Welcome to this one-stop-shop tutorial, all about leveling up your drawing basics. This is one heck of a journey up the “Fundamentals Mountain”, so accept my sincere kudos for taking this first step with me. Even if you’re a seasoned veteran, this tutorial is great way to refresh and reconnect to the foundations.
Anyway, my name is Joe, and I’ll be your Art Sherpa guiding you every step of t he way.
This tutorial is so beefy that I’m going to dispense with a lengthy introduction and just get right into it. It doesn’t matter if you aim to be a comic artist, concept artist or painter, the number one thing you can do to improve in ALL aspects of your art is working on mastering draftsmanship.
After these intermediate-level drawing fundamentals are set in your memory you’ll be able to let your imagination take over and really do your best work!
I recommend a full read through of the whole tutorial, but feel free to bounce to the topics you are most interested in!
Here’s What’s Being Covered:
The Basic Basics
Enter the 3rd Dimension
Volumes: There’s No Going Back
How to Draw a Spiral Staircase
Before we begin…First, let me say that, much of the this tutorial is inspired by the art teachers that I’ve learned from through their courses and books. I’ve taken many of their techniques and packaged them in a way that felt right.
So the credit goes to Scott Robertson, Michael Hampton, Greg Capullo, Tom Fox and Peter Han. Check out their work and teachings.
The Basic Basics
What is drawing?
Simple questions usually require the most detailed answers, so here goes:
Drawing is the act of using a series of marks or, in other words, lines to create images on a 2D surface. That’s it! A line is one of the drawing fundamentals that you need to practice in order to become a great draftsman.
So let’s first take take a closer look at what you can create with just a series of lines.
Check out the cube-like drawing above. I’ve broken down the elements of its structure with labels. The most fundamental element here is Line, like we just talked about. A line is the connection between two points, one on each end.
A straight line is a one dimensional object, meaning, by itself it only ‘lives’ on one axis or direction.
The minute we add a second direction with either a straight line or curve, it becomes two dimensional or 2D, because now it travels in regards to two vectors.
If you connect a few lines together and have the end meet back at the starting point you will have created an enclosed 2D shape, like I have done in blue.
The goal however, as with much of art, is to create something that resembles the parameters of our world; which is in three dimensions or 3D. In order to pull this off you have to add a third axis in space and create the illusion of a 3D volume on the 2D canvas.
It sounds more confusing than it really is, and that’s because a 3D environment is even more natural to us than a 2D one.
Simply look at the image above and notice how even though we’ve only added two more purple rectangular shapes to the blue one, because they are arranged in a particular way, to our eyes, it looks like it’s become something 3D.
Cool right? Now, let’s get to doing!
How to Draw Lines
I know what you are thinking… Joe, even a child can draw lines. Well, like I mentioned before, a line can be straight or curved and what we care about is how to draw each of them consistently.
The key word here is consistently; and to do that, it will take practice.
And don’t worry, this tutorial includes several exercises that you can repeat to master all the techniques that we discuss. For now, let’s just look at how to pull it off.
The physical act of drawing a line is pretty simple. But if you’ve ever tried to draw a perfectly straight line you’ll know that it’s pretty tough to get it right every time. Well, good news, there is a specific way to draw to get the most consistent results.
That’s right, drawing from the shoulder is the key. The goal here is to drag your pencil across the page without moving your wrist or elbow. Over time, you will get more used to it and your wrist and elbow will adjust naturally as you go.
Drawing a curve is done much the same way; allowing your elbow move slightly but only as a pivot point.
The trick with both of these lines is confidence. As you prove to yourself that you can make the line go where you want it to, you will gain more confidence.
If you have more question about the exact motion to take, I suggest doing a quick search of artists show this technique on video.
How to Draw Circles
One of the more intimidating parts of line art is drawing circles. This is because the fundamental structure of a circle is perfection. But don’t let that scare you, our goal is to get to about 80 percent accuracy.
If you get a circle to a good-enough level the human eye accepts the imperfections and still regards it as a perfect circle.
Here’s how to do it. Remember to draw from the shoulder!
Step one is hover your pencil tip over your page where you want to draw the circle. Step two, make the motion of drawing the circle from your shoulder, and gradually drop your pencil to the page. Keep it light at first.
Step three splits into two directions depending on what you are using the circle for. If you want to make a circle for it’s own sake, continue pressing a little harder and go around the circle a couple more times.
Peter Han, who teaches this method at Art Center College of Design, refers to this 3rd step as ‘making the circle true’ or ‘true-ing up’.
The alternate step three is to do only one more revolution but keep it light. This is because, in this case, the circle is only an indirect tool to be used later to create another shape, like a rounded corner.
Basic Shapes and How to Use Them
Like I said in the first section, if you combine shapes together on a 2D canvas, it can appear like you’ve drawn something 3D. Since this is the goal for most art, let's explore how to do so.
Here’s the options for combining shapes Into volumes:
A circle shape is used to create a Sphere.
