What skills are needed to draw?

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It's rare to get a big picture of the skills you need to learn when you start to draw or paint figurative art from imagination...  I receive many emails about it ; beginner are often lost, and miss a sort of general page. That's what I'm trying to solve here with a sort of table of content : to list the skills you need to know and practice to get better at drawing and painting figurative artworks. Each mini chapter attempt to explain with my words the 'what', the 'why' and the 'how' in the clearest and shortest possible way. So, then it's easier to get the big picture and search for specific tutorials with your favorite search engine. I propose also this 'map' to anyone wanting to improve or perfecting their drawing/painting skill. I'll use this overview myself to drive my training exercises or review missing or weak points on my artworks. If you start drawing from scratch here is my advice : be generalist at first and learn a bit of all to get the basics, then focus on specific areas one by one.

1. Perspective

What is it : The art of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface.
What's the purpose :  Do not draw flat, simulate depth on your 2D paper surface.
What's to learn about it : The perspectives grids, how basic shapes ( squares, circles, etc... ) behave on perspective and how to keep proportions.

an artwork built with two vanishing points ( green and red )

2. Proportions

What is it : The comparative relation of size between all the object in your scene.
What's the purpose : Draw objects with recognizable identity thanks to a set of respected relative measurements.
What's to learn about it : Learn by memory the proportions, find mnemonic to remember the relation easily, build a proportion vocabulary.

highlight with orange lines of a basic set of proportions and relation over painting ( left ) and a sketch ( right )

3. Anatomy

What is it : The study of the structures.
What's the purpose : Draw things that look believable ( humans, animals, plants but also vehicles, etc... ).
What's to learn about it : Joints, bones, muscles, how it works, how it breathes, how parts are fixed together, etc...

left : studies of hands on left, center : studies of skeleton posing, right : muscle study

4. Composition

What is it : The placement or arrangement of the visual elements.
What's the purpose : Serve the artwork to the viewer eyes in a pleasing or expressive way.
What's to learn about it : A set of recipes and a general vocabulary of how a picture organization and framing impact the meaning, or the ease of reading.

various thumbnails done before starting an artwork ; composition research

5. Lighting

What is it : Lightness or darkness expressed with values of colors.
What's the purpose : Create the illusion of light, trace properly casted shadows, reveal the volumes and set an expressive mood.
What's to learn about it : Values, shadow casting, material surfaces, light bouncing, light properties ( underwater, threw materials, aerial perspective, etc.. ).

left : light source revealing various materials, right : light usage to introduce a second character outside the frame ( casted shadow )

6. Edges

What is it : A way to split silhouettes and shapes of the objects in your scene.
What's the purpose : To ease the reading of the picture, split overlaps of objects or shapes and increase feeling of depth.
What's to learn about it : Edge style ( hard / soft / lost ) for paintings, Lines style ( weight, speed, ghost ) for line-arts.

left and center : edges in painting, right : line-art thickness

7. Colors

What is it : Art of choosing efficient colors ( hue, shade, tint ).
What's the purpose : Add more vibrancy, mood and emotional impact to your artwork.
What's to learn about it : Color systems ( monochromatic, complimentary, etc... ), emotional impact of colors and traditional meaning.

top-left : 3 circles of colors representing the palette used for this artwork ; three complimentary tones.

8. Gesture

What is it : Art of rendering movement or dramatic pose in a static drawing.
What's the purpose : Inject life, flow, expression, energy into static shapes and capture action or movement.
What's to learn about it : Expressive sketch, rapid execution drawings, studies of anything in movements. Often a warm-up exercise.

left : Gesture of pinguin at the zoo, center : action gesture study, right : warm-up sketches for posing

9. Style

What is it : Aesthetic, taste or style. It often depends of fundamental standards ( ethic, historic, societal, symbolic ), art or cultural groups, art market.
What's the purpose : Serves the artwork in a appealing way to an audience.
What's to learn about it :  your own taste, culture, artistic group as both an audience and a creator.

left : classic portrait in black and white , center : heavy stylized ( and weird ) character and painting style, right: my comic stylization.

