Your First Week of Drawing: Where to start?

Take-away: If you’re new to drawing, the first thing you learn is seeing the world as shapes and angles. For your first exercise, draw this upside down picture. (link)

Reading-time: 4min + 20min of practice

Hey there!

New to drawing? Don’t know how to get started? When I started back in 2012, I spent two weeks worrying about “Where to begin?” and “How do I start drawing?“. So I decided to go back and solve the mystery for everyone else starting today. Just follow along!

What do you need? Only two things: 1) a stack of cheap printing paper (Amazon link) and 2) a pencil or a ballpoint pen.

So, there we go:

1. The Picasso Exercise

Right now, grab a sheet of paper and a pencil and draw this picture:

Yes, just like that, upside down. Why? When you’re new to drawing, the first thing you have to learn is objectively seeing shapes and angles. When you turn it the right way round, you’ll be surprised to see how well you did!

If you’re not sure where to begin on the blank page in front of you: start with the upper left corner if you’re right-handed, or the upper right corner if you’re left-handed. Then work your way down. This way you avoid smearing the paper with your hand.

I’ll wait for you to finish. See you soon 🙂

The image is Igor Stravinsky drawn by Picasso, and it’s a famous exercise from the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Amazon link)So why do we start with this exercise?

2. Learning to see like an artist

As an absolute beginner, you will be symbol drawing. You draw the idea of what you see instead of the physical shapes that you see. As a result, your drawing looks off.

Here’s an example of Absolute Beginner’s symbol drawing:

symbol drawing

The difference between what you see and what’s actually there can be pretty big. For example, your brain has symbols for what an eye looks like. Some kind of an oval with a circle in it, right? But is that what eyes really look like?

Reality is diverse. First of all, the shape of an eye changes by person. Then it also changes based on the angle you’re looking at it or the facial expression of the person! Every time you draw, you’ll have to look closely at what the shape actually is. This means fighting the pattern in your brain that’s trying to mislead you.

When you look at the below picture, the first you see is “a car”. Only when you concentrate, you’ll see the actual shapes it is made of.

A car is made of many different shapes – the shapes of the wheels, body of the car, reflections,  windows and so on.

By flipping the Picasso drawing upside down, we force the brain to see lines instead of concepts. Now you’re no longer looking at a face, a hand or a mouth. It’s just a jumble of lines. Thanks to that, you draw a lot more accurately.

Your Picasso drawing doesn’t need critique or improvement – this exercise is about introducing you into looking at lines only.

The next steps will be drawing real-life objects and grid drawing.

3. Daily Practice

Do this one thing for me: sign your Picasso drawing with your first name. Now, next to that signature, write your name again but with your non-dominant hand (left hand for righties, right hand for lefties, mouth for ambidextrous folks).

What happened? One of the two signatures looks better than the other. Why? Your KNOWLEDGE is the same. You know how to hold a pen and you know how to write your name, so why the difference?

Well, your dominant hand has had a lot more PRACTICE writing your name. What I try to show is that knowledge is not enough. You will have to draw every day.

Mileage is king.

Try to look at your week. If you have a really bad day, when would you still find time for a quick doodle? Right after your wake up? Lunchtime? Before bed? Block that time slot for drawing. Just a minimum. If you can only do 20 minutes, do 20 minutes!

I suggest starting every drawing session with a 5-minute warm-up. The warm-up can be anything, just get your hand moving. Some draw lines and circles, others make funny doodles. Here’s some of my warm-up doodles:

You can just throw away the warm-up page afterwards, it’s purely for getting your blood flowing. This is not only a physical exercise. By making bold marks on the paper, you will feel more confident when you are starting your actual drawing afterwards.

Picasso was just the first step. Are you ready for more?

I’m writing part 2, it will be posted next week. The short version of it is: grab some simple objects like a banana, banana peel, tree leaf, lemon, stuffed animal, sock or tea bag. Every day, pick one, put it in front of you and draw it. 🙂

If you have any questions, leave a comment! You can also email me at (work email) or (personal email).

Art Exercises I do weekly & Why they are useful

Edit: I’m going to art school now, so I’m dropping the weekly exercises. I might pick new ones after my studies, more suited for my situation then. 

The title is a lie. It should say “Art exercises I will do weekly after I slay the procrastination monster”. I just found a great new blog to read! Yaaaayyy! This spells doom and gloom for my productivity. On the positive side, I discovered it after finishing my painting session. I also managed to write up this blog post, didn’t I? 😉

Well, what are these weekly exercises about? I’ve been planning for a while to start an art routine. It’s finally taking shape! By having a bit of structure, I’ll be able to easily keep track of my improvement. I’ll post the proof of me slaying the procrastination monster on Tumblr by the end of the week. Pinkie promise. 😀

What are the 7 art exercises I want to do weekly?

