Welcome to how to draw a palm tree drawing tutorial!
Palm trees bring to mind the ocean, sand, and relaxing with a fruit-laden drink in hand. Easy drawing tutorials make things simple, so as you learn how to draw a palm tree we’ll keep the process fun and easy by using small, clear steps to create the shapes, forms, and edges of a finished palm tree drawing or sketch.
In this how to draw a palm tree tutorial, I’ll cover the basic shapes, forms, and lines of palm trees and all their parts, including the palm tree trunk and palm tree leaf. When we draw a palm tree, our beginning step is the same as any of my other “learn how to draw” tutorials: references!
First, we explore and study all the shapes and forms of every last thing that makes a palm tree look like a palm tree. Then, we construct the basic forms of a palm tree and practice drawing some palm tree silhouettes before moving on to step-by-step palm tree drawing tutorials, drawing in perspective, light and shadow, and more.
Let’s learn about palm trees!
Palms, including palm trees, are from the family Arecaceae. They are a family of flowering plants with several growth forms, all commonly known as palms.
Most palm species, characterized by large evergreen leaves called fronds, are found in tropical and subtropical environments.
As one of the best known and most cultivated plant families, palms show extensive diversity in physical characteristics that allow them to inhabit nearly every kind of habitat. Being so well cultivated means palms, from their wood to their fruits, have several uses in human society, including palm wood, carnauba wax, palm syrup, dates, oils, jelly, and coconut products.
Exploration and study: Discovering a palm tree’s basic shape
Shape breakouts and natural variations
How to draw a palm tree: form construction
How to draw a palm tree: Form dissection and interior studies
Palm tree silhouette
Easy steps palm tree drawing
How to draw a palm tree with silhouette, step-by-step tutorial
Palm tree drawing in Perspective
How to light a palm tree with realistic tones and cel-shading
Two teams meet with one ball in the middle, and today our focus is on basketball. In this basketball how to draw tutorial, we’ll focus on the ball itself. Its current design is quickly and easily recognizable, with its view of four lines that join at each end of the ball.
First, I’ll go over a little bit of the ball’s evolution because a bit of history is always helpful to our process. Then I’ll show you how to draw a basketball by breaking down its design to demonstrate that those lines we see are three shapes.
I’ll cover how to construct a sphere, the form of a basketball, and then take you one easy step at a time through drawing the shape, form, and curved lines to create your basketball drawing.
Let’s learn about basketballs!
Basketball was invented in 1891 and began with a soccer-like ball, which wasn’t dribbled. Basketball didn’t receive its ball design until 1894, getting a brown four leather-paneled ball with stitching similar to a football. The dribbling technique was introduced into the game in 1897, and by 1937 basketball was popular enough to have its own league, which began as the NBL–The National Basketball League.
With its growing popularity as a sport, basketball needed a redesigned ball because fans had difficulty following a brown ball on a brown court. So, around 1950, the ball was redesigned to be the orange color we’re all familiar with today. Then, in 1971, the NBA redesigned the basketball again, evolving it from four leather panels to eight leather panels which improved players’ ability to grip and dribble the ball.
I’ve included a helpful video I found below. If you’d like to see how the basketball design has changed over the years, and if you’d like to learn more about basketball’s history, click here.
In this drawing tutorial, we’ll focus on how to draw a basketball with its current design.
Exploration and study: Basketball drawing sketching
Whenever I draw something new, I start with study sketches to help me understand my subject’s shapes, forms, lines, and other features. Since this is how to draw a basketball, I did a few sketches to learn what makes a basketball look like it does, and as always, we start with a few references to help us get familiar with basketballs.
Typical basketball features: Curved line and horizontal line
Each curved line on a basketball is part of three shapes. First, it appears to have a vertical and horizontal line bisecting its middle, but they’re vertical and horizontal circular bands around the ball.
How to draw a basketball: form construction
A basketball is a hollow sphere made of eight leather panels. To learn how to draw a basketball, first, we must understand how to draw circles and spheres.
Now that we understand the basketball’s sphere form let’s briefly look at its insides with form dissection.
How to draw a basketball: Form dissection
I mentioned earlier that basketballs are hollow. So if you need to draw a deflated or cut open basketball, it helps to practice dissecting a sphere.
Here are some step-by-step images for sphere dissection. In addition, I have more on how to draw a sphere, and here is an example I created for a hollowed-out sphere half.
How to draw a basketball step by step instructions
Now that we’ve covered the essential part of how to draw a basketball, its form, we can move on to the other most recognizable feature: the lines, pattern, and texture.
As mentioned earlier, what appears to be a curved line or a set of lines is three shapes: one verticle circle, one horizontal circle, and one that resembles insect wings or a band-aid.
Drawing a realistic basketball
A simple circle is clear enough to draw, and we covered that in a previous step. Keep in mind that the circles needed for the pattern must go all the way around the ball, create thickness, add depth, and take on much darker shades. The other shape that wraps around the ball and resembles a wing takes more effort and concentration.
I’ve created a video to demonstrate how I draw each from two simple views to clarify this shape.
Basketball drawing step-by-step
Next, I’ve created a set of step-by-step images for how to draw a basketball. It helps to remember that the curved lines that create the shapes and patterns have depth. They are not level with the rest of the ball’s surface but instead make a slight depression. It’s important to indicate this for a realistic basketball drawing.
Drawing a cartoon basketball
Cartoon basketball drawings need to emphasize lines and shapes more because they are the opposite in their execution to a realistic drawing in that they don’t focus on three-dimensional form. Of course, some form will still be indicated because of the way the line will curve around the body of the ball, but overall it will still have the “flat” cartoon look.
For cartoon basketball drawings, it’s also helpful to include an outlining contour and emphasize the orange color and cel-shading method of applying light and shadow. Here are some examples of cartoon basketballs on Google Images and a few step-by-step images for how to draw a basketball in a cartoony way.
The significant difference between how to draw basketball realistically vs. as a cartoon mostly comes down to depth, texture, and handling of light and shadow. The cartoon style starts with a circle, is fun, quick, and purposefully simplifies realism. It lends itself very well to exaggeration and stylization and can be appealing to all ages.
The texture and colors of basketballs
I’m not gonna lie; drawing the texture on basketballs with pencil and paper, even if it’s just a sketch, is a tedious pain in the butt. However, digitally, it’s easy-peasy. If you prefer to learn how to draw a basketball in a hyper-realistic way, you’ll need some texture reference. I’ve included some below and a trace (more imprinting) image to offer a clearer idea of the small shapes that create the ball’s texture.
How to light a basketball
I made a basic lighting example for how to draw a basketball for light and shadow reference with a pencil (graphite) and paper. The ball is drawn the same as in the earlier steps, I just added basic lighting.
Lighting a cartoon basketball with Cel shading
The steps for lighting a cartoon basketball are simple as there’s no need to blend with cel-shading. Using a curved line or two helps create a guide for placing the flat tones that create the cel-shaded look.
Basketball drawing in perspective – start with a sphere!
To learn how to draw a basketball in perspective is the same as drawing a sphere in perspective. As long as you make sure you have a cube rather than a rectangular box in perspective, you’ll get a nice round sphere to start creating your basketball from. After that it’s just a matter of practice, practice, repeat!
Thanks for joining me to learn how to draw a basketball!
Thank you so much for stopping by my how to draw a basketball article! I hope you found this helpful and fun. I’m always happy to hear from my visitors and readers, so if you have any comments, questions, or feedback for me please leave them in the comments section below.
Happy drawing, everyone! I hope you’re all doing well and ready to learn how to draw a cube with me today 😊 .
Cubes are one of the five basic forms. Drawing cubes freehand and in perspective are important skills to build on your art journey. Every form you need, for anything you want to draw, can be carved out of or built from a cube.
I’ll be demonstrating a few different methods for cube drawing here with step-by-step images and videos. I’ll show you how to draw a cube freehand, as well as cube drawing in perspective.
Learning how to draw a cube is simple and straightforward. It gets challenging when you need to turn them in perspective, but that’s a bridge to cross later 😉. For now, let’s take a look at what cubes are.
Let’s learn about cubes!
The most helpful description I found of a cube comes from a website search on Kiddle:
“A cube is a block with all right angles and whose height, width and depth are all the same. A cube is one of the simplest mathematical shapes in space.”
The main thing to understand is that a cube is a three-dimensional shape, meaning it has Volume. While a square has width and height, it has no depth–no volume. A cube, and all other three-dimensional forms, have width, height, and depth.
The sides of a cube (also called faces) are squares. Each side is connected to the others by straight lines (called edges) and by corners (called vertices). Each of a cube’s corners is at a right angle. A cube has 6 faces, 12 edges, and 8 corners.
If you’re interested in a more mathematical explanation of what a cube is, you can find it here.
You might have heard people refer to all kinds of boxes as 3D cubes, especially when they’re talking about drawing in perspective. Technically, not all boxes are cubes, but for drawing purposes, it really doesn’t matter one way or the other 😉.
Exploration and study: Natural and man-made cubes
Interestingly, there aren’t a lot of examples of naturally occurring cubes. Since it’s such a basic visual building block, I thought that was a little surprising, but 🤷🏾♀️. Naturally occurring cubes are found primarily in rock, mineral, and crystal formations, and it’s super easy to find examples of man-made cubes in almost anything.
Here are a couple of reference boards I created to illustrate both natural and man-made cubes.
Shape breakouts and natural variations
Normally, I would make a bunch of exploration and study sketches of my subject and break out all the different shape and form variations. But…cubes are pretty simple, so that’s not really a thing for this drawing tutorial 😅.
The shapes on a cube are just squares, and the variation is limited: we’re either drawing a cube or a rectangular “cube” (box). When we learn how to draw a cube, those are our base options. But simple is good, right?
Okay, let’s dig into this how to draw a cube business. I’ll go over a few freehand methods I came up with, and I’ve included a few video demonstrations about drawing cubes/boxes in perspective and showing the drawing process for the methods.
How to draw a cube step-by-step tutorials
I made up names for the freehand cube drawing methods I came up with 😁:
The basic method
The Headless stick figure
Connect the squares method
The basic method
This way of drawing a cube is one that I learned early on in my art journey. It begins with a simple square shape and builds into a cube by adding depth with additional lines.
The basic method, Step One
For the basic method of how to draw a cube, step 1 is drawing a simple square of any size you’d like.
Next, start creating depth by drawing lines out from each corner. This begins to give you the edges of the cube.
(I missed the bottom left corner here, but I’m sure you’ll rock it 😉).
Begin connecting the edges of the cube you drew in the previous step. The goal here is to create each square face of the cube, so each complete connection should give you a square face.
Connect the last edges and vertices, and you will have completed your 3D cube.
This is just a spin on the basic method that allows us to shift our thinking a little bit. Instead of starting with a familiar shape, we begin with an upside-down letter ‘L’. This way we start out thinking in terms of edges and vertices rather than shapes and faces.
Upside-down L’s, Step One
As its name suggests, step 1 is drawing two upside-down capital L’s. Their size and how far you space them apart will determine how your cube looks.
Connect the two L’s to complete the first face of your cube.
From the two bottom vertices of the square face, draw edges back in space that each run parallel to the tops of the original upside-down L’s, as shown.
Begin connecting the ends of each of the edges you added in the previous step to create additional faces for your cube.
In this example, the bottom and left faces were created.
Finish connecting the last three vertices to create the last three faces of your cube and voila! You now have a completed freehand cube!
The Headless stick figure
This how to draw a cube method is straightforward like the others. We begin with the back corners of the cube and work our way forward in space until the cube is complete, and starting with a headless stick figure gives us that back corner start as you’ll see in this next demo.
Headless stick figure, Step One
We have five edges and two vertices. If we were to add a circle at the top, we’d have a stick figure. Without the head, we get the back corner of our cube.
Connect the “arms” and “legs” of our headless stick figure to get the first two planes of our cube, as seen here.
Connect the top two outside corners with straight edges to create the top plane of the cube.
Drop an edge down from the front-most corner of the top square plane. This sets us up to complete the last three planes of the cube.
Connect the two bottom outside corners to the end of the vertical edge you dropped earlier and boom! You have a completed cube 😉.
Connect the squares method
The focus of this how to draw a cube method is connecting corresponding points (vertices) of the squares. This way of drawing cubes is a lot of fun and opens up possibilities for more interesting cubes and boxes.
Connect the squares, Step One
Drawn any size square you’d like to begin.
Draw a second square with roughly the same dimensions as the first, and consider its position in relation to your first square since you’ll be connecting them.
Here I chose to overlap them slightly to make the connection a little more intuitive.
You’ll notice my second square is a little smaller than my first, and that’s okay. The point is to understand and practice the process.
Choose a square corner to start with and connect it to its matching corner on your second square with a straight line (edge).
Continue connecting the matching edges of both squares to each other.
After connecting the last corner, you’ll have a completed freehand cube drawing!
How to draw a cube medley!
To make this how to draw a cube tutorial more clear, I created a couple of videos to demonstrate the process for each method shown above. Establishing our processes in our work is extremely important, and my goal is to make the processes I use as clear as possible to help you decide on your own.
How to draw a cube in Perspective
Perspective can get a little hairy and confusing when you try to explain it with words and images alone, so I think the best approach for this particular art fundamental is a video demonstration.
To be clear, I didn’t make this video to explain drawing in perspective point by point, but the setup and process stay the same whenever you’re drawing basic forms in perspective.
You may have noticed from the video that I did the entire demo on a 3-point perspective grid–meaning a three vanishing point setup. For practice like this, it doesn’t matter which perspective you use so long as you have each vanishing point you need. I find it helpful to work from a 3-point perspective grid even when I’m not drawing in that perspective because it gives me the option of drawing in three different perspectives without having to change my paper format.
As long as you use the appropriate vanishing point, or points, for the perspective you intend to use on your object/form, then you’re good to go! 👍🏾
How to draw a cube: Form dissection
Normally, at this point, I would go over how to draw a cube with a dissection demonstration that dives into interior forms. However, with basic cubes and boxes, which aren’t representing anything specifically, there aren’t any interior forms to explore.
Still, a demonstration on cutting into/cutting away/dissecting the cube form is still helpful and useful, so that’s what this next video shows.
More cube drawing – building other forms
As I mentioned earlier, all manner of forms can be built from or carved out of cubes and boxes. Here are a few simple examples to demonstrate what I mean:
How to light a cube
Rather than get into an entire discussion on the fundamentals of light, I decided to show a few photographic examples of lighting on a cube. With a few simple art supplies and wooden 3D shapes, I photographed some images to use as a visual tutorial for how light falls on a cube.