10. Concept

What is it : A drawing can abstract development of new concepts, ideas associations, inventions and propose new design. It's an overall engineering process.
What's the purpose : Propose new visuals, objects, characters, creature to entertain or inform an audience.
What's to learn about it : how things works, how to create new things, association of ideas, happy accidents, creative process.

A new type of vehicle ( left ) a new type of dragon ( center ) and a medieval house that never existed before this drawing ( right ).

11. Communication

What is it : A picture can transfer a complex and large amounts of data quickly. The adage "A picture is worth a thousand words" describes it really well.
What's the purpose : An artist can communicate ( intentionally or not) to an audience.
What's to learn about it : Reading images ( decoding messages sent, nonverbal means ), encoding meaning, storytelling, message. 

A leaf artwork doesn't communicate a lot ( left ) but the accumulation of elements and facial expression can create a complex storytelling ( center ).
Association of symbols as a vulture made of journal paper ( right ) can create a deeper meaning to speak about unethical journalism.

Conclusion : a meaningful illusion

If you can mix with success all the discipline above, you'll be able to achieve the feeling of volumes, depth, texture, light, gesture, movement and life on a static surface. This will immerse your audience into a universe and ease communication of your ideas, storytelling or message. And by the end, that's how I consider the global skill : a capacity to create meaningful illusions. All this palette of skills will train your mental intelligence ( memory, management, decision ) but also your emotional intelligence ( feelings, emotions, subconscious ), this is a complete exercise requiring knowledge, observation, imagination but above all you'll need to PRACTICE, PRACTICE and PRACTICE. Drawing skill is like a muscle (and you obviously don't get stronger by reading books about weightlifting or watching online videos about it) so have fun drawing and painting and build your unique skill.

( Sorry for my mistakes, I am french and my english skill is far to be perfect. I appreciate corrections )

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  William Thorup - Reply

Excellent work David.

This is the first time that I have seen concept and communication separated in a list of visual art skills like this. I think it is essential because I find myself trying to explain to coworkers and clients the differences and similarities between concept art and illustration. Breaking out those two principles will help me distinguish the two for myself, and help me explain in appropriately to others.

Thanks for the article!

  mafediz - Reply

Thanks for taking the effort to share this david , I've been following your blog since i started using linux for painting with krita :)
There is only a thing i'm not sure what it means, could you explain what does the "weight, speed and ghost" in the edge section means?

  doctormo - Reply

This is a great guide, it's be a good jumping off point to link to guides, tutorials and training extercises for new artists.

I'd also like to see a complilation of subversive biological and mental shortcuts which get in the way of drawing and painting. The human body and mind is full of mechanisms which make living easier, but depiction harder. Everything on the list here has parts of the brain working against it's easy deployment which must be 'unlearned' or subverted using tools like perspective lines, guide lines and other indirect testing and planning stages.

  Alex Silver - Reply

Lovely post - always wanted an overview of the topics required. Lots of food for thought!

  gazto - Reply

Great advice. This is a mandatory read for any artist.

  Tharinda Divakara - Reply

This is very important and useful post to have wide view of essential drawing skills. I learned lots of valuable things form here. Therefore, thank you David!

  Jose Navas - Reply

Thanks for sharing David! a really nice starting point for every artist and the skills that are to be mastered in a life :)

  Dimitris Axiotis - Reply

Great post. this kind of information could be really expensive. we are lerning a lot of things from you.
many thanks!

  Puresaredager - Reply

Very useful guide, thanks a lot!

  Rojano - Reply

By which we can start?