  1. Gestures
  2. A portrait study
  3. Composition
  4. Perspective breakdown
  5. Interior or Architecture study
  6. A contest submission
  7. A drawing request

Now let’s get into some detail: what are these exercises exactly and why do I want to do them? We’ll discuss the what-why-how of each!

  1. Gestures

I mentioned gesture drawing in my post on drawing with your left hand, but did I tell you why gestures are important? By practising gestures, you can show energy and action in your drawings. Having a good understanding of gesture also prevents your figures from looking stiff and unnatural. Do I need to practice my gestures? Oh, for sure, I do. I remember drawing a running guy during biology class and someone asked me:

“Iris, why are you drawing someone falling?”

Oops. Two years have passed and my running figures still look like they are tumbling down a ravine.

  1. Portrait study

In my humble opinion, human faces are the most important drawing skill for an illustrator. Becoming an illustrator happens to be my goal, so… I often sketch faces, but never dedicate time to studying portraits. As a result, my faces all look the same and I have trouble with unusual angles.Time to do long portrait studies, from life or from photo reference. I’ll study the structure of the face as well as the features. I’ll work digitally and force myself to spend two hours on it. Besides improving my faces from imagination, I hope to get the knack of getting likeness. When I sketch people on the subway, they always look like a completely different person. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong… Focusing on portrait studies should help me out.

  1. Composition

This is the last painting I made, a Cossack charging on horseback:

Iris Hopp - cossack charge imag 45min

I repainted and repainted and repainted the little guy in front, but it just didn’t work out. I rearranged the victim and the charging Cossack, I changed the direction the horse was running in… For some reason I’m clueless about composition. When I end up with a nice piece, it’s because I happened upon the composition by chance.

Trial and error is a valid way to learn. It also takes a lot of time. That’s why I decided that I have to stop fiddling around and tackle composition head-on. At the moment the plan is to study master paintings. In other words, I want to learn from great examples. I am also looking for guides or books on composition. If I find a particular good one, I’ll add it to the composition study routine.

  1. Perspective Breakdown

This is a new exercise for me. I have always avoided perspective. My plan? Take an object and draw an analysis of the perspective: vanishing points, basic shapes, … This will be my very first step towards technical drawings. Guess what? I’m scared. Yup, even thinking about perspective exercises is scary for me. This means that I’m getting out of my comfort zone. It’s a good sign.

  1. Interior/Architecture Study

Yes, another exercise that scares me. This type of artwork also needs perspective… and patience… and precision. I’m very weak at landscapes in general: I sketch and paint without backgrounds. However, instead of just studying “backgrounds” or “landscapes”, I decided to narrow it down to interiors and architecture because otherwise I’d keep avoiding perspective forever. The perspective breakdown exercise is for studying objects in perspective, this exercise is to practice large-scale perspective. To maximise the benefits of this exercise, I better start adding backgrounds to all my drawings. That way I’ll apply my studies to my regular art work.

  1. A contest submission

At first I called this “a finished painting per week”, but I decided to go with a contest submission instead. Why? There are two benefits to participating in contests. First, you can compare your work to that of other artists. Secondly, you can ask for feedback. I decided to go with Do you remember the Cossack painting I showed you earlier? I submitted it to 99designs with a small comment, and the contest owner messaged me back explaining why he didn’t pick my design. I didn’t get a price, but I got a lesson about design instead. This motivates me to keep participating. Hey, I might even win a few bucks! Fingers crossed 😀

  1. A drawing request

I’m doing free request on deviantArt and gave myself two rules to abide:

  1. Draw the request traditionally.

The digital medium lets you undo and redo and gives you no limits considering size or colour. When I draw with ballpoint, I have to think about how to draw a glowing orb with my limited colours, and I have to plan ahead because I can’t redraw a pose without starting completely over.

  1. Make A4-sized drawings

A bad habit that I want to correct is drawing too small. The previous requests I did for deviantArt users were tiny scribbles. Scribbling on tiny pieces of paper is a three-year old habit and by doing a weekly big drawing, I hope to slowly get used to different formats. It will be better for my wrist and will allow me to draw with more detail.

I better start, because this is a pretty intensive to-do list! Do you think having a set of weekly exercises will make you practice more?

– Iris

What to do when you can’t draw with your right hand anymore?