This first set of images were taken in my make-shift still life box. It’s an old diaper box whose inside I’ve covered with black butcher paper. I cut out a couple of holes on each of the short sides and partially cut away the top so I can control the lighting. The cube in these images was lit with white light from a spotlight.
These next set of images demonstrate the light on a cube from my overhead studio light. It’s a small ceiling fan with a light kit, which essentially functions as a large diffused light source for these examples. Once again, you’ll notice that the shadow gets longer as the cube moves further away from the light–however, the shadows (shading) are different with a different light source. There are multiple shadows because the light source is composed of 3 light bulbs.
This gives us multiple shadows that are also brighter and quite soft.
In this last set of lighting/shading reference images for how to draw a cube, I used a candle–a much smaller, but quite bright, light source–to light the wooden cube. A candle would be a point light source, and it makes for much darker and more crisp shadows.
For some of these, the candle (point light) was low and closer to the cube, while at other times it was positioned above the cube. As usual, the closer the cube is to the light source, the sharper and darker the shadows are.
Here are a couple of examples of how to light a cube and place the cast shadows using a traditional medium, graphite pencils.
How to draw a cube from Imagination!
Let’s practice how to draw a cube from imagination 😊.
There isn’t really much to explain or guide you through here. Just grab a pencil and some paper, and let your imagination fly! I chose to draw some everyday objects to keep things simple and clear, but the sky is the limit with cubes. Go for it!
Happy cube drawing!
Well, that’s everything I have on how to draw a cube for now.
Thank you so much for hanging in there with me! It’s my goal to write for beginners, students, experienced artists, and hobbyists alike on this walk of art life, so I hope you found the content of my cube drawing tutorial helpful.
I truly appreciate the opportunity to be a guide and participant in your artistic journey, and I hope I’ve helped you make your cube drawing pop! I know you have a lot of options when you search the web, so thank you for spending some time on my little side line of the internet ❤. I hope you enjoy your cube drawing!
I’d love to hear from you, so if you have any feedback or questions for me, please leave them in the comments section below!
Welcome to another “How to draw…” adventure! Today we’ll explore how to draw a pumpkin! There is a lot of variety, and a pumpkin can be more than you’d think. So in this drawing tutorial, please explore and learn with me, step-by-step, how to draw pumpkins and other squash.
First, we’ll take a brief look into what a pumpkin is, so we know something about what we’re drawing, then we’ll dive into exploration and study sketch activities with reference images.
What is a pumpkin?
My interaction with pumpkins happens during the fall, the time of year when we see many a Halloween pumpkin decorating neighborhoods all over the country. But, interestingly, the word “pumpkin” covers much more than a kiddo’s Halloween pumpkin.
A pumpkin is one of many cultivated species of winter squash. Pumpkins are native to North America and are one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. We tend to think of the pumpkins that are round, smooth, orange ones with a ribbed pattern on their skin and a thick shell housing seeds and pulp.
These familiar pumpkins are part of the Cucurbita pepo cultivar, just one of the five cultivar categories of squash:
Many squash varieties look wildly different from our traditional Halloween pumpkin and are still called “pumpkins,” which gives us artists so much more to work with. 👏🏽The word “pumpkin” is interchangeable with the terms “winter squash” and “squash,” including summer squash. Botanically speaking, all pumpkins (even the Halloween ones 😉) are winter squash, and all are fruits because they are seed-bearing structures from flowering plants.
The fifth cultivar category, Cucurbita ficifolia, is biochemically different from other cultivars and more closely resembles a melon. While it looks and grows similarly to pumpkins, it is visually more melon-like, so I didn’t include it in this drawing tutorial. However, the process for drawing melons isn’t much different from pumpkins and other squash, so you can still learn how to draw the more melon-like squash with this tutorial if you’d like.
The uses for pumpkins and squash are quite broad, ranging from cooking and eating every part of the pumpkin to pressing its seeds for pumpkin seed oil, decorative and medicinal uses, competitive growing, and other competitive sports such as Pumpkin chunking.
We now have a decent idea of what a pumpkin is and what family, friends, kids, and all kinds of people do with them. With our background research done, it’s time to study the shapes and forms of a pumpkin and other squash.
Exploration and study
Our first step in studying a pumpkin is to gather some references and create a reference board. Some search time on Google is the simplest approach, but feel free to use mine if you’d like. The first image on the right here is of the Cucurbita pepo cultivar group. We can see quite a variety of shapes, proportions, surface textures, tones, and colors. For example, we can see spheres, ovoids, smooth textures, bumpy textures, pear-shaped, deeply ribbed, shallow ribs, ridges, and more.
The next group, Cucurbita maxima, includes the same wide variety of features and the unique Turban squash.
In the Cucurbita moschata group, we see squash varieties having more cylindrical, long goose-necked, and super bumpy surface texture qualities. In contrast, the Cucurbita argyrosperma group includes some very tear-drop shaped varieties.
This last reference I created focuses on the stem portion of a pumpkin. When your subject has multiple “parts,” so to speak, it’s helpful to have references for your study of each.
If you have live pumpkins and squash to practice from life, use those! Drawing from life is an essential skill and one of the Art Fundamentals.
Once you’re all set with references, start drawing what you see to get familiar with the natural variety of shapes. It doesn’t matter which reference you start with, and none of your sketches need to be rendered or “finished” in this step. The exploration and study of how to draw a pumpkin are all about seeing the common natural shapes and forms, their variations, and understanding how all the different forms are put together. The best way to train your eye to see these things is to draw what you see.
It’s beneficial and encouraged to begin with the most simple shape you can see for each sketch. We build forms from shapes and lines, after all. If you’re unfamiliar with forms, my Form in Art article goes in-depth on just that.
Time to put pencil to paper! Speaking of paper, I do most of my sketches by hand with a pencil and a sketchbook to keep things simple and clear.
Here are my exploration and study sketches for how to draw a pumpkin:
Normally, I’m not this neat in my sketchbook 😜. I clean things up, so it’s nice and clear for you guys, but I rather enjoy making an unholy mess in my sketchbook 😁.
You’ll notice that I drew the flat basic shape first to get an idea of the forms I’d need to construct, and then I went about constructing them–but even during construction, I still start with a 2-D shape and build from there. Then, once I have the basic shape, I begin to understand how the form construction needs to go.
For example, with the “traditional” pumpkin I started with at the top left of the first page of my sketches, it was initially challenging to learn to draw the ribbed forms we all recognize pumpkins for. It took some practice to get a feel for that particular how to draw a pumpkin step. Still, after a few sketches, it became clear that I had to 1) understand the shape and form of the “rib” first, and 2) understand how the “ribs” are positioned relative to the overall shape and proportions of the pumpkin.
The “rib” forms are essentially curving upside-down triangles–kind of like a puffy pizza slice wrapped around a sphere. During construction, that translates into wedge or talon-like forms of varying thickness and length wrapped around a sphere or bowl form. Here’s an example of what I mean:
It helps to line up the top and bottom of the “ribs” using ellipses, which is why you see plenty of ellipses, bowls, and circles in my sketches. The exploration and study process is intended to help you see the “bones” of the subject. When we know the primary shapes and variations, we can begin to design and construct with less reliance on our references.
Shape breakouts and natural variations
As I studied how to draw a pumpkin, I found common shapes for drawing any pumpkin or squash are:
a rectangle with rounded corners
a rounded crescent
We can start constructing and combining forms now that we have a shape profile to work from. I like to create a quick reference guide to the primary profiles and variations that I hope you find helpful as you learn to draw a pumpkin.
It’s straightforward when you compare it to the reference images. By studying my ref boards, I’ve paid close attention to what the distinct shapes and shape variations are and then draw each one. Next, it’s time to understand the common forms and construct them.
Form construction is about beginning to put the pieces of what we studied together. The slideshows below will walk you through a few how to draw a pumpkin construction demos.
How to draw a pumpkin – Step-by-step form construction demo 1
This example features more of an elongated shape, but that’s okay. We can use whichever shapes we want 😉👍🏽. I always try to begin with a gesture line to add a sense of movement and character. Next, drawing from my reference guide, I add the basic shapes on top of the gesture.
The next step (second slide) is to connect them and then add contour lines (third slide) to add a sense of depth and volume. Lastly, I erase my construction lines and darken my drawing.
How to draw a pumpkin – Form construction demo 2
The process for the next demo is the same, and only the shapes are different. Once you understand your subject and the process, you can begin playing with the profile, silhouette, lines, angles, sizes, and proportions until you land on something you’re happy with.
I took this last form construction demo a little further to help segue into form dissection and interior forms in the next section. Like the other slideshow tutorials, the steps are the same, but I have added a couple.
You’ll find that as you add more complexity to your forms, the steps are repeated, and the only thing that changes is the size and nature of the information you’re adding.
We begin with the largest shapes to build the primary and largest forms first, and from there, we repeat the process with the next largest (or medium-sized) ones on top.
How to draw a pumpkin – Form construction demo 3
This final how-to draw a pumpkin construction demo gives you a brief look into how the process repeats. After step 3, a simple form has been built, and it’s ready to be added onto.
In steps 4 and 5, I repeat the same steps, adding simple lines and shapes on top of my initial form to add another layer of complexity and interest that gives a better visual description of the pumpkin’s form.
In step 6, I add the contour lines that give me divisions in the form that I can then cut away for step 7, drawing a rough indication of the interior.
Form dissection and interior forms
At this point, we know how to draw a pumpkin! But do we know how to draw a pumpkin on the inside? 🤔
Not to worry! We still have our trusty ref boards with images that give us an idea about what’s going on with a pumpkin’s interior. I didn’t do a super in-depth rundown of the interior, but the process is still the same as above using the seed interior body information we find in the references.
Here are my examples of form dissection and a little bit of fun with the interiors.
A word about details
All the most fun and interesting things to draw have plenty of details that give them their character and make them look really cool. But, for all that they add, details only make up about twenty percent of your drawing–and they take up about eighty percent of your time.
That’s one of the reasons they should be left for the end.
Plus, no matter whether you’re learning how to draw a pumpkin, a mushroom, or anything else, all details (smaller forms & patterns) sit on top of larger forms that must be worked out first.
I don’t count light and shadow or color as details, and they are each their own thing and deserve dedicated articles to explain and demonstrate what they entail.
For clarification, I’ve included some sketches as an illustration of the difference between primary forms and detail forms.
Pumpkin drawing tutorial: How to draw a pumpkin step-by-step
Step 1: Thumbnails & Gesture lines.
Start with some small thumbnails, and then, just as before, add a gesture line and shapes.
Thumbnails of the simple shape combinations you want to use offer a helpful roadmap for your form construction. After that, a gesture line (also called a “line of action”) will help add a sense of movement and life.
Remember, you’ve studied pumpkins and squash, so play around and enjoy!
Feel free to follow along and copy my sketches to get started, but I encourage you to take these examples and apply them to any design you want! You’ve got this!
Step 2: Another Gesture line!
It felt necessary to add a second gesture line for the top area.
There are times it feels more dynamic to have an additional gesture armature to build on.
Step 3: Add the basic shapes.
These will be the basis for our largest form, the pumpkin’s body.
Compare what we have now to our little thumbnail in the upper lefthand corner, and you’ll see we’re quite close to the idea there.
Step 4: Shape adjustments.
Here I added another circle and ellipse to adjust the overall contour in the front and back of the form.
The green ellipse will add a “rib” bump in the rear that we can see from the front, and the orange circle in front will add more depth.
Step 5: More shape adjustments.
I jumped the gun a little bit here and started filling out the stem form😅 , but we can roll with it!
The orange ellipses show where I added the top and bottom planes, and the green lines in the middle show how I connected them to create the stem.
Step 6: Contour tweaking.
No matter how you start, you can always tweak and adjust things to suit what you want them to look like.
I decided my overall form looked a little too round and soft for my taste, so I decided to use a few divots and curves to create more interesting plane shifts.
Step 7: Clean up & darken.
At this point, my sketch felt finished, so I cleaned it up a bit and darkened the lines I wanted to keep in the design.
I didn’t erase all of the construction lines this time. Sometimes, when you’re not adding light and shadow, contour lines, or a lot of detail, leaving light indications of the construction lines can increase the sense of depth.
I decided to make this how to draw a pumpkin article a little more robust since there are so many varieties out there. More variety means more practice! So here is another how to draw a pumpkin step-by-step tutorial!
Step 1: Gesture line!
Don’t worry; I practice what I preach! The thumbnail sketch for this how to draw a pumpkin example is at the top right in the 1st one above. Take a peek; you’ll see 😉.
Step 2: You know the drill! Add those shapes!
This is still how to draw a pumpkin, and the process goes on like a good beat.
I added the ellipses for the top and bottom planes of the stem and a narrow trapezoid shape to act as an envelope for the shape I’m after.
Step 3: Motto, motto!
Next, I put in circles to continue building the form.
Step 4: Building out other forms.
We know there’s a stem, so let’s get it in there!
Step 5: Connect!
Step 6: Build more on top.
I added the “ribs” for more form complexity and interest and to bring home the “pumpkin” feel.
Step 7: Contour tweaking.
I wanted to change the overall contour, so I did that here.
Step 8: Clean up and darken.
At the risk of OD’ing you on step-by-steps, I created a few that go through the same process with the stem forms.
Don’t worry; I know you’ve got this how to draw a pumpkin stuff down by now. I’ll put the rest in as simple visuals so you can peruse them at your leisure 😉.
Another how to draw a pumpkin stem demo–this one is more fun!
One more, and then I promise I’ll be done with the how to draw a pumpkin stem stuff.
How to draw a pumpkin from Imagination
Guess what? Except for the exploration and study sketches, most of the pumpkins from my demos have been drawn from imagination!
I used my references for inspiration, but the rest came from my brain 😎. It’s an awesome feeling, and I bet you’re experiencing it, too! You’ve seen the process many times by now, so keep drawing and experimenting!
How to draw a pumpkin in Perspective
I know I’ve drilled this process into you ad nauseam at this point, so I won’t pile on with the more technical practice of Perspective. Instead, I’ve included a visual walkthrough.
Here are some 1-point perspective examples:
Here are some 2-point perspective examples:
How to draw a pumpkin from imagination: Sketching in Perspective.