  David REVOY OP , - Reply

@William Thorup : Thanks William ! yes, I often meet the same struggle with my clients about concept-art VS illustration too. Often my commissions for illustration needs good concept in it ; and commission for concept-art needs illustrative style to sell making-off book, or help the pre-prod dossier to grab attention of a production or a crowdfunding business model. The frontier between the two are often blury , both need storytelling and inventive ideas. Thanks for passing by, I enjoy your Krita videos, and retro-gaming passion ;-)

@mafediz : :-) thanks! Yes, I'll explain in details later , but in a nutshell these are terms I found to describe Line-art : weight, speed and ghost
* WEIGHT : Thin or Thick and variation on the two ( my pict example shows it )
* SPEED : The feeling of spontaneous or speedy made a line can have ; it's a real quality in line-art.
* GHOST : It's the alternative of the 'lost' edges in painting. There is no line, but you feel even if the zone is pure black or pure white a line should be here. It's an art to suggest split of volumes. I wish I knew how to manage it better :) ( 'ghost' example : https://twitter.com/ColleenDoran/status … 2221069313 , https://twitter.com/ColleenDoran/status … 8673348608 , https://twitter.com/ChrisSamnee/status/ … 6101653504 )

@doctormo : Totally true, too bad all this knowledge, discipline and mental forging feels often bit counter natural compare to a skill like langage. Probably because we learn it 'technically' too old ? I don't know. I wish I could draw as easily as I can spell sentence during a relaxed discution with friends. :-)

@Alex Silver & @gazto & @Tharinda Divakara & @Puresaredager : Thank you

@Jose Navas : Oh yes a life ! ( and sometime I doubt I'll have time to learn everything as far as I would like ) . Thanks !

@Dimitris Axiotis : Thanks for your feedback about how valuable you found this entry. I hope I'll have time to developp each chapter in details soon.

@Rojano : At first read a bit about them all ; just google on every topic, train a bit. Then when you start to study one only skill ; I would first advice to do :
1. A minima of gesture : just to draw freehand shapes, curves, abstract geometric shapes ; but to train your mastery of drawing freehand curves, circle , ellipse.
You don't need to be really good at it ; just practise it a bit to see that even a simple shape is sometime really hard to draw 'as you would like to'. It helps later to know why some stroke don't fall 'right'
2. The perspective 1 and 2 point system ; just trace citys of cubes, house, all angular object you can find. And get used to the depth of the paper ( play to draw a little tree in background, a biiger in foreground, etc )
3. When time to draw character on the drawings, a bit of anatomy and proportion are fine.
Good luck !

  Max™ - Reply

Wow, until I noticed the bit about you being french I attributed the maybe two or three errors to normal typo mistakes, but honestly your english is fine, it isn't the sort of thing anyone who isn't a human spellchecker would notice. If you're curious, under 3. Anatomy, "Joins" and "breath" would probably be "Joints" and "breathes" I think.
Under 4. Composition, I'm not sure what "a set of receipts" would be, "a set of references" perhaps? Not sure what the word is in french, but I can't think of a use for receipt besides proof of purchase or records.
Under 5. Lighting, I think "trace propers casted shadows" would make more sense as "properly", but

Your art on the other hand is amazing, I came here after looking for a comparison of gimp and krita, since I use Arch and KDE but never tried krita, which is fine since I'm not really anything like an artist.

Nonetheless, I will definitely keep your guide here on hand to share with my friends who are because it is a great breakdown of your methods and such.

  David REVOY OP , - Reply

@Max™ : Thanks you very much for your words about my english skill and for taking the time to point me the corrections ; I fixed them now ( this 'receipt' was in fat a mistake to say 'recipes' ; 'recette' word in french xD ). :-) thanks!