A rectangle shape is used to make a Cube or 3D Rectangle.
Combine aspects of a rectangle and a circle shape together to make a Cylinder.
A triangle shape can be made into both a Pyramid or a Cone, depending on if one side is rounded or square.
That’s all the combinations! Not too many, right?
The best part of these combinations is that they can be used to create any object in three dimensions. Yes, I said ANY.
Simplify any complex object and you will come up with some combination of these volumes.
As you can see with these examples, I’ve outlined the basic volumes used around each object. Some objects need to be contorted or combined with many other basic volumes but they all stem from the foundational shapes.
Before we move on, I do want to mention that you can also use 2D shapes for guides, references and layouts in your art. And don’t forget, you can use a 2D shape for its own sake. No need to create a sphere when you only need a circle. Catch my drift?
Great! Next, to effectively use volumes and draw them in all angles we need to use a foundational tool that artists all have to know.
Creating a Perspective Grid
Okay to begin, what’s a perspective?
A perspective is just a certain point of view; think of it as a camera’s viewfinder. Any view of an object, that you want to draw, has to be illustrated from a subjective viewpoint.
The beauty of art, is that you not only get to design the object but even the way the audience views the object. That’s some heavy stuff.
So naturally, artists of old found a way to use the science of perspective to consistently draw what they wanted; today we call it a perspective grid. In 3D space there is an infinite amount of points from which the space can be viewed.
Those points of reference, we call vanishing points.
Objects that you draw in 3D space will naturally have to align themselves with vanishing points within the space. And if your object is on a ground plane, many of these vanishing points will be on the horizon line.
So, don’t you see? It’s a two way street; The specific perspective grid that you use in your art will be dictated by what objects you draw in the scene. A perspective grid is only what you need it to be.
Check this out!
The easiest perspectives are ones that use straight lines. So, using cubes or 3D rectangles will be great tools to show how a perspective grid works since they utilize straight lines.
As you can see, if you draw a cube as in the image above, notice that one side of the cube can be traced back to a vanishing point on the right and the other side can be traced to a different vanishing point to the left.
Since there are only two vanishing points, we call this a two-point perspective grid. I recommend trying this exercise on the illustration to help these concepts settle in.
If you are wondering how many points you can use in a perspective grid; it’s five.
It’s the closest grid we have to mimicking the curvature of our own eyes. It’s super cool!
For this intermediate level (and honestly, even advanced), using 1, 2, or 3 point perspective grids are perfect. Here’s an example of each.
Try to trace back where each vanishing point is and while you’re at it, notice how the cube becomes more dynamic looking as the grid get more vanishing points.
Basic Basics Practice Time
This is the first series of exercises so I’ll explain how they are set up. For each practice time, I’ll give you three exercises to develop the skills talked about in that section. I’d recommend doing every exercise at least once and judge how well you did.
Then do them regularly as warm ups.
Draw the same line 8 times over. Meaning, draw a line in ink, then draw the same line right over top of the first one, then do that 6 more times. The line should look as if you only drew it once and not look frayed. And NO RULERS ALLOWED.
Do this with straight lines and curves. Try short lines at first and then work your way to doing lines that go the whole length of a page.
You can even reverse the direction of your hand and try pull the line toward you instead of pushing (or visa versa).
Olympic Ring Exercise. This one will train up your concentric circle skills. With a pen, draw two lines that are parallel and two that come from a vanishing point.
Start with the parallel lines. Draw interlinking and similar sized circles using the method discussed in this section spaced evenly inside the parallel lines.
Now, try it with the vanishing point lines. This will train you to scale the circles at a nice even rate. You’ll notice that you are better at certain sized circles than others.
These first two exercises are swiped directly from Peter Han, so go give him a shout on social media if this helps you train your drawing hand.
Grid practice. Simply do two sets of 1, 2 and 3 point perspectives. As you do this make note where you are having difficulties. Are you struggling with drawing straight lines without a ruler? Having trouble with finding a vanishing point that is outside the frame or off the page?
Here’s a couple tips for making grids:
I usually start with the horizon line. I also try to make sure that the center of the grid has nice undistorted squares.
Enter the 3rd Dimension
A ton of this section, I learned from Scott Robertson. Respect.
Anatomy of a Rectangle
Before we start exploring all three dimensions, let’s learn some incredibly useful things about rectangles. All of these rules about rectangles will also apply within the third dimension so it very important that we understand them completely. Draw along with me if you’d like.
First draw a square. This will also apply to any rectangle but a square illustrates the point the best.
Now, for cool fact #1. To find the center-point of any rectangle, simply draw in an ‘x’ by connecting opposite corners together. Why is knowing a rectangles center-point useful? You’ll see in a minute.
If you now draw a line that is parallel to the sides of the square in each direction you create a cross shape. This is cool fact #2. Not only does this cross split the rectangle in quarters, but it also shows the halfway point of each of its sides. Brilliant!