I drew all these perspective sketches from my imagination. Now, for my 3-point perspective example, I decided to push things a little more fun.
Light and shadow: How to light your pumpkin
Light & shadow, like Perspective, is a whole other conversation on its own. So in my Fundamentals of Light series, I’m covering all the stuff and gubbins of light and shadow (slowly though, cuz it’s huge!)
In the meantime, here’s a lighting demo for the sketch I did above in 3-point perspective.
A word about color
I did say, “A word.” 😂
In all seriousness, I prioritize solid drawing skills before painting and using color because those things must live on a solid drawing with solid forms.
Playing with pumpkin drawings: Exploring shape language and style variations.
Drawing is fun! So have fun and draw some funky pumpkins!
Here are a few of mine. I gave some of them a body, a face, a mouth, a nose–oh, my! I made pumpkin characters and even a cartoon pumpkin or two 😊. See? Fun!
Now, you try! 👍🏽👊🏽
How to draw a pumpkin teacher, signing off!
Thank you so much for having the patience and intestinal fortitude to stick with me to the end! I appreciate you spending some of your time with me and my how to draw a pumpkin drawing tutorial. I know it was long, and I hope you’ve found it helpful.
If you have any questions or feedback for me, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you guys, and I hope you’ll join me for another “how to draw” adventure!
Welcome to the first of my “How to draw…” drawing tutorials!
In today’s “How to draw…”, we’ll talk about how to draw a mushroom! I’ll cover everything you need to create your own mushroom drawing and explain the different kinds of forms your mushroom drawing will need, like mushroom caps, stems, and rings.
I’ll cover how to draw a mushroom from basic shapes to form construction, from imagination, in Perspective, how to light your mushroom, and more.
Just a heads up, this is not an easy drawing tutorial. It’s not difficult, but it is technical. I’m a professionally trained Designer, Illustrator, and Concept Artist, and my explanations tend to be technical and thorough. There is more than one step-by-step guide here. My goal is to teach you to create a different kind of mushroom drawing–your own! I want to teach you to draw every different kind of mushroom you want, in various sizes, so your mushroom drawing looks like whatever you want it to.
I’d rather not give you a static template to copy. Where’s the fun in that? Also, I don’t think it counts as teaching if I say “copy this,” you know? After this drawing tutorial, you won’t need another step-by-step guide.
If you want easy drawing tutorials, this may not be the article you’re looking for. If you like a thorough step-by-step guide and drawing tutorials that teach you to draw whatever you want, I got you! It’s a different kind of drawing tutorial, and I hope it works for you. 😉
There’s a lot to get into, so let’s get started!
What is a mushroom exactly?
It may not seem obvious, but it’s important to know what you’re drawing, and that means learning a bit about your subject. After all, it’s impossible to draw something you know nothing about. So, let’s talk about what mushrooms are.
A mushroom is “the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground, on soil, or its food source” (from Wikipedia). When we refer to mushrooms, we’re usually referring to those with a stem (or stipe), a cap (pileus), and gills (lamellae) on the underside of the cap. The gills produce spores that help the fungus spread.
There are over 50,000 mushroom species globally, and they tend to be grouped into four general categories: edible mushrooms, toxic mushrooms, psychoactive “magic” mushrooms, and medicinal mushrooms.
Mushrooms represent food, a hobby (mushroom hunting), or fantasy entertainment as part of stories like Alice in Wonderland, characters like Toad from Nintendo’s Super Mario, or part of the deliciously drawn food in anime series’ such as Food Wars!: Shokugeki No Soma. Fantasy allows us to play with what a mushroom could be.
Before we play in possibilities, let’s explore and study the structures that give mushrooms their character.
Mushroom drawing: Understanding the structures.
To draw a mushroom from imagination, we must first study the shapes and forms that create its structures. Once we understand the basic anatomical structures, we can draw mushrooms in any way we choose. Let’s begin by gathering references to study.
Exploration & study
The first step in exploring and studying a subject is to find or create references to study from. For this step, I recommend creating a reference board.
Here is the reference board I created:
I create my reference boards in Photoshop, but I imagine it works in any digital painting application. A reference board is essentially a collage of images. It can also be created with a Google image search (or books), a printer (or copy machine), scissors, poster board, glue, and plenty of patience.
As you follow along here to practice how to draw a mushroom, please feel free to use my reference board.
To learn how to draw a mushroom, we need to really observe what mushrooms look like naturally. First, look for repeating shapes and consistent characteristics, like how a mushroom’s cap is always on top of the stem. Then, look for naturally occurring variations in the shapes, like how a mushroom stem can be long and thin or short and thick, etc.
Step 2 for learning how to draw a mushroom is to draw several from reference (or from life) to understand the shapes and forms that make up its anatomical structures and how they are put together. Again, it helps to keep your earlier observations in mind as you draw.
Here are my exploration and study sketches for how to draw a mushroom:
It’s helpful to draw the flat shape combinations you see literally. As you can see in my sketches, I drew small flat versions next to each study. This helps me get an overall grasp of which shapes are present in the subject.
The major structures of a mushroom are:
There are other areas to note, such as the margin and scales on the mushroom cap, but it’s easy to tell that these are much smaller shapes–which makes them details, and we leave those alone until we get toward the end of our process.
Two more forms grow underground, the Cup (Volva) and Mycelial threads, and they look cool–but if it grows underground, it’s less likely to be visible. If it grows underground, we don’t often see it and are less familiar with it–so it’s less likely to make it into your design. If you’d like to study these forms, you can find references here.
Here are a few more of my mushroom studies:
Remember, these are studies to help you understand mushroom shapes and forms. So I encourage you to let loose! I mean that literally–draw loosely! These are for your learning, so they should be whatever you need them to be. I make a hideous mess in my sketchbook when I’m trying to understand something, and that’s fine.
I had to clean things up to make them clear for this tutorial, but otherwise, my sketchbook looks like a messy sanctuary of notes and funky drawings. I love it 😋
Your sketchbook is where you can think out loud on paper and be yourself. There is no need to censor yourself. ❤
Shape breakouts and natural variations
After drawing several mushroom studies, you’ll understand how to draw a mushroom well enough to begin breaking out the shapes and natural variations of major mushroom structures. I like to think of it as visual tinkering. 😊
Let’s ask ourselves: what are the basic shapes and shape variations for those structures? Let’s have a look:
Each mushroom structure has a limited variety of shapes. For example, a mushroom cap appears most often as either a lima bean, a half oval or ellipse, a fat crescent, cone-like, or an upside-down and rounded trapezoid shape.
A stem, the second mushroom form of import, has a box or rectangular shape (which makes a cylindrical form) and can vary in length, width, and proportion. A mushroom ring (annulus) is usually a conical skirt shape, and in some cases, can look like a tube wrapped around the stem near the base of the cap. Lastly, mushroom gills resemble exposed fish gills, but it’s simpler to see them as a pattern of lines or skinny wedge shapes for drawing purposes.
I know this sounds technical and nuanced. That’s intentional. My goal is to help you draw mushrooms any way you want. I’d rather offer you wings than limit you to a static template to replicate.
Our next step is to construct mushroom forms using the shapes we observed from our studies.
Form construction is essentially the process of connecting shapes with lines and other shapes. Beyond that, advancing your drawing involves adding movement and volume with contour and cross-contour lines, gesture, and light & shadow. It sounds like a lot, but with practice, you’ll get the hang of it! 👍🏽
Let’s build some mushroom forms!
Below I’ve demonstrated the form construction process using the knowledge and shape information from my study sketches. Now I can create mushrooms that look any way I want, and so can you!
I started with the standard white mushroom you can find easily in a grocery store and constructed a cap slice.
Step 1 was to draw the shapes that help define the overall form.
In step 2, to create the lima bean form with depth and volume, I drew another set of the same shapes on top but slightly shifted down and to the right. This creates the space between the shapes that give us the illusion of depth and volume once we connect everything.
Adding contour and/or cross-contour lines helps reinforce the sense of depth and volume of the form.
In my second mushroom form construction demo, I chose a cone-shaped mushroom cap and repeated the process. Again, I began by drawing in the form’s major shapes: a circle first, then an exaggerated arch, connected by an ellipse.
Once again, I used contour lines toward the end to add to the illusion of depth and volume. I also added a circular “lip” on the views that show the very bottom of the cap. This gives a sense of thickness, which aids the illusion of volume.
For this mushroom drawing demo, I chose a slightly oblong half oval shape. The process remains the same. I used two different sized circles to create the oblong feel of the shape and enclosed them with lines to connect them. To create depth, I added an ellipse at the base that connects the two corners of the oval. Next, I added a smaller ellipse to create an opening for a stem and a plane change boundary for the gills.
I constructed a few mushroom stem forms with the same process. The stems tend to be cylindrical, but sometimes they look almost completely round.
As a rule, I like to create my demos in traditional media because 1) it’s best to start learning with traditional media and get really familiar with sketching in your sketchbook, and 2) I don’t want anyone to think they need digital tools to learn how to draw. You do not need digital tools to learn how to draw a mushroom or anything else. I have suggestions about tools for beginners, but digital can be a later thing.
That being said, I created this next sketch on the fly digitally (as I was writing😅) because I felt there should be a construction demo that included both major mushroom forms: the mushroom cap and the stem. The very bottom of the construction demo section seemed like a good place for it, too.
These demonstrations are of basic form construction. Additional shape information can make the forms more complex add detail, but I strongly encourage you to make a habit of first getting comfortable studying and constructing the larger forms. Details and complexity live on top of major foundational forms. They don’t exist on their own.
A word about details
Details are a treat for the eyes and can be fun to draw, but for as much attention as they command, their place in the process is toward the end.
Here’s an example along with the original reference:
I’ve shown the major forms for the mushroom cap, the stem, and the plane for the gills in my sketch. The mushroom on the left of the sketch is an example of the major forms without details, and the mushroom on the right has some of the details drawn on top of the major forms. Details add fun, interest, and more information–but we can still tell the drawing on the left is a mushroom without them.
I highlighted the details on the right-hand side mushroom and then broke them out independently. When details are the focus, they give very little information about what the actual subject is.
Sometimes additional details are necessary for clear visual communication. For example, when you’re drawing the inner portion or the dissected view of your subject. However, since mushrooms already have a large variety of possible surface texture shape information, I chose not to dive into inner portion or dissected view drawings for this drawing tutorial.
How to draw a mushroom from Imagination: Invention and Experimentation
At this point, you know how to draw a mushroom! Congratulations!
Let’s tackle how to draw a mushroom from imagination! Don’t worry; the process is still the same! The only difference is that nowyouchoose the gesture and shapes your mushroom drawing will have. You’ve got this!
I find it helpful to play around with shape combinations before settling on a shape design to construct. Time to use what you’ve learned and using it to develop your own ideas! Booyah! 👊🏽
Here’s an example of my ideation and playing on paper:
If you want to try more adventurous shapes with your sketches to get a different kind of look, go for it! I kept it a little low-key here to ensure everything stayed clear, but I encourage you to try whatever variety, character, and zest you want!
Once you’ve developed an idea you like, follow the same process to build your forms. I’ll demonstrate with one of my sketches from above by going through how to draw a mushroom step-by-step.
How to draw a mushroom Step-by-step
With your rough sketch next to you, lay down a gesture line (curved line) to start building from. Since my mushroom is upright, I used mostly vertical lines. The gesture line will add a sense of movement and character to help your drawing feel more dynamic.
On top of your gesture line, add the basic shapes that make up the form you’re building. Here I’ve added a circle at the top for a rounded tip, two curved lines for a curvy cap of the mushroom, and a circle at the bottom for the base of the stem.
Next, it’s time to add the illusion of volume and depth by connecting the basic shapes. I’ve added an ellipse at the mushroom cap base and connected the ellipse of the stem base with the circle at the top of the mushroom cap.
With all the major shapes and forms roughed in, now is a good time to build in the form information for smaller structures like the mushroom’s ring. If you want more shape info for your mushroom drawing, like scales on the mushroom cap, this is a good stage to begin blocking those in.
At this stage, with most, if not all, of your forms roughed in, it’s a good time to start “truing up” or darkening the lines of the major forms for your final mushroom drawing.
I lightly blocked in the mushroom gill pattern. Following the gesture established earlier, I used vertical lines to create the gill pattern. You can do this step earlier than I did if you prefer. I made it a separate step for clarity’s sake.
I darkened the gills and added some thickness to the bottom margins of the mushroom cap and ring.
As part of the finishing stage, I erase the construction lines.
I used cross-contour lines to add depth and give more plane-change info. You don’t have to do this, but it does come in handy when you add light & shadow.
How to draw a mushroom in Perspective
Don’t worry; I’m not going to squish an entire lesson on Perspective drawing into a how to draw a mushroom tutorial. Perspective is its own thing, but I thought some examples of a mushroom drawing in perspective might be helpful.
Start with a horizon line, a vanishing point (VP), and some squares to set up boxes of various sizes in one-point perspective.
Once I’d drawn my boxes, I divided them to match my mushroom design proportions. This made constructing my design in perspective a bit easier.
I begin constructing my forms with the same process as before. The only difference is that shape placement needs to happen within the bounds of the boxes and planes to maintain the perspective.
The process for how to draw a mushroom doesn’t change for two or three-point perspective, but the set up for the perspective does change. I’ll cover perspective in separate articles, but I wanted to visually demo the process for you.
Here’s two-point perspective:
And here’s three-point perspective:
How to draw a mushroom from Imagination: Sketching in Perspective.
I thought it would be fun to demo how to sketch in perspective briefly. So I created my own perspective grids in Photoshop, printed them, and sketched on top of them. The basic idea is that your lines need to go in the same direction as the grid lines, and from there, you construct forms. I chose two-point perspective for this demo.
Light and Shadow: How to light your mushroom
Now that your sketchbook is overflowing with fabulous mushroom drawings & designs, of course, you’ll want to pick your favorites to take to finish! That means adding light and shadow.
I created a visual step-by-step demo below for how to light your mushroom design. For more in-depth info on light, please check out my Fundamentals of Light series.
A word about color
It was tempting to break out the colored pencils after this light and shadow demo, but…I firmly believe that Color & Light, like Light & Shadow, are their own thing. Using colored pencils here would certainly add another dimension to the sketch, and if that’s your jam, then go for it! I prefer to dive into that separately to help all my readers build a solid drawing foundation, and I think whipping out the colored pencils would distract from that. So, that’ll be a “later later” thing for me. 😜
Fun with mushrooms: Exploring shape language and style variations
I thought it would be fun to show other types of shape language examples to wrap things up. My default is representational drawing, but that’s not everyone’s jam. Plus, we have to speak different shape languages, so here are some fun sketches I came up with to play around with different kinds of shapes in various sizes.
