An Introduction to Descriptive Drawing

Moe Hachem
Written by Moe Hachem on
An Introduction to Descriptive Drawing

As designers, we need to be able to draw in different manners. The two types of drawings designers typically have to do can be categorized as “Descriptive” and “Analytical” drawing. These types of drawings allow us to express concepts or objects in different manners. We can either capture the qualitative or the quantitative qualities of an object.

What is Descriptive Drawing?

“Descriptive drawing” describes the qualitative qualities an object has. Drawing in this manner is primarily observational and aims to describe the outlines or texture an object has, and it’s experiential qualities.

“Descriptive drawing” allows viewers to experience the object or space through you, and creates a narrative in their heads.

This type of drawing gives the viewer an idea of how the drawn subject sits in space, how it feels, how heavy, or how big it is.

How Do You Learn Descriptive Drawing?

Get yourself a piece of paper and start drawing. “Descriptive drawing” is a skill you learn, just like any other skill. If you have no drawing experience, you might have a hard time in the beginning, but with consistent effort, your skills will improve over time.

I find it very important to highlight that drawing is not a talent. It is a skill that you learn, and if you put in the time and effort, you will draw beautifully.

What are the tools I need?

I like to advise aspiring artists and designers to start with paper. There is a tactile quality paper-based drawings have that digital media will never truly achieve. You might be able to get away with learning how to draw through the use of a tablet such as a Wacom, but I highly suggest you stick to paper. When you draw by hand, you learn how different media (drawing tools) express themselves, and this will help you mimic them in digital drawings.

That said, I recommend that you go and order the following tools in your