Losing one of your hands is quite inconvenient. Not being able to draw, you know?
You can sprain your hand , get a fleshwound or face the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s tough being an artist without a functional hand.  Or when you’re a student or a plumber, or a housewife, or a doctor, or… Yes, not being able to use your hand is a downer for everyone.

I got a little problem with my shoulder. Every now and then, my shoulder goes like “I’m done with this!” and pops out of its socket. I am not against strikes every now and then – after all shoulders don’t have unions. However, it doesn’t work well with my drawing ambitions.
My shoulder has improved a lot, but it still tends to dislocate. Last time this happened was when I did a biceps flex on Skype. (Needless to say, I didn’t impress the guy 🙁 )
When it dislocates, I can’t move my arm for about two days and it keeps hurting for a while. A perfect excuse to take a break!

Or not.

Knowing myself, that’s the beginning of the end. I will slip back into my old habits of laziness and procrastination. So after the bicep flex accident, I got thinking: how can I keep drawing despite not being able to use my arm?
The answer is obvious. I still got another arm. Yes! I can just draw with my left hand (i.e. my non-dominant hand).

Have you ever tried drawing with your other hand?
It’s not easy. You are drawing a head and you want to put the nose in between the eyes and the mouth, yet the nose ends up outside the page and not looking like a nose anyhow.

Because you don’t use your other hand, the fine motor skills are not developed. Your brain tells it what to draw and it just won’t cooperate. Precise lines and details are impossible.
Step 1:   find a replacement hand. Done!
Step 2:   draw with it. Eh… this one is quite the challenge.

Are there types of drawing that don’t need clean lines or precision?

Yup, there are plenty! I got two exercises for you: gesture drawing and shadow massing. 😀

1. Drawing gestures with your non-dominant hand

Iris Hopp - digital gestures ref subtitle banner

New to gesture drawing? This video explains it in 10 minutes:

 I love you, Proko <3

With gestures, you express movement or emotion using simple marks. You try to capture it without trivial details. Hey, no details needed? Sounds doable even with the sloppy left hand!
Here’s an example of my gesture drawing, with my right hand:

Iris Hopp - right hand gesture drawings

And this is what I managed with my left hand:

Iris Hopp - left hand gesture drawings

Do the lefties look worse? Sure. Yet I got great practice out of it, because gesture drawing is a mental exercise: find the flow of the figure. Find the action line. My lines being wobbly?  That doesn’t matter!
I used the Posemaniacs tool, but you could also draw gestures from your imagination.

2. Shadow massing
Iris Hopp - black white eyes subtitle banner

Shadow massing is another exercise where the key is simplification.

What is shadow massing?
You take a reference and try to divide it into light and shadow. One of my weaknesses is dividing small areas into shadow and light, while missing the big shapes.  I can’t be the only one!

This exercise helps. It isn’t called “find the shadowy parts” but “shadow massing” because you are looking for the big groups and you ignore details. Master paintings are great to study shadow massing with, because they often have a value composition. The focus of the painting is bright and centered, and the unimportant parts are left in the shadows, like in these examples:

Colourcow - Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein

Colourcow - Lama Giulia - Fondazione Federico Zeri


First, I lightly sketched with a pen to get the proportions down. Then I used a marker to fill in the shadow areas. With my left hand, I couldn’t work digitally because a tablet is so smooth. The pen was constantly slipping! Using pen and paper, I had a little bit of grip. However, with the polygon lasso tool, you could practice shadow massing digitally and much more efficiently by filling large areas at once.

Now you might ask me:
Since drawing with your left hand is so difficult and your shoulder dislocates often, … why don’t you learn to draw with your left hand?
I’ve seen a similar question in art forums: “Should I practice with my other hand, in case I ever lose my drawing hand?”.

Should we all learn to draw with our other hand too?
Iris Hopp - digital hand study ref subtitle banner

I think we shouldn’t.

Yes, ambidexterity can be learned. Yes, it has advantages, like switching hands to prevent repetitive strain injury. So why don’t we?

Your non-dominant hand is slow and clumsy. You better spend your time drawing with your usual hand, instead of preparing for an accident that might never happen. In my own situation, I lose one or two days in a year, that’s it. In short, it’s not worth the effort. You lose more opportunities to practice efficiently than you gain benefits.