The best part of this info is that it applies to any 4 cornered shape. So now that you have 4 smaller squares within the big one you can divide those into quarters as well.
And better yet, if you drew a square you can connect the mid-points of the big square together making a diamond shape, those lines should also intersect the center-points of the smaller squares.
These rules will be the magic that aides you every step of the way when we enter three dimensional space.
Drawing Planes in Perspective
Whoosh! We’ve just entered the third dimension and everything just got a little more real.
For us humans, viewpoints that have depth are something that we pick up on right away. I guess thousands of years of hunting in nature will do that to a people. Anyway, let’s learn the basics of harnessing this depth for ourselves.
Take a look at the front and side view of this plane. As you can see, since it’s a 2D shape so only the front view is really visible. Now take a look at how it shows in 3D space. With a 3/4 view and some depth it looks quite interesting and somehow more real.
The big take away is that the bottom two points of this 3D plane are on the same axis. Same with the top two points. That’s why they line up with the vanishing points guides respectively.
Duplicating and Mirroring
In this section, we start having some real fun. Essentially, we will be manipulating what we just did with drawing planes in perspective but to a bigger degree.
Let’s start with a two point perspective grid and a plane. The bold red square in this is example is our starting plane. Now, let’s use some of those rectangle facts that we learned a little ways back.
First find the center-point of the rectangle and then divide it into quarters. Now, for the real trick.
To duplicate this plane in space, all you have to do is draw a line from one corner through the halfway point of the opposite side and have it connect with the same guideline that forms the original rectangle.
Do this technique one more time in the same direction toward the vanishing point. Then try duplicating the latest square to the right following the left vanishing point.
If you do it correctly a single diagonal line will be able to cross from the first duplicated square’s farthest corner to the newest squares far corner.
If you want to save some time you can also start with a large plane and divide it up equally instead of duplicating to find each division. It will even work on a tilted plane. (More magic of the side-view later on).
First, Extend a plane out from the end square like this.
Then draw a perfectly straight line up from where the left corner of the last duplicated square and the new plane meet. That line needs to go as high as the tilted plane.
See how the blue guideline runs through both the top of the tilted plane and the top of the straight we just drew? Thats how we know they are at the same height.
Now, we need to divide the vertical line into equal parts. For this example just, divide it in half and then quarters and then divide it again.
Then overlay these divisions onto the tilted plane. On my example they are in green. The divisions should get slightly tighter looking as they recess toward the vanishing point.
Working in perspective always gives me goosebumps! Remember, if you know your end goal sometimes it’s better to draw the whole plane and then divide instead of duplicating for the same effect.
Since a ton of objects in life are symmetrical, it’s a great idea to master the art of mirroring shapes in 3D space. Let’s get to it.
Here, I’ve already done the mirroring work.
I’ve taken what we started with and then mirrored it over a plane that we will pretend is a mirror. Let me explain how it’s done.
First, we need to find how far away the shapes are from the mirror. To do that, draw a rectangle from the end of the red square to the edge of the mirror. Great!
Then duplicate this empty space over to the other side of the mirror-line.
Cool, cool. With that, we now know where the rectangles should start on our mirrored side.
Duplicate the distance of the closest rectangle. Do the same duplication technique but include the rectangle and the the empty space together.
All you have to do now is get rid of the marks from the empty space duplication and you are left with an accurately mirrored rectangle in space.
I did the rest of the shapes in this same way. Feel free to play around with this. To me, this is just so satisfying.
Transferring Curves in Perspective
Swinging back to working with just a single plane. I’m going to show you how to transfer something more complex like a compound curve into perspective.
The first thing you need to do is make sure the plane you have drawn in a front view is relatively the same proportion as the plane drawn in 3D space.
Now, divide the rectangle up into 1/8’s, both in side view and in the 3D view. Then divide centermost divisions vertically one more time. Use the ‘x’ method to find the centerlines.
Now, notice that I’ve drawn a curve in the front view of the plane. What you need to do as the artist, is to look for where the curve intersects your guideline divisions in the front view so that you can find those same divisions in the 3D view.
Above I have located several easy points of reference where the curve intersects the guidelines. When you practice this, there isn’t a need to draw small circles like I have in blue; a simple dot will suffice.
For the final step, we connect the dots. This is where all the boring plotting pays off.
Not to say this last step is easy, because it’s not. In order to get a good looking curve, you will need to have confidence. So practice the first set of exercises! Okay now for the final boss of this section.
Drawing Circles in Perspective aka Ellipses
So what if you want draw a circle in perspective…what is that even called? Welp, it’s called an ellipse and just like everything else, there’s a process for it.
To draw a proper ellipse you first need to draw a square plane tilted in the desired position and angle. Then, divide the square up like we’ve been doing: find the center-point, then divide into quarters.
In order to draw an ellipse you first need to find the minor axis of the plane. The minor axis is just a line and it’s drawn through the center-point of the plane.
