Block in underneath a portrait

Learning Realistic Art is Like Learning a New Language

art advice drawing quick tips

A question came in recently about using abstract shapes and straight lines to plan out realistic drawings.

Certainly it can be quite a challenge to imagine how rigid shapes are underneath a realistic drawing like this one:

But here's why it's a good idea to begin with simple, straight line shapes like these when your goal is a drawing with accurate, nuanced curves:

  1. Straight lines are more accurate than curved lines. Curved lines are constantly changing and difficult to measure. Imagine calling someone on the phone and explaining to them how to draw a specific curve: How likely do you think it is that they'll draw the curve you're describing accurately? Now imagine verbally walking someone through a drawing a series of 3 straight lines. Between measuring the length, width, and angle, you should be able to get pretty close!
  2. Geometric shapes relate to structure. You can build a sense of solidity and depth as you learn what to look for in the dimensional structure of what you're drawing, and translate that into marks on paper. Do your people look like the Michelin man, ovals stacked on top of one another? Are faces somehow both flat and bloated? You need straight line geometric shapes!
  3. Starting simple prevents heartbreak! Maybe I'm being dramatic here, but have you ever drawn a beautifully shaded eye and then noticed it's in the wrong spot on the face? Or have you spent 40 minutes on contour lines only to realize your drawing won't fit on the page? All this can be avoided when you use geometric shapes before getting to the details. It's easier and faster to redraw a polygon a different size or in a different spot than it is to shift a detailed, shaded drawing.

Now maybe you understand the logic behind these ideas, but still can't imagine how to get from blocky shapes to realism. That's because learning to create realistic art is like learning another language.

At first, straight lines and shapes don’t represent the objects we’re looking at, the same way that a word from a foreign language doesn’t represent that object in our mind.

When I say “cup” it doesn’t take any effort at all for you to know what I mean.

If you don’t speak Spanish and I say “taza” it definitely won’t mean “cup” to you, no matter how many times it's repeated.

If you’re learning Spanish, and I say “taza,” you will have to translate: In your mind, you will think, "Taza... taza means cup." And then you picture a cup. You get there, but it takes a minute.

After a while you’ll learn the word on an intuitive level and go straight from the word "taza" to an image of a cup in your mind, without having to translate to English first.

It’s the same with learning to block-in and start abstractly before adding details. Putting it into practice, drawing geometric shapes on top of reference photos, sketching those shapes, and repeating, starts to build the ideas into your artistic language, until one day it's natural and you don't need to think about it so much!


If you didn’t see this free course, I recommend you give it a try:

The 5 Day Sketch Challenge is perfect if you've never tried drawing before and want to dip our toes into a few techniques:

If you want to delve more seriously into realistic drawing, check out these full drawing courses:

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