Drawing Ideas That Will Make You a Better Artist

Having great things to draw doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll become a better artist. If you’re looking for drawing ideas that will develop your skills, it’s important to recognize that it takes time and commitment. For inspiration, look no further than an old adage about how Picasso described his skills while sketching in a park.

Pablo Picasso had become masterful at sketching even before he was well-known.  Plaster Male Torso , Pablo Picasso, 1893 ( image source )

Pablo Picasso had become masterful at sketching even before he was well-known. Plaster Male Torso, Pablo Picasso, 1893 (image source)

A woman recognized the great artist as she was passing by, and asked him to sketch her. Picasso obliged and, in the span of a few minutes, sketched an incredible portrait of the woman. She was pleased with his work and asked him how much it would cost her.

“Five thousand dollars,” Picasso told her.

“But that only took you 5 minutes!” the woman exclaimed.

“Madame,” Picasso replied, “It took me my entire life.”

Whether that story is true is up for debate, but it gets to the heart of how difficult it is to master the ability to draw. On the other hand, it also suggests, that Picasso wasn’t born Picasso. He had to put in a lifetime of effort before he was able to produce the sketches he is known for. As long as you are ready to put in some time and focus, you’ll be on your way to mastering the art too.  

Want to get started? Here are six easy drawing ideas with practice exercises that will get you on your way, But first, you should start by understanding the basics.

Five Elements of Drawing

There are 5 basic elements of drawing that anyone can master:

    • Line - an extended mark

    • Shape - the external form of something

    • Tone - values of light and dark

    • Texture - appearance of a surface

    • Proportion - relative size

Next, take some time to practice exercises that will improve your drawing skills bit-by-bit.  

Exercise #1: Improve Your Vision by Drawing with Basic Shapes

Cute drawings take time. So do cool drawings. Many new artists fall into the trap of trying to do too much, too fast—they jump right in and attempt to include every little detail in their initial drawings, but seasoned artists will tell you that it’s not only more difficult to do it that way, it’s also less effective. You may get too far along sketching a piece before you realize proportions are inaccurate, details are off, or perspective is skewed—and by then, you’ve wasted a lot of time on something that can’t be undone.

The good news is that there are simple yet effective techniques that can help improve your drawing abilities called “shapes exercises.” Shapes exercises challenge you to examine photographs and drawings by identifying the basic shapes that make up their foundations. Once you train yourself to see (and sketch) the foundational elements of complex works of art, you’ll become better at understanding how images come together, and ultimately end up drawing more proportionate pieces.

Tools you’ll need:

  • Magazines or photographs that you can mark-up

  • Any thick, black sketching marker with a chiseled nib (i.e. Copic)

  • Scissors

  • File folder

What to do:

  • Select an image, photograph, or advertisement that you find visually appealing.

  • Look for basic shapes within the piece (i.e. Triangle, Square, Rectangle, Circle, Oval)

  • Trace every shape you see on the piece with your black marker

  • Repeat the process on other photographs or pages within the magazine

  • Cut out and save the marked-up images in a file folder and label it “Shape Theory”

  • Refer back to examples in your folder next time you sketch to improve your eye for drawing

The goal of this exercise is to identify shapes within photographs and designs. The more you do it, the more you’ll naturally start to see shapes in the world and your drawing will improve without needing to mark up the page.

Training yourself with textures now will make future, more complex drawing ideas easy.  Portrait of a Man with a Falcon,  Petra Christus, 1447 ( image source )

Training yourself with textures now will make future, more complex drawing ideas easy. Portrait of a Man with a Falcon, Petra Christus, 1447 (image source)

Exercise #2: Improve Your Speed with Texture Drawings

Athletes aren’t the only ones who need to warm up before they train or perform. As an artist, developing warm-up routines helps get your hands and arms primed and working the way you want them to. Not only that, they improve the speed and accuracy of your hand-eye coordination over time. Want to try it yourself? This warm-up exercise involves drawing free-form textures is a great way to train yourself for more complex work down the road.