Anime/manga shape language
The shape language for anime and manga seems a little more “realistic” to me in how characters and other subjects are drawn, but just like other cartoons, it’s also very light on detail. It’s also exaggerated, of course.
This is my version of an anime/manga style set of mushrooms.
Cartoon shape language
The shape language for cartoons tends to be pretty flat, with very exaggerated shapes to fit the story’s tone. As a result, you can really stretch believability, experiment with different kinds of designs, and have a lot of fun.
This is my version of a couple of cartoon character mushrooms.
How to draw a mushroom, signing off!
Well…I’m exhausted, how about you? 😂😉
That was a lot of stuff, I know. As always, Thank you so very much for hanging in there with me. There are so many options out there for drawing tutorials. You could’ve chosen any drawing tutorial, easy drawing tutorials, but you chose mine and hung in there with me. Thank you.❤ You are awesome!
I sincerely hope you found this article helpful and that you now feel more confident about drawing a mushroom. Please remember to have fun with it! This is your art, and it’s about you. Enjoy it! ❤
If you have any questions or feedback, please leave them in the comments below. Thank you again, and happy mushroom drawing!
I’m not sure many people fully appreciate the nature of what artists attempt to do each time we set out to render light and shadow in art. I know I haven’t fully understood it, let alone appreciated it, even as I am in the middle of rendering.
As I continue to really dig into what Light is, I am awestruck and sothankful to all the scientists and artists who came before me—the giants upon whose shoulders we stand—because the subject of Light is huge, and I am glad they already figured all this stuff out for us 😅.
It is difficult not to get philosophical here because what we are really doing when we render light is re-creating the properties and behaviors of light in a 2D space—and those behaviors and properties encompass several sub-branches of modern Physics, including: Quantum Physics, Modern Optics, Geometric Optics, and Physical Optics.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that different aspects of light behavior and properties come under several different categories of Physics that are each quite involved areas all their own.
That was my not-so-subtle warning that The Fundamentals of Light gets quite technical.
The understanding we gain for our art is totally worth it, and we need three things for sure: 1) Patience, 2) Plenty of visual examples, and 3) More than one post to go through the massive amounts of information.
For any of you who are much better scientists than I, please forgive any inaccuracies in my scientific understanding or explanation. I endeavor to be an expert artist, not physicist 😋 , but I do try to be as accurate and as clear as possible. If I get something wrong, please let me know in the comments and I will do my best to make corrections.
I hope you will hang in there with me as I break down the technical bits (that’s the patience part), I hope the examples and information I share help your practice, and that you’ll find it useful enough to look forward to the future posts in this series. Since this is the first, let’s start digging into to the science, shall we?
The Science—What is Light?
To understand how to render light and shadow we must grasp the concept of what light is and how it behaves.
Light is a type of energy created by the emission of photons within the electromagnetic spectrum. If that sounded like gobbledygook, fear not, I shall explain.
A photon is a “small bundle” of electromagnetic energy and the basic unit that makes up all light. Thus, photons are the building blocks of light.
Electromagnetic energy describes forms of energy that are reflected or emitted from objects as electrical and magnetic waves that can travel through space. The Electromagnetic Spectrum shown below describes these energies as frequencies and wavelengths.
The light effects we paint represent a fixed and narrow range of the Electromagnetic Spectrum called the Visible spectrum, which is a narrow group of wavelengths between approximately 380 nm (nanometers) and 730 nm.
As illustrated in the diagram above, The Electromagnetic Spectrum contains several other forms of light, however most of them are at frequencies we can feel but not “see”.
All light has both a frequency and a wavelength, and all light can behave as both a particle and a wave depending on the situation. In fact, both light and matter have particle-wave duality in their properties and behavior. It’s important for artists to understand this duality because it affects our thinking and problem solving regarding light at different stages during rendering.
When we begin to invent our images we must also invent our lighting. When we are mentally calculating the direction of our light source, its reflections, and fall off, it is helpful to think of light as particles, or rays, that travel in straight lines.
This helps us figure out how much of our object will be lit, how to place the form shadows and cast shadows, and where the bounce light will land. When objects are opaque, I have found considering light primarily as rays helps me best determine how to render the light.
When objects are translucent, transparent, or have variable reflectivity, things start to get more complex because light is not simply being absorbed and reflected but also transmitted through the object. Transmission of light through objects gives us more to consider and calculate because it gives us more to paint, like subsurface scattering, refraction, and more reflections.
Let me put your mind at ease and say it is not necessary to do any complex mathematic calculationsto paint these effects, just some additional concepts to understand and visual calculations to make.
When we think about reflection, refraction, and absorption, it helps to think of light first as a particle or ray (for determining the light’s intensity, direction, and bounce) and then as a wave—for determining which wavelengths are reflected off, absorbed by, and/or transmitted through the object and the ground.
That was a huge mouthful, I know. I will be going over all of these more nuanced areas in other posts in this series.
Understanding the particle-wave duality of light begins to give us a clear view of how light’s behavior changes as it interacts with different materials. Watching the videos below helped me gain a clearer understanding of this concept, and I hope you find them useful, too.
As we bring together the elements we need to understand, we start to define the contours of The Fundamentals of Light so that we can start filling in details and particulars—and don’t worry, there will be photographic examples and demos so all of this becomes more clear.
Properties of Light & Matter for Artists
I know this has been a little science-heavy so far, and that’s intentional. It is how I make sense of complex topics, and I hope you find it helpful. Now that we’ve covered the basics of what light is, I’ll change things up a bit to keep everything digestible. I’ll cover a little science and do some explaining, and then use photographic examples or demos to clarify how the information helps in creating art.
Next, let’s dig into the properties of light, but first I want to give you a list of all the properties to keep in mind whenever it’s time to render light. This is a list according to me, and they’re based on my experience rendering light in both 2D (Photoshop) and 3D (Maya).
Number of Sources
Type of Light(s)
Size of Source(s)
Distance from object/picture plane
Angle/Height of Source(s)
Some of these are straightforward, so let’s talk about those briefly. The number of light sources is an important consideration because we need to know how much light information we’re working with. More light sources in a scene makes for a brighter image, but how each source affects the picture plane depends on all the other properties on the list.
The size and angle/height of each source are also straightforward properties and they ask questions like: Is a light source large, small, or medium? Do several small lights make up one larger source because of how closely grouped they are? Do these sources sit high or low on the picture plane? Are they even visible in the image, or are they shining from somewhere out of frame?
Under properties of matter, shape, form, local color, and material type are the most straightforward. We must know what shapes and forms make up the volume of the objects we’re rendering, and we need to know what color and material type they are. After all, there is quite a difference between painting a shiny chrome ball and painting a shiny colored plastic ball. Sure, they’re both shiny; but one is metal and ridiculously reflective while the other is plastic, softer, and much less reflective.
The Two Ways Our World is Lit
Despite all the science, properties, and moving parts involved with understanding how objects are lit, there really are only two ways anything receives light in our world: directly or indirectly.
Objects are either lit directly by a light source or indirectly by reflected light when the rays from the source bounce off some surfaces and objects to illuminate others. This kind of indirect lighting is also called Ambient Light and it is much weaker in comparison to direct light. Most lighting schemes will involve both direct and indirect lighting.
Next, we’ll go over the categories that light sources fall into.
Properties of Light – Types of Light Sources
There are 3 types of light sources:
A key light is the strongest light source in your scene. It defines the emotional impact of the scene and is the primary descriptor of forms and drama. When you decide how to “key” your scene, you are choosing the overall mood and tonal range that will define it.
A fill light is not as bright as a key light and is often softer and a lot darker. Fill lights support your scene and subjects by adding light and color information in the shadows, which can illuminate an area of interest you wish the viewer to see or just provide added interest or balance to your scene. Fill light can be ambient (reflected) light, as I’ve done in my examples below, or it can come from an additional light source(s).
A rim light travels the outer edges of objects. Rim light helps define shapes, add dramatic appeal, and can be a helpful tool for adding compositional information and/or emotional impact.
No matter what kind of mood a story or scene calls for, any lighting scheme will have at least a key light and, likely, some combination of all three light source types.
Okie dokie, how’re you doing? I know this has been a lot to get through, and I hope you’re still hanging in there with me. Deep breaths, we’ve got this!
Now, it’s time to go over some terminology to help keep things clear as we continue to move through the Fundamentals of Light.
Defining Terminology + Sphere Tests
Think of this as the glossary section of this post. Here I’ll define the frequently used terms that will show up quite often from now on in both my writing and the call-outs in demos and examples.
Anything that creates and emits light. Light sources can be natural, like the sun, moon, and fire, or artificial, like lamp posts, flashlights, and device screens.
Light Direction & Angle
The orientation of a light source relative to the picture plane. For example, low and out of frame on the left, or mid-level and in frame on the right.
The intensity or strength of a light source. A high exposure light source makes for a brighter, “high key” scene, while a lower exposure light will make a scene appear less bright. I tend to use exposure and intensity interchangeably.
The area of a form receiving most of the light; the lit side of a form.
The brightest area on a form. This is usually a small area that is receiving the most direct light and reflecting a bit of it back.
The area on a form that has begun to turn away from the light source, resulting in a transition area of light to shadow. This area is receiving some light, but not nearly as much as the parts of the form facing the light source more directly.
Light that bounces off a surface and then lands on another form or surface is Reflected or “bounce” light. Reflected light is much weaker than direct light and can occur on any part of a form, except occluded areas.
The point at which light cannot land on a surface. This is where the shadow side of the form begins.
The darkest part of the form shadow. The shadow core on a sphere typically looks like a dark band right next to the terminus, a clear separator between the light and shadow. The core shadow is also the part of the form shadow least affected by reflected light.
The areas of a form that are in complete shadow and receive no direct light.
Occlusion shadows are the darkest areas in shadows and on/within forms where absolutely no light can reach. When something is occluded it is completely obstructed or blocked, so when light is occluded you have complete darkness.
We see occlusion most often in narrow areas right beneath forms before the cast shadow begins, and with narrow openings, cracks, and crevices of surfaces/forms. Occluded areas are not sufficiently open enough to the environment to receive any light, so there is only shadow.
Cast shadows is created when an object’s form blocks light. Objects block light adjacent to themselves and in the shape of their contours. There are three distinct parts to a cast shadow, the Umbra, Penumbra, and Antumbra. Much of the time, in art, we are only painting an umbra and penumbra. When multiple light sources of different intensity and direction/angle are involved, we begin to see examples of all three parts of a cast shadow.
Umbra: Umbra is Latin for “shadow”. The umbra is the innermost and darkest part of a cast shadow, where the light source is completely blocked by the form creating the shadow. [i]
Penumbra: Penumbra is Latin for “nearly” and “almost”. The penumbra is further from the object and lighter than the umbra. Further away from the object light from the source and the environment can influence and brighten the shadows.
Antumbra: The antumbra is the lightest and softest part of a cast shadow. The technical definition is confusing and unnecessary for our purposes, but if you’re curious click here.
Now, I’m going to show a few sphere test examples to visually illustrate the terms above so we can make practical sense of all you’ve been reading.
The Distance of Light Sources & Why It Matters
Each property of light plays a role in affecting the mood of our scene and the light effects we paint, including shadows. The appearance and quality of shadows is determined by the light and forms that cast them. How near or distant a light source is to an object has a significant impact on the appearance of an object’s form shadows and cast shadows, so let’s get into that next.
We can group lights into categories based on their characteristics, like size, distance, and how intense they are to get a starting place for how those lights would interact with the objects in our scenes.
Distant light sources are things like sunlight, moonlight, and powerful spotlights like those in stadiums and theaters. Distant lights tend to:
Be neutral lights.
Cause soft-edged form shadows.
Create cast shadows that are the same size and shape as the object because their light rays are parallel.
As one example, we know the sun is a huge, very distant, powerful light source, and from observation we know that light from the sun strongly illuminates everything it reaches. That means light is bouncing around everywhere in our atmosphere and reflecting a lot of light, so we can expect brighter and more colorful shadows when the sun is involved.
Playing with exposure also makes a big difference, so an overcast grey sky lowers the exposure, diffuses the light, and makes the sunlight seem much less energetic than a clear and cloudless sky, and creates lighter, softer, and less colorful shadows.
The Sun is also larger than our Earth, and any object we would light with it, so we must also consider the sun as an “oversized” light, which we’ll get into in a minute.
Nearby Light Sources
Nearby light sources are things like lamps, candles, device screens and monitors, lighters, matches, lanterns, etc. Nearby light sources tend to create:
Larger cast shadows because the light rays are no longer parallel.
Shorter and sharper (harder edged) cast shadows the closer they are to objects, longer and softer cast shadows the further they are from objects.
A higher terminus and a larger form shadow.
A more active or energetic feel and added tension to a scene.
When nearby light sources are also quite small (like candlelight or a lighter), they tend to cast hard edged cast shadows. They present an additional composition challenge because they can become distracting if not handled carefully. Nearby light sources tend to become a focal point in a scene, so it’s important to be mindful of that and use it to your advantage for your chosen lighting scheme and compositional design.
Oversized or Diffuse Light Sources
Examples of oversized or diffuse light sources are the entire sky on an overcast day (sky light), light coming through large windows, and any light that is scattered by being translucently covered or blocked (like a paper lantern, a light sheet or cloth, an umbrella, or frosted glass covering for light bulbs). Oversize or diffuse light sources tend to:
Cause an object’s terminus to move further away from the light source (the larger the light source is larger relative to the object).
Create softer edged shadows.
Make environments and characters feel softer, warmer, and more friendly.
In the case of light sources that are larger than the objects they illuminate, the light rays are travelling out in random directions, reflecting off the atmosphere and other objects and surfaces, and filling in the shadows, which softens them. Shadows become softer edged because light does not reach each part of the shadow area equally, and because the object blocks (occludes) part of the light area behind it.
Ambient light is created when light from a source is reflected off the ground, other objects, and the environment. It is possible for objects to be exclusively lit by ambient light, but a key light (which is usually a direct kind of light) is still needed to emit the light that will be reflected.