It aligns perpendicularly to the plane. Think of putting a mini-donut on the end of your finger; If the donut is the ellipse then your finger would be the minor axis.
The process of actually drawing the ellipse is the same as drawing a flat circle. Ghost in the shape and then put more and more pressure to solidify the curve. You will know if you got the ellipse correct if the two sides divided by the minor axis are identical in shape and curve.
Sweet! You did it. Now let’s hit the drawing board for real!
Enter the 3rd Dimension - Practice Time
In this round of Practice Time, we are going to practice duplicating rectangles, plotting points on a 3D plane and drawing ellipses overlaid onto cubes.
Start with a two point perspective and draw in a huge rectangle. Then you will start with the section closest to the camera and make a starting square within the big shape.
Now, duplicate that rectangle until you fill the entire big shape that you started with. You can also, do the division tricks that we learned in the Anatomy of a Rectangle section to get similar results in a different way.
Start with a similar two point perspective and draw four floating planes at varying distances from the camera. Separately draw a flat side-view diagram of a similarly proportioned plane and draw a nice flowing curve on it.
Now, use the techniques we learned to transfer that curve to all the planes in your two point perspective.
Now for the most difficult one. This means you should practice this one more often than the others. Draw 5 -10 cubes on a sheet of paper or a blank software canvas.
Make sure to tilt the cubes in various ways so to challenge yourself with the ellipses. Use center-points, minor axis’s and the circle drawing technique to draw ellipses on every showing face of the cubes.
Don’t cheat and use a pen if you really want to level up quick.
Volumetric Drawing: There’s No Going Back
Drawing the Basics in 3D
Remember a ways back, when I mentioned all those shapes and how they combined to form all the basic building blocks for drawing everything. Well, it's now time to shed some light on how those simple volumes are drawn.
A cube or a three dimensional rectangle is the foundation for much of our perspective tricks and drawing techniques. It has six sides and its basic form has each set of sides (top/bottom, left/right, front/back) perfectly parallel. But make note only 3 sides can be seen at one time.
Since it is drawn with straight lines it often becomes the starting place for more complex shapes.
A sphere is the 3D equivalent of the 2D circle. It’s pretty simple to understand. Just think of a globe or a toy ball.
It’s actually impossible to tell a circle and a sphere apart if you don’t add lighting, because their silhouettes are identical.
A cylinder is made with a combination of using circles and straight lines. To draw a cylinder, first draw a cube in the desired proportions and then draw ellipses on two opposite ends. Now draw lines down from the edges of each ellipse to complete the volume.
The Cone and Pyramid
These two volumes are grouped together for their obvious similarity: one axis in both cases tapers into a single point. However, after that fact, they are very different. The pyramid is much more like a cube, while the cone is more like a cylinder.
Thinking Like a Sculptor
As you can see and even feel (if you are drawing along with me), these underlying rules of perspective are the building blocks for how everything in your physical reality is structured.
With that in mind, let’s start creating by pretending that we are sculpting with clay. Everything you can imagine can be built by a combination of adding or subtracting from your starting shapes.
Okay! Again, start with a two point perspective grid. I’ll place our starting bit of clay in the scene too: a regular old cube.
Let’s now do our center-point method and then divide the faces of the cube. Using those guides I’ve also found a new point in space by duplicated the center-point from the left vanishing point. So you can see the rest of the steps, I’ve lower the opacity of the lines.
Using the new point and diamond it created. I’ve drawn in two circles that will become the end-caps for a cylinder from which we’ll use as a subtraction volume. If you are in the 3D Technical Arts you will know this upcoming process as a Boolean.
Again, I’ve lowered the opacity to show the new step. Using all of the techniques you’ve learned so far plot points and trace them back in perspective to each side of the cube and you can find exactly where the cylinder intersects the cube.
That’s pretty amazing. Well, now let’s keep going and add something on to this unique volume.
So let’s just keep it simple and add a rectangular cube to this arch volume we cut out. Start by simply drawing it in.
Placing it in the scene straight away does a ton of good if we have drawn it accurately within the same perspective. All we have to do now is find the areas where the cube intersects the arch volume.
Notice how I’ve drawn straight lines from the exact points where the new cube intersects the arching curve on the first volume. Never try to guess where these points are…(unless you are short on time or you don’t mind being inaccurate).
Since we don’t actually see where the curve would cut into the new cube, because it’s blocking our view, there is no need to plot those points.
All that’s left is to erase away what we wouldn’t see now that the cube is in place.
Sick! These are examples of adding and subtracting to create something more complex and unique. Now let me show an example of something with a little more polish.
In this case, we are using the same subtractive technique but on two different axis’s at the same time. The goal here is to turn a cube’s corners into rounded corners.
We will be using circles to guide our subtraction. Since the circle for our subtraction is in perspective it needs to be drawn as a proper ellipse.
Then subtract each side and then for the case of the silhouette, edit the contour of the volume, showing off its new beveled corners. This is a great way to transform any object from a simple shape to something more interesting.
