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How to Learn to Draw: Stage One, Manual Skills

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Read Time: 16 min
This post is part of a series called How to Learn to Draw.
How to Learn to Draw: Stage Two, Precision
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What You'll Be Creating

We all used to draw as kids. It was easy back then, no matter if you used color pencils, a stick, or your finger on a steamy window. But even then you might have noticed that some children drew better than you. Not that you knew what "better" meant—all you knew was the sweetness of praise. Whenever you heard someone else being praised, and your own work ignored, you felt worse and worse. Eventually, you gave up on drawing. Why would you continue if nobody cared?

Now, whatever the reason, you want to come back, but it seems so scary. Those children who never gave up are working as professionals now, and their art looks almost magical. How could you possibly bridge that gap? Will you ever catch up on them?

The answer is, nobody knows. But it's not them you should be catching up on. There's your dream about you drawing what you want, in any style you want, without being constantly critiqued for your mistakes. That "future you" should be your ideal, because becoming as good as him or her is what depends on you, not the skill/determination of others.

Once you set your future self as your point of reference, you'll be constantly progressing. Being better than yesterday is your goal. Doesn't it sound more possible than becoming as good as someone else in no time? If you agree with me, join me in this great quest. I won't show you how to draw—you wouldn't even want that! Instead, I'll show you how to learn to draw. I'll lead you through four big stages that you'll reach at your own pace.

This is stage one. If you've wondered how to start after such a long break, here you'll find the answer. I'll present a set of exercises for absolute beginners—some of them you may find obvious, but it will only mean you're a bit more advanced than you thought! Ready?

Set Your Mind

When you decide to learn something, the right attitude is far more important than all the textbooks in the world. I've already given you one piece of advice—compare your skills to your future self, not to others. There are more, so read this part carefully before starting the exercises.

Perfection Doesn't Exist

When you set up your goal, it may look completely plausible. "This is me today, and this is me when I reach the goal," that's what you imagine. There's a certain way to go between these two points, and it seems like something you can do. However, you miss one important point—your needs change with you.

Today it may seem so amazing to be able to draw a stick figure, but only because you can't do it yet. Once you reach your goal, it loses its power and you're looking for something else, something stronger. You can't want what you already have. That's why you may whine that you can't draw a stick figure as if it were some worthy skill, and someone who can draw a stick figure whines that they can't draw a real human.

There is no point where you'll be good enough. That's how we're constructed, so just accept it. You'll never think of your skills: "I'm a great artist and I don't need to learn anything else, I just do it for fun at this point." It's not going to happen! There will always be something you can't do, something that would complete you... and once you get it, that new thing opens your eyes to a new world of things yet to learn.

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When you think you know 99% of something, that last 1% shows you how wrong you were

If there is a way to be perfect, it's to stop trying. You must understand that no matter how good you are at drawing, it will not make you a better, more valuable person than you are now. It's also true from the other side—no matter how bad you are at drawing, it doesn't make you less worthy. This brings us to another point:

Do It for Yourself

If you want to draw beautifully only to feel that old sweetness of praise, prepare for a lot of suffering. Do you remember that feeling when you were so proud of your work until someone critiqued it? Why does your satisfaction go away so easily only because a random stranger stated their opinion?

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When you rely for your satisfaction on the opinion of others, you'll never be fulfilled. More, you give power over your mood to people who don't really care about it! Even if it makes you a good artist, eventually, you'll be constantly stressed about not being good enough. And would you rather be a great, stressed artist, or just be a bad, but fulfilled one?

I've elaborated on the topic of critique in this article, so if you're feeling it's something you have a problem with, make sure to read it. Remember: you don't want to be a great artist. You just want to be satisfied with your works, and you happen to think you need to be as great as professionals for it. You don't! Stop comparing yourself to them, and instead see if you can be better than you were yesterday—that's all you need to be satisfied.

It's you who sets your goals, so don't make them painfully hard to reach on purpose. You need to set the good enough yourself. Keep it fun, take it easy, and don't be hard on yourself for not being as good as someone who has practiced for years. You do it for yourself, and yourself only. Learn to be glad about your small progress, no matter what others think about it. What do they know, after all?

There's Only One Goal

You may have a lot of reasons to start learning to draw, but you only have one goal. It's to learn how to draw! "Learn" is the key word here, because you can't really be taught to draw once and for all. It's a constant, never-ending process. Thus, if you set your goal to "be able to draw anything I want 100% realistically", you'll fail—because this goal depends on what you want, not what you're able to draw. And what you want changes as your skill develops, along with your vision of 100% realism.

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That feeling that there is some end point is only an illusion

It's important to understand that the journey never ends. As long as you stay under the impression that there is a goal you need to reach to be happy with your art, you will never be! Learn to appreciate every little sign of progress and just enjoy the journey. Learning is the only thing you'll always be doing, and it's the only goal that won't move anywhere.

