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Design

How to Learn to Draw: Stage Two, Precision

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:ShortLanguages:
This post is part of a series called How to Learn to Draw.
How to Learn to Draw: Stage One, Manual Skills
How to Learn to Draw: Stage 3, Visual Database
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What You'll Be Creating

You can draw, you know it. You can hold a pencil, you can lead lines, but somehow they don't want to listen to you. As long as you draw something that doesn't require precision, something chaotic, it works all right. But any time you try to draw from a reference, the proportions are so off that it's scary. 

Why does it happen? Is something wrong with you? Your eyes are OK, your hand is OK... why can't you just draw what you see? It looks so easy!

A lot of things that we do in life seem easy only because they're automatic to us. But if you tried to explain them to someone who'd never done them, you'd understand how complex they are. Just try to focus on your steps when walking!

Automation is great—it lets you do certain things effortlessly and almost magically. However, in order to reach this state, you need to put an effort into it first. When first learning how to drive, there's so much to focus on that it's totally overwhelming. But after some practice you're able to talk and listen to the radio when driving, and you still have enough attention to see that pedestrian.

Professional artists make drawing look easy, but it's only because it was hard for them earlier in their lives. When you force yourself to draw complicated things over and over again, and they don't turn out as intended, it's because you ignore this simple fact—you must learn how to do it in order to do it.

This is the second part of the drawing basics series. In the first part we were learning how to control the tool so that it didn't disturb your future exercises. If you still have problems with it, don't start this part before finishing the previous one! It's very important to do it at your own pace. Come back here when you're really ready, otherwise you'll make it harder than it needs to be.

Also, if you're new to this series and you're sure you don't need to practice pure manual skills, read that first part anyway. You'll find there a very important introduction and general tips about learning.

What There Is to Learn

There are things that you learn consciously, things that are fully explainable. Precise drawing isn't one of them. It's one of the "mind skills", meaning it's learned by your mind rather than consciously by you. For example, as a child you learned how perspective worked. That's why now you're not scared of the world constantly moving and changing size as you move. But do you, consciously, know the rules of perspective?

These "mind skills" are very easy to learn—and very hard at the same time. They're hard, because you can't learn them consciously. You can't read a book about them, and you can't listen to a lecture, come back home and just know them. You can't learn them—it's only your mind that can do it. 

And the mind learns best through repetition. That's the simplicity of this. You just need to practice, and practice a lot, until it starts being automatic. That will be the sign that your mind is grasping it! Easy, isn't it?

Well, if it were that easy, you would already be a master of copying references. Haven't you practiced it many times? Your manual skills certainly developed, but your problem with proportions hasn't been solved. It's because you were practicing many kinds of exercises at the same time. Even if you progressed at one of them, it wasn't noticeable because of other mistakes.

This is what this stage is about. I'll show you simple exercises, each focusing on a slightly different part of the problem. This way you'll clearly see your progress, and even though these drawings won't be anything worth admiration, you'll be able to transfer the skill gained here to your "real" works—not only for copying references, but for everything!

What you need to keep in mind when practicing:

  • Never forget that you're doing it because you want to. Nobody's forcing you, and you don't have an obligation to draw well.
  • It's perfectly normal when it turns out bad. You're learning! If you were expecting your drawings to turn out great every time, why would you learn? There's nothing wrong with the outcome, but with your expectations about it.
  • Each exercise is based on skills gained in the previous one. Therefore, the last ones may be impossible to do before you practice some more. Don't push yourself—take it easy. Being too ambitious may slow down your progress!
  • It will take time. It doesn't require much time every day (see the previous part for more info), but it needs to be a constant, regular practice.
  • There may be moments when you feel uncomfortable. This feeling of "mental stretching" is a clear sign that you're working on a long unused "mind-muscle". It may be painful, in a weird way, but this is a direct signal that you're learning something new! Learn to embrace this feeling, and don't use it as an excuse to do something more pleasant.
  • Take a break from drawing serious things for some time. This way you'll prevent yourself from being disappointed (if you expect to be much better after one session of exercises), and you'll have a pleasant surprise when you're ready.
  • Always start a session with a warm-up, also described in the previous part.
  • Use continuous lines only for small shapes. For drawing in a larger scale, use the "soft lines" described in the previous part.

1. Measure the Distance Between Dots

Let's start slowly. Draw two dots with a random distance in between. Then draw another dot, trying to use the same distance. Repeat it many times in various directions, and feel free to use diagonal lines, too. Try a different distance every time you do this exercise. The longer the distance, the more challenging the exercise.

