Learning how to draw is essentially learning about seeing shapes and then drawing shapes.
It really doesn't matter what kind of drawing you're interested in. Whether you're into observational drawing or illustration. Drawing shapes is part of a visual language you need to understand.
You see, it's not only about drawing shapes, it's about identifying and seeing shapes in the world around you.
I’m going to share the most impactful observational strategy that helped learn how to draw anything.
When I share this strategy with my students in a workshop setting. After they practice it for a few hours their drawings immediately transform. Their work becomes more confident by the end of the class compared to the hesitant lines they were making in the beginning.
What is this strategy?
It’s understanding the language of shapes.
The aesthetics of drawing shapes
Sketching shapes is easier – much easier – than sketching “things”.
The beauty of focusing on shapes is that it bypasses conscious thinking and a critical mindset.
In regards to drawing faces, rather than thinking, “I can’t sketch faces”.
You’re instead adopting a perspective of, “Does the shape of the shadow under the lips taper in or out?”, “How does the overall shape of the shadow on the side of the face compare with the shape of the model's long hair?”.
Do you see how the language of shapes (square, tapered, rounded, etc.) takes us out of the language of things (faces, hands, horses, etc.)?
It’s almost like a magic trick, the more we focus on the seeing and drawing shapes. Our sketches end up looking like the things we wanted them to. Poof!
That’s why it really doesn’t matter what we sketch. When we learn to see things in terms of their shapes, and drawing those shapes, we can sketch anything: people, buildings, plants, humans, animals, etc. All these different subjects are just drawn by you seeing and drawing shapes.
Use these simple tips for getting better at seeing and drawing shapes
I’ve put together three quick tips to help you focus on observing and drawing shapes.
1. Sketch the largest shapes first
If you're looking at an object that has many shapes, draw the largest shapes first, then the smallest.
The easiest way to start drawing shapes is to focus on being general rather than being specific.
In other words, drawing shapes is easier when you draw the largest shape first. Ignoring all the details. In practice, this is usually the outer silhouette of your subject.
Another example, let's pretend you're looking at multiple subjects such as a crowd of people. Drawing shapes just became complicated, well, not really. Try to imagine the crowd as one large shape. Now instead of having to drawing thousands of shapes, you're only drawing one or two. Drawing shapes doesn't have to be complicated.
Essentially, use this first general shape to help you draw the supporting shapes.
Which is the next tip for drawing shapes.
2. Draw the supporting shapes second
Look for supporting shapes, including highlights, shadows reflections, and patterns.
This is how you can draw anything. Instead of being intimidated by drawing different things such as light and shadow or faces. Instead, tell yourself everything is nothing but a collection of shapes.
When you draw supporting shapes, you are focusing on the shapes within the largest shape you drew first.
These smaller supporting shapes can be anything from a ray of light shining across the surface of a bottle, shadows that make up a palm of a hand, to reflections on a piece of metal.
When you start to notice these shapes in your observations you’ll understand that they’re nothing but elongated triangles, strange trapezoids, and wobbly squares. Assembling these smaller unique shapes together in your sketching will enhance it as a whole.
Often, what makes a sketch interesting to look at is how the artist captured and interpreted the supporting shapes in the sketching.
3. Drawing shapes created by negative space
Negative space is the empty space between other space. Sometimes, as you’re looking at your subject, you’ll notice shapes created by the negative space between objects.
For example, you’ll find trapped shapes between leaves and the sky behind them, empty areas between buildings, and anywhere else objects come together with empty space. These are also called, “negative spaces”, but regardless, they’re shapes.
When you see a trapped shape, sketch it.
Start to develop a habit of drawing shapes created by objects and drawing shapes that are essentially trapped shapes.
Going back and forth between them both as you observe and sketch.
Final thoughts on drawing shapes
Drawing shapes is one of those drawing ideas that helped me grow as an artist. From working as a freelance artist to my personal fine art.
To get better at drawing shapes, I prefer to look at things such as vases of flowers, my opposite hand, or simply the room I'm in. Then spending 60-90 seconds drawing what I'm looking at.
At first I recommend simply making contour line drawings. Ignoring light and shadow all together. Only drawing shapes created by positive and negative space. Then if you feel like it, spend another minute or two drawing shapes created by the light and shadows. Time limits for learning how to see and draw shapes is extra helpful. Helpful because the creative limitation of time will make you create more drawings in a shorter amount of time.
It made is so I didn't feel stuck when tasked to draw something. Early on when I worked as a storyboard artist, you can go from drawing cars and humans to buildings and plants in one day of work. Knowing how to breakdown any subject into the simple act of drawing shapes helped me tremendously.
Drawing shapes is also a helpful for drawing from your imagination. For example, if you're drawing characters or working on visual development for animation, then coming up with ideas fast is part of your daily job. Knowing how to draw random shapes and transform them into characters, environments, props, or storyboards is essential.
Virtually all character design starts with creating a variety of shapes. Then, translating those shapes into characters.