When I am drawing, I have a lot of good ideas to use, but I always have trouble envisioning the drawing I want to make! I end up starting to draw and then erasing it countless times before I get close to making the picture in a satisfactory way, and even then there are times when I see the finished product and think it's not the way I wanted it to look.

How do I completely plan out a drawing before I start so I know what I'm doing?

I always wish I had an image of my future drawing in my head instead of only a general idea and could just transfer it to the paper without trying so many times. Why is this so hard for me to do?

  • 3
    ... Have you tried a rough sketch first?
    – Catija
    Sep 2, 2016 at 10:28
  • Creating things like outlines and basic shapes are helpful as it helps establish size and boundaries. Are you doing things like that?
    – Matt
    Sep 2, 2016 at 12:27

6 Answers 6


A common practice is to first create a thumbnail. You can do this when drawing from real life or from imagination.

The idea is to get a rough, small, quick concept of what you're going to be working on down on paper. This lets you get the idea out and reference it later as you're working.

When drawing from imagination, you can utilize multiple thumbnails, then decide on which pose/style you'd like to move forward with.

An example can be found on Niklas Jannsan's website: Android Arts Doctor Who project. The first image has some thumbnails of a moth-like creature, and then the final image incorporates the concepts laid-down.

When drawing from life or an image reference, a thumbnail is helpful to evaluate proportions. Before starting to draw on the entire page, you can draw a small rectangle in the corner or on another page. If you divide that rectangle up (into 1/4ths or 1/8ths), then draw your thumbnail, you made yourself a handy map and proportion guide. Just be careful that in your thumbnail you didn't exaggerate some proportions too much.

From your thumbnail, you can build up your rough sketches, laying down shapes and forms and building your line-art, but my advice would to be start with the thumbnail and then go on.

Get your idea out, make variations, work from there. Be willing to make changes, and don't enforce perfectionism in your first drafts.

As an aside, a common problem I've seen, and that I face, is knowing that something is "wrong" with a picture, and then erasing it to fix it. However, there's usually not a clear idea of what is making it wrong, or how precisely to fix it. Before you erase to start making changes, you should analyze the part that's wrong to really understand what the problem is. Proportions? Angle? Size? Shape? If you don't know what's broke, you can't fix it.


Work in Layers

You're already starting to learn this. You're talking about planning your composition. After envisioning your work, composition planning is the second step. The third step, and your first layer, is when you build your composition.

Planning a Composition

First off, you need to have some idea of what you want the finished picture to look like. Not the image on the page, but the picture as an object, page and all. If you're drawing from life, this is that thing artists are doing when they hold up their fingers in little 'L' shapes to draw a box in front of their vision and close one eye. They are manually flattening their subject and enclosing it in the boundaries of their composition. They are trying to look at the finished work before it has even begun. This lets them figure out what parts can be included or excluded in the finished work. (Ex: "Maybe I like that storefront behind the lady, but including it would force me to pull back in perspective and include other ugly parts of the scene, so I can't use it... but when I zoom in, I don't get a full view of her dress and the bottom of the page cuts off at her belt...")

Another method, and this is used more predominantly in cartooning, design, and illustration, is to do preliminary sketches. Some people do miniature sketches called thumbnails, but this isn't necessary; work at whatever scale is comfortable to you. People tend to work smaller when planning because it takes less time and makes it easier to contain the whole image in the center of their vision all at once as they draw. (This is advantageous; most of the time, when working on a finished piece, you are only really able to look at some parts of the composition, while the rest is in periphery or covered by your sleeve.) In your sketches, focus on arranging the information clearly within the confines of your page. It doesn't need to look like a finished work. It doesn't even need to be recognizable or understandable to anyone but you. This isn't being made for anyone else. You are the audience for your own prep work: make it work for you. The most important thing though, is that your sketches be of a format in proportion to that of your finished work. (If your planning is done in squares and your finished work is a rectangle, your planning won't have done you much good.)

For imaginary subjects, in addition to planning the overall composition, you may need to do a lot of preliminary design work. Understanding how your subject is built in a physical way, even if it is not a real thing, goes a long way toward being able to describe it clearly within a composition. Importantly, you need to understand its proportions in perspective. Design is a whole other field of study though, you could take a whole year-long drawing course learning just about that and still have more to learn.

Constructing a Composition

Collectively, the tools we use to build our composition on the page are called construction lines. Some older American artists call them plan lines. There's a wide variety of construction lines, but they all do the same thing: tell you where to draw. And that's key, because composition construction has very little to do with what you are drawing, so much as how you will draw it. When drawing construction marks you need to be sure that:

  1. They can be removed or covered up in the finished work without meaningful impact.

  2. The marking and removal process will not alter the media. That means it should not damage the tooth of the paper or prevent your medium from adhering to the paper. This is why it is not advised to plan charcoal, pastel, or chalk drawings with graphite: basically nothing sticks to graphite except more graphite.