Draw dots with the same distance between

This exercise:

  • "warms up" your mind for working with proportions
  • is focused on seeing distance, a base of proportions 
  • is extremely simple in construction—there's only one type of mistake you can make here!
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2. Copy the Length of Lines

Draw a line of random length. Then try to draw it once again under the original. After finishing a column, repeat them on the sides. The lines don't need to be perfect (mine certainly aren't!), but if drawing them seems too hard, it's a sign you haven't finished the first stage.

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This exercise:

  • is not only about seeing distance, but also about replicating it
  • engages your hand, eyes, and mind all together
  • extends the exercises from the first stage about line control
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3. Measure the Distance Between Equal Length Lines

Draw a line of random length, and then draw it once again. Repeat the process, using the same distance that appeared between the first two. The longer the lines and distances, the harder the exercise.

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This exercise:

  • is another level of the two previous ones
  • stretches your mind-muscles very intensively, because you're processing two distances at a time. Don't let it discourage you!
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4. Draw Crosses: Squares

We're picking up speed now, so don't worry if you start losing your breath. The beginning must be hard!

Draw a line of random length, and then cross it in the middle with another line of the same length. "Close" the cross with more lines. The more like a square it looks, the better. Do the same with rotated crosses (45 degrees).

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This exercise:

  • contains a clear indicator of your progress (how squarish the squares are)
  • extends your manual skill by drawing squares
  • introduces you to seeing angles
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5. Draw Stars: Circles

Draw a line of random length. Cross it with a line of the same length, but on a 45 degree angle. Add another one, rotating by another 45 degrees. Do it until you have four lines crossing each other. Close the star with a circle—the more lines touch it, the better.

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This exercise:

  • contains a clear indicator of your progress (if all the lines touch the circle)
  • is very complex: combines seeing distance, copying distance, seeing angle, and copying angle
  • extends your manual skill by drawing circles
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6. Copy Squares and Circles

Draw a circle, then a square of similar size below. Copy the circle and square, trying to achieve the same size every time. Remember: if it's too hard, draw the shapes "softly", with repeating-overlapping lines.

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This exercise:

  • extends your manual skill by drawing circles and squares
  • introduces you to a concept of "general size" (various lengths combined to create a shape)
  • trains your "complex precision"—it's the first step to copying more complicated shapes
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7. Scale Squares and Circles

Draw a circle, and then draw smaller copies of it. Do the same with squares.

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This exercise:

  • extends your manual skill by drawing circles and squares
  • is the first step to scaling the reference
how to draw proportions precise lines copy references 13

8. Copy Combined Figures

Time to combine all the skills you are learning into one complex exercise, a simulation of what you're going to do when drawing from a reference.

Draw a combination of shapes: squares, circles, rectangles, lines. Then copy the figure as accurately as possible.

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This exercise:

  • combines all the previously practiced skills
  • is a simulation of 1:1 reference copying
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9. Copy and Scale Combined Figures

Again, draw a combination of various shapes. This time don't copy it directly; instead, scale all the components at the same degree.

how to draw proportions precise lines copy references 16

This exercise:

  • combines all the previously practiced skills
  • is a simulation of scaled copying—the case when it's the easiest to lose proportions
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10. Copy and Rotate Combined Figures

Draw a combination of shapes. Copy all the components, this time rotating them all by the same degree. Be very, very careful!

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This exercise:

  • combines all the previously practiced skills
  • trains you for seeing proportions even in a disturbed reference
how to draw proportions precise lines copy references 19

11. Copy, Scale, and Rotate Combined Figures

Draw a combination of shapes. Copy the components, transforming them all in two ways: scaling and rotating. Paradoxically, you may find it easier than the previous exercise!

how to draw proportions precise lines copy references 20

This exercise:

  • greatly engages all kinds of mind-muscles
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12. Copy, Scale, and Rotate Smooth Shapes

Let's finish this session with a very strong accent. Draw a simple, smooth shape. Transform it in all the ways: copy 1:1, scale, rotate, and combine the transformation.

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This exercise:

  • is extremely hard!
  • greatly engages all kinds of mind-muscles
  • is a good final exercise—when all the previous ones become boring, this one will stay challenging
how to draw proportions precise lines copy references 23

Good Job!

That was the second stage. Make sure to stay here for longer—these aren't easy exercises, and the harder they are for you, the more important it is to work through them. Give yourself as much time as needed, and even more than this!

How can you tell when to stop? When these exercises become boring, but not in an unenjoyable-boring way—rather I-can-do-it-with-my-eyes-closed boring. 

The next step after mastering them is to draw from a reference. However, keep in mind it won't become completely trivial. It depends on how much work you've put into these exercises, and what you've learned from them. 

So, this was about drawing from a reference. Next time we're going to look into drawing from imagination!

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