TheFive Skills of Drawing

1) Edges

2) Spaces

3) Proportions

(4 and 5 will load a new page)

4) Light/Shadow

5) Pulling it all together

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If you can Write you can learn to draw!


"The Five Skills of Drawing - And none of them have anything to do with drawing."

What drawing does require is the ability to switch from "Left-Brain" functions or "L-Mode" (like language, counting, logic, etc.) to "Right-Brain" or "R-mode" functioning, (non-verbal, intuitive, spatial, etc. - see "L-Mode v. R-mode" on the home page). All of these skills are learnable!

You'll be Learning and Applying these 5 Skills to Drawing Your own Hilarious Caricatures.

In a nutshell, they're the ability to 1) identify edges, 2) recognize spaces, 3)calculate proportions and angles, 4) judge light from shadow, and 5) the unconscious skill of "pulling it all together". That's it! (I'll tell you more about them below.)

It's true. If you can write you can learn to draw! In fact, "drawing skills" don't even require special manual dexterity - they have little or nothing to do with drawing. Sure, certain techniques require a steady hand - but, like any other skill, they're learnable and they improve with practice. All of them. But the truth is - and you might resist this statement - if you can write your name, not only do you have the manual dexterity to learn to draw, you ARE drawing.You just don't think of it that way. And I know, you're thinking way past handwriting when we're talking about drawing. I am too.

Here's What it takes to Draw

The ability to draw a likeness of something you see out there in the world (like a dog, a cat, a friends portrait, a landscape scene) rests entirely on your ability to draw what you see. To "draw what you see" you have to see first. You have to learn how to observe the way an artist does.

I know, you're saying " thanks but I already see fine Jeff, there's nothing wrong with my vision."

I entirely agree with you. Let me ask you this. For instance, when you look at a chair, how much are you really "seeing"? That is, how close of attention are you paying? Consider this: 3 thousand particles of information (or something like that) are bombarding your brain every second screaming for attention. Your brain is responding to physical sensations, the itch in your wool sweater, your hot, cramped toes, your crashing blood sugar level, fragments of a dream you had last night, radio and TV, the flicker of your computer screen - and that's just for starters. Point is we're all inundated with information every instant of the day.

"I guess the question is how close of attention can you afford to give right now?"

With so many other things grabbing at your attention, it's amazing we can focus our attention at all. Slowing down enough to really observe something is prerequisite for any kind of "reporting". ("Reporting" can mean any kind of focused observation and involve any sense - be it listening to a sonata, smelling a new perfume; recording what you "heard" in a dream last night, or drawing what you "see" in your imagination.)

Back to the chair. Do you see "4 legs, a flat part to set your backside, and a backrest"? Well, maybe there's a swing-out leather leg rest, a rectangular seat with room for two, a pop-up TV dinner stand, big round padded arm rests, a sleeping cat, a hand-crocheted cotton yarn cover complete with coke bottle tops knitted into the pattern for strength (my Grandma Hilda used to knit these all the time, rest her soul.)

Sure, you're aware of all that, but I'll bet unless someone has told you or I tell you what to look for, when it comes time to draw the chair, you won't know where to start. And then you'll draw " 4 straight legs, a flat part to rest your backside, and a backrest". That is, you'll whip something down on paper you thought was the chair. And it was literally that: a thought. It was a convenient abstraction, a composite memory of what "chair" means to you, and it's probably the same thing it meant to you when you were 3 years old. So how can you do better than this?

The 5 Foundation Skills of Drawing

Pick an object in the room. Why not the chair again? (Or see figure one below.) I'm going to ask you a short string of questions that illustrate the 5 skills of drawing. So pick a chair, any chair. Close one eye, it doesn't matter which - you'll automatically figure out which works better for you.