  Vasco Basque - Reply

I am always amazed when you publish illustrated articles like this. I'd like to say, that your communication skill is outstanding. And with images as ultimate language you do not need to be good in the english language :P
If you ever consider writing a book about painting digitally - be sure i´ll buy it - even if it´s only to see your illustrations in print format :-)

  David REVOY OP , - Reply

@Vasco Basque : Hey Vasco ! Thanks for passing by my article and let a comment.
Oh, writing a book is a lot of work. Maybe with time and blog post I'll have enough content to make a big book of it.
I'm still far from it, and also my own skill are not enough developed to speak with precision about any topic on the list.

  zx - Reply


  Tanya - Reply

David, thank you for the perfect article and very useful information.
But I can't understand, what are you meant in the second paragraph, when you wrote: "proportion vocabulary". I apologize for disturbing you, but could you explain more in detail if you have the time. Thank you in advance.

  David REVOY OP , - Reply

@Tanya : Hi Tanya, thank you for your interest, and also for your comment about my article.
I'm not a native English writer , so true ; sometime I take weird shortcut with the English langage.

"build a *proportion vocabulary* " : In this context, the 'proportion-vocabulary' is a database of knowledge inside your brain you built from observing the objects/animal/humans/vehicles...etc... For example; if you look at a T-rex dinosaur ; you can try to find proportion relationship between the lenght of the head, the body, the tails, the arms , etc... You'll often need to simplify it , and round the mesure to make them easy to remember ; head is larger than arms, 5 heads lenght to the tail, 3 or 4 head high, head fit in a 1x2 square ...etc... This will be your recipe to build a dinosaur proportioned like a T-rex. With this proportions in mind ; you'll be able to draw a convincing T-rex from imagination while another artist will need documentation. With a large vocabulary ( for street objects, animals, trees, etc... ) and artist draw convincing scene from imagination.
Watch this artist ; known to have one of the greatest memory for details, proportions, and ....everything : https://youtu.be/MGbvhyTZXfs
Good luck!

  Tanya - Reply

Hi, David. Thanks for the reply. And your English is perfect, because English is't my native language too but I understand your articale and your ansvers without problem.

And "proportion vocabulary" is good definition for this skill.

Thanks for the chat and good luck!

  David REVOY OP , - Reply

@Tanya : Thanks!

  Satrian - Reply

Really valuable article, especially for a self-taught like me. I follow Feng Zhu videos too and he always mentions fundamentals he teaches only at his school . So these they are. Pardon me, but you didn't mention about the aerial perspective in this article. Thank you!

  David REVOY OP , - Reply

@Satrian : Thank you !
For aerial perspective, I just added it to "5.Light" ; thanks for the reminder.
color of air is important, and all athmospheric effects helps to improve the illusion of depht.

  Miguel Andrade - Reply

A lot of important thinks!!!

Thank you!

  Sonia - Reply

Ive been studying all your teaching! really informative. Wish i had learned things this way a long time ago!

  Dustin - Reply

This should be a in a textbook. I come from more of a technical background and am just getting into game art. This quick little breakdown isn't too long, nor too complicated (like more guides out there).

This is awesome and will be linked to from my site when I start posting my attempts at game art.

Now I've got to start looking through your archives for more good stuff. Thanks again.

  Taposy Rabeya - Reply

A lot of inspiring information you mention here that are really helpful Thanks.

  Daniel Rizoto - Reply

Hello David, I'm a big boy back to draw and would like to thank the shared knowledge. Merci beaucoup =)

  David REVOY OP , - Reply

@Daniel Rizoto : Hey good luck for your comeback to drawing!

  Gellie - Reply

Thank you for these tips. Je suis nouveau en dessin numerique. I have also enjoyed your tutorials on youtube. It enthralls and enlightens me on some concepts that i don't yet quite understand with drawing and painting in a general sense with the computer as a medium. Hoping to see more of your art and tuturials. Salut!

  David REVOY OP , - Reply

Thanks for the feedback!

  Peter Mazza - Reply

How long does it take you to make each Pepper and Carrot comic strip? Or art in general?

  valvin - Reply

Thank you for this synthesis ... Unfortunately thanks to this I know I've still a lot of thing to study :-p

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