Learn to Draw - The basic elements in drawing




The Elements of Drawing

Let's get a bit more in depth with the elements of drawing. The rest of this website will get even further into each of these elements.


Line is the most basic element of the drawing. And in it's most basic definition, it's what separates one area of the drawing plane from the other. A single line will segment your piece of paper into "that area" and "this area". The more lines that are added, the more complex and numerous the separations become: light from dark, foreground from background, positive space from negative space. Line can be uniform and all one width, or to be more interesting, and to convey more information with a single line, a single line can be of varying widths. Line does not truly exist in the real world. Because line (in the art world) is only two dimensional - height and width, it doesn't exist in our 3D world. In drawing what line is doing is saying "this area here is now separated from that area over there by this line". But in the real world that line isn't a line at all - it's the surface of a plane. If you draw a line that represents the left side of a square - in the real, 3D world it's not a square - it's a cube. And on that cube the left side is really a corner that is connected to the other surface that's at a right angle to the left surface that you draw.

I'm not saying we won't be drawing lines because they don't exist in the real world. I'm saying we have to draw lines because we cannot depict the 3D world in 2D drawing.


Shape occurs when the first line is drawn. The most basic definition of shape is the white area on the paper enclosed by a line. Shape is the information that is presented between two or more lines, or is the thing that is enclosed by line. Shape is also defined by the other art elements on the page like colors, lines, shadows, etc. Shape helps define the object that is depicted as much as the collection of lines that make up the object in the drawing. If the artist does not represent the shape of the object being depicted, the resulting shape will cause the drawing to "not look like what it's supposed to be." For example, if you are attempting to draw a square, and only a sweeping curve is represented in your drawing, but no corners, your shape will more represent a circle than a square. Your square does not have the shape of a square, but rather the shape of a circle.

Click to see examples of each element of drawing.

Proportion and Perspective. Proportion is the size of one picture element in relation to the size of another picture element. In other words Proportion is what dictates that in "normal" or "average" humans, legs are longer than arms, the middle finger is longer than the pointer finger, and the nose is the same length as the width of the eye. If proportion is incorrect in a drawing it "doesn't look right". So if something is seen as "out of Proportion" - the proportions are seen as not consistent with what is known for that particular object. Perspective is the illusion that further away things appear smaller, and closer objects appear larger. To make something appear to be farther away from the viewer than the picture plane, draw it smaller than the object that is closer to the picture plane. Perspective will appear to alter Proportion when perspective is executed correctly. If, for example, you are standing at the head of a bed that someone is lying in, their arms may appear to look longer than their legs. This is because your eyes are closer to their arms than their legs, and perspective says that closer objects appear larger (or longer) than objects that are further away from the eye. I've put proportion and perspective together as one drawing element because they both use each other to work. If one is incorrect, chances are the other will appear to be incorrect.

Light and Shadow examples

Light and Shadow create depth and atmosphere in a drawing. In order to make a drawing look "realistic" you need shadow because in the real world everything has a shadow. If you draw something with only a line that is a consistent width, and don't render a shadow, your shape is going to look flat, two dimensional, and unrealistic. Adding shadow automatically adds a small bit of perspective to the drawing because the shadow indicates that something is in front of and/or behind the object that would cause it to cast a shadow. There are many ways to depict a shadow, it does not have to be a deep, rich, complex shadow, it can be as simple as varying the thickness of the line you create to draw the shape. Click the picture to see some examples of shadow.

The whole drawing.

The whole drawing. Before you even start the drawing you will begin to automatically mentally place your picture elements on the paper. You take into account the whole drawing surface and relate your picture elements to the shape of your drawing surface. For example, if you're wanting to draw a whole human body from head to foot you would mentally place the head to one side (or top or bottom) of the drawing surface so that would give you enough room to be able to draw the whole body and not run off the paper. The shape of your drawing plane will help determine the composition of your drawing. You would not effectively be able to draw a towering skyscraper on a square piece of paper without cutting the top or bottom off. In the example on the right, seeing the whole drawing means when you start, you know where to place the eyes so the face will be in the center. Also, knowing that the tie will run off the page is being aware of the whole drawing.

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