The First Skill

    1) Can you see the edge between the seat and whatever you see behind it? If you follow any edge of the chair, isn't it true you can decide where the seat ends, and whatever you see behind or through it, begins? Whether the chair touches the other object or not isn't important. Close one eye and ask yourself "As I look, where does the chair end and something else begin?" If you were to draw this, the edge would be drawn as a line shared by both objects. (back to top)

    (other examples: picture a sunset on the Pacific Ocean. You're looking west. The sky is clear and turns fiery orange on the horizon, the water is shimmering, a few stars are coming out. Now imagine you're looking straight up out into space. Point with a finger so you can sight down you're arm, like you're taking aim. Now follow you finger as you slowly lower your out-stretched arm from dark of deep space, to purple, to the oranges and golds of the sunset until "whammo", you hit the horizon. Focus on the "line", the edge made by "sky" meeting "ocean"; They don't really touch, but you can say "at this point, the sky stops and the ocean begins".)

    Another example: look out the nearest window. Look at the edge of the window and again, at whatever you see beyond it through the window. The frame of the window makes that edge between what you see out the window and the window, right? And another example. Same thing if you look in your rear view car mirror (watch the rear view mirror as if it were a movie screen): cars seem to disappear as they pass by the edge of the mirror, out of sight.) So skill Number One is the ability to decipher edges. That wasn't too tough now was it? (there's a whole gang of simple and effective exercises to learn this and the 4 other skills below).

    (Back to paragraph above, the First Skill)

    (Back to 3rd skill below)

    The Second Skill

     2) Seeing the "Hole in the donut", recognizing spaces. This is the second skill you'll learn if you want to learn to draw. Learning to see what's not there is just as important as seeing what is there. Let's go back to the chair example.

     figure 1
      ( Note: This will be easier if the chair you've picked isn't a bean bag, or one of those recliners that are shaped like a big cube. Find a chair that's got legs, maybe some hardware, or a footrest boxing in the legs. Or look at figure one. It'll just be easier with a real life chair.) (back to top)
    Again, close one eye. If your chair is anything like the example here, there's probably as much space to the chair as there is actual chair. Zero in on an "edge" of the chair, like say the bottom of one of the arms. Look at the left arm rest (on the left side of the figure). It's horizontal. See the vertical support arm in the front? And the vertical support in the back? And the horizontal frame that pinches down on the "flat part you set your backside"? They form something of a rectangle, right?

    Now look around the chair some more. (sorry if you have to keep scrolling). See all the parts of the chair? They're all a red-brown, right? And all the parts of 'figure 1' that "aren't the chair", are just white, right?

    Now notice that all the other white parts of 'figure one' are either triangles or rectangles or some combination of those in this particular picture. Here's the big step: imagine you're drawing those white spaces - just them. You're no longer looking at a chair. (This is easier if you look with one eye or if you squint.) And if you pulled out a paper and pencil and just drew those geometric white shapes, guess what? When you finished, you'd have drawn the chair in reverse. That is, without even trying, by drawing the white spaces accurately, you would have accidentally drawn the chair. (Return to 3rd skill below.)

    Does that sound strange? Maybe, maybe not, but it becomes a matter of "perception", and psychologists have done tons of studies on human perception, the senses, and the illusions that a conflict between the two produces. Said another way, our "senses" can be tricked. (The truth is the perceiver, that is, the brain of the perceiver is the one who's tricked.) When the brain wants to see something different than the senses tell it, it'll still sees what it wants! And this applies directly to what we're doing: we can draw the chair indirectly by drawing the parts of the picture that are "not chair". In effect, we've tricked the brain. Crazy, I know.

    The Third and Most Difficult Skill.

    3) Recognizing Proportions, Scales, and Angles.

    Have you ever heard farmers or horse traders talk about a horses height? If so, maybe you've heard them say something like "yea, he's a big one. Stands 14 hands high at the shoulder".

    It's a way they've developed to talk about dimension. And by 14 hands tall they literally mean 14 "hands" - 14 human hands high, lined up palm to fingertips to palm - 14 times. So a hand is their unit of measure. Just like the old English kings "foot" was literally the length of the kings foot. We still use that today. And of course there's the artists thumb. What all of these have in common is that they're some kind of convenient ruler that's fairly constant and tough to lose. (Well harder to lose than a protractor.)