Terms like indirect light, reflected light, and bounce light all mean the same thing: they are all ambient light. Ambient light is most noticeable in shadows because of the contrast, but it is present whenever and wherever reflected light lands on an object or surface.
Light rays lose most of their strength and brightness (90%) with each bounce, and they are bouncing around multiple times. This loss of strength is why ambient light is generally weak and cannot reach into occluded areas.
You may have come across the term ambient occlusion, especially as it relates to lighting in 3D modeling apps like Maya and Zbrush. In drawing and painting, if zero light can reach an area, I simply refer to this as an occlusion shadow or an occluded area.
For a bit more on ambient light and ambient occlusion, here’s a video by Marco Bucci (awesome artist!) that I found helpful.
Light Direction & Angle: How They Affect A Scene
In any lighting scheme, cast shadows are a compositional and mood element that should be considered and planned. Choosing the light’s direction and angle is an important step in setting the emotional tone of a scene as well as defining forms and helping viewers to understand how to react to what they are seeing. Cast shadows can add drama and mystery to a scene, particularly when the object or character casting the shadow is off camera.
Different light directions and angles offer a variety of mood options, and I’ve listed a few here:
Direct Overhead Lights:
Tend to read as unnatural.
Can help create tension and drama, and how much depends on the light’s exposure and temperature.
Angled Light from the side:
Reads as active and energetic.
Adds dramatic tension.
Frontal light (slightly to the side and above, not directly in front):
Comfortable way of positioning light.
Keeps an object/character from being in too much shadow.
Good at defining form.
Reads as soft and friendly.
Is the most unnatural of all the lighting directions.
Feels dramatic in spooky, creepy, threatening, and unnatural ways.
How you choose to render your light will always depend on the position and point of view of the audience, and the message that needs to be conveyed.
The Fundamentals of Light—Breaking Down The Parts
Even though we learn in steps and stages, I find it helpful to get the “lay of the land” because it provides a road map, and it’s nice to at least have some idea of what we’re doing, right? With that in mind, I have listed the major headings that are part of studying The Fundamentals of Light and broken out some detail for the area we’ve covered today.
Properties of Light
Types of Light
Terminology & Sphere Tests
Fall Off & Form Changes
Light & Surface Color
Translucence & Transparency (Transmission)
Light & Materials
Atmospheric Effects & Atmospheric Perspective
The Human Experience of Light
Next Time: The Fundamentals of Light, Part 2!
Take a moment to think of your absolute favorite treat for relaxing and pampering yourself. See it, visualize it in your mind’s eye. Now…get yourself that treat! You have just made it through a massive amount of information in a relatively short(ish) amount of time.
Thank you for hanging in there with me. I’ve tried to keep things clear and concise, but I know this was a lot to take in. I commend you, I thank you, and I am sending you virtual high fives and fist bumps!
We need some forms before we render light, so if you need guidance in that area I have some posts covering Form and The Fundamentals of Art to help.
The next couple of posts in my Fundamentals of Light series will cover exposure and fall off, and then absorption, reflection, and refraction of light wavelengths.
If I’ve confused you, if you have questions, or if I’ve gotten anything wrong, please message me in the comments and I’ll do my best to clear things up.
Welcome fellow artists! Thank you for sharing part of your day with me to talk about art fundamentals 😊.
Since you’re here it means you are looking for answers regarding the fundamentals of art and other art concepts like painting, color, composition, anatomy, value, and many others I’m sure. When we start our art journey, we have tons of questions about art and its elements. I’m happy to share everything I have learned as an artist because I remember the struggle of becoming.
There are almost always pre-established paths, curriculum, video courses, books, and other avenues for getting whatever knowledge we seek. These avenues lay out what the essential or fundamental parts are for any discipline and stress the importance of learning those fundamentals to achieve success—and for good reason, as our work and understanding tend to fall flat without them. Everything there is to learn has fundamentals intended to serve as our foundation.
A foundation is our primary source of essential knowledge and skills, and once completely established it supports us as we grow from it and built on it. Have you ever heard the phrase “We stand on the shoulders of giants”? The artists that came before us, from masters to hobbyists, have already laid the groundwork for us. We don’t need to reinvent anything, all we must do is learn the basics, each art concept, and do the work to make our art.
Yes, it is a process. Yes, it does take years. That’s okay! It’s worth it, and so is your art dream.
What are the Fundamentals of Art?
Search for “art fundamentals” or “what are the fundamentals of art?” online and you quickly get a cornucopia of mish-mashed information about art and design.
There is a difference between a fundamental, a principle, and an element. A fundamental is something you start with and then build on. A principal is similar to a fundamental, but it can also be a set or list of things that make up one encompassing fundamental. I think about it this way: if there are multiple principles, then whatever heading they’re all listed under is the actual fundamental.
Take the Principles of Design, for example. There are at least seven of those, but Design is the fundamental. Make sense? An element is literally a component, one part, of a whole. All fundamentals have elements, but no single element is a fundamental on its own.
Why Learn the Fundamentals of Art?
Because you want to draw and paint awesome stuff without tearing out your hair, that’s why.
Making quality art requires us to understand all the fundamentals of art as well as their elements, including painting, color theory, composition, color mixing, anatomy, perspective, design, etc. Understanding each of the fundamentals, each concept, in depth is a process and an investment in ourselves as artists. You have goals as an artist that you dream of meeting, and your journey is about equipping yourself to get where you want to be and rocking it when you arrive. So let’s gear up by going over this list.
My Top 5 Art Fundamentals for Beginners
To be completely honest and transparent, this list represents the top 5 art fundamentals according to me. Others may disagree, but I have been working at this long enough—and I have classically trained enough—to present this list with confidence. The order I list them in is based off years of study, practice, and wall smacking.
Proportion (Illusion of Mass and Dimension)
The Fundamentals of Light (Tones/Values,includes basic Color Theory & Mixing)
Drawing from Life
Gesture Drawing & Anatomy
My key reasoning for the order of this art fundamentals list is quite simple: Historically and to this day, most times when I hit a wall it’s in one or more of these five areas that I find the solutions I need. Had I built a stronger background in these earlier on, I would’ve hit fewer snags. The strength of our foundation plays an important role in how we navigate our way through any challenge, and no matter how experienced we become, problem solving and corrections will always be part of our creation process.
It’s good to get different perspectives on things, so here’s the awesome Bobby Chiu on what the fundamentals of art are:
With all that in mind, let’s start digging into these top five fundamentals and help you on your way.
When we talk about Form in art, we’re referring to an object’s overall shape, volume, and contours which include line, depth, and mass. Seeing and constructing Forms are the first and most vital skills we must develop as artists. Practicing the analysis, understanding, and building of Forms creates a strong foundation for developing and growing all other fundamental art skills. Line, shape, structure, and proportion are essential building blocks for anything you draw or paint.
The process of practicing each of these skills builds our visual library and the muscle memory needed to allow us to create whatever artwork we want. As artists we are in the business of communicating feelings, thoughts, impressions, messages, and stories, so let’s look at how developing our skill with Forms helps us.
Benefitsof developing skill with Forms
1. We Learn to See
Practicing seeing and creating Forms helps us become familiar with the physical make-up of all the things that surround us and how all their parts come together to shape part of our experience.
2. We Learn to Analyze, Explore, and TakeRisks
We begin to see connections, relationships, repetition, and similarities between and across forms and objects. This readies us to look more closely at each subject and better understand the fundamentals beyond the basics.
When you feel ready for more on Forms, I take a deeper dive into the topic in my UnderstandingForm post.
2. The Fundamentals of Light: A Few Words on a Massive Topic
The study and practice of The Fundamentals of Light allows us to create Tones/Values in our work. Where Forms add the illusion of volume and dimension, light and shadow give objects a sense of mass, help further clarify surface texture and plane changes, explain the objects’ local tone and color, indicate mood, and show objects’ context within the picture plane.
Studying Light teaches us how it interacts with everything in the real world and helps us reproduce an illusion of its effects in two-dimensions. This practice helps us illustrate the properties, mood, and the character of the objects and people we draw and paint. With these two art fundamentals in our toolbox, we can create the illusion of any type of material, choose any level of detail, and guide the story to wherever it needs to be.
The process of practicing with light and shadow in art begins to bring us into other areas, such as color theory, color mixing, color key, light key, and painting. During this learning process, I recommend you to try to keep color simple. While color theory is relatively simple, a deft use of color takes years of practice and there are several elements involved when dealing with it. I also recommend using digital painting tools in addition to traditional painting to help with the study of color.
Digital tools are much more forgiving and are great for practicing and experimenting with value and color. My favorite thing about playing with color and value in a digital painting app, like ProCreate or Photoshop, is that they allow you to learn all the elements of color without having to mix color.
Mixing is its own thing–not a big thing, but still. Painting traditionally involves understanding the characteristics of each product (whether those are painting colors or mediums) and paint colors can vary wildly within a single color range and from brand to brand. Since traditional color mixing is so involved, it is best practiced separately from these five fundamentals.
Practicing each of these art fundamentals requires us to also practice Drawing from Life, which is the next area of fundamental practice I recommend for beginning artists.
3. Drawing from Life: Growing Your Skills & Visual Library
Every time we make art from life, we are doing something very important for our art and for ourselves as artists. We are taking into ourselves the life around us and engaging with it. Sketching and Drawing from Life are how we have a dialogue with the object we are re-creating. The relationship we have with the world through this process develops and maintains our visual libraries.
To begin, I suggest starting small and simple.
Think of the different types of shapes and find objects from your daily life, and from nature, that include many of those shapes. Then, draw them a lot. Start with the basic shapes you see—i.e., circles, squares, triangles, etc.—to practice seeing the elements that come together to construct the forms, such as cylinders, spheres, cubes, boxes, pyramids, cones. Leave out details like the surface designs, textures, and colors for now, focusing only on the forms, local tone, and basic light and shadows.
Draw the objects from different viewpoints, at different times of day, in different positions, under different lighting conditions, on their own, and grouped with other objects. Some printer paper or a simple sketchbook and pencil are really all you need to get started.
Once you feel comfortable with the simple forms, take yourself to the next level of form complexity and alternate between organic and inorganic forms to help to keep things varied, fun, and to keep expanding your visual library. As you become comfortable with more and more complex forms, you will find yourself ready to begin tackling the most challenging ones: Humans and animals.
For an artist, gesture drawing is essential for infusing a sense of motion, energy, and life into our artwork. As artists, we want to share art that feels alive, and gesture drawing and anatomy help achieve that. Gesture helps us add to the observation skills we build when creating from life by teaching us to see, accentuate, and exaggerate the motion in the poses of our subjects.
Every subject has gesture and motion; they are not exclusive only to humans and animals. Even when an object is static, like the trunk of a tree, it still has a gesture—it just doesn’t convey motion because it is not moving. Gesture is an area of study unto itself because creating the illusion of dynamic motion has its own set of terminology and guiding principles.
However, as with the other art fundamentals, gesture drawing builds on the other skills that were listed before it. Just as we construct our objects from lines and shapes, so too do we build our gestures. In a traditional gesture class (usually called Figure Drawing), we learn to identify the line of action for each pose and then build the forms around it. This also involves much practice in seeing, and accurately placing, the angles, proportions and distances between shapes and forms.
It is another form of drawing from life, with the specific life form being a human model.
Figure Drawing for Gesture Practice
At first, working with the figure feels quite daunting and challenging (and hilarious cuz there’s a naked stranger in front of you). I put it this far down on my list because it is a much more demanding skill. Even so, when you feel ready, I strongly encourage you begin adding gesture/figure drawing to your practice routine. It’s as fun as it is challenging, and it will help your hand and eye mature.
When I first started waaaay, back in 2001—OMG I’m totally aging myself—I was like all the rest of my first-time figure drawing artist classmates: giggly and terrible at drawing naked humans. I had no idea what I was doing, and that was fine. At first it’s quite humbling, but with a good instructor (Thank you, Professor Tacang!) I improved. If I can do it, so can you—with all the art fundamentals.
Remember, this is your journey so make it work for you and your art. I am here to act as a helpful guide and faithfully pass on what I learn.
The last skill in this first round of art fundamentals is one that helps pull everything together and adds an extra kick of believability to our creations.
5. Perspective: Exciting and Technical…mostly.
The first four art fundamentals are all about building the solid drawing foundation we need to support us as we work to communicate through our art. Perspective is another powerful tool for our visual storytelling, and it is a bit different from the others. Whereas the other areas of fundamental study are focused on constructing, lighting and enlivening objects, Perspective focuses on the space the objects occupy.
It deals with how the orientation of each object changes depending on its position within that space, and where our point of view is set (POV). Perspective allows us to understand the spaces our objects and stories occupy, and to examine each from different points of view.
Access to any point of view in the story is the gift we gain by developing our skills with Perspective, and the impact of a story can change dramatically depending on the viewpoint from which it is told.
As with the other fundamentals of art, Perspective is an area of study unto itself and has its own set of terminology, rules, and ways of practicing. It is certainly one of the more technical areas of study in art.
Creating objects in perspective is a more guided way of working that calls for a lot of lines and points: horizon line, vanishing points, and construction lines. I think it can be exciting when it helps an idea come to life—but it can also feel dry and ass numbingly dull (or painfully frustrating) depending on where you are with it. Perspective is important to learn, important to understand, and, unfortunately, is also a skill many artists avoid early on. I know I did.
It made my head hurt, so I said “no, thank you”…to the detriment of my artwork. Eventually, I sucked it up and learned better (plus it really, really helps with composition!).
So…What About the Other Art Fundamentals?
Believe me, there is no rush and the five we’ve just gone over will do the vital work of helping you build the foundation all your work rests on. The other art fundamentals: Color & Light, Principles of Design, Composition, and Line & Brushwork…they’re not going anywhere, and I’ll be here to help you make sense of them.
Thank you for hanging in there with me! I hope you have found this article helpful. If you have any questions, feedback, or if I have confused you at all, please let me know in the comments so I can help.
Have you ever flipped through a super thick art supplies catalog and felt surprised at the huge number of drawing tools out there? Have you ever felt confused or overwhelmed at the massive variety of art materials, drawing materials, drawing paper and other surfaces available? Have you asked yourself, “How do I choose drawing tools for beginners? What about quality? Should I go for high-quality, professional quality, or student grade? Can I get what I need for less? Why is there so much product out there?
There are so many different kinds of pencils, paint, eraser, brush, pastels, pens and other materials. How do I pick what is good for me? How will I know? What do I want? It’s all so new…maybe I should go to the art supply store to shop for drawing supplies…
I’ve been there. Let’s dig into this topic and see if we can answer these questions.