If you really need more definite goals, feel free to create them. However, don't rely on any of them for all your happiness and confidence—that's pointless. And even when following these small goals, keep in mind that it's all about the process, and it doesn't really matter when you reach them.

Manual Skills

The simpler drawing as a whole seems, the less advanced you probably are. Funny as it may sound, there is a rule for it, and it's called the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, the less you know about something, the more you think you know. It's because the knowledge about what you don't know is knowledge, too!

You may say "I know drawing isn't simple—if it was, I could do it!" Yet you're almost crying when your drawing doesn't turn out as you'd like it to. If you really knew how hard it is to draw something right, you wouldn't be so frustrated—it would be obvious for you that it must be hard!

When you look at a skilled artist drawing his masterpiece and you can't understand how it's done, you may be tempted to blame it all on talent. This is a clear sign that you're a beginner. When you're more advanced than this, even just a little bit—if you only tried to learn how to draw—you can see it's not about one skill.

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When you're an utter beginner, you think all it takes is to draw it

I divided the most important drawing skills into four stages:

Stage 1: Draw What You Want

This is all about the most basic definition of drawing: creating marks on something. It's about training your hand to work almost automatically with the tool you want to use. Beginners often see it as the one and only drawing skill, but in fact it's just a base. Keyword: physical exercise.

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Stage 2: Draw What You Want

This is about using the tool intentionally, avoiding guesswork. If after drawing something pretty you are afraid you couldn't ever draw it again, this is probably the stage you should work on. It's also for you if you can't copy references properly unless you trace them. Keyword: precision.

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Stage 3: Draw What You Want

This is less about drawing as you may know it, and more about memory. The main idea has been included in this article, but there are also other exercises that will make it easier. While the previous stage was about drawing things from your head, this is about putting these things there. Keyword: visual database.

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Stage 4: Draw What You Want

This is the hardest, the vaguest part. How can you draw anything just as you want it, no matter what others might expect? How can you make something not realistic, but still plausible? Notice that it comes after mastering realism! Keyword: style.

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How to Learn

Of course, today we're working on stage 1, hence such a long introduction. You need to be aware that it's not a tutorial in a strict sense—these are exercises that will help you get to the next level, but it's all up to you how you use them.

For the purpose of this tutorial I'm going to assume you're using a simple pencil and a sheet of paper. Beginners often wonder if they should start with a pencil, or maybe with a graphics tablet, but the other way makes it more complicated than necessary. There is a good chance you're familiar with a pencil—no need to add another tool you need to learn from scratch.

However, if you're experienced at traditional drawing and want to start your adventure with digital drawing, these exercises may help you get used to the specific stylus movement. If you want to draw with your other hand (for example because of injury or just for fun), they will be helpful, too!

Now, there is no one and and only proper pencil grip. Start with the one you use for writing and then, if it doesn't feel precise/comfortable enough, modify the stance. All the exercises are a playground for you—don't press yourself, test your abilities, and don't compare them to any imagined ones.


  • Exercise in short sessions (5 to 15 minutes), but regularly—at least once a day.
  • Your hand shouldn't hurt—it may get tired, but if it's more than this, find a more comfortable version of the movement.
  • Keep your hand relaxed—don't press the pencil with all your power. Your job is to make marks, nothing more.
  • Don't use any special paper or a sketchbook. Feel free to draw on one-side-printed pages you were going to throw away, or the cheapest copy paper.
  • Turn on good music, or even an audio-book—there's no need to focus fully on what you're do. The goal here is to make these movements automatic for your hand.
  • Never forget why you're doing it. Don't treat it as a chore—you can stop at any time if you don't want it!

Enough talking, let's get to work already!

1. Draw Doodles

Start loosely—simply draw something. Whether you believe it or not, you already can draw, you just want to gain more control over it. Let yourself have some fun and just draw, as if it were a boring lesson and you had nothing to do. Don't draw anything specific, and don't judge it!

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This exercise:

  • warms up your hand
  • makes your hand relaxed
  • reminds you what drawing is about
  • lets you free your mind
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This is a warm-up exercise, so don't push yourself!

All the examples, like the one above, were drawn with my left hand (I'm right-handed). Your primary hand is probably more proficient, because you use it (at least sometimes) for hand-writing. Still, the non-trained hand of an experienced artist clearly shows the manual side of the drawing process.

2. Control Direction

Draw a bunch of dots, or a starry sky. Then play Snake! Try to move smoothly, and don't take sharp turns. If you want to make it more challenging, use more dots and first connect them diagonally.

