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I hear a lot of drawing instructors say to "focus on the fundamentals", but I am unclear as to what the fundamentals of drawing are. For many of the other arts, the fundamentals are clear, in music, its scales/chords. Every music instructor will teach you about these things.

In writing, you have grammar and story structure (such as the heroes journey and the three act structure), every writing instructor will teach you about these things.

However, with drawing, it seems that every art instructor talks about different things as being fundamental.

So what are the fundamentals of drawing?

By drawing, I mean drawing realistically, from life or from imagination

  • Please focus your question. The fundamentals of art are not the same as the fundamentals of drawing, and painting is another thing entirely, really. You are asking a question, like what are the fundamentals of architecture? And how does plumbing / electricity work? – Nothingismagick Dec 8 '17 at 18:17
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    @Nothingismagick Edited the question to be specific to drawing realistically – William Oliver Dec 8 '17 at 18:30
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    Could you give us examples of what your instructors have told you? – user45784 Dec 8 '17 at 19:19
  • Patience and practice. Sadly, I can usually only muster of one of those at a time. – Web Head Dec 19 '17 at 16:17
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The fundamentals of drawing begin with being able to draw a few basic shapes - sphere, cube or box, pyramid, cylinder. Once you master these - which is often done by composing still life exercises that include objects with these shapes - then you can draw almost anything!

Learning to draw those shapes in space, from varying viewpoints and with varying light sources - is a marvellous 'fundamental'!

Another, is life-drawing, which is a fantastic practise, for learning to draw. As you draw the figure, you will discover that - the head is a sphere! The chest - a box! The arms are cylinders! The fingers and nose - pyramids! All of which you mastered earlier!

Building on those shapes and adding them on top of each other, combining them into more complex shapes, will really teach you to draw.

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Definition of drawing

Drawing is the technique of putting marks on a surface to create an illusion of the thing or things to be represented. Drawing can be done with pencil and paper, digital drawing tablet or even a piece of silver wire on gessoed panel.

It sounds pedantic, but one of the fundamentals of drawing is remembering that a drawing is a representation of a thing and not the thing itself.


Emphasize the details

A well-crafted drawing emphasizes the features of the thing being drawn, those features that define it. This emphasis is made by the juxtaposition of a range of values (shades) and sometimes colors (tints). It can, for example, be accomplished with shading, cross-hatching, stippling and/or variable-width line-work. Indeed, the tool(s) being used will give the drawing specific characteristics that can be aesthetically interpreted.

An ink contour drawing of a banana can be executed in several well-placed lines, whereas a shaded pencil drawing of the same subject can literally be composed of thousands of marks of the same intensity layered upon one another to “build up form”.


Seeing is forgetting

When learning the skill of drawing, it helps to compare details, like the distance between the eyes of the model’s face as related to the width of the mouth, and how those distances relate to the diagonal distance from the outer corner of the right eye, the left nostril and the point where the upper and lower lips meet in the left hand corner of the mouth. Then a comparison is made between the real face and the drawing of the face, adjustments are made and recompared. Then, the next comparison is made between the lips and the ears, for example and the process continues.

Even if you are drawing a tattered zombie with a tree stump as a club on a battlefield surrounded by forest elf cavalry mounted upon giant mutant frogs, things like proportion, perspective and shading are still necessary skills to have mastered before the drawing could be considered realistic. However, if you have no idea how frogs should be saddled, you should get some visual resources (like frog pictures and saddles) and use drawing to figure out how it should look. Sketching is one way of finding answers.


Start generic and generate detail

In many classical life drawing courses there is a warm-up phase, where the model changes the pose every several minutes. There is simply not enough time to do a completely detailed drawing, so these warmups make the artist look at the whole subject to capture the feeling of the pose, the emotion of the body language. This is like sketching, trying to “figure” out the body. Then there are somewhat longer poses, perhaps 5-10 minutes. In which details can be focused upon. And then after a break, there might be one or two longer poses in which “finished” drawings (perhaps including backgrounds etc.) can be made.

If you take this life drawing example as a model for creating realistic drawings you should: first create a general volume in perspective space for your subjects, then pay attention to details that bring out the specific character and then apply finishing touches like shading.


Light and dark

Shadows and highlights are what make a drawing seem realistic. Here, you would do well to study the works of the old masters like da Vinci and Michelangelo. Especially the folds of fabric and the glisten of metal are hard to master but rather important if you want to succeed to make drawings of things that appear realistically drawn.

If you set up a still life for material studies, be sure to include a light source that you don’t move until each study is finished. Then move the light and make the same material study. The casting of shadows and reflections of edges within shadows are phenomena that you should pay attention to.