I started drawing! Yay! Now what?
Congratulations! You’re on your way and that’s good, so keep drawing! Draw daily and keep learning the fundamentals of art. Now that you’ve begun, it’s a matter of maintaining your will to continue and finding resources that work for you. Let’s introduce some essential drawing materials and art materials that will serve your art education journey.
The Purpose of Art Materials
The purpose of all drawing materials, and paint, is to make a mark. The purpose of each mark is to help us express our stories. Other art materials, such as paper and canvas, are the places our stories live in the world.
Drawing Tools for Beginners
The tools & materials I’ve listed here are structured with a focus on the art fundamentals, and based on my recommended Top 5 Art Fundamentals for Beginners.
1. Graphite Pencil set or Lead Holder & Leads
Standard medium 12 pencil sets will contain several grades of graphite pencils, usually 4H to 6B. A full range set, from 9H to 9B, contains 24 pencils and offers a broader tonal range. For more information on pencil grades, check out my post All About Drawing Pencils: Graphite Pencil Scale Explained.
Another drawing option is a lead holder with several grades of graphite leads. Using a lead holder means less of the graphite stick is wasted. I prefer lead holders over drawing pencils because I find them to be more reliable, efficient, and longer lasting.
Drawing pencils and pencil sets are the least expensive route for starting your art materials toolbox. A set of 12 medium graphite pencils (4H-6B) has a price of about $18, and a more expansive set of 24 (9H to 9B) goes for about $35.
The price of a lead holder runs about $9 – $18 depending on the type and brand. I’ve always used a Staedtler lead holder, which runs about $12. A selection of lead grades goes for $40 to $192 depending on the number of lead grades you purchase and the lead count for each grade (packs of 2 or 12). The initial cost for the lead holder and leads is higher but balances out a bit by lasting much longer.
Access to the full range of tones, from lightest (9H) to darkest (9B), is extremely valuable–especially when you are training to see and control tones. This is true for any graded pencils, including charcoal pencils.
2. Sharpeners & Pointers: Pencil Sharpener, Lead Pointer, X-Acto Knife, and Sandpaper Pointers
Crisp lines, small shapes and details require materials that can be sharpened to points or edges. Sharpening requires pencil sharpeners, lead pointers, and X-Acto knives. Sandpaper pointers help achieve an extra sharp point or crisp flat edge after sharpening, but are more of a useful sharpening accessory.
All pencil sharpeners are not created equal. Having tried several over the years, I can say two things with confidence:
1) Those little pencil sharpeners that come with most drawing pencil sets are almost always crappy and useless, and
2) Nearly every German-made pencil sharper or lead pointer I have ever used has worked beautifully with minimal lead breakage or waste.
Once you find a pencil sharpener that works for you, stick with it (and get a backup). Reliable sharpening tools contribute to a smooth workflow by keeping your pencils sharp without breaking or splitting.
Unfortunately, trial and error is still the best way to discover which pencil sharpener best suits you. The two pencil sharpener brands I’ve used for years now are KUM and Dahle. Both are German made, and I find they work best and are of excellent quality. I have the KUMEllipse pencil sharpener and the Dahle Canister pencil sharpener. For more pencil sharpener options, check out the Blick. Amazon is another option; the search there cast a much wider net, so results are broader, but there are a few products that look promising.
X-Acto Knife and Sandpaper Pointer: A Reliable Backup
As important as it is to have a reliable sharpener, it’s just as necessary to have a reliable backup sharpener. An X-Acto knife with a fresh blade is an inexpensive and easily accessible backup that always works, and you can find them at your local art supply stores and websites, such as Blick, as well as big box stores such as Home Depot, Walmart, and Target.
Using the X-Acto knife to sharpen your pencils allows you to choose how much of the graphite core is exposed, and how you sharpen it. Pair an X-Acto knife with a SandpaperPointer (or a sheet of low grit sandpaper) to have more control and customization of the point of your pencils rather than being beholden to the specs of your other sharpener(s). Having each option for sharpening allows for more flexibility and variety in your mark making and workflow.
When a lead holder and graphite sticks (or “leads”) are your choice, a lead pointer is the necessary sharpening tool. While a pencil sharpener must cut and sharpen the wood casing around the graphite as well as the graphite core, lead pointers need only bring the graphite stick itself to a point—without breaking the stick, of course. Lead sizes range from 2 mm up to 5.6 mm, so be sure to choose the pointer(s) that fit your tool(s).
I use the 2 mm graphite sticks, and my experience with lead pointers has been with the Staedtler Mars lead pointer and “The Gedess” rotary lead pointer by DUX.
I didn’t like the Staedtler Mars because its design was not smooth enough to prevent frequent breaks of my lead, and I found this extremely annoying and wasteful. Then I discovered “The Gedess” and it’s great! Interestingly, both brands are German made. It’s possible they’ve improved, or that the one I had was a dud. Who knows? Still, “The Gedess” works exceptionally well, never failing and rarely breaking my leads.
I definitely recommend “The Gedess” lead pointer, but it is more difficult to find. I have found it in two places: CultPens & Amazon (via a third-party seller). The most expansive list of lead pointers I have found so far comes from Cult Pens. They are a UK-based company, so factor in currency conversion and shipping when making purchases. I ordered two Gedess lead pointers from them years ago and both still work perfectly.
3. Erasers: Kneaded, Mechanical, Mars Plastic, & Pink Pearl
We all love “happy accidents”, but most of the time what we get are regular “oopsie” marks that need correcting, which makes having a few types of eraser helpful. I use three kinds: a kneaded eraser, a mechanical eraser, and a Mars Plastic eraser. Creating different types of drawings, on different surfaces, with different materials necessitates a bit of variety in how we lift, lighten, adjust, or remove our marks.
A kneaded eraser can be used for lifting media off a surface to lighten an area or erasing to remove a mark almost completely. I say “almost” because how well the kneaded eraser removes a mark depends on how dark the mark is and how much pressure was used to lay it down. A very dark mark pressed deeply into the surface will not be completely removed with a kneaded eraser.
Mars Plastic Eraser
While very versatile, kneaded erasers are not my tool of choice for heavy duty erasing. To erase a large area completely, I turn to my Mars Plastic eraser. It’s big and sturdy enough to cover a large area, but soft and effective enough to remove the marks without tearing up my surface. Mars Plastic erasers can also be cut or trimmed with an X-Acto knife to achieve an edge or a point.
Sometimes an area calls for smaller, more precise mark editing or removal. Kneaded erasers can be great for this because they can be shaped in whatever way you want. Its malleability, however, means it is not firm and cannot keep a point for long. A mechanical eraser works great for erasing with more precision. It pairs well with an eraser shield, and can also be cut with an X-Acto knife to achieve a sharper point or more crisp edge.
Pink Pearl Erasers
Pink Pearl erasers work great for erasing on most surfaces. Similar to the Mars Plastic, it’s a good everyday work horse type of eraser but there are a couple of caveats. In my experience, the Pink Pearl erasers can often leave unwanted, pink “ghost” marks behind after erasing. It’s like next level eraser poop, and often can’t be removed—which is very irritating since the point of using it was to remove an unwanted mark.
Additionally, a heavy hand and excessive erasing can mean wear and tear for your surface, so keep that in mind. Still, Pink Pearl erasers are quite durable, so I still recommend having one.
4. Lithographic Crayon or China Marker
While practicing gesture drawing in art school, I found myself looking for a less messy alternative to charcoal pencils and charcoal and Conte sticks. A schoolmate recommended I try Lithographic Crayons, and I’m glad I listened. Lithographic crayons are great! They have all the benefits of a stick tool with much less mess, apply smoothly, and are not easily smudged.
I find them ideal for figure drawing because they’re comfortable, versatile, and help me from stay away from small details while sketching because they don’t naturally come to sharp point. Lithographic crayons come in six degrees of hardness: Extra Soft, Soft, Medium, Hard, Extra Hard, and Copal.
China Markers offer a similar feel to lithographic crayons, though “Marker” seems a bit of misnomer to me as it’s more a cross between a colored pencil and a crayon in its consistency. If you appreciate a tool with smooth application and no smudging, give china markers a try. The only slightly annoying thing about china markers is the peeling mechanism, by which you expose more of the tool by pulling the inserted string, which cuts the paper covering and allows you to peel it away .
Sometimes the string becomes too long and gets in the way of drawing, or becomes detached completely and makes it difficult to pull more of the paper covering away. Keeping an X-Acto knife or scissors in your pencils toolbox is enough to remedy these minor irritations and get you back to drawing.
5. Col-Erase Colored Pencils
As we progress through our art fundamental studies, we come to a point where our practice needs the help of color. I am not a fan of diving deeply into colors early on, but when we practice Perspective it becomes necessary to have multiple colors to work with because perspective drawing yields a lot of lines on a page.
All those construction lines get confusing when they are all the same tone and graphite grey color, so having a set of Col-Erase pencils, or regular colored pencils, is amazingly helpful. Col-Erase pencils are an erasable type of colored pencil made by Prismacolor, and they are especially useful for perspective, layouts, and design. So, when you’re drawing construction lines to practice forms in perspective, you’ll be able to tell which lines go to what forms without all the eye crossing and hair tearing.
Regular sets of Crayola or generic brand of colored pencils work fine, but they cannot be completely erased. Still, the point of using colored pencils is to have clarity during construction. Erasing ability is helpful, but not essential. If you already have some colored pencils in your toolbox, get those used up first. It will give you a feel for the materials, assist in your practice, and give you an excuse to buy new ones 😉
6. 18” or 24” Ruler
A straight edge tool is more often necessary for technical drawing and design, such as Perspective. Once you’re familiar with how perspective works, your eye becomes trained to see when the perspective is off in a drawing—or so I’ve been told. I haven’t yet managed to develop this skilled and magical sight, but it sounds awesome. Practically speaking it’s extremely helpful. I’ve had the perspective of more than one drawing or painting corrected because I had instructors or schoolmates who could “see” my funky perspective.
Even when I develop this awesome skill, I will still need the assistance of a ruler, the horizon line, and vanishing points to make adjustments. Construction lines can get wildly long and go off the page, which is why I suggest using an 18”or 24” ruler rather than the standard twelve inch.
7. Fixative spray
When we finish work that we want to preserve, we must seal or “fix” it with fixative
spray so our work is protected from smudging, erasing, and yellowing. Fixative spray is a transparent protective coating that dries to a uniform finish (matte or glossy) without yellowing. Fixative sprays are available for charcoal, pencil, and pastel drawings. These spray fixatives must be applied in several coats and tend to have a strong smell, so I highly recommend applying them outside. Once the spray is dry, your work (and your nose) should be protected.
Surfaces: Art Materials to Draw On
1. Sketchbooks (with at least one having toned paper)
Sketching is our bread and butter. We must think on paper to pull out and develop our ideas before they are ready to be taken to finish. A sketchbook is not only a working space. For me it’s a place to make a colossal mess in pursuit of the art I want to create, as well as a repository for jotted down notes, thoughts, and ideas. Primarily it’s another tool for our expression and learning, so it is important to choose one you are comfortable with.
For example, I prefer hardbound sketchbooks to spiral-bound. I like my pages to stay put in my sketchbook, so spiral-bound or perforated page sketchbooks don’t work for me because I find loose or falling out pages irritating.
A toned paper sketchbook is useful for practicing with tones and values, and is a nice change of pace from blank white paper. Toned sketch paper most often comes in grey or tan, but the idea works the same regardless of color. Using different colored construction paper would work too.
Toned paper has a visible fibrous texture to it, and, for me, drawing on it adds a certain comfort to my process—like the space is a ready-made supportive presence, or background, for my sketches. I guess I find a toned surface more welcoming.
2. Pad of toned paper
I recommend a pad of toned paper for the same reasons I think a sketchbook of toned paper is important. With a larger pad of toned paper, you can complete larger drawings (portraits, illustrations, figure drawings, etc.) with all the benefits of a toned surface.
3. Newsprint Pads, Printer Paper, Mixed Media Pads, & Drawing Paper
Let’s talk about papers to draw on!
Newsprint is a great work horse surface. It’s inexpensive, durable, and works with any dry media tool. I prefer using newsprint for all my gesture drawing short pose practice, and I particularly like the BlickStudio Newsprint Pads. They are available in a variety of sizes (9”x12”, 12”x18”, 18”x24”, and 24”x36”), three of which are available in both 50 and 100 sheet counts.
Newsprint is ideal for practice and is meant to hold dry media such as pencil, charcoal, pastel, and ballpoint pen. Wet media does not hold up well on Newsprint–it’s not thick enough to hold much moisture, so bleeding and tearing happen quite easily.
Pen and ink and markers are amazing to practice with, especially with gesture drawing, so having another surface option here matters. Printer paper is cheap, easily accessible, and will hold marker and pen and ink much better than newsprint. Printer paper is loose, and stacks of it can be challenging (and weighty) to store. You may find binding it in some way, with staples or a three-ring binder, to make a DIY sketchbook helpful.
Mixed Media Paper
For more versatility with easier storage Mixed Media paper is a good choice. The sheet count is limited (30 to 60 sheets) and the cost a little higher, but for that you get a surface that will hold both dry and wet media such as watercolor, pastels, pencil, collage, and pen and ink. Mixed media paper is a good addition to any surfaces repertoire that you’ll want to have on hand. It adds variety to your toolbox, and is one of the best options for experimenting with other materials like paint, charcoal, pens, and more.
Practice isn’t all sketches. Finished pieces, such as still lives, figure drawings, and illustrations are also part of our practice, and for this type of work I recommend using Drawing paper. Drawing paper is usually off-white with a uniform surface, and will accept any dry media, marker, pen and ink, and light washes. Drawing paper can be used for sketches, but given the sheet count and cost I recommend keeping your use of it to “finished” work.
Must Have vs. Nice to Have
The most important thing to remember is your purpose. What is it that you’re working to learn and do? There are many different artist materials out there–certainly far more than we will ever need at one time–so focus on choosing those that support the work you’re making now.
I encourage you to choose materials that support your current goals without getting distracted by the multitude of other shiny supplies out there. Your future self, your wallet, and your storage space will thank you.
Simple Essentials for Digital Practice
For practicing most of the art fundamentals, the materials I have listed so far will take you far. For a few of them, like Light and Color, a digital painting app is extremely helpful.