Tools you’ll need:

  • A large, clean sheet of lighter-toothed sketching paper (50-60 lb; at least 11”x14”)

  • Fine-point, felt-tipped pen (i.e. Pilot Fineliner) or medium grade pencil (i.e. HB/2B).

  • Broad surface area (an uncluttered desk or table)

What to do:

The goal of this exercise is to fill your page with clusters different textures and arrangements in a short amount of time. It’s less about quality and more about quantity. No judgment here. It’s all about easy things to draw.

  • Set a timer for 5 minutes.

  • Start doodling small, individual shapes and lines in the top left corner of your page. Work your way across and down—filling the entire page.

  • Think about different textures as you go and try to capture them (organic textures like wood, stone, ice, fire can be fun to visualize)

  • Keep your pace frenetic—the quality and dimension of your shapes don’t matter as much as your speed.

  • Don’t stop until your timer runs out.

  • When you’re finished, take a minute to appreciate what you’ve created.

  • Identify the best patterns and make vectors of them in Adobe Illustrator.

The best part about drawing is that you get to control the pace. Unlike working with oils, acrylics, or watercolors, drawing with a pencil or fine-tipped pen allows you to be nimble and exact. Because drawing requires a full-body effort, it’s important that you train not just your hand, but also how your arm and upper torso respond as you quickly switch directions while sketching. Train yourself to move well and you’ll be on your way to being a better artist in no time.

Exercise #3: Improve the Realism of Your Drawings Through Shading

Variances in tone and shading are the difference between 2-D and 3-D art. Once you master shading, you’ll be able to make even the simplest objects appear to jump off the page. In order to master it though, you first have to develop your fine motor skills.

There are several ways to train yourself to shade objects and create depth, but when you begin to practice, keep your drawings, ideas and techniques simple. The most common types of graphite shading are hatching, cross-hatching, stumping, and stippling, all great techniques to get used to before you try for more advanced styles.

Shading gives depth and weight to drawings.  Drapery for a Seated Figure,  Leonardo da Vinci, 1470 ( image source )

Shading gives depth and weight to drawings. Drapery for a Seated Figure, Leonardo da Vinci, 1470 (image source)

Tools you’ll need:

  • White, medium-weight paper (i.e. Strathmore 300 series)

  • Two pieces of clean paper (it can be plain, computer-printer paper. You’ll place the paper under your hands to shield your sketch paper from accidental smudging and absorbing the oils on your hand)

  • HB pencil

  • Charcoal or graphite pencil that’s 2B or softer

  • Blending tools (cloth, tissue, brushes, erasers)

  • Clothes you don’t mind getting dirty

What to do:

  • Pick a simple object, such as an apple, and draw an outline of it lightly on the page with your HB pencil.

  • Determine where your light source will be and draw an L on the light side and a D on the dark side.

  • Use your charcoal or 2B pencil, holding it further back than you would if you were writing. Apply the shading using sweeping motions that involve your fingers, wrist, elbow and whole arm to fill in the shading on the dark side of the apple.

  • Don’t press on the paper. Let the pencil or charcoal add value to the paper.

  • Continue shading as needed. Because of the nuances of shading, only you can decide when you’ve got it just right.

Drawing with spontaneity fuels your creativity.  The Cellist,  Victor Hugo, 1856 ( image source )

Drawing with spontaneity fuels your creativity. The Cellist, Victor Hugo, 1856 (image source)

Exercise #4: Enhance Your Creativity By Being Spontaneous with Lines

Drawing takes time. A line has time in it. - David Hockney

You don’t have to follow the same process every time you want to draw. In fact, it pays to release yourself from the belief that everything needs to be perfect. Switching up your routine forces your body and mind to adapt, which fuels your creativity. Challenge yourself! If you are bored with your current technique, try drawing without ever lifting your pencil or pen off the page and see what you can (and can’t!) produce.

Tools you’ll need:

  • Heavy drawing paper with a medium tooth (i.e. Cansom 90 lb)

  • Medium point felt-tipped pen

What to do:

  • Imagine a subject or look at a photograph for inspiration—for example, a portrait. People are great subjects for this exercise, by the way.