Colors change with different neighbors

If you only have one color, you are making a monochrome drawing, which can also be interesting and realistic. The thing about color is that it is really quite challenging to learn about palettes, warm colors versus cold colors, etc.

This is one place where every teacher will have their own opinion, which is good and should remind you that the feeling of a drawing can really be defined by the colors you choose. A good place to begin is to choose a highlight color (i.e. the color temperature of the light source), a shadow color (i.e. the basic color of the material minus the highlight color) and a midrange color (the basic material value of what you are depicting) and experiment with shades of each. This is also one of the bridges from drawing to painting, but I’ll ignore that for the time being...)


A few tips

  • The darkest black is next to the brightest white. (Contrast pushes adjacent values further than their respective absolute values.)
  • Use black sparingly, if it all. It is better to have a deeply dark and vibrant color than mere black.
  • Treat materials that you are depicting uniquely. (Don’t use the same shading technique on both metal and skin, for example.)
  • Don’t draw people or objects from photos, use real things and people. You will find that understanding the volumetrics make your drawings more than just mere copies.
  • Do draw architecture and landscapes from photos, because this will help your understanding of perspective.
  • Find a community. (This really helps you generate feedback, see your work in a new light and push yourself to keep working.)
  • Learn to recognize the point where the drawing is good and have the courage to stop.
  • Once you have good technique you may begin to break the rules.


*seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees is a great book about Robert Irwin that I totally recommend. It is not about drawing per sé, but a book I really enjoyed reading when I was in Art School and gives great insight into one of the most formidable artists of our time.

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    +1 for using black sparingly. My painting instructor in college didn't allow any manufactured black paints in the classroom - instead, he taught us to mix our own. Black is an incredibly nuanced color, and can provide much more depth and interest if you create just the shade you want. (I think he started us off with Alizarin Crimson and Pthalo Green.) – Abigail Jan 29 '18 at 21:18
  • I started with Viridian green and alizarin, added a touch of ultramarine for the cool shadows and touch of cadmium red for the warm shadows. Or I just glazed the alizarin with stand oil over the top... – Nothingismagick Jan 30 '18 at 0:11
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  • Understand your subject: Depending on your subject and interests this may include: perspective; colour theory; composition; human and animal anatomy, etc.

  • Know your materials: Get familiar with the essence of your materials (pencil, paint, paper, coffee, tablet, pixels, vectors, etc.), in order to make the most of what they can offer.

It may be that your instructors were talking about “the best way to go about drawing your subject according to them”. If so, it would be no surprise that they were talking about different things - what works for one person may not quite work for another, and vice versa.

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There are so many ways to go about getting an image on a page and you've gotten a LOT of good ideas here. I really recommend searching for drawing instruction on-line, such as on Youtube. This isn't the sort of forum where you'll get adequate drawing and sketching instruction. That said:

  1. Observation. Strive to see what is THERE, not what you "know" to be there. To start, it helps a LOT to work from photographs.
  2. Composition. Make sure you have a point of interest--preferably something that naturally draws interest like a person or a bright flower or an eye, etc. In most cases, do not put your center of interest in the center of the page.
  3. Make sure your point of interest has at least some of these attributes: the greatest detail, greatest tonal contrast, brightest color, most significance.
  4. Rough in. Do not work on details until you have basic shapes to represent your overall drawing. If you do start detailing, whatever thing you start working on first will end up too large and will crowd out the rest of your image.
  5. Work from less detail to greatest detail, and keep everything else less rendered than your point of interest.

Just a few ideas. There's loads of free instruction out there, so go find it! Have fun. :D

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The only mandatory discipline/fundamental for a drawing is tonality/value because otherwise you haven't draw anything. But since you mentioned 'realistic' you need to follow or obey the proportions/relations also.

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Since I have been drawing and painting for more than 25 years, my suggestions may help. First, if you want to focus on drawing/painting realistically, you have to be gifted. If this is so with you, just don't bother about what 'instructors' say. Ignore so called 'art-critics' too. I have yet to meet an 'art-critic' who can draw a lollipop. Secondly, study in detail any works that inspire you and develop your talents by getting inspired. There will come a time when you will stand in awe in front of of your work, and so will others.

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    For those who stumble across this thread, I hope you pay no attention to this answer. Every sentence is wrong, except the last one - but its only thread of sanity is that the person who wrote this decided to stop writing. The position of authority is not an argument. You don’t have to be gifted to focus. You should never ignore anyone. You don’t have to be able to draw to criticize drawing. Inspiration is not enough: you need drive. And if you do things in life to get the appreciation of others you are certainly misguided. – Nothingismagick Jan 30 '18 at 0:24

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