    And that's what this skill is about: using something convenient, constant and relatable to the task at hand. When you see an artist with his arm fully extended, sighting down it like a hunter would aim down a rifle barrel, he's not admiring his thumb. He's asking this question: "how big is this part of the picture compared to my thumb?" Once he's got a feel for "how many thumbs away the armrest is from the arm back (I'm referring to the chair example above), and how many thumbs long the chair legs are", he can accurately reconstruct what he's sees in front of him on to his drawing board.

    Applying this to the chair example

    So, in the 2nd skill above, see where I said the word "accurate"? (In the sentence"by drawing the white spaces accurately") Here's what I'm referring to by that. All those triangles and squares that make up the white space exist in a relationship to one another, right? We're gonna relate them all to my left thumbnail. The rectangle under the armrest is about 1/2 a thumbnail wide as I look at it on my screen.(I put my left thumb right on the screen. Try it yourself - don't worry if you don't get the same numbers as I do: your thumb might be a different size than mine, and you might be viewing this on a different size screen).

    The black rectangle around the chair (you might call it the "frame", or in draw-talk, the "format" ) is about 1 & 7/8 inches tall on my screen or about 3 and 1/2 thumbnail widths tall. The "frame" or "format" around the chair, is about an inch and a third wide or about 2 and 1/4 thumb widths. (back to top)

    See what we're doing here? We're putting everything in terms of some constant length (inches, thumbnail widths) - it doesn't matter what we use so long as we stick to it. Let me belabor this just a second longer.

    We could make other measurements using different units of measure. The chair in 'figure 1' touches the frame on the top and the bottom, right? You could say the chair is "1 frame length in height" in proportion to the frame around it. (And as easily, you could say the the frame is "1 chair length tall". You're saying essentially the same thing. So again, the important thing to notice is you're talking about the frame and the chair in terms of how they relate to each other. Now you're comparing, contrasting, and evaluating parts of the picture with other parts within that picture. When you want to mark those relations and proportions onto your drawing pad, they'll always have those same exact proportions.

    If you look at the chair again, let's make some more measurements and comparisons inside the picture. Look at the bottom of the seat of the chair (the horizontal red-brown, kinda-rectangular shaped part) and ask "how far is it from the bottom of the the seat to the top of the backrest? For me it's about a thumbnail and half tall, or, in inches, about 3/4ths of in inch - if I put a ruler to the screen; in relation to the frame around it, it's a tad less than half the height of the whole frame. So again, there's more than one way to describe those comparisons.

    Some more Comparisons

    How big is that distance (seat to top of backrest) in proportion to the size of the whole frame around it? (Like I mentioned above, it's a tad less than half the height of the frame.) Make still another comparison: how big is the this part of the chair (seat to top) in comparison to the distance from the seat to the bottom tip of the leg that touches the frame (or "format") around it? (I get just "a hair" more than the distance from the seat, to the top of the backrest, or just a little more than half the height of the frame around it.)

    You could go on and on on doing hundreds and hundreds of these calculations - and you do when you draw a picture in the "R"-Mode, (or right brain way).

    So if you went to draw the chair on a sheet of paper, you could start by drawing a rectangle (the frame) that's about 1 and 3/4 's times taller than it is wide (from the height-to-width comparison we did above), and you could make a horizontal mark in the middle of the paper where you would start drawing the seat, right? Cuz it's about in the middle of the picture right? That, in a nutshell is how, piece by piece, we'd reconstruct our chair - at any size - to get a realistically proportioned drawing. Works on chairs, works on faces, works on anything.

    And by using the exact same approach we're using to measure proportions, you'll learn how to judge angles, that is, how lines and shapes veer towards or away from horizontal and vertical lines.

    So what have we accomplished here in skill number 3? Even though I didn't mention it, you've learned how to put limits on what you're drawing (by imposing frames or "formats" around what we're drawing), so you don't have to try to draw the whole world!

    You've learned roughly, that every part of the picture has some relationship to every other part of the picture. And if this isn't clear, we got a whole toolkit full of techniques that make all of this very learnable and a lot more fun than just reading my description - because you'll really be doing it.


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    (Press here for skills 4 and 5: comparing light and dark, and the fascinating, paradoxical "Ah Ha!" skill of pulling it all together.)

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