Preparing to Draw

Hi Gene here…

This post is about preparing for a good drawing. Drawing is the fundamental skill for all (or most) forms of art. I’d like to be better at it but I really only just get by…

But still you have to prepare to do your best otherwise you are setting yourself up to fail. So this is the process or workflow that I find is the best for me. I’ll take you through the process and use a rough example drawing as we go.

A lot of these ideas come from reading Andrew Loomis and Walt Stanchfield. (I cannot recommend Gesture Drawing for Animation enough for reading about drawing rather than actually doing drawing.)

I often think of this quote (well paraphrase…) from Andrew Loomis when I start out to draw something:

“You must have a desire to give an excellent personal demonstration of ‘Ability’ coupled with a capacity for unlimited effort that hurdles the difficulties that would frustrate lukewarm enthusiasm.”

The Idea

To begin with every drawing starts out with a message or purpose or job to do. The Idea or Emotion of the Drawing. First and foremost you have to draw an idea. Every object that you put in your drawing is an elaboration of that idea.
Your idea has to be an action (or verb – a “doing” word) but the vehicles of that action are the things/objects in your drawing. Those things can be a figure, ten figures, a dog, a house, a tree, a swirling galaxy, or whatever.
If it’s a figure then the pose, the anatomical structure, etc. have to portray that idea. In every drawing you have to find that emotion of the idea. It’s a bit of a nebulous concept but I don’t have any other way to describe it.

For example in figure drawing the essence of the idea is all the outward manifestations of that internal emotion. Every moving part and direction portray the motive and mood of the drawing. Your character has to be responding characteristically to some real or imaginary motivation.
To quote Stanchfield:
“These are basic human emotions such as joy, sorrow, anger, tenderness, submission, domination, fear, surprise, distress, disgust, contempt, and shame.”

The second part to this idea is the story. What happens next. There’s no need for a whole story to be crammed into one drawing all you need is you figure doing something or reacting to something in a “characteristic” way for who they are supposed to be.

Preparation to Draw

As I said before you have to prepare to make a good drawing.
It usually doesn’t just happen if you just start drawing.

This is the best process I’ve found that does just that.

It starts with Mental Preparation or Rough Sketching.
You have to answer these sorts of questions about what you want to draw:
What is the idea?
What is your pose?
Is it the extreme of the action?
Is there an action and a re-action?
What is the visual depth?
Is there a primary and secondary action?
What is the “stage” for the action?
What is the anticipation? (What is just about to happen?)
Will you use caricature?
What details will you include?
What objects will you use?
Do the objects have a texture?

Once you have worked your way through those questions try starting your first drawing.

This one simplifies your idea and starts nutting out the technical execution.

This is the first sketch for my example drawing.

What is the idea? Piano Player immersed in playing. The idea is total absorbtion in the music.

What is your pose? Sitting one leg up tapping – hands flying. I want every action to be reinforcing that one-ness with the music.

Is it the extreme of the action? Not in the first sketch I did – that right hand could be up higher with the fingers poise like an eagle about to strike. He is supposed to be immersed in the action so his head could be down further or looking at the sky. The left leg is supposed to be horizontal and then on tip toes. Maybe it should poke out more to the left so you can see that outline instead of being hidden in the foreshortening.

Is there an action and a re-action? Not really – that right arm really needs to look like its at the top of it’s upward trajectory and is about to slam down. The shoulder could be either more hunched or raised up. The other shoulder needs to be stretched out like he’s really reaching for the low note. The tapping foot needs to be up as well and just about to come down. The left foot needs to be jittering about and only just holding his balance on that stool.

What is the visual depth? In the sketch it’s quite shallow. No background and a very close middle ground.

Is there a primary and secondary action? The primary is that hand. The secondary is the repeat of that in the foot and the hunching or lifting of the body.

What is the “stage” for the action? Is this a bar in a western or a jazz club or a luxury penthouse or a garrette? I think I’ll go for a down and out garrette. A total slum of a place that he is escaping with the music. I think I will change the format from landscape to portrait to hem him in and make room for a window.

What is the anticipation? (What is just about to happen?) His right hand is just about to crash down and peal out the most amazing lick while the left hand pumps the bass notes. The jittering and stomping foot are like the rhythm section.

Will you use caricature? I don’t think so.

What details will you include? What objects will you use?
Whisky glass! Shadows! Mood lighting. Other people? I don’t think so it’s all about him. Cigarette ash. Old stool and table lamp. Add a broken window and sliced up blinds behind him with a crappy part of the city and the moon overhead.

