–including 4 exercises you can do right now that will improve your drawing–

**Check out the end of this post for free download goodness**

Do you want to learn to draw? Do you want to get better at drawing?

Some people say you need natural talent to be an artist. Or that you need to start young. Are they right?

These things can give you a great head-start, but they’re not essential at all. Sometimes they’re convenient stories people tell themselves to avoid putting in the time to improve.

Maybe you’re not that motivated to learn to draw. Why not try the exercises anyway and see if you make any discoveries?

(But what if I find it too difficult? If I don’t enjoy the process, then what’s the point?)

Sometimes people say that they’d like to learn to draw because it looks relaxing. It can be, but you won’t improve while you’re in relaxing mode. You need to go through a stage of discomfort before you start to enjoy it again. This is how we improve.


Drawing cartoon


One of the great things about practicing drawing is seeing noticeable improvement along the way. You only need to compare a drawing you did today with one you did 6 months or a year ago (especially if you’ve been working at it in the meantime!). Improvement is especially noticeable when you’re a beginner.

If you follow these exercises and continue to practice, you will improve exponentially.

These exercises will help you draw what you see.  They are 4 different ways to trick your brain into seeing what is in front of you. People, this is the NEW way to learn drawing! Forget about tricks like this:




You can draw anything!

Once you’ve internalised the process behind these exercises you won’t need a lame step-by-step chart, you’ll be able to draw anything you like from scratch! Whether it’s a still frame from a movie or a photograph or an object on the table or the car in the driveway or the room you’re sitting in or a panel by your favourite comic book artist… you’ll be able to draw anything.

These are based on exercises in the classic drawing book: Drawing on the Right side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards. (Click on the cover for my affiliate link:)



So here we go! We’ll start with 2 ‘Draw from Reference’ exercises. Then we’ll do 2 ‘Draw from Life’ exercises.


Exercise 1: the upside-down drawing

Before we start, I want you to draw a picture.

Draw a picture of a person- from out of your head, or from observation. Why? We’ll refer back to this drawing to see progress made in these steps, so don’t worry if it’s not a masterpiece.

  1. Now, Google search and print this portrait of Stravinsky by Picasso.
  2. Copy the drawing onto another piece of paper, just how you would normally draw something. Again, don’t worry if it doesn’t look quite right.
  3. Do it again. But this time, turn the picture upside down, and copy it onto another piece of paper. From this angle, the picture may look a little abstract. That’s the idea. Don’t worry about seeing the man in the picture. Just copy the lines.




Which was the more accurate drawing: the normal Stravinsky or the upside-down Stravinsky? (For most people it’s the upside-down drawing.) Why was the upside-down drawing more accurate? We’re tricking our brain into seeing only the lines, not the objects the lines portray.

We want to train our minds to draw what we see, not what we think we see.

*Extra practice* Find some more line drawings on Google and repeat steps 2 & 3.


Exercise 2: Using a grid

You used to be able to find this exercise in kids’ activity books. It’s another way to make the image more abstract, and therefore easier to copy.

  1. Print out a photo of someone (a ¾ view or front-on portrait is good to start with).
  2. Over the top, rule a grid of 9 boxes.
  3. On your drawing paper, rule the same 9 boxes. Copy the portrait, box-by-box, onto your new sheet.




The idea is: we’re using the smaller, more abstract mini-pictures in each box to make the overall image more manageable. Remember: we’re trying to fool our brains into drawing what we see, not what we think we see.

*Extra practice* Do another one!


So these have been our 2 ‘Draw from Reference’ exercises. Now we’re going to step it up a level: 2 Draw from Life exercises.


Exercise 3: the blind contour drawing

This is another exercise that encourages careful observation, not drawing what you think you see…

Before we start the exercise, place a shoe on the table in front of you and draw it on a piece of paper. As before, we will use this drawing to compare with the final drawing.

