes, just draw what you see.

When you’ve finished, turn both the original drawing and your own drawing round the other way, so they’re both the right way up. Look at the results. What you should have is a fairly accurate representation of the drawing you were copying. In fact you may find your drawing is more accurate than usual.

This is because your brain has been forced to see something in a different way. Quite often, when looking at an object that’s familiar, when we start drawing it there’s a struggle between portraying what’s actually there and what our brain is telling us should be there. Drawing something upside down switches that interference off, so we can easily record what we are really seeing.

3. Negative Space

An important part of drawing is being aware of the space between things, also known as negative space. Negative space is basically ‘what’s not there’. It’s the bits in your drawing that will remain empty.

Look at this drawing of a lily. You’re focus is automatically on the flower itself.

Now look at the negative space in that drawing. To make it easier, I’ve coloured the spaces in grey leaving the shape of the flowers white – no detail at all. Even without the detail you can still see what is there even though what you’ve focused on is portraying ‘what’s not there’.

Exercise: In this exercise I want you to draw a chair. It must have 4 legs (so not a swivel chair). A kitchen or dining chair is good. Something with arm rests or cross sections on the legs is ideal. Place it at an angle so you can see lots of gaps.

Instead of drawing the shape of the chair, focus on drawing the spaces you see, both inside and outside of the chair. You may find it helpful to close one eye a little from time to time as this helps sharpen your focus.

Draw the outline of the shapes. Be accurate. Start at the top and work your way down. Draw the shapes exactly as you see them, even if they’re not what you expect to see. They will more than likely be correct. Once you’ve drawn the outline of your spaces and you’re happy that it all looks accurate, block the shapes in. What will then stand out is the shape of your chair in the white of the paper, exactly like the lily above.

In order to record what you’re seeing correctly it’s very helpful to look at your subject as a series of shapes. If you’re struggling to get the shapes looking right, focusing on the shapes of the negative space will be a great help.

4. Drawing Portraits Under Paper

Exercise: This is a quick one. Fun and light hearted but very good for loosening up.

You need 2 big sheets of paper, some masking tape, a pencil and a willing model. You can stand at an easel, or use a drawing board propped up on your lap or failing that a big sketchpad that has a stiff card back. Tape your first sheet of paper to your board. Then tape the 2nd sheet of paper over the top (tape it along the top edge only).

Draw your portrait on the first sheet of paper, keeping the 2nd sheet of paper hanging over your hand so you can’t see what you’re drawing. Trace the lines you see with your eyes and, as you do that, do the same thing with your pencil on the paper. Keep going until you’ve finished and don’t be tempted to peek to see if you’re going wrong. That’s cheating!

When you’re done flip the top sheet of paper over to see what your drawing looks like. I’ve done this a few times in life drawing classes and it never fails to both amaze and amuse.

5. Fast Sketching

Works especially well in life drawing classes, but you can apply this to anything you’re drawing. I personally think it’s the best form of warm up you can get, as it forces you to switch off from whatever else is running through your mind and focus on your drawing. It also greatly improves your hand eye co-ordination, as you have to react quickly and use your instincts. There’s no time to dither, making you more decisive about where you put your lines or make marks.

If you’re in a life drawing class and you don’t already do this kind of exercise, ask your tutor to give it a go. It’s great for the model and he or she doesn’t have to stand or sit for ages and it’s particularly useful if your model is prone to fidgeting!

If you’re working outdoors drawing landscapes, fast sketching is essential for being able to react to changing weather conditions resulting in changes in light and shadows.

Exercise: You need a sketchpad or some loose sheets of paper, a 2b or 4b pencil and a timer (set the alarm on your clock, phone or if you’re in your kitchen your oven timer will do just fine).

The first sketch should be for just 10 minutes. Record as much information as possible in that time. Not just the lines, but details and textures too. Now you may be thinking that’s impossible. I can’t do much in 10 minutes. Give it a go. Don’t labour over any particular area. Just work quickly and if you make a mistake just keep going, drawing in the correct lines over the top. This is not an exercise where you have time to get out the eraser!!! When your 10 minutes are up you must stop.

Move to a new sheet of paper. Reset your timer for 5 minutes. If you’re working from a still life you may want to move so you see things from a new angle. Again, work quickly and record as much detail as you can. Try to record the same amount of information as you did in the 10 minute sketch. When your time is up, put the drawing to one side and take a fresh sheet of paper.

Repeat this exercise giving yourself just 3 minutes. When you’ve finished, repeat it again for just 1 minute. By now your hand should be flying around the page!

When you’re done, take a breather and set yourself up for one last sketch. Make this one 10 minutes long, as in the first one. What you’ll find is that having had to work so fast on the other sketches, 10 minutes will seem much longer than it did the first time round and you’ll be able to record more information, more accurately than you did before.

I love fast sketching. Take the sketch of Matt above, made in roughly 2 minutes. There’s an energy about it that wouldn’t exist if I had take much longer over it.

The most important thing to remember when doing any of the exercises above is to enjoy them. Have some fun and play around with them. They’ll not only help you improve your drawing but keep you loose and most importantly, keep you interested in drawing.



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Heather Harding

Heather Harding – Art, Crafts, Textiles & Fashion I love drawing, painting, printing and textiles. I’m a very instinctive person, always wanting to reach out and touch, taste or sniff things! I’m drawn to images and textures, constantly staring at colours, imagining drawing or painting things in my head when I’m out and about. I’m a terrible hoarder really, always collecting things because I like their shapes, texture or colour – pebbles, bits of wood, patterns off packets, bits of fabric, leaves when they’re changing colour, articles on art, interiors and fashion.

I’m in and out of art galleries a lot, poring over books and researching artists on the internet that I’ve just come across. I don’t have an all time favourite artist, there are far too many to like, it’s more ‘flavour of the month’ with me. My favourite drawing at the moment is “Poldi” by Egon Schiele.

My proudest moment? Making it through 6,500 amateur artists to be selected to take part in BBC1’s The Big Painting Challenge which aired earlier this year. It was a fantastic achievement, great fun and intensely nerve-wracking all at the same time. I made it through 3 episodes before going out. Painting Blenheim Palace did me in. It was too big and so many columns! I didn’t warm to it at all and had a bad painting day with that one, although my other challenges were fine. My friends and family all think I was robbed, being kicked off at that stage. Bless ’em. (I agree!!!).