  3. You can see the marks, even as the piece progresses to much more finished states. They should not become lost in confused marking or be forgotten by contrast. Some artists disagree with me on this. Feel free to disagree with me about this. There are strong arguments for never even removing your construction work if it is subtle enough. I feel this is far too restrictive for the young artist who, through inexperience, lacks such subtlety.

Line of Action. Though the image linked is from a (very good) cartooning guide book, the line of action is one of the most very basic of construction lines. While cartoonists build their composition around it, life artists and designers seek to find the natural line of action in their real(istic) subject. It may not always be as clear or as flashy as what we see in cartoons, but it is always there. Often, in Figure drawing, a line of action will be your first mark, immediately capturing the emotion of the pose in that first moment of striking the page. A line of action is about the "feeling" of your subject more than its actual appearance. Certainly, it follows the most abstract directionality of what you're looking at, but it also expresses the tension or movement of that subject. A fat, saggy tree, even with a perfectly straight trunk, may evoke a mostly straight, but pot-bellied line of action, possibly with a greater line breadth near its base to emphasize weight. A line of action has an anthropomorphic effect on your work, allowing you to breathe your life as an artist into your work, by imbuing it with your emotional investment in the subject. Certainly not every little thing should be reduced to an abstract line on the page, just the main subject matter, those one, two, or three objects which the image is "about". Lines of action are best at plotting the position and pose of living things. Inanimate things often have bland and arbitrary lines which give us little to no useful information.

Guidelines. Guidelines are an abstraction of design within a composition. Basically, you are simplifying a subject down to its most fundamental structures and drawing only those, then elaborating upon that initial state in layers of increasing detail. An airplane might start as nothing more than a triangle drawn in perspective. A tree might be nothing more than a venn diagram with a stem. A person might be less than a stick-man. A lot of how-to-draw books start here, as if this is all you need to know to build a good composition. The honest truth is that if you make a compositional mistake at this step and don't correct it, you will waste your time finishing a mistake. When drawing guidelines, stop and look at the total work before you move on to the next step. Know what your guidelines represent and envision what the finished work will look like if you follow them as they are now, not what you want them to be. Be brutally honest with yourself here: guidelines are easily moved, and unworked paper is cheap. It'll hurt less to correct things for the better now, than to accept a total loss later. Now, as for what your guidelines should look like? That's a much harder question to answer. There's generally three styles, but there's endless variations unique to each artist. First, you have the ever-popular how-to-draw guidelines, called modelling or "sausage drawing". This generalizes things down into simple geometric blocks or blobs. Some artists draw 3d blocks. Others just draw flat shapes. This method focuses on the contour, or silhouette of the subject, without saying anything about details. This is why this method is so popular among cartoonists: When making an iconic image, silhouette is everything. If you use vaguely 3d block shapes, you can tell yourself information about the subject's relation to perspective, or even draw parts of the subject in perspective while planning. Then you have skeleton or wire frame drawing. This method summarizes the subject down to just a few lines showing the arrangement of its parts in proportion to each other and (somewhat) in perspective, but offers little to little information about contour or volume. Wire frame techniques often show the proportional relationships between fine details. You will most often see it on heads, hands, and feet, as they are very complicated things. Finally, you have points. This reduces a subject to nothing more than a collection of dots on the page. This is very uncommon, and also very hard to show clearly. I cannot find any examples to link you to. Basically, each dot represents something different and important, known only to the artist. A dot could represent a start or end of a line, a boundary for a contour, a vanishing point, the extreme end of an object, the center of a thing... the list goes on. While guiding dots tell the audience nothing, in the mind of an artist who tends toward this method, they mean everything.

The wide variety of guidelines exists because guidelines are all personal mental work. They are not the finished product. They are your tools to make that product. Every mind, every hand, every artist is different, so every artist will need to develop unique tools to help them achieve their goals. While watching and imitating other artists tevhniques can lead you in the right direction, the correct path is the one you cut yourself. Do what you understand best, what feels best, and what works best. Nobody will ever see any of this to judge you by it anyways, so all that matters is its utility to you and your work.

Perspective. This is a whole field of drawing. Drawing in perspective is not easy. It is a complicated, analytical skill. That said, if you learn it, you should use it, (or at least abuse it) it will benefit your work. Generally though, perspective is a geometry trick used to create the impression of depth by drawing all marks relative to 1-3 "vanishing points" representing the absolute infinite distance ahead. This can be simple or bloody complicated, depending on your subject.