Drawing knowledge is in your head – not in your hand. Your fine motor skills alone don’t determine how good your art is. Focus on improving your art and the fine motor skills develop on its own, just because you draw everyday.
Got carpal tunnel? Broken bones? An amputation? Nerve paralysis?
If you ever lose your dominant hand, you just continue drawing with the other and it will become your new drawing hand. The two exercises I suggested, gesture drawing and shadow massing, they focus on knowledge and skill, not on mark making. Drawing precision comes naturally over time. There are paraplegics (paralyzed in all their limbs) who paint better with their mouth than I do with my right hand!

Let’s sum it up!

Iris Hopp - sketch imag subtitle banner

Situation: for some reason, you can’t use your good hand. So you decide to draw with your non-dominant hand.
Challenge: that rusty non-dominant hand has a lack of precision and motor control.
Solution: select exercises that don’t need precision 🙂

Gestures and shadow massing are the two exercises I chose, but there’s more! How about studying composition and colour pallets? You could also watch tutorials, go to a museum, read art book – it all helps to learn and expand your visual library.

Happy drawing!

– Iris

Let’s Fail Again! Three times is the charm.

Not giving up. Now that helped me improve a lot. You start out an amateur, so of course you will have good days and bad days. There’s a different way to phrase “not giving up”: keep failing.

I have heaps of drawings that I want to rip apart and never look at again. Today that happened again. I wanted to draw some fairies and horses for my sister. My first attempt was a mess.

Iris Hopp - first failed elves sketch

Okay, I thought, let’s try again. The second time I drew slowly, using my first sketch as an example. I looked at horse pictures and tried out ideas on a different page.

Iris Hopp - second failed elves sketch

Failed again.

I ripped the pages out of my sketchbook. I’ll draw something else. At least I tried, right?

But I realized what I was telling myself: give up, just draw something easier. I liked the idea of elves playing with horses. Why did my drawings fail? I can draw horses. I can draw figures. So why couldn’t I draw figures on horses?

I looked at the sketches… the horses were fine. The elves were too big, and their body language was weird… Hey, I could draw the elves a bit smaller. I acted out the poses of the elves. Oh, this kind of pose feels more natural. Maybe add trees to give it a composition?

Okay, one last attempt. And this time, I was happy with the result.

Iris Hopp - elves on horses drawing

The idea was the same. Heck, it was almost identical to my first sketch. It just looked ten times better. I took the time to think about my previous drawing, decided what wasn’t working and drew it again without the early mistakes. Practice makes perfect, right? Well… If I had drawn it fifteen times without stopping to think why it came out ugly, I would have failed over and over again.

This is the kind of failure that teaches me the most. It always comes down to “why”. Why did I fail? Not because I’m a bad drawer. Not because it’s too difficult. No, just small parts: change the gesture, ditch the dogs and fix the proportions.

And just like that, I improved from this to that in one evening:

I love this quote:

If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” – Thomas Watson

That’s exactly what I did! I failed and failed again, and then my third attempt was a success. Three times is the charm 🙂

If it isn’t working, try again. If it still doesn’t work: find out why. Ask in a critique forum, compare to a tutorial, or just pause and think. If you find the answer, you’ll be able to fix it.

What if you can’t figure out what’s wrong? Move on to the next drawing. As you grow as an artist, you will learn. The answers will come to you. Next year this could be the “before” picture of your improvement chart! 🙂

Are you going to give today’s drawing a second pass? Happy drawing!

– Iris

Why the ballpoint pen beats the pencil for sketching

How do you make sure you can practice anywhere, anytime? Bring a sketchbook! There’s always one in my bag or backpack. The best ones are A5-sized with a hard cover, like this Moleskin (Amazon link). The small size makes it easy to pull out and use anywhere. Secondly, thanks to the hard cover you don’t need an extra surface to draw on. I even sketch while waiting in line in the supermarket.

Now have a look at my old sketchbooks:early 2013 SB Iris HoppIris Hopp Sketchbook pageslate 2013 SB Iris Hopp Do you see what has stayed the same over the years? The ballpoint pen. When you think about drawing, often pencils come to mind, but I love ballpoints! There are actually a lot of artists who scribble away with ballpoint pens.
But why?
My main reason to switch to a ballpoint pen was… smudging.

smudge 2012 sketch Iris Hopp
My poor drawing :'(

Now with a pencil you can avoid smudging too… drawing with your arm, not resting your hand on the page… But with my small A5-sketchbook, I was constantly turning my pages into a grey mess. Do you know the silverlike stain you get on your hands? It is easier to just use a tool that doesn’t smudge.
Oh, the day that I started doodling with a ballpoint pen. Wonderful! Amazing! Glorious! It’s just so comfortable: no worries about smudging away my art. Since then I’ve used the ballpoint everyday.

