Beginner Art · Drawing

What are the Key Skills I need to learn to Draw?

Often I get asked by beginner learners who are very keen to learn art ‘what are the most important skills I need?’  There are many skills involved in being good at art so it is really difficult for me to answer this question.  However I do think that there are some fundamental skills in drawing that once learnt can go a long way to help you build a foundation to develop your skills on.

I was set the challenge last year to create a short course in drawing and painting which only had the absolute ‘nuts and bolts’ in it and nothing else.  After editing and revising many drafts I was able to come up with a list of the absolute essential skills and these were the areas I identified.

Shape and Proportion

Being able to see the shapes and work out proportions is probably one if not the most important skills in being able to draw.  When looking at any subject we can break it into basic 2D shapes, this gives us a starting point.  Proportion is about getting the comparative relation of size between the shapes looking realistic or believable.  The issue comes in seeing what is really there rather than letting our brain tell us what is there.  If we think we know what the teapot looks like we will draw it like we think it looks, not how it really is.

Why is it a key skill?

If you get shape and proportion right then objects will look recognizable and your drawing will be more accurate and realistic.

A comparable proportion drawing exercise where sizes and shapes are compared.
A comparable proportion drawing exercise where sizes and shapes are compared.

How can I learn it?

You can use guidelines and break 3d objects into 2d shapes, using a method called ‘boxing in’ or grids to help you plot the shapes.    You can measure with a pencil to help work out proportions.  Drawing from life everyday will sharpen your eye to shape and proportion.  Items like vases, pots, jugs, boxes are good for working out shapes.  To practice proportions drawing multiple objects next to each other is a good idea, this allows opportunities for comparing or what we call comparable proportions.

Shape and proportion is a key skill to start with.
Shape and proportion is a key skill to start with in drawing.

Negative Space 

Probably equally important is seeing the spaces around the shapes, this is called ‘negative space’.  We tend not to notice the negative space when we are drawing but doing so gives us much more visual information to use in creating accurate looking drawings.

Why is it a key skill?

When we see the negative space we have another ‘tool’ in our toolbox in enabling us to draw accurately.  Objective seeing requires that we get over our prejudices.  When we have an object in front of us we only look at that object, not seeing the negative spaces around it that are key to placing the objects and getting their shape and proportions more accurate.  Therefore we have to tell our brains to look at the negative space and focus on it.

A drawing exercise looking at positive and negative space
A drawing exercise looking at positive and negative space

How can I learn it? 

The best thing you can do to learn about negative space is to draw it and only that. One exercise I give students is to look at tree branches or foliage and only allow them to draw the spaces in-between (the negative space) not the actual branch or stem/leaves.  It sounds simple but it is harder than you might think as we are so programmed to look at positive space.


This is probably one of the most difficult areas of drawing, tone is about seeing the differences between dark and light which we represent by shading.

Why is it a key skill?

 A 3D dimensional object has highlights, mid tones and shadows, all of which are necessary to capture it’s form.

3d objects have form which is represented through tone
3d objects have form which we represent through dark and light.

How can I learn it? 

Directional lighting makes shading easier to observe, so you try drawing a simple object under a lamp or placed at a source of just one bright light, like a sunny window shelf.  Understanding tone is about understanding light and how it behaves on subjects.  Observing carefully how light falls on subjects is important, identifying the light sources e.g. what windows, sky lights etc. are casting lights on a subject.

If you are very new to drawing you could try creating a tonal scale before you start to help you identify all the tonal values.  See my posts about tone What is a Tonal Scale? and What is a Tonal Value?.

Tonal Drawings
Apples drawn by moving a direct light source to observe shadows and changes in light and therefore tone.

There is much more…

There are many more key areas I haven’t mentioned which are part of these areas of tone, shape and proportion and negative space.  Angles, edges and perspective come into everything and they can be tricky areas.  This is before we get onto other key areas like composition and colour.  There is lots to learn but that makes the study of art exciting as there is always more to learn.

I think the key skills have to be learnt together because it impossible to just learn one without having to deal with some of the others, a bit like driving.  This is why when you start learning to draw it all seems so overwhelmingly difficult, there is shading, shape, perspective involved in just drawing simple objects.  Like driving many of the skills come together at the same time, although there is benefit in giving yourself simple drawing exercises involving just one or two objects, where you can concentrate on one skill at a time.

I hope you find these tips helpful, happy drawing!

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