Okay! We’ve run down the list of all the basic volumes did a couple cool interactions. Now we can incorporate what we know about perspective and create some unique looking volumes out of curves.
One of the trickier things to do in 3D space is to mirror a curve in a tilted orientation. This is the first step into making complex shapes unique to your imagination.
Let’s start with a two point perspective and draw in a mirror plane some where in the center. Now on one side of the mirror I’ll draw a tilted plane on both axises, meaning that the lines from this plane will not converge to the original vanishing point.
On that plane I’ll draw a nice smooth curve. Before we begin mirror over the same angled plan to the other side using the duplication techniques from the last section. Now we are all set to mirror this curve!
To set yourself up for success, first find the center-point of each plane. Then divide the planes into quarters; these extra lines will help you see accurately in 3D space.
When mirroring points to the opposite side, you will start by creating a rectangle. Start with the first point. Draw a line down from that point until it reaches the lowest point of the plane’s height.
Since the plane is tilted this line WILL NOT end on the surface of the plane but off to the right slightly. This is normal.
From here, draw a guide from your first point toward the left vanishing point. I drew this with a red arrow. Where that line intersects the new mirrored plane is the first mirrored point on our new curve!
Now, run lines down from the remaining points down to the ground plane. Then mirror ground plane point to the other side of the mirror. If you then draw a vertical line from where you mirror it should then match up with the mirrored plane.
Wordy explanations never do it justice so follow allow the guides in my examples to see what I mean.
Now I just connect the dots like shown above with one fluid arc. You can now check to see if the line matches up with your ‘x’ on each plane. Hopefully you get it pretty close.
Now for the final check and a little volumetric fun. I am going to find all those same points on the mirror itself. It shouldn’t be that tough because we’ve already drawn the guidelines through that plane to find the mirrored points.
Once you plot the points on the mirror, draw another fluid line. Notice how the curve changes depending on the angle and distance of the plane it resides on.
To really make it apparent where this will be applicable as we move forward, let’s make this a volume.
Start by tracing around the two planes and then cap it by connecting the top points and the front two points. It should look like a weird scoop. You just made a new complex shape and volume by using curves.
Incredible! Let’s use everything we’ve learned so far on one complex form.
What defines something as complex? I think it just means there are multiple interwoven factors at play and that is exactly how to describe the next volume.
Just like with the beveling example, we will have to find how contours change in two different axis's to really see what the end result will look like. Let’s start with the first axis: The top view.
Starting with the usual two point perspective, lay in a simple boat like shape on a plane. As you can see I’ve kept the front and back-side flat. This keeps a third axis from getting involved.
Now, let’s make a volume by deciding how tall this boat shape will be and extruding the shape up to that level. You will have to use all of your perspective skills to achieve the result. Essentially its duplicating a curve and then connecting the dots.
Bam! See how I’ve left the cube as a bounding box around the shape. This will help us with the next step which is adding the side view. The side view plane will need to match the size of the side of the cube.
On this side view, you can see that I’ve made an arcing shape that will not only give curvature at the top but also elevate the volume from the ground plane.
Now that we have a side-view to reference, let’s transfer all that shape info to the main volume. In this case we are subtracting from the original. But first we need to mirror these plot points from the side view to the other side of the bounding cube.
I know this looks like a mess but let me give you a quick tour about what you should be paying attention to.
Everything in green are my guidelines (all the work) and all the lines in purple are the direct path I used to mirror these points.
At the end of each purple line there is a dot. That dot is key to the next step.
In teal, I’ve measured using the perspective grid and found the location of the points but on the main volume. I put little dots at the end of these lines to show the exact points the the contour will have to follow.
If you pay close attention, I’ve also used dotted lines showing the path from the purple point on the bounding cube to the final result in teal.
As you can see, once you connect all the teal dots, the complex volume comes into being. Notice that when the dots go behind the object, I edit the silhouette to properly show its new form.
I’ve left the side view in place because its interesting to see how a simple shape transforms into something complex when incorporated in an already multi-axial form.
Let’s erase away all the lines and add a ground shadow to show that this form is lifted from the ground.
Great job! Before we move on let me share some exercises to help you hammer these skills home.
Volumetric Drawing - Practice Time
Combine simple volumes together so that they intersect. Use perspective and plotted points to find the intersections. Then give a nice outline to show that they are now one object.
Mirror a tilted plane using a two point perspective grid. Then connect the two planes to form a volume. No guesswork, no rulers allowed.
Create a unique volume using a bottom and sideview plane. Be sure to plot your points to the bounding box first, then to the volumes surface. Afterward, give a new contour to your end result.
With all of those major concepts out of the way, let’s talk about some more interesting things about volumetric drawing and how we can make it a bit easier on ourselves.
The Magic of the Side view
I know that we used the side-view to make some cool volumes but now I want to share some more interesting uses for the side view.
As we talked about you can used the side-view to plot points. But what if we want to transfer a 2D shape to a wall or a logo on a sign. Well, I’m going to walk you through the process.
