Homeschool Corner

Five tips for teaching your child (or yourself) how to draw

by James Pence

Anyone can learn how to draw.

I usually get some raised eyebrows when I make that statement. Skeptical parents shake their heads and say, “Not me. I can't even draw a straight line.”

“Neither can I,” I respond. “When I want to draw a straight line, I use a ruler.”

Then I repeat. “Anyone can learn how to draw.”

Drawing is a learned skill. I didn't say that anyone can be a great artist. That requires not only skill, but talent. And talent cannot be taught.

The skill of drawing, however, can be taught, and it’s easier than you might think. The trick is in training the student to draw what she sees, not what she thinks should be there.

Here are five exercises to help you teach your children how to draw what they see. Think of these as artistic “calisthenics,” exercises for the hand, eye, and brain.

1. Draw an object without looking at your paper.

This is called blind contour drawing. As the students practice drawing the contour (outline) of an object without looking at the paper, a slow transformation takes place. Their initial efforts will predictably look like scribbles, but over time their blind drawings begin to improve.

To do a blind contour drawing, follow these steps:

  • Place the drawing paper off to your right side rather than in front of you. A sketchbook or tablet will work best here, as it will be less likely to slide around.
  • Position a simple household object (e.g. a coffee mug) in front and to your left. This makes it necessary to turn your head away from the paper.
  • Place your pencil on the paper, and do not remove it until the drawing is finished.
  • Focus your eyes on a single point on the object, and then slowly trace the outline of the object with your eyes.
  • As your eyes follow the outside edge (contour) of the object, move your pencil in the same direction. Imagine that your hand and your eyes are connected, so that what your eyes see, your hand draws.
  • Do not lift your pencil or look at your paper until you have completely traced the outline of the object.

2. Do a modified contour drawing.

After you have practiced blind contour drawing and become comfortable with the process, it's time to move to the next step: modified contour drawing.

This exercise is similar to the first, except that you are allowed to glance back and forth briefly between the paper and the object. You should still spend about 95 percent of your time looking at the object you are drawing, but you are allowed to glance at your paper long enough to make sure your hand and pencil are not drifting off course.

These two drills can be frustrating at first, but they are extremely powerful. They teach students to slow down and observe. Another exercise that is helpful for learning observation is upside down drawing.

3. Turn a photograph or line drawing upside down and copy it.

When I’m doing this exercise with students, I usually prefer to have them start by working from a line drawing of a familiar object. You can find plenty of line drawings online as clip art or in coloring books.

Choose a relatively simple image, and copy the drawing right-side-up. After you have finished, invert the image, and copy it a second time. Focus on drawing the outline or the contour of the image. Don't think “dog” or “cat” or whatever object you are drawing. Instead, focus only on the lines.

4. Draw negative space.

Another powerful drawing calisthenic is negative space drawing. Instead of drawing the object itself, the artist observes and draws the space in and around the object.

I discovered negative space drawing when I was a boy. I was infatuated with Superman and wanted desperately to draw the famous letter “S” that was emblazoned on Superman's chest. But no matter how hard I tried, it never came out looking right. Then one day I noticed that because the letter S was enclosed in a diamond-shaped shield, the background was made up of several distinct shapes. I decided to draw the shapes around the S rather than the letter itself. I discovered that by when I drew the shapes accurately, I also drew Superman's "S" shield accurately. That's negative space drawing in a nutshell.

To get started on negative space drawing, try copying the letter D in the image below. But rather than trying to draw the letter, focus on the orange shapes that surround the letter, and draw those. As with the previous exercise, don't think about drawing a letter. Think, rather, about copying a shape.

5. Draw with a grid.

Our last drawing exercise is grid drawing. To do this, you lay a grid over an image you want to draw, and lightly draw a grid of the same proportions onto your paper. If you don’t want to draw the grid directly on your source, draw it on a piece of clear acetate or a page protector. Another alternative would be to add a grid directly to the image with a photo editor.

After you have drawn your grids, copy the source photo, square by square. By focusing on a single square rather than the entire image, you will apply the same skills you learned in the previous exercises. You will merely be drawing shapes and lines.

Here is a picture of my dog Skeeter with a grid superimposed. Draw a grid with the same number of vertical and horizontal squares, and copy it square by square. As with the other exercises, you may be surprised at how well you do.

Drawing is a learned skill, and anyone can learn how to do it. All you have to do is train your brain, eyes, and hands to work together. Once you do, you will be able to draw what you see, and draw it accurately.


Biographical information

James H. (Jim) Pence is a man of many talents. He is a former homeschooling dad, a published author, an accomplished singer and speaker, a performance chalk artist, and in his spare time he teaches karate, writing, and art to homeschooled children. You can learn more about Jim at his website: jamespence.com. James also represents and blogs for See the Light, www.seethelightshine.com.

Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Summer 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.