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This exercise:

  • teaches you how to change direction smoothly
  • lets you gain control over the direction of the line—this is the first step in reaching precision
  • trains your hand for various positions
  • lets you check whether the grip feels comfortable in every position
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This is a funny exercise you can treat like a game

3. Draw Any Lines

Straight lines can be very difficult for the untrained hand, so it's all the more important to practice them. Don't go for perfect straightness—draw the lines quickly, lightly, using various directions. Some of them you'll find more comfortable than others, and it's OK. It's the reason why I draw my creatures facing left!

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This exercise:

  • practices stable grip
  • extends the previous exercise
  • lets you find the "flow" of your hand—the most comfortable direction for your lines
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Don't worry if they turn out shaky—it's completely normal when you start

When you find that perfect direction, keep using it in future. Rotate the sheet if necessary, but stick to that favorite flow—it will be your first step towards comfortable drawing.

4. Draw Ovals

I intentionally didn't say "circles", because circles are as scary as straight lines. Go for ovals, and not even perfect ones. Draw them big and small, fast and slow, and don't worry about their perfection. The goal here is to keep turning and end where you started.

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This exercise:

  • practices rotation of the hand in a small and big range
  • teaches you how to manage the grip during rotation
  • is the next step in gaining control over direction
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Forget about perfect circles for a while—they're rarely needed in drawing

5. Practice Hatching

Hatching is a technique used for shading, but it is also based on a very important movement of the hand. Draw a series of fast, short lines all in the same direction, and then cross them with another series. You can also use the "hairball" technique, or other versions of hatching. If it's hard, start a bit more slowly, but never focus on one line!

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This exercise:

  • lets you re-create a motion you've just used
  • trains your hand for fast, but deliberate motion
  • trains "small and sharp" motion
  • forces you to find ways for non-tiring repetition
  • teaches you how to think in terms of "area" instead of "line"
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This technique will always be a little bit tiring, but try to find a way that takes no more effort than necessary

6. Fill Closed Areas

Let's link two exercises. Draw ovals, and then quickly fill them with hatching. The goal here is not to cross the outlines, which may be very difficult if you do it fast enough. Don't fix the gaps—rather practice it until they stop appearing.

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This exercise:

  • extends the "line drawing" exercise—trains stable grip
  • increases your confidence about line control
  • groups up a few different exercises
  • trains your precision for both the start and end point of the line
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It's harder than you think!

7. Master Pressure Levels

It's very hard for a perfectionist beginner to let go. It's somehow imprinted in them that every line must be perfect at once, with no corrections. This exercise is the first step towards breaking this "rule". Draw lines and some doodles using various pressure levels. Change it as you go, and see if you can make it gradual. You can even draw a gradient out of the lines!

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This exercise:

  • gives you freedom!
  • teaches you the crucial vertical movement and how to combine it with the common horizontal movement
  • trains your "feel" of the grip
  • is the most important of them all
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Softer pencils (B) have more pressure levels than hard ones (H)—check them and find your favorite

8. Repeat Lines

Let's continue the previous exercise. Now you're going to learn a very important trick, something that most beginners aren't even aware of.

Draw a short line with low pressure. Then draw over it once again, and again. For the last stroke you're allowed to use higher pressure. Do the same with various lines, quickly, and don't worry if it doesn't turn out too well at first. It's a hard exercise, but it works miracles!

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This exercise:

  • trains your precision
  • gives you complete control over the line
  • gets you to a higher level of accuracy
  • gives you confidence about what you can draw—the lines start appearing as intended, they don't simply "turn out" any more
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Don't go too slow, or it will give you no effect

9. Draw "Soft" Shapes

All these exercises should prepare you for this last one. Circles or long lines are almost impossible to draw all at once, without any additional tools. The truth is that artists rarely draw anything with long lines—short lines are much easier to control. 

Learn this and become free—draw various shapes, lifting and shifting back the pencil all the time. Do it quickly and try not to force your hand too much.

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This exercise:

  • lets you get rid of the most restricting beginner's habit
  • lets you truly plan where your line goes, instead of letting your hand decide
  • prepares you for another stage
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You can draw anything with this technique—see for yourself how much it changes

Here We Go!

Use these exercises to practice your manual skills every day. The progress they will give you depends solely on your determination and discipline. Do them until they're child's play before moving on to the next stage. The order is very important here—without a good foundation, everything you'll learn later will be harder to master.

This may be boring, but remember what it's all about—you're teaching your hand moves that are the base of even the most complicated drawings. It's as if you were buying ingredients for a new, amazing recipe. You can invest more and have the tasty food you're craving, or try to save and get disappointed in the end. Nothing worth having comes easy!

Remember: repetition is the key here. What you're training is called muscle memory, and like "normal" memory it requires constant, regular practice for something to get imprinted for longer. So keep training and stay tuned for the next stage—the one about intention and precision.

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You can print this image for a quick reminder of all the exercises
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