First, you need a plane in perspective where you want to transfer your shape. Then butting up right to the edge of the plane add another flat (side-view) plane.
One that plane draw the shape or logo that you want to be placed in perspective. Here, we are just working with a rotated triangle.
As with all of the other perspective tasks, start by finding the center point with the ‘x’ and then dividing up the planes into quarters. I’ve also used the diamond method to line up center points for all of the quarter sections too.
Now it’s time to locate the main points of interest. So where ever a key point, corner or good landmark( especially where they intersect your guidelines) make a little mark.
Okay, now for the cool part. Draw out parallel lines from each of these points of interest out to the right side of your side plane.
Alright, it’s time to trace back these points to the vanishing point aligned with our plane in perspective.
The trick is to locate where your guidelines intersect the perspective guides going back to the vanishing point. I’ve highlighted them here in green.
In many cases, you may have to further divide your plane until enough guides intersect your shape.
All that’s left is to connect the dots and erase what you don’t need. Incredible, isn’t it?
Before we tackle a the biggest task yet, let’s dive into the world of line weights and simple shadows.
Check out this scene.
It looks like just an arrangement of volumes in perspective. And you are right, it is. Now, it’s seems kinda boring for some reason. Even though they are properly in perspective and cleanly drawn, you can’t help but not be interested.
That’s because they all share similar line weight. It’s the equivalent of a painter painting a whole scene using one or two shades of grey. Not much could snag your interest because there wouldn’t be much contrast. The same thing applies here. Except we will be using lines instead of value.
First, let’s add some line weights.
As you can see, the objects suddenly have some life to them and the space feels like it has depth. Let me show you what you need to do to have this effect in your own perspective drawings.
Let’s start with the pyramid. It’s in the foreground so it should get an overall thicker or heavier line weight. In contrast, the floating cube in the distance should get no extra line weight.
The cube right behind the pyramid is in the mid-ground and it should have a mix. As lines recede in the distance they should get less and less of a line weight.
Finally, all foreground and mid-ground objects should receive a little more of a line weight on the shadow side of the object; in this case, the underside.
Simple Drop Shadows
The next step you could take to level up your perspective drawings is to give them a nice ground shadow or cast shadow if it’s casting on another object.
The way you do that is to pretend you are extruding the length of whatever object you are adding a shadow to, all the way to the ground plane. Obviously, objects already on the ground shouldn’t get any shadow. Check this out.
See how I’m tracing my end points down from each object to the ground plane. This is what we call a minimalistic shadow because we are pretending that the light is coming straight down, keeping the measuring easy.
Notice that for the slanted plane, I’ve had to first find where the cube’s shadow above it would land and then add it to its own shadow for casting on the ground below it.
I think the graphic explains it best so just follow the lines and figure it out for yourself.
Once you’ve done this work all you have to do is shade in the shadow areas. Be sure to shade the under side of objects too.
Brilliant! Now that looks like a real scene, even if it's just made up of simple volumes.
Ready for tackling the biggest challenge yet? You will be incorporating everything you’ve learned so far and a little more. If you pull this off its like doing several practice-times so I’ve not included one for this last section.
How to Draw a Spiral Staircase
No turning back now, let’s get to work!
To start this beast, let’s first set up a two point perspective with the horizon somewhere in the middle of your canvas. I think it’s even more interesting to have one vanishing point in the distance.
Step 1: Draw a Ground Plane
Draw a plane in perspective. Make it lower than the horizon. Also do a light sketch of how you think the spiral may look. If it looks like it will fit you can now erase this spiral line.
Step 2: Draw Side-View Plane
Draw a side-view plane that butts up with the top left corner and spans the width of the plane already drawn in step 1. Go ahead and divide it into quarters too.
Step 3: Draw a Circle Inside The Side View Plane
Draw a circle inside the side view plane. Don’t worry about the minor axis, because, remember, it doesn’t matter because it’s concentric. Makes sure that the circle reaches all four sides at exactly the midpoint.
Step 4: Divide The Circle
Divide the circle into equal parts. Do this by first using the ‘x’ method. Then draw a line from the halfway point ON THE CIRCLE back to the center point for each quarter section.
Step 5: Trace Lines Down From The Intersections
Just like in the triangle example, trace lines down from where the circle intersects with the pie-like divisions. Once those lines reach the bottom of the side view plane, translate them using the vanishing point to the other plane in perspective.
Step 6: Divide The Ground Plane
Find the Center-point and divide the plane in perspective. Simple.
Step 7: Draw An Ellipse Onto The Ground Plane
Draw in an ellipse within the bounds of the plane. The minor axis should be a straight vertical line so the ellipse will have a very balanced look.
Step 8: Divide The Ground Plane At Side View Intersections
Divide the plane into sections using where the circle intersects the guides transferred from the side view.