Chunking. OK, so I made that up. There isn't a word for this, because nobody talks about it, but I've seen countless other artists do this, and I do it myself. Chuncking is the technique of taking a big problem and breaking it down into smaller ones. In college art courses, you're likely to run into this philosophy that all artworks are like a problem to be solved. The problem is the "how" of turning an idea into a thing. The easiest way to "solve" the problem of a drawing is to take apart that blank sheet of paper, dismantle it into smaller, more easily managed pieces, and work on them incrementally and sequentially. Really, all forms of construction lines are part of this chunking process. We draw a circle as a placeholder for the head; a cross as a placeholder for a face; some curvy tetrahedrons as placeholders for the shape of her hair, etc. Chunking, when done in isolation of any other construction technique, deals with the page itself. You draw as if with a knife, slicing up the page into sections. The tall skinny kite is the person I'm drawing. This box is a house. This line is the horizon. This circle is a tree. Etc. We summarize the scene and assign some of our page to each element it contains, divvying up the page as if a resource.

The Next Step

So, once you have completed your construction and you think the composition is sound enough to make a finished work, it's time to begin the finishing process. Add general details first, and apply that small level of change to every chunk of the page. Start from the beginning again and add another level, this time get a little more detailed. Do this over and over again. As guidelines become irrelevant because the drawing can stand on its own, replace them. Just keep going until it's done.

  • 2
    I cannot thank you enough for such an insightful, intricate answer! I know it will help me a lot!
    – Numi
    Dec 22, 2016 at 6:34

I used to have this problem too. And I was either stuck with drawing one peculiar detail over and over or I just lost proportion. What I found out is you have to create some space on the paper. Doesn't have to be done with very light strokes, what's important is that your strokes are confident. Don't think about it too much.

I'm usually going with curved lines and bounded shapes, although most of the people I know used cubes and tetrahedrons. This is important - not only to create space in your drawing but as well for you to get sense of proportion. And as you draw, always remember to look at the drawing as "a whole" from time to time. Put it into another perspective or stand up and look at it from afar - and see if it holds, how the composition is - where you might want to weight it out better. You might in addition already mark where the light comes from. Adding some darker areas or shadows.

I know it's very hard to do at the beginning - mostly to achieve this certain "confidence" in your stroke/line. But every drawing brings you closer to it.

And for an exercise - consider this. Draw a bundle of curved lines and some strokes - care for their variability but keep the value of the drawing more or less on the same range. Then - look at it and try to draw something on this matrix.


A key issue here is that the way that we visualize things in our minds is very different from a two dimensional image and bridging the gap between the two is a difficult task and a big part of why the job of an artist or illustrator is different from a pure draughtsman.

This process is not just about simply transferring your ideas onto paper, rather the drawing process is a way of testing and refining your ideas.

A good way to study this is to look at the sketches of historic and contemporary artists



Michelangelo Drawings


"When I am drawing, I have a lot of good ideas to use, but I always have trouble envisioning the drawing I want to make! I end up starting to draw and then erasing it countless times before I get close to making the picture in a satisfactory way, and even then there are times when I see the finished product and think it's not the way I wanted it to look."

1st - Focus for the detail/ Unfocus your eyes for the "forest" (the global drawing) - Do this all the time when drawing;

2nd - Erase ?!? Why ? Make the drawing directly on pen/ ink - no pencil - that is what i do since.. forever actually;

3rd - Try to achieve the same image that is in your head - another mistake: art is dream (unless you are doing scientific drawing or hiper realistic);

4rd - "Art doesn´t express the visible - it makes visible" / "To draw is to take a line for a walk" - both quotes from Paul Klee.

"How do I completely plan out a drawing before I start so I know what I'm doing?"

  • Oh, then you think that to know how to draw is to plan everything ? In my view it is exactly the opposite..

"I always wish I had an image of my future drawing in my head instead of only a general idea and could just transfer it to the paper without trying so many times. Why is this so hard for me to do?"

  • "People that try to explain paintings are "barking" to the wrong tree" - Pablo Picasso. I´m sorry for the language but i think i am being accurate in what were his exact words. Listen: art is what it does not exist yet ! It is an adventure, a leap into the unknown. You seem to want the impossible.

I´m sorry but that isn´t art - it is just called technique...

Antoni Tàpies has a book called "Art against aestetics".

I think a broader view of art - painting - drawing - sculpture - conceptual - abstract, etc would be good for your artistic path at this time.

  • They want specific advice for how to plan, so telling them not to plan isn't very helpful.
    – user24
    Dec 22, 2016 at 2:59

I agree with user24 and you should practice creating thumbnails for your future works.

When I create thumbnails, I also think in layers of objects. I draw using a light box, so I draw separated pieces to stack later using an image editor, like Gimp or PS.

  • 2
    This answer would be much improved if you focused on the layering aspect, and how that can be done through traditional (not digital) means, such as tracing paper or the light box you suggested.
    – user24
    Sep 4, 2016 at 0:37
  • You can also use the thumbnails and layering without actually layering the pictures you made by adding the information out of the thumbnails into the main picture, scaling up to the right size of course.
    – Willeke
    Dec 29, 2016 at 14:06

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