Creative exercises for every month

Drawing Basics Lesson

Introduction: why we see the world in symbols and why this affects our drawing.

  • In this workshop, I will be taking you through some exercises which could literally change the way you see the world.
  • Some of you may be thinking, 'I can already draw, do I need to do these beginners workshops?' But even if you have an understanding of composition, line, shape and tone, you’ll still gain a lot.
  • Even people who have a good grasp of drawing can still slip into this issue of seeing the world in symbols rather than seeing the world as it is, seeing the world objectively.
  • Learning to draw is learning to see. 
  • Through schooling, we often develop literacy and numeracy over the arts. What that means, is that as our language develops, our numeracy develops and we get better at these things but it uses a different part of the brain.
  • Betty Edwards developed a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which I strongly recommend you use if you enjoy this workshop. Some of the exercises we’ll be doing are taken directly from that book.

Drawing can be learned

  • Drawing is something that can be learned and is often left undeveloped when we finish school because we are not taught how to develop it further.
  • It is something that can be learned,and there are some simple exercises you can do to develop this.
  • If you’ve ever had a look at some children’s drawings especially around the age of 7 or 8, they’ve got a good eye for composition, colour, negative and positive space. If you have a look at this particular image by Isla, my 7-year-old niece, although not realistic, she uses many elements that are important to make a good drawing.That is, a good use of space, having it balanced, and colour as well. It all works together really nicely.
  • Without these skills being developed, adults drawings often look the same level as a 13-year-old, and that’s simply because people haven’t been taught how to draw in schools. So the main focus of this lesson is that we begin to shift from that symbolism way of thinking to that which is objective.

Objective Drawing

  • Objective drawing is a lot more difficult than you’d think because we continually practice thinking in symbols, our whole language which was developed is symbols. So once you start to shift your thinking away from symbolism and to objective, you begin to see what the world really looks like. And it’s really exciting to see all the shapes that are there.
  • This lesson will comprise of four exercises;
  • Pre-instruction drawing exercise
  • Faces and vases
  • Contour
  • Upside down drawing
  • At the end of these exercises, you will see improvements to your drawing and that you can draw objectively.

 Pre-instruction drawing exercise

  • This first simple exercise helps you understand where your objective drawing is at.
  • Draw a picture of someone who is not in the room and that you know really well. A close family friend, a sibling, mother or father.
  • Spend 5 or 10 minutes drawing them as accurately as you can.
  • Once you’ve done that, turn it over and set it aside.
  • Now get a mirror and draw yourself or someone else in the room who’s willing to sit still for that same amount of time.
  • Then what I want you to do when you’ve finished is compare them. Have a look at the two pictures and see if they’re similar.

  • This person did exactly the same thing, they drew someone they knew, then someone in the room. If you notice, they’re actually pretty similar.
  • The reason for this is they’re actually using symbols , they're not drawing what they see, they’re drawing what they know. 
  • They know someone has a nose, eyes and a mouth, so that is what they drew, they didn’t draw that person’s eyes, nose, and mouth. 
  • Once you’ve done this exercise, you’ll start to see how your mind is working, and if you are drawing in symbols. 

Faces and Vases

 What we’re going to do now is another exercise that is going to key into how our mind works and to start to adjust it.
  • This exercise is called the faces and vase exercise, it is an optical illusion, where you can see either two faces facing each other or a vase.
  • The idea behind this exercise is again to understand how your mind works when you’re looking at a face and trying to draw it.
  • This exercise puts your brain into conflict with the left and right sides.
  • So the first thing you need to do is, get a piece a paper, draw two lines the same width apart, it doesn't need to be perfect.
  • If you’re right handed you’ll be drawing on the left, if you’re left handed you’ll be drawing on the right. It’s so you’re dominant hand is most comfortable to draw the first face.
  • Draw the first face, it doesn't have to be perfect. As you’re doing it try to think about what you’re doing which part of the face you’re drawing. This uses the left side of the brain.
  • Now mirror this face on the other side. Your brain will swap to the right side of the brain where it tries to see shapes and lines. I want you to be aware of where things start to get tricky, you’re mind might start to freeze up at some points as you're thinking about what you’re doing, and the lines you’re making. This usually happens around the forehead and nose.
  • The problem you need to solve is making the other face look like the first face you've drawn. Think about how you will solve this problem. What are some tools you can use? 

How will you solve this problem?

  • Using  vertical and horizontal lines to see relationships
  • Not thinking of names of features
  • Drawing from bottom up
  • Shifting from faces shape to vase shape
  • Not caring if vases were symmetrical (left side of brain won)
  • Use an eraser
  • Give that a go.

How did you go? Did you worry about getting it right first time? Did you place any restrictions on yourself? For example, not allowing yourself to use an eraser or turning the paper around.

Once you have solved the problem, write down how you did it. It's good to write it on the same piece of paper that you drew on so you can reflect on it later.