The Ballpoint to the Rescue! But…
Ballpoint pen BIC subtitle banner

So, cleanliness is a big advantage of the ballpoint pen. But isn’t it more difficult to draw with than a pencil?
Well… it depends on the ballpoint. Not only the brand, but also the model. You have any kind of ballpoint like a 14 karat gold ballpoint  (Amazon link) which you’ll never use, but also cheap gel pens from hotel rooms.
A gel pen or a very liquid ballpoint pen will be difficult to control, because the ink comes out smoothly and consistently. That’s a good trait for writing, but for drawing you want a stubborn, fairly dry ballpoint pen. You’ll be surprised to find ballpoints that draw exactly like a pencil! With pressure, you can vary lightness and thickness. This way, you can sketch very lightly before going over the drawing with your final lines, just like with a pencil. Of course, erasing is still reserved for pencils. There are erasable ballpoint pens, but they are not up to the same quality as pencils yet.
I also found that ballpoint pens have a good grip on the paper, sometimes more so than pencils.

So how do I choose my ballpoints? First of all, I test out all free ballpoints I can get my hands on. Am I a cheapo for that? I don’t know… wouldn’t a company be happy when I use their branded ballpoint pen & tell everyone how good it is? 😉 It’s amazing how often ballpoint pens are given away during promotions and in goodie bags.
Secondly, when I buy a ballpoint pen, I opt for a bulk package of the retractable black ones from BIC. I couldn’t find the exact model on Amazon, but I think that this model comes the closest (Amazon link) .
I prefer the retractable ones because I always lose the caps. 😳
BIC is dirt cheap too. In fact, I also buy mechanical pencils from BIC (Amazon link) because of their cheap price combined with the bright colours 😀
Oh, I’m so superficial.

Other criteria for picking a ballpoint? Size doesn’t matter. I do advice getting a dark colour though, like black or dark blue. You need your drawing to stand out on the white paper!
Now what would be a bad ballpoint? The main difference between a good and a bad ballpoint pen is blotching. Let me show you the problem:

Iris Hopp - blotchy ballpoint pen

But heck, does it matter? Just grab a ballpoint, try it for a few days & then decide whether you like it! It’s not a big deal like choosing a new drawing tablet would be 🙂

“But I don’t like the look of ballpoint drawings”
The Look of Ballpoint Drawings - subtitle banner

Don’t worry! You’ll just have to find the right ballpoint for you. Now that sounds a bit cheesy. Wait, I’ll show you. Could you guess that this image has been drawn with ballpoint pens only?

Redhead Girl, Ballpoint pen, by VianaArts

I didn’t know it either, but there are so many colours and types of ballpoints out there… there are no limits! Heck, you can even buy ballpoints with invisible ink. Eh… so you can reuse your drawing paper, I guess?

Anyway, I love ballpoint pens. I’ll just give you a quick overview of the pros and cons!

– dries out if unused for a long time
– ink flows slower in freezing temperatures (I know because I sketched outside during the winter…)
– ballpoints can smudge too, if your rub over the ink in the millisecond before it dries
– you can’t erase it

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? First of all, don’t let your pen go unused. Draw every day! Secondly, you don’t have to draw in freezing temperatures. Thirdly, you most likely won’t touch the ink before it dries. And lastly, being unable to erase it is a way to increase your line confidence!
However, a downside to ballpoint pens versus hand-sharpened, classic pencils is that you cannot draw broad strokes.

late 2014 SB A4 Iris HoppPros:
The biggest pro is that a ballpoint pen draws like a pencil. There’s a reason why pencils are so popular – because they are awesome. If only they wouldn’t smudge…
So an important advantage of the ballpoint pen is: cleanliness! No accidental smudging anymore 🙂
– draw light or bold lines by varying pressure (which translates into sketching first and then drawing the final version, and also enables you to vary shade colour)
– you develop drawing confidence because you work with ink
– a wide selection of stylus and ink types, sizes and colour

And lastly, you can show off with a fancy, 14 karat gold ballpoint pen that you’ll never need. I hope it’s refillable.

Whew, I’m amazed that a rave about ballpoints turns out this long!
Now… what do YOU think of the ballpoint pen? Hate or love it?

– Iris

P.S.: completely irrelevant but funny, here’s my favourite ballpoint pen review on Amazon.


Reader David J. Teter gave a great tip in the comments: the ink of cheaper ballpoints might fade, so if you want your drawings to last, choose a ballpoint pen that states to use “india ink” or “permanent ink”.