How to draw what you see

an audiovisual walkthrough

Learn the Process

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 happy with the relationship between height and width. Check that there is a comfortable amount of space between these marks and the edges of the paper. Adjust the placement if necessary.

Stage 2: Big Shapes

As you continue, follow this one rule: draw the biggest line first.
Careful, you will be tempted to draw shorter lines. After you draw a line, you will 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 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.

Stage 3: Medium Shapes

Once you are happy with the big shapes, it’s time to add more information. Still follow the maxim of “draw the biggest line first”. Your biggest line will become smaller now. 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.

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 drawing and subject. Important: all halftones belong to the light family and they should be ignored, 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 ~40% gray tone.

Stage 5: Articulation

Articulating a drawing means making it specific. We take the “medium shapes” and bring them to the next level, expressing all the subtleties of line. The tones stay flat at this stage! Just the white of the paper and one tone for all the shadows.

This stage is complete when you are confident about the subtle proportions of your drawing.

Stage 6: Big Form Modeling

Now we’re moving into shading/rendering. Shift your thinking from flat/2D shape to round/3D. 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! Take a look at hair in the top left of the original. See how the last bit of hair gets a little lighter again? I sacrifice these small value changes to establish the big context. Ignore small forms to establish the big forms. You can work on the major edges/transitions now.

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

Stage 7: Medium Form Modeling

Just like we moved from big shapes to medium shapes, we are now embedding the medium forms into the big forms. Examples of medium forms are the cheeks, the chin, even the eye balls. This is when we start really getting into the edges/transitions. Create the necessary softness at the terminator, to communicate the change of surface direction.

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

Stage 8: Finishing

I recommend working in clearly defined areas and finishing them one by one. Choose the most important focal point of the drawing and bring this area to a complete finish. Choose the second most important area and finish that. Picking smaller areas is better than larger areas. You can either keep finishing until the entire drawing is completed, or until you like the result. That said, I think you should push beyond your comfort zone to gradually increase the level of finish you are capable of achieving.

About the author

Dorian Iten

I am a Swiss artist and teacher and live in Spain where I serve as the Digital Art Program Coordinator at Barcelona Academy of Art.

Explained in video

PS. If you enjoyed this, check out the Accuracy Guide! It's a compact video course on getting proportions right.