Do the objects have a texture? Woody piano, dirty floor,

This is where I got the inspiration the second mannequin looked like he was playing the keyboard.

First Drawing

Aim for Simplification.
Shapes and composition.
What are the most basic shapes (try and limit it down to three or max six) use the square, the rectangle, the circle or ellipse, and triangles.
Define the Scale and point of view.
(Which perspective are you using? How many vanishing points?)
Is there a Direction (or Flow)? (Beat or Rhythm.)
Is there Tension? Is it Extreme? (Use extreme poses and balance action and reaction to create tension.)
Where is the overlap? Which objects are in front or behind?
What are the positive and negative shapes?
What is the extreme pose? This usually means the farthermost extension of some pose just prior to a change of direction.
Your drawing should show, in a flash, what is happening in the pose.
Those extremes are vital to explaining the idea.
I’ll paraphrase Stanchfield again:
If the extreme pose is missing or diluted, the drawing will deteriorate from expressive to bland or confusing or boring.
The Silhouette almost explains “Extreme,” if it is not thought of as a tracing of the outside of the figure.
The extreme pose is generated by the forces at play in a gesture (the force and thrust and tension).

This is where I start playing with the basic shapes and setting up the perspective
(I use Carapace for perspective guides)
In this version I try and tighten up the figure a bit more

Second Drawing

The Second Drawing is about mass and the solid and flexible parts of the subject. It’s also about expressing the tension of the idea:
Model the figure/character/object roughly.
Give it weight and mass. (depth and volume.)
Use planes to provide solidity.
What is the weight distribution? (If it’s a figure – how it balances itself due to what it is doing.)
Thrust and Body Language. (It usually requires a limb to be thrust out – a hip thrust, or shoulder shrugged up, or knees apart, or arms out.)
Tension and Counterpart. (Whenever one member of the body moves set up a counter move with its counterpart.
Tension is captured when one elbow is working against the other or one knee against the other.
Feet, hands, hips and shoulders should always be in counter position.
Never draw one part of the body without drawing the counter move of its opposite at the same time …. never.
Use the solid and flexible parts of the body as the basis for the angles that portray the action.

Blocking in the main shapes in the body.
Starting to look OK

Third Drawing

Sometimes I’ll do a third drawing (or incorporate it into the second). This one concentrates on the line:
Define the line and silhouette.
Use arcs to define movement (and follow through).
Split it up by straights and curves.
Straights and curves when used logically can emphasise and clarify the gesture.
Straights and curves can be used for “squash” and “stretch”.
Further define the direction of the drawing – make all the elements come together to define the idea.

Concentrating on the lines

Fourth Drawing

This one is all about Perspective and Anatomy. Use it. Tighten it. Get your straights and curves to follow it.
Use Reference images and get it right.
Draw the bones first (in perspective) or a rough skeleton. Get the perspective right now. Then do surface form.
Model the muscles or flesh.
Focus down on parts.
Also textures – what parts have what texture or shading etc.

These are some references I used
Grey scale painting
Starting to Colour

Fifth Drawing

Draw everything again!
But this time picking the best bits of all drawings.
Concentrate on line quality.
Concentrate on tone.
Concentrate on light.


Finally a few notes about Drawing from Life.
Everywhere you go take a sketchbook.

When you draw try to first concentrate on color.
Then switch to dark and light (tone or texture),
then to masses,
then to the three-dimensional qualities of things near and far.
Now, try to see all of those things at once.

Finally an inspirational quote from Stanchfield:
“Carry a sketch book—a cheap one so you won’t worry about wasting a page. Sketch in the underground, while watching television, in pubs, at horse shows. Sports events are especially fun to sketch— boxing matches, football games, etc. Draw constantly. Interest in life will grow. Ability to solve drawing problems will be sharpened. Creative juices will surge. Healing fluids will flow throughout your body. An eagerness for life and
experience and growth will crowd out all feelings of ennui and disinterest.
Where are you going to get all this energy, you ask? Realize that the human body is like a dynamo, it is an energy producing machine. The more you use up its energy, the more it produces. A work-related pastime like sketching is a positive activity. Inactivity, especially in your chosen field, is a negative. Negativity is heavy, cumbersome, debilitating, unproductive and totally to be avoided. Take a positive step today. Buy a sketch book and a pen (more permanent than pencil), make a little rectangle on the page and fill it with a simple composition.”

It starts with Mental Preparation or Rough Sketching.


This is Carapace a tool designed by Epic Games and made available for free. I find it very useful. The link on their website is broken but if you search for it it’s still around. One source you can get it is here:

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