What this exercise allows you to do is see how difficult it is to mirror the image. It causes discomfort and conflict as your brain tries to shift from left to right way of thinking. What you’ll notice as well is that the easiest way to draw it is not to think of it as a nose or lips or chin, that actually restricts the way your mind works in trying to draw it. Once you’ve done that you can begin to really start looking.

Contour Drawing

contour drawing image
  • Contour drawing means line drawing. There are many forms of contour drawing,
  • for the sake of this exercise, we’re doing a contour drawing where you don’t take your pencil off the table.
  • Which is a bit tricky, but it's worth it because what it allows you to do is concentrate on what you’re looking at.
  • What we're aiming to do with this one, is we're really concentrating on one object and for the sake of this we’re focusing on our hand.

To begin with

So what you want to do, is scrunch up your fist, so you have lots of lines creases.

 You’re going to draw it without looking at your page, so you’re focusing on what you’re seeing and not what you’re drawing.

 Face the opposite direction to your drawing, you may need to rest the hand you're drawing on a chair. Set a timer for 5 minutes.

You will draw slowly and steadily, your pencil will record your perceptions, if the wrinkles change direction so does your pencil, if they intersect, follow the new line.

What you’re aiming for

Your pencil can only record what your eyes see. Do not look at your page until the full 5 minutes has passed. Five minutes may seem like a long time but it's important to get your brain thinking on the right side.  Match the movement of your hand exactly with your eye.

What you’ve learnt

As you can see my drawing looks nothing like my hand. It’s not supposed to look like my hand either because you’re focusing on all those creases and intricacies, What that means is that you’re really focusing on  is what you see and not bothering with whether it looks right or not or if something is out of place.


What that exercise does it get your mind into thinking on the right side of the brain. Getting in the space where you’re just looking at line and space. It allows your brain to enjoy the tiny creases in your hand  giving the left side a rest.

Upside Down Drawing

This exercise will create the most dramatic effect on your drawing, which is quite exciting. So you’re going to do a drawing upside down. The reason why we do that is that it helps to see things differently.
Take a look at this image, do you know what it is?

upside down elephantAll you can see are the shapes of it. Now we look at the whole image. By having it upside down we begin to separate our mind from what the image is and the actual lines we’re looking at. To help us further, to get away from seeing it as an elephant, to see it as lines and shapes, were going to cover up most of it... Now we look at the whole image.

By having it upside down we begin to separate our mind from what the image is and the actual lines we’re looking at. To help us further, to get away from seeing it as an elephant, to see it as lines and shapes, were going to cover up most of it.

Step 1

The way this exercise works is that we’re only looking at a small section at a time. We're looking at the angles of the lines, the width.
We’re actually going to produce a bigger picture. This is a really important part, because if you produce it the same size, it’s not giving you everything you can get out of this. It’s best to make it larger because it will get you to really focus on those relationships between the different shapes and the line. If it’s the same size it’s almost too easy to copy, you want to really work your brain.
You need to decide what point of the picture is going to be our point of reference. What that means is that what part are you going to compare to so you get the same ratio for the whole image. For this part, I’m going to use this small rounded shape here because it’s central and because it’s quite small.

Step 2

As you're drawing there are some really important points to remember.

You need to look at the shapes, all the different shapes. If you think about it too much you know that these are grass blades but look at the shape between the blades, that is called negative space which is really helpful and worth looking into. (Don’t worry about what is what just look at shapes ignore the subject.)

The other thing that is really important is the direction of the line. If you’re ever unsure it should be exactly the same angle no matter what size the drawing is. So you can just check, line your pencil along the edge and check things are the same.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t fit the whole image on your page, some of it can be cut off. Make sure you don’t try to squish everything in because it will throw out the proportion of the picture. If anyone asks say it's an open composition.

Step 3

When you're’ ready for the next part of the drawing, move your piece of paper down. If you have a look, there is a subtle change in these two lines they’re not actually parallel, they’re coming slightly out. Also, look at how far down these lines are, this one is about half way down. Little things make a big difference in making this drawing look in proportion.

Step 4

The other thing is if we’re using the trunk of the elephant as our base to check everything is in proportion you can use it to ensure you've got the right distance. For example, if you use your fingers or a pencil, see two of those fit here, you can check that it’s the same on your picture. It’s good to do these little checks early on in your drawing so it doesn’t get too far out of proportion later on. Again look at the angle, this is not a straight line, it is at an angle.


You’ll be surprised at the accuracy of your drawing! Here is the image we used for this exercise. You can print this out and try this exercise yourself. If you choose another picture, look for one with strong line, no shading and many lines This exercise will prepare you for the next lesson where we look at negative space.


  • Be aware when you are drawing in symbols rather than drawing what you see.
  • Focus on the shapes you see rather than the subject matter.
  • Practice really looking at the intricacies of the subject you’re drawing.
  • Practice upside down drawing.
  • Focus on angles and width of the line.
  • Look for subtle changes of shape in the drawing.
  • Have a point of reference in your drawing.
  • Most importantly, practice.
  • Draw what you enjoy and what interests you the most.
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