  1. Place your paper to your side so you can see the shoe but not the paper.
  2. Place your hand on the paper, now look back at the shoe.
  3. Draw the shoe without looking at your paper. Draw slowly. As your eye moves along a part of the shoe, move your pencil along the paper.
  4. Occasionally you’ll be following a contour along and come to the end, with nowhere to go. If you like you can stop drawing, turn to look at your page, and re-position your pencil. Then turn back to your shoe and keep drawing.


blind contour


The idea of this exercise is to demonstrate the benefits of careful observation. It’s as if you’re giving the data to your drawing hand, but you’re receiving no feedback from the result as it unfolds. This allows you to focus entirely on the object.

You’ll notice that in your first drawing of the shoe (the one we made before we began the exercise) your mind filled in what it thought should be there, probably simplifying the object.

The Blind Contour exercise makes you focus on the object for what it is, (not an abstract series of lines) and you’re paying attention to the unique qualities of your shoe.

Drawing from life is harder than drawing from a drawing or a photograph. You’re making all the decisions about how you want to represent a 3D object on a 2D surface.

You may find this exercise unpleasant! It feels like we’re out of control. But we’re trying to overcome our brain’s tendency to step in and fill in the details for us. We’re trying to draw what’s actually there.


Exercise 4: Objects in perspective


When I mention drawing in perspective, many people will have a negative reaction: summoning images of T-squares, rulers and vanishing points.

Think of it this way: Perspective is objects in space receding in size and detail. If the object is below us (as in the example below), it will move up the page as it gets further away. If it’s above us (eg. street lights) it will go down the page as it gets further away.


  1. Place 3 objects (roughly the same size)  in a row in front of you, each one further away.
  2. Draw them as you ‘see’ them. This is our comparison drawing.
  3. Draw them again on another sheet of paper, comparing the size of each item, and the spaces between them. You can do this by holding out a pencil and taking the measurement. Then compare that measurement to another object.


Here I’m using the distance from the end of my pencil to by index finger as a unit of measurement (it doesn’t matter what the actual measurement is) and I’m comparing the length of the closest and furthest object. The wooden bike is half the length of the blue trike:


pencil compare

(Hold your arm out straight and close one eye. This way your measurement won’t change as you move between objects.)


And here I’m using my pencil as a plumb line, checking what lines up on the vertical:



As I started this exercise, I overestimated the size of the objects further away from me. This is our BRAIN telling us that they are the same size, and we should draw them like that. Even though our EYES are telling us they look smaller, the further away they are.

20160415_153938Listen to your eyes, not your brain. Capiche?


Warning: this drawing will be messy! There will always be corrections to make as you continue to search out how things line up and their positions relative to each other. So keep an eraser handy (I use a Faber-Castell Kneading eraser).







Why should you learn to draw from observation?

Learning to draw from observation is a lifelong practice that will help you be a better artist and will help you learn what objects look like. It will also help you to absorb other artist’s styles. It will give you the ability to copy their work, and absorb their visual vocabulary.

But we don’t want to finish there. Once we have that knowledge we want to be able to create new, unique images. We want to create our own characters and environments, our own art. So this skill (drawing from observation) will get you on the road to gathering all the knowledge you need to be a better artist.

This is why artists go to life drawing. This is why they go and paint landscapes outdoors. This is why they do master copies (like we did in exercise 1): not to create works of art (although the work may be beautiful in and of itself), but to prepare to create works of art.

You can come back and do these exercises again if you feel your drawing is beginning to stagnate.

It will be a battle, convincing yourself of what is actually there, instead of what you think should be there.

Remember the drawing I asked you to do back in exercise one? After working on these 4 exercises for a couple of months, make another portrait drawing. Now compare it with the one you did back then. Any progress? I find this kind of comparison is the best encouragement to keep drawing.

So that’s all from me today, if you try these exercises, let me know how you go! Did you like them? What did you learn? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!

**Download this tutorial as a PDF with exercise sheets and extra practice exercises

(2.5MB. To download: right-click – Save link as.)