Here is my list of tools and materials for digital practice:
1. Working device (desktop computer, laptop, or tablet)
2. Drawing tablet (without display) or tablet compatible stylus
3. Digital Painting application
Please forgive how super generic this list is. The area of digital tools is quite large and involved, so it would be too much to delve into here. Every aspect of your digital setup must be based on what works best for your artwork and also your budget. Thankfully, these days most of what we need (powerful video cards, plenty of storage space, quality screen resolution, pressure sensitivity, etc.) come standard with most computers and devices. To make this a bit more helpful I found some sites with additional information:
My focus is to be a helpful resource for your art journey, so I’m focusing my writing on all the aspects of how we make art. For now, I best serve you by pointing you in the direction of others who’ve already covered the best currently available digital resources.
Working digitally is a more forgiving (and less frustrating) way of studying Light than using traditional paints and brushes because it allows us to practice without needing to mix tones and colors manually. I find color theory is much less complex than it seems, but color mixing with traditional media is far more challenging than you’d expect. So, noticeably absent from my list are painting supplies, and that is intentional.
Learning must be done at a sustainable pace with digestible pieces of information spread out along the way. Introducing colors and brushwork too early can be distracting, overwhelming, and detrimental to our study of the other fundamentals, and it is absolutely essential that we have a firm grasp of line, form, and tones first.
Get that Mileage
We are makers, builders, creators, and storytellers. The best way to pull out our visions is to think on paper. No matter how you end up filling out your art supplies, the most important thing you can do with them is to sketch.
Sketch, sketch, sketch, and sketch some more! Sketch. Every. Single. Day. Draw and draw until you’ve filled your sketchbook. Then get another sketchbook and fill that, too. Don’t know what to draw? Start with the Fundamentals and Forms!
No matter where you are now, you will reach your goal. All you must do is breathe, believe, and draw. You got this 😉
I appreciate the opportunity to share what I know with you and contribute to your art journey! Since you’re here it means you want to understand more about form in art, so let’s dig in.
Line, shape, silhouette, and form are just a few elements of The Fundamentals of Art. A firm understanding of how to use and express form in art is essential. The use of form in art is primarily a tool of representational art.
For visual storytelling, our forms need to be on point so the story is felt and understood. Nearly all our sensory experiences connect us to forms and light, and heavily inform our understanding of people and the world around us. Visually expressing form in art helps us connect our stories with our audience.
What is Form in Art?
Simply stated, form is anything whose physical nature includes length, width and depth. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, vehicles, our tech, tools, nature, and more all have a physical form.
Not all of our sensory experiences are visual things, like scent and sound. We don’t “see” the way a pizza smells or the way a bell sounds, but we can draw the source of these sounds and use form in art to connect with our audience’s experiences.
Lines, shapes, and silhouettes help us build and “sculpt” form in art and visually connect us to our audience.
Drawing Comparisons: How I Like to Explain the Elements of Art vs. YouTube or Other Websites You See
In the searches I have done throughout the years, I have encountered a lot of frustration with surface-level information. A general, top-down overview may be enough to get started, but as we dive deeper into our craft, we need more.
Sometimes we need the nuances of our discipline to help us grow past the walls and challenges we encounter. Some of these reveal themselves to us in the doing, which is awesome. Other times, we could use a little more help. Finding awesome-looking YouTube videos that explain nothing, while showing off nice painting skills with pleasant background music, has not been something I’ve ever found terribly helpful.
It’s most helpful to have a window into the process. Understanding aids our practice and helps us build our own processes—which is one of the most challenging aspects of being an artist.
My goal is to share what I have learned with a good balance of the academic and scientific, the practical, the nuanced, and the fun. I want to share the knowledge you can actually use.
Shape and Form in Art
To understand form in art, it’s important to grasp its building blocks: lines, shape, and silhouette.
Silhouettes are combined solid, monotone shapes (most often in black) whose edges match the outline (outside contour) of the form(s) they represent.
Shapes are simplified, flat versions of form that are created using lines. Shapes are created when lines connect to enclose space. Often the space contained within the line(s) is referred to as “positive” space, while the space outside the shape itself is called “negative” space. “Negative” space can also create shapes and interesting contours.
Lines define the edges. Contour and cross contour lines are useful for giving additional information about the surface volume and plane changes of an object, which guides us when adding light and shadow. Variations of line type and line quality can be used to describe texture and weight.
For our purposes, a line is generally defined as a discernible, one-dimensional path created by a point moving in space. Lines vary in length, width, direction, and texture (smooth, rough, broken, dotted, etc.). They can be solid and visible or implied and invisible. If you can “see” or discern a connection/progression between points or objects, then a line is present.
The Five Main Types of Lines in Art
There are five main types of lines in art:
A line’s directionality affects the “feel,” impact, and energy of a composition, as well as the language of the shapes you use. Lines are a powerful tool for guiding our viewer’s eye through the story of our image and infusing a sense of movement within our work. I spoke of the versatility of lines earlier, and there are tons of different ways to draw lines and combine line types. It is a fun doodle adventure to see how many combinations you can come up with. Here are a few of my own continuous line doodles:
In these examples, I use a continuous two-dimensional line to see how far I can push the organic and geometric possibilities of a line. I used black on a toned background and focused on creating as many variations of line direction and weight as I could think of at the moment.
As you can see, the variety of the directionality and weight of the lines makes the “feeling” of the lines change: Some feel heavier or darker than others, and some feel more dynamic and energetic. Line quality affects mood and form in art.
Drawing with constant direction changes, as in the zigzagging and wavy lines you can see here, makes these patterns and open shapes feel more energetic and chaotic, or like they are “buzzing.”
By combining the five main types of lines in continuous line drawing, you will see how far you can use lines to explore two-dimensional geometric and organic shapes and patterns in your work. Practice like this also gives you a sense of the kind of shape language and line quality you like, which will inform how you create forms and objects in your drawings.
For another viewpoint on Line in art, here is a video from KQED Art School:
Exploring Shapes: An Important Element of Art
Let’s talk more about shapes. By my count, there are at least 21 distinct basic shapes and dozens of shape combinations classified as mathematical 2D shapes. I didn’t think there were that many until I started researching it, but, helpfully, they each fall into two categories: Polygonal or Curved.
I compiled my own list into the table below and added a sketch of each for visual reference. Having a robust shape library helps us define form in art.
Figure eight (lemniscates)
Pentagon (5 sides)
Hexagon (6 sides)
Heptagon (7 sides)
Octagon (8 sides)
Most, if not all, of the shapes above are likely familiar to you. Lines help us make these shapes, and adding depth to each helps us create forms in art. When not being used to construct form in art, shapes are often used for patterns, details, and/or to add or imply texture.
In this next video, KQED Art School does a good job of further illustrating what shape in art is:
I have some visual examples coming up later in this post that should help clarify everything I’ve been discussing, so now let’s dig into a bit of the nuance of form in art.
The Five Basic Forms in Art
There are 5 Basic Forms: The Cube, Sphere, Cylinder, Cone & Pyramid.
Shapesbecome forms when depth is added.
A circle can become a sphere or a cylinder.
A square can become a cube or a pyramid.
A triangle can become a cone or a prism.
A rectangle can become a cube or a cylinder.
Which form each shape becomes depends on your intent, and its proportions will depend on which perspective you use and where the form sits concerning the horizon line.
Here are a few examples I created in one- and two-point perspective:
In two-point perspective, all the forms you create begin with cubes/boxes. In one-point perspective, you can begin with any shape you like.
Here’s one more video from KQED Art School that has more great examples of what form in art can look like:
The Five Basic Forms in Nature
The five basic forms are geometric and mathematical, and geometric forms are frequently described as “man-made.” Regarding objects we typically draw as artists, this is probably accurate. However, I don’t want to leave it because it limits our thinking as makers and creators. Geometric forms are found in nature in a variety of areas. So far, I have found that all but one of the five basic forms, the pyramid, frequently occur in nature.
I have only found one example of the pyramid in mineral/gem/crystal formations, and even then, it’s rare. Shapes, silhouettes, and forms are all naturally occurring things observed every day in our world.
Let’s take a look at some examples of the five basic forms as they occur in nature.
Organic Forms and Geometric Forms
Forms in nature are organic and tend to be curvy, free-flowing, and have much more variation in their forms, patterns, and textures. They are also less easily measurable than geometric forms. My own preference is for organic forms. I find organic forms to be the most unique, dynamic, and extremely fun and challenging to draw. Geometric forms can be just as fun and interesting, though I think their mathematically defined natures lend them more to stabilizing and structural uses than dynamism.
Form in art: Breakdowns
First, we need something to draw! I have tried to go about this in an orderly way–going from quite simple to complex forms from one example to the next. I have tried to use easy to find everyday objects for each. For this type of demonstration, I’ve included the unedited reference, then the silhouette, a breakdown of the basic flat shapes, and finally, a form drawing with contour lines.
Subjects Without Form: Those Tricky Elements and their Form Changes
Things like water, air, smoke, and fire are not your standard forms. Due to their varied and shifting natures, all the elements are a little more challenging to depict. Being without solid, static forms, they change depending on circumstances and external influences and conditions.
Water, for example, conforms to whatever container it’s in—whether that’s an inorganic glass or a natural container like the Earth (like a lake or a pond). It’s also somewhat self-containing in that it sticks to itself—which is how we get water drops and puddles.
Smoke and gases have volume, but their most defining features are scent and motion. The forms smoke and gases take also depend on what their origins are. Smoke from an explosion or a fireplace has a completely different look compared with smoke from a cigarette or a candle.
Fire also has no static form. The shapes and forms of fire depend very much on whatever is being burned. A wildfire has a much larger, more energetic form than a campfire or a fire from a lighter. All of these are types of fires, but drawing each form in art would require varied handling.
Finally, we have Air. We cannot draw or paint air—it is an invisible messenger. We can only draw its effects and some of what it carries. Air affects how we draw all the other elements and objects present in a scene. For example, we can draw the dust, leaves, and other debris that can be carried on the wind.
How we draw the things carried in the air determines the quality and mood of the atmosphere we are depicting. A scene with a gentle spring breeze has quite a different impact than a howling storm.
Adding Depth to Create Form in art: A Brief Word on Light & Perspective
When it comes to the physical world, the only reason our eyes see anything at all is because of light. Until we add the elements of space and light to shapes, they appear flat on our page.
Light and shadow help objects feel “grounded” in the picture plane, so they don’t appear to be “floating in space.”
Adding Depth with Light & Shadow
Lines and shapes serve as early starting points to begin drawing and orienting form in art. In the following step-by-step examples, I show the process of going from a “flat” circle to the illusion of a three-dimensional sphere using light and shadow.
This is a completed basic light demo with a sphere. Sometimes it helps to begin at the end, so you know where you want to end up. Next, I’ll break out the steps I used to arrive here.
Create a solid circle shape.
I used a toned background because it helps me see the contrasts of light and shadow much more easily than a white background.
Decide on your light’s source, direction, and angle.
There are several properties involved with light, but I recommend keeping it simple for this exercise.
I’ve chosen a light source similar to the sun but with a more white hue and much less intense.
Add light to the shape’s surface.
This begins to give the first indication of depth by putting one side in light and the other in the darker mid-tone of the shape’s local tone.
Begin adding the half tone and form shadows.
Form shadows include the terminus/terminator and core shadow. The characteristics of form shadows depend on the number of light sources and their properties.
Add the cast and occlusion shadows.
The cast shadow is the shadow created by the object blocking the light, and the occlusion shadow is the darkest area of shadow where no light can reach.
The highlight is a small area on the object that receives the most direct light from the light source, and the reflected light is an area that is receiving a small amount of illumination from the reflection of the light source when it bounces off the ground plane and/or other objects that may be present in your scene.
Laid out next to each other, it is easier to see the progression from a flat 2D shape to a 3D sphere with light and depth.
Adding Depth with Space
Another way to begin adding depth to your shapes is to use space and perspective. Drawing into space can add depth to a shape without using “proper” perspective. How you choose to add a sense of depth to your drawings really depends on your goals. For representational art, accurate perspective is a must for your finished product—but not when you’re just sketching to get ideas out.
When you are sketching for fun, or just trying to flesh out your understanding of an object’s forms, perspective is not necessary. These are simple, quick, and sketchy examples.
For these form in art exercises, I focused on turning each shape into a form by extending them out in space, adding planes and contour lines, and adding some simple values.
A quick note here: While I kept this simple, dealing with the human figure requires a little familiarity with human anatomy. I included it here to demonstrate that the level of complexity does not really matter because the process remains consistent.
Adding Depth with Perspective
To turn shapes into forms using perspective, I started with a horizon line, one vanishing point (for 1-Point Perspective), and a few basic shapes. The next steps are essentially the same as in the earlier examples, except that when I extend the corners or contours of the shapes back in space, I am extending them toward the vanishing point.
The process does change a little for 2-Point Perspective in that you do not start with shapes but with simple lines. To achieve depth in perspective, you extend lines from each vertice to each of the two vanishing points.
Show Yourself Some Love! You Made it!
Okay, so do me a favor, would you? Kiss your hand and touch your forehead. It will feel silly but try it anyway. That is how you kiss your brain! Congratulations, you made it through all that information! It was a lot! I learned the “kiss your brain” thing from my kiddo’s teacher. Isn’t it cute?
In all seriousness, when you hang in there and gain new knowledge, it is super important to acknowledge your effort, work, and growth. It helps boost your morale and confidence. You are awesome, and I am glad you hung in there with me 😊
Understanding is a beautiful, and usually beneficial thing. On our journey for knowledge about art, and as we study and practice the Art Fundamentals, we should make a point of understanding the materials we use. Even a basic grasp of the many factors that determine the quality and grade of our materials—such as graphite pencils and charcoal—will improve our skill in using them.
A basic knowledge of your materials’ origin, history, composition, grades, characteristics, and form varieties will improve your drawings and inspire a deeper appreciation and understanding for your art craft. Understanding which grades of graphite pencil to choose as we create a still life or a portrait allows us to make drawings with confidence and access the full range of values needed for our projects.
Frequently Asked Questions About Graphite Pencils
Some of the most frequently asked questions about graphite pencils are related to graphite itself (what is it, anyway?), the pencil grading scale, what the numbers and letters on pencils mean, how to sharpen pencils, when and where the pencil was invented, how pencils are made, why graphite sticks are called “lead”, and the safety of using graphite (can one get lead poisoning from pencil lead?).