Step 9: Erase The Side View Drawing
Erase away the side view drawing; we have no more need of its power. Then, lightly erase or lower the opacity of the perspective plane and all the ellipse guides. Setup is done. Now, to the real work.
Step 10: Draw Height of The First Stair
Draw in the height that we will use for the first stair in the staircase. Notice that I draw segments for both the corners of the pie shape that will eventually become the first stair.
Step 11: Complete The Shape of The First Stair
Use the vanishing point to draw a line for the height back to the center of the circle. You see how it’s created the first stair shape. Awesome!
All in all, it looks like I’ve also made a bounding box around the first quarter of the circle. This is a big landmark that we will build upon for the rest of the drawing.
Step 12: Measure The Height of The Next Step
Duplicate the the height up one more level. Use as many lines as possible to keep your place. You should plot each corner of the pie shape for the next stair. If this looks confusing take a look at the following step and then backtrack.
Step 13: Complete The Next Step
Complete the pie shape by connecting the dots that you just plotted.
Step 14: Pull Up Another Step
Another setup phase. Duplicate another square to find the height of the next stair in the staircase.
Step 15: Complete The Shape of The Third Step
Complete the pie shape for the third level. I’ve also sped up the process by setting up the height for the fourth stair.
Step 16: Complete The Forth Step, Then Duplicate
Again, complete the pie shape for the fourth level and then duplicate for to find the height of the fifth stair.
Step 17: Complete, Duplicate And Repeat
From here, complete the pie shape for the fifth level. Then follow the same process for the next four stairs.
Remember, if you get lost, trace your steps back to a center or mid-point on the ground level of the circle. Also, never stop drawing through your volumes. It’s the key to knowing where you are in space at any given moment.
Step 18: Add Stairs At The Bottom
Now, that we’ve run out of space at the top lets add a few stairs to the bottom. This will give the full effect of the spiral. I’ve continued to use dashed lines to find my height from the center axis of the circle.
This area can be tricky because the vanishing point in front is now starting to align with the vertical (infinite) vanishing point. Just use your best judgement when the lines start to blur together.
Step 19: Lower Opacity
Let’s add some real volume for each stair step. Start by lightly erasing away or lowering the opacity of all of the lines we’ve drawn so far.
Step 20: Add Thickness To The Stair Tops
Starting with the first stair height. Divide the height into quarters, and then use the first quarter of that height section to be the width of the step.
Do the same with each stair in the staircase. Make sure to measure using the guides from the vanishing points so to keep the width uniform as it recedes in space.
Step 21: Add Ground Plains
Let’s add a ground plane for the bottom and top of the staircase. Draw a path of your choosing leading to and from the staircase.
Step 22: Clean Up The Drawing
Okay, clean up time. We need to erase away the lines that would be blocked by the stairs.
Step 23: Add Line Weights
Lastly, let’s add some line weights to really make these things pop.
Whoa, that staircase looks impressive! Great job sticking with this tutorial! Give yourself a little breather and when you’re ready lets get back to learning.
This part of the tutorial is where we let go a little bit and just let the things we’ve learned settle as we have some fun.
Ready to dive deeper into the right side of your brain? Let’s do it. Take a look at this shape.
It’s pretty irregular and even a bit wonky. What could it be? Well, that’s up to you and your imagination. Kinda like looking at clouds and making sense of their forms, we are going to make this shape into whatever we choose.
How do we go about that, though? One way is to add more details, but an even better way is to add section contour lines to further define the shape. And the best part is no answer is wrong, as long as you follow the rules of perspective to at least a basic level.
Here’s one option.
With these contours we can tell it’s some sort of wedge shape. Let’s check out an alternative option.
With these new contours, we can see this shape looks more like cylinder than a wedge. It even has a little bit of detail that implies it has a dent or something.
Take a few moments and try some shapes out. Give them alternative forms by switching up what kind of section lines you add to them.
Once you have some fun in this mental playground, let’s move on. Take a look at these volumes.
Each of them have contour lines that define what kind of space they take up, but without a grid or other landmarks we can’t tell how they would relate to each other. That’s where we come in.
First, let’s really get into the right brain and add more irregular forms.
Cool, cool. Now we have some interesting options to work with. Next, let’s make some organic compound shapes by combining these volumes together with even more volumes.
Sweet! If you are doing these along with me, don’t worry about making anything look good or have a nice design. This is a no judgement zone for yourself. Simply make whatever comes to mind.
Notice that some of my volumes have hard edges and look more like machines and others are more bendy, feeling more like tendrils.
Look at how I’ve added to previously drawn volumes; specifically where the two volumes butt up against each other. See how if you align both of them with similar contours and within the correct perspective, it can seem like they reside in the same space?
Let’s focus on the seams and give a little bit of a rounded edge to the connection.
Doing little things like rounding corners and blending contours with a gradual slope can help join things together. Since this is all coming from your imagination, even the blending is up to you. If we clean it up, I bet it’ll look pretty cool.