  • Press your drawing utensil (pencil or pen) against the paper

  • Start drawing your subject.

  • Don’t lift your drawing utensil off the page until you’re finished.

  • Find unexpected ways to get from one feature to the next.

  • Be okay with it not looking perfect.

With continuous contour line drawing, you challenge your creative nimbleness. For example, if you’re drawing a portrait, you have to determine how to get from the lips to the ear to the eyes to the brow of your subject without lifting your pen! You can draw yourself (in a mirror), a friend or subject willing to pose for you, or a picture. Let yourself be creative! The point isn’t to focus on who or what you’re drawing, but how.

Exercise #5: Improve the Proportions of Your Drawings

If you want to make your drawings more realistic, it’s essential that you get the proportions right. To do that, there are some simple techniques based on geometry that can help you replicate an image, or scale it up or down.

This exercise shows you how to draw boxes and angles overtop a photograph or image, and easily replicate it and keep the exact proportions.

Even great artists like Leonardo da Vinci take their time to measure their subjects’ proportions before they add detail.  Study of the Proportions of Head and Eyes,  Leonardo da Vinci, 1550. ( image source )

Even great artists like Leonardo da Vinci take their time to measure their subjects’ proportions before they add detail. Study of the Proportions of Head and Eyes, Leonardo da Vinci, 1550. (image source)

Tools you’ll need:

  • Ruler

  • Hard graphite pencil

  • Fine-toothed paper

  • Eraser

What to do:

  • Draw vertical and horizontal lines across your image to create a grid pattern—it should look like graph paper was laid on top of your image by the time you’re finished.

  • Label the rows and columns with numbers (horizontally) and letters (vertically).

  • Next, replicate the grid pattern on a piece of blank piece of drawing paper, and lay it side-by-side with the original image. You can keep the proportions the same, or decide to increase or decrease the scale. Beginners might want to start by keeping the same ratio from the image to the drawing paper. One inch wide by one inch tall is a common measurement for the boxes of the grid.  

  • Look at the coordinates of the grid on top of the photo, and replicate them on the drawing grid. For example, look at box A1 on your image, and try to replicate that in the A1 box on your drawing paper. Then, look at box A2 and do the same. And so on.

  • The goal is to compartmentalize the drawing, so that you can replicate it and maintain the proportions with accuracy.  

With enough practice, you may not even need to draw the grid anymore. Experienced artists “see the grid” without having to outline it. This exercise is a great way to build your ability to perceive proportions in any piece of art.

Exercise #6: Catalog Your Drawings to Accelerate Your Improvements

Picasso may have spent a lifetime honing his craft, but if you want to speed up your learning curve a little bit, keep close track of your work by studying it. After all, the more precise and consistent that you are about practicing your craft, the more quickly you’ll improve your skills. To stay organized, keep a sketchbook with dates and notes along the margins. You may even want to go as far as creating a filing system or a binder portfolio that you can easily reference to review and measure your progress over time. Your future self will thank you.

Tools you’ll need:

  • File Folders

  • Filing Cabinet or Storage Bin

  • Masking Tape or Labels

  • Markers; Pens

  • Notepad

What to do:

  • Draw as often as you like.

  • Save your drawings in a consistent place—like a filing cabinet or storage bin.

  • Once a month (give or take), take a step back and spend time reviewing your work.  

  • Make notes in your notebook. Label and date similar pieces of work.

  • Build your collection so that you can see and evaluate your progress.

By building self-reflection into your drawing process, you’ll identify your strengths and weaknesses faster and be able to improve in no time.

Practice makes perfect.  Study of hands,  Leonardo da Vinci, 1474 ( image source )

Practice makes perfect. Study of hands, Leonardo da Vinci, 1474 (image source)

In the end, the more often you pick up your pen or pencil, the better you’ll become. Regularly work with these six exercises and you’ll be well on your way to improving your skills and becoming a better artist. Practice makes perfect (and future Picassos!).

Interested in more ways to hone your drawing skills? Skillshare has hundreds of drawing classes for you to choose from.