I want to give you a heads up here that this is a more technical subject. I’ve tried to keep it succinct, clear, and interesting without adding too much fluff or going into information overload, but facts based in science don’t lend themselves to word artistry or prose so hang in there with me, ok? Besides, it’s the information we’re after so our improved understanding can begin to shine through our art.
So, let’s dig into the science, history, life, making, and safety of pencils so we can answer as many of those questions as possible.
The Science—What is graphite?
Graphite is a naturally occurring form of crystalline carbon, and the most stable form of carbon. Graphite is a mineral, and its extreme properties (extremely soft, extremely heat resistant, etc.) give it a wide range of uses in metallurgy and manufacturing. It is highly conductive for heat and electricity, and flexible but not elastic, which make it useful in electronic products like batteries. Graphite is primarily used in pencils and lubricants.
Graphite is composed of flat sheets of carbon atoms stacked on top of one another, which slide apart easily because the bonds between them are weak. This means natural graphite has incredibly low hardness, so when we drag our graphite pencil across paper those flat sheets of carbon are left behind and create a mark.
A Mark Maker: The History of Graphite
In a place called Borrowdale, near Keswick in the Lake District of England, a large deposit of graphite was discovered by locals after it was revealed by a storm in the 16th century. Due in part to its resemblance to lead in color and appearance—and the infant state of relevant sciences like Chemistry and metallurgy at the time—the substance we know to be graphite was at that time named plumbago (Latin for ‘lead ore’) because it was believed to be a form of black lead rather than carbon.
For many years, the graphite deposit in Borrowdale was the only large source of graphite, which gave England a monopoly on graphite sticks. Trade embargos during the 18th century Napoleonic Wars forced the French Republic to come up with their own version of the graphite sticks that did not rely on imports. French army officer, painter, chemist, and balloonist Nicholas Jacques Conté had the idea of mixing powdered graphite with clay and water, and then firing the mixture in a kiln.
Conté’s innovation ended England’s monopoly on pencil production, and he continued to develop his manufacturing process by varying the quantities of clay and graphite to change the hardness of the graphite core. Conté’s experimentation and refinement of his process lead to the range of graded pencils we enjoy today, which use the alphanumeric grading scale we’ve become familiar with.
Graphite Pencil Grading Scale Explained
I have never been a fan of standardized testing, but I liked those spiffy #2 pencils. You know you have a maker’s heart when freshly sharpened pencils make you smile, but I digress. When we were filling in our answer bubbles on those tests, we were unwittingly being introduced to the middle of the graphite pencil grading scale.
The #2 pencil is part of the American system for grading “lead” hardness, and it corresponds to the HB pencil on the European grading system. HB is the middle grade pencil, meaning that it contains equal parts graphite and clay for a balance of softness and harness.
The Alphanumeric Scale
Now let’s talk letters and numbers so we can understand this alphanumeric system. The letters used are “H”, “F”, and “B”.
“H” stands for hard; “F” stands for fine, because it can be sharpened to a fine point; and “B” stands for Black.
Higher numbers in front of the “H” mean a harder pencil, while a higher number in front of the “B” means a softer pencil. The harder the graphite core of the pencil, the lighter the mark it makes, and the softer the core, the darker the mark.
Together the numbers and letters create the alphanumeric system used to describe the pencil’s hardness or softness, also called a grading system. This system refers to the ratio of binder to graphite present in the mixture of the pencil’s graphite core, commonly called “lead” (a persistent misnomer, as there is no lead in graphite pencils). The variety of ratios for this mixture is what Nicholas Jacques Conté innovated, and it is what gives us the 24 graphite pencil grades—and full value range—we enjoy today.
The harder the pencil (the “H” end of the scale), the more clay is present in the mixture recipe. Graphite, not clay, is the mark maker of this mixture, so less graphite means less mark making material is present. Marks by pencils from the “H” side of the scale will stay on the lighter end of the value scale.
The opposite is true for the “B” side of the grading scale. The more graphite is present in the mixture, the softer the graphite core will be. More graphite means more mark making material is present in the pencil, keeping marks from “B” pencils on the darker end of the value scale.
Graphite Pencil Grading Scale
How the mixture of graphite powder and clay powder are formulated determines a pencil’s “lead” grade. Below are the charts for both the European and American hardness grading systems.
American Grading System (with corresponding equivalents to European System for clarity):
#1 – B
#2 – HB
#2 ½ — F
#3 – H
#4 – 2H
The American grading system is much more abbreviated and appears to have been conceived primarily for pencils used for general writing and drafting purposes. The more expansive, full range of values of the European grading system is preferred and used by artists.
As you begin learning about artist materials, you’ll hear the term “binder” mentioned, especially when discussing paints. Binders, or binding agents, are substances or materials used to hold or bring together other materials so a cohesive whole can be formed to create the tools and surfaces we use. Binders are part of the mixture (or recipe) for creating art materials, such as graphite and charcoal “leads” and sticks, pastels, paints, etc.
Binders are often liquid, powder, or dough-like substances that bind other materials together through mixing and then hardening via a chemical or physical process. In the case of artists’ materials, binders are used to hold together pigments and other materials—like graphite powder—used to create the tools and supplies we need for our art-making.
Binding agents include materials like wax, linseed oil, natural gums, proteins (egg white or casein), and clay—which is the binding agent for graphite “leads” and is usually a mixture of calcium bentonite and kaolin.
When the world was younger, materials like egg, wax, honey, lime, casein, linseed oil, or bitumen were mixed with pigment by artists to form paints. From the Middle Ages through the early 16th century, egg-based tempera was a popular binder in Europe. Oil and acrylic polymer have been the binders of choice for paint for quite some time, with oil beginning in 15th century Belgium and acrylics getting their start in 1953 (aww, like a baby paint compared to oils!).
A Pencil’s Life: Making Marks and Keeping Its Edge
The grade of pencil leads affects not only our choices about their use in our work, but also how frequently they must be sharpened, their smudge resistance, strength, smoothness, and pigmentation. Harder pencils retain a point longer and require less sharpening, while softer pencils lose their point faster and require more frequent sharpening. So, if you have a drawing with a lot of dark and velvety blacks, you are likely to run through your softer leads much more quickly.
On the flip side, while softer leads do require more frequent sharpening, they also offer a softer and smoother application on your surface. Comparatively, harder pencils can feel a bit rougher and scratchy, but they’re helpful when you need lighter values.
Drawing Further: Journey to Modern-Day Pencils
There is a bit more history involved to bridge the timeline between the Conté process and the pencils we use today. When it comes to whose idea it was to place the graphite core between to half-cylinders of wood, I have found competing information. Some sources say Conté had the idea, while others say the addition of a wooden casing was first conceived by an Italian couple by the names of Lyndiana and Simonio Bernacotti.
If it was indeed the Bernacottis, that would mean many of those British sourced graphite sticks were finding their way into rudimentary wooden casings as early as the 1560s. Conté, on the other hand, received a patent for his invention in 1795 and formed La Société Conté to produce his pencils. That is a time gap of over 200 years, but I imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Regardless, the pencil manufacturing process has evolved over time to use the wooden casings we’re familiar with and to include the range of 24 leads so helpful to our art.
How Pencils Are Made
It is during the early stages of the manufacturing process that a pencil’s degree of hardness is determined. The first stage in making graphite pencils is to create a mixture of graphite powder, clay, and water. The variation in the degree of hardness (the graphite to clay ratio) is what gives us so many grades of graphite pencils, most commonly ranging from 9H to 9B in a set.
As I mentioned earlier, softer and darker graphite pencils are created when the mixture contains increasing amounts of graphite; hard grades are created when the proportion of clay is higher than that of the graphite powder.
Making the “Leads”
Once the desired mixture is created it is then pressed through a machine to create the cylindrical core shape (“lead”) and cut to a consistent length before being set to dry. Once dry, the leads go through a firing process and then on to a wax bath. Before the pencils are complete, the wood that will create the casings must go through its own process to be ready to hold the leads.
Making the Wooden Casings
To become the casing for graphite “leads”, pre-cut wooden slats have grooves machine milled into them. Glue is applied in the grooves, the leads are then inserted into the grooves, and a second milled slat with glue is applied on top to close the “slat sandwich”. These “slat sandwiches” are then placed into a large drying wheel before being sent through another machine to mill (cut) the individual pencils from the sandwiches.
The pencil cylinders are available in multiple shapes, such as hexagonal, circular, and rounded triangles. The hexagonal shape is the most common casing shape and keeps pencils from rolling off our desks.
The next step is to paint and stamp the pencils. Paint is mixed and each pencil receives a coat of it through a lacquering head machine before being stamped, dipped, and finally set to dry in a drying room. The finishing process for pencils involves a series of quality tests, including withstanding pressure, sharpening, and visual inspection before packaging.
The pencil making process I have been describing here refers to artists’ drawing pencils. The process is largely the same for standard writing pencils, like the #2 HB pencil, but there are a few differences. Primarily those differences involve the additional step of attaching a ferrule and eraser to one end of the pencils through a rubber tip assembly machine.
It is important to understand our materials, but there’s no reason we can’t make it fun, right? Here are some fun tidbits I found about pencils, their history, and people who have used them:
The average pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, write about 45,000 words, and be sharpened 17 times.
Graphite’s ability to leave marks on paper and other objects is what earned it its name, which was given by German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner in 1789.
Graphite comes from the Ancient Greek γράφειν (“graphein”), meaning to write or to draw.
Breadcrumbs were used to erase mistakes before erasers were invented.
The average size Cedar tree can be used to make about 300,00 pencils.
Pencils have been to space! They can write in zero gravity and have been used on space missions by astronauts.
Pencils can write underwater! (I’m skeptical, but it sounds cool)
Henry David Thoreau used to design pencils at his father’s pencil factory.
Thomas Edison liked to use specially made pencils that were shorter and thicker, 3 inches instead of the standard 7.5 inch size.
Hymen Lipman was the first person to attach an eraser to the end of a pencil on March 30th, 1858. Bye-bye breadcrumbs!
The darkest grade of artist’s graphite pencil is 12B, while the lightest is 10H.
Ernest Hemingway recommended writing fiction with a pencil because it “gives you one-third more chance to improve it [your writing].”
John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway both wrote their novels in pencil first.
The Best Lead Grade: Choosing Graphite Pencil Grades for Drawing
Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with some of the science, history, life and making of graphite pencils, it’s easier to understand how and why pencil marks behave as they do on paper.
“H” pencils are quite smudge-resistant because they contain more binder than graphite powder. This means they give cleaner lines and makes them helpful for lighter toned work such as technical drawings, outlines, light sketching, and under-drawings in preparation for painting. One tradeoff is their increased scratchiness the further up the H scale you go, but this can be remedied by pairing them with middle grade (F and HB) and B pencils.
“B” pencils are amazingly smooth to draw and write with. Their higher graphite to clay mixture means they smudge easily, but their marks are generally just as easily erased. Their softer nature offers artists the ability to make more expressive and brush-like marks, especially from the higher end of the B scale.
This knowledge and understanding helps us make decisions about which grades of graphite pencils to choose for our drawings.
If the goal for a drawing is to illustrate a frozen tundra in the arctic on a sunny day, the soft and dark leads won’t play much of a role in that project because the scene calls for light tones—and light tones are achieved with hard and middle grade pencils, not soft ones. Of course, the opposite is true for a scene with a clandestine meeting—the cover of darkness is best drawn with soft, B graded pencils.
I recommend having a set of 24 graphite pencils so you have the full value range available to you. It’s best to choose tools that serve the goals and stories of your art, rather than trying to make the story fit the supplies. Here are a couple of examples from my portfolio to give you an idea of what you can do with a full set of graphite pencils (or “leads” and a lead holder), tons of practice, and a healthy dose of patience.
Beyond the needs of your project, the other considerations primarily revolve around your own preferences, workflow, and budget. In my Drawing Tools & Materials for Beginners post, I discuss my recommendations for the supplies beginning artists need to practice the fundamentals of art. Still, at the start, a lot of practice sketches and finished drawings can be accomplished with a simple sketchbook, a pad of quality drawing paper, and a full set of drawing pencils.
Again, having tools that give you access to the full spectrum of values is incredibly important; after that, it’s a matter of tons of mileage and practice. Once you commit to that, nothing can stop you.
Safety & Toxicity: Can One Get Lead Poisoning from Pencil Lead?
The short answer is No. It’s impossible to get lead poisoning from graphite pencils because they contain no lead. Graphite and lead are chemically and atomically completely different substances and are only slightly similar in appearance—but even visually they are clearly different, as you can see below.
Graphite pencils are usually classified as nontoxic because graphite is a minimally toxic carbon-based substance when swallowed or drawn onto the skin. So, when you accidentally poke your hands with your sharpened pencil, you won’t be poisoned or infected by the graphite—but, as with any injury, you should immediately clean and tend to the affected area.
The biggest danger with pencils lies in where you poke or stab yourself (or someone else, but…let’s avoid stabbing people, shall we?) and how severely the resulting injury is. If you somehow are stabbed with a pencil forcefully enough to draw large amounts of blood, the bleeding and severity of the wound is a more immediate concern than the presence of graphite and immediate medical attention would be necessary.
Avoid having pencils (or any other tool) anywhere near your eyes, mouth, nose, and any other sensitive body part or orifice. It’s never a good idea to insert or ingest foreign materials, so if you tend to fidget please get a fidget toy instead of chewing on your pencil!
Working with graphite powder, rather than pencils, can get a little dicey. Powders and dusts always come with inhalation and respiratory risks, so when using graphite powder as a medium be sure to wear a simple mask or face covering and keep your workspace well ventilated. Inhalation of graphite powder can cause irritation to the respiratory tract, coughing, shortness of breath and black sputum.
Long term or chronic exposure to graphite powder has been associated with the development of a lung disease called pneumoconiosis. Ingestion of large amounts of graphite powder may cause gastrointestinal irritation.
Basically, graphite pencils and powder are safe to use and minimally toxic so long as you don’t eat, inhale, or seriously stab yourself with them. Getting a bit of graphite onto your skin while you work won’t harm you at all, but do be sure to wash your hands when you’re done working.
Hey, look! You’re still here, and we’re done! Thank you for hanging in there with me. I know this topic was more technical, but I hope I was able to keep it interesting and answer your questions about graphite pencils, the pencil grading scale, and the safe use of pencils. If you have any questions or feedback, please let me know in the comments below.