How to draw what you see

An audiovisual walkthrough

Stages of the drawing process

Step-by-Step Process


Press “play” to begin, then move through the slides below.

Press “play” to begin, then move through the slides below.

Stage 1: Placement

Draw marks for the top, bottom, left, and right extremes of your subject. Keep your lines light. Correct the drawing until you are satisfied with the relationship between height & width. Check that there is a comfortable amount of space between these marks and the edges of the paper. Adjust the placement if necessary.

This stage is complete when you are happy with the placement of your subject on the page.


Stage 2: Big Shapes

As you continue, follow this one rule: draw the biggest line first.
Be careful, you may be tempted to draw shorter lines. After you draw a line, you may also be tempted to continue with an adjacent line. Don’t do it! Step back. Look at the whole drawing. Identify the biggest line. Draw that. Stop when you have enough information in your drawing that a small child could understand it. Now stay at this level of abstraction (big shapes only) and refine the proportions. This is the foundation, let’s get all the big lines in the right place before moving on.

This stage is complete when you are confident about the proportions of these big shapes.

Big Shapes

Stage 3: Medium Shapes

Once you are happy with the big shapes, it’s time to add more information. Still follow the maxim of “drawing the biggest line first”. Stop when you feel that you are getting into small details. Stay at this level of abstraction and once again, reassess and correct your proportions. (Check out the Accuracy Guide for tips on how to get proportions right.) 

This stage is complete when you are confident about the proportions of these medium-size shapes.

Medium Shapes

Stage 4: Nōtan

For the Nōtan stage, apply a uniform tone to all shadows. This will let you see the contrast between light shapes and shadow shapes, making it much easier to compare the drawing and the subject and find proportional mistakes. ☝️ Important: all halftones belong to the light family and they should not be toned in at this point, especially if you don’t have much experience yet. If you’re not sure about how to distinguish halftones and shadows, watch this video.

This stage is complete when all shadows have an even tone and you’ve corrected proportional mistakes.


Stage 5: Articulation

Articulating a drawing means making it specific. We bring the “medium shapes” to the next level of development, expressing more subtleties of shape and line. The tones remain flat at this stage. 

This stage is complete when the shapes/proportions in your drawing are accurate throughout. 


Stage 6: Big Form Modeling ​

Now we’re moving into shading/rendering. Shift your thinking from flat/2D shape to round/3D form. Think of your subject as a collection of underlying geometric forms. Here I see the head as an egg and the neck as a cylinder. This is the shading I apply. Sacrifice details to establish the big forms convincingly. You can introduce major soft edges/transitions at this stage.

This stage is complete when the big forms have a convincing sense of volume.

Big Form Modeling

Stage 7: Medium Form Modeling

Just like we moved from big shapes to medium shapes, we are now sculpting medium forms that are embedded in the big forms. Examples of medium forms here are the cheeks, the chin, or the eye balls. Now is the time to capture more of the subtlety about how soft or firm the transitions are at the terminator.

This stage is complete when the drawing looks done, except for the final touches.

Medium Form Modeling

Stage 8: Finishing

An effective way to finish a drawing like this is to define areas and finish one area at a time. Begin with the most important focal point and bring this area to a complete finish. Then choose the second most important area and finish that. Picking smaller areas is better than larger areas. Finish each area completely before you move on. Get a friend or teacher who has more experience than you to give you feedback and suggestions for refining the image further. If you want to learn, explore refining the drawing beyond your comfort zone to gradually increase the level of finish you are capable of achieving. 


About the author...

Dorian Iten

Artist & teacher. Former program director at Barcelona Academy of Art. Learn more

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If you enjoyed this...

…check out the Accuracy Guide!
It’s a compact video course on getting proportions right.