Bravo! They look so weird but that’s the best part. They are completely original. From this stage you could take a set of shapes you like and rework them into something usable for a design or a comic.
Before we move one, I want to point out some examples of how to mix things up when you construct your volumes organically.
As you see, transitions are the key. Try to start with a square-ish type shape and transform it to a rounded shape. Also, always try to visualize behind the volume because it will trigger more imaginative possibilities for your shapes.
Awesome! Now, I’m going to talk about something really important and its going to serve you in your studies and sketches if you take heed.
Simplify and Conquer
No matter if you are doing a casual sketching session or using reference for a final drawing, simplifying your work from photo or life reference is a big part of developing into a great artist.
Your interpretation of the world and how you simplify it in your work is the magic that only you have.
That being said, knowing how to analyze life and being able to break it down into simple volumes is the first stage that will then launch you into that interpretation phase.
Let’s go through the steps with this example. We will be using a ball cap with my own logo.
Let me talk a little about each step.
Step 1 is to try to see multiple views of the volume. It is a 3D object after all. In real life just walking around the object.
If it has a longer side, start by drawing a side-view in as few lines as possible. I tend to use straight lines here so I can easily measure the proportions with my eye.
While you’re here, jot down a couple notes to help you remember what you just learned from drawing the side-view. In this case, we see that the bill of a cap is about 1/4 of the whole. That’s important info!
Step 2 is to orient the object for easiest drawing. This means if something is at an angle, do a small sketch of how it would look if you straightened the orientation out.
Step 3 is a matching game. Look at the major parts of each section of the object and find volumes that easily match it directly or find a volume that would indirectly help shape it.
In our case, the bowl part of the cap is pretty close to one half of a sphere, while the bill is like an oblong half-cylinder.
Notice how even though I don’t get all of the shapes perfectly drawn in, the sketch still really looks like a ball cap. That’s because we got the proportions, angle and basic volumes right.
And last, we just have to sculpt the form a bit more. For the bowl of the cap, I use straight lines with rounded corners and for the bill, I cut away the corners of the half-cylinder.
Finally, I added a button on top and tilted the angle back to an orientation as if it was resting on a table.
Don’t forget line weights, simple drop shadows and a few details! Speaking of details; there is another similar concept that will help your constructed forms.
Since this is usually one of the last things added to a drawing, I saved it for last too. Texture is something very similar to details. I separate them by utility.
Details are specific; things like features, buttons, logos, and small contours. While textures, are more global and even blend into ambiguity. That means that texture can be interpreted while details are very clear what they are.
For this reason, render lines like cross-hatching adds to the texture and not the details; even though they sometimes cover them up.
Though this isn’t always the case. Some people just thing of texture as the smallest details. But as an illustrator, I think you should let texture become something more like a feeling than a physical thing.
Take a look at these examples.
Each one of these is a different texture. The top left cube has a hatching feel to it but it has just enough variability where you get the sense it’s a part of its details somehow.
Top right is a texture that could mean several things depending on how you look at it. It could be rain water or long grass or pounded metal; we don’t know. It’s just a texture.
Last is the cube with dents. It has large shapes but it still has a vagueness, where you may not know what it is until you add more concrete details.
If you combine great construction, perspective and controlled execution with a visceral texture and an imaginative spin, you will end up with a memorizing piece of art.
Wow! Is it over? I think we’re done.
Before you go let me just say a few important words about my thoughts on studying and sketching.
Sketch and Study
These two words are used very often in the same sentence but I think that they define two parts of what it means to be an artist in very different ways. In my mind, they represent the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
I know that sketching can sometimes be studious and studies can be sometimes sketchy, but each serve you in a completely different way.
Sketching should be more gestural and done with less pressure; in other words, free. While studying needs to be precise and serve as a catalyst for deep learning: in other words, careful.
I think these two words sum up this tutorial nicely. There is a lot of study, a ton of constructional drawing, and a boat load of brain power needed to get through it. Basically, a large chunk of it is studying.
But, within all that construction and all the rules, and all the heavy handed thinking, there lives a space for the imagination and whimsical creativity.
The rigid perspective grids are not meant to be nets, there to trap you; they are there to free you. You are free to create, sculpt and compose whatever you wish in that open space.
Once you have these fundamentals comfy in your mind, it will be easier to let loose and create the most complex forms from your imagination. Bring that freedom and careful attention into comics and your stories.
I hope you learned a ton while we scaling this mountain with me. Being humble, and constantly learning is the key to becoming a master, so keep at it and I hope to hear from you on social media.
Send me a DM on twitter: twitter.com/catapanoart. I try my best to give you all what I’ve always wanted in an art tutorial, so let me know if I am hitting the mark or if you’d like to see different things included in the future.
If you didn’t know, https://www.howtodrawcomics.net/ has a large artist community that post and get feedback on their work all the time. So don’t be shy, get in there and show off what you can do. Even a negative critique is worth its digital weight in gold. (after the initial sting passes, that is.)
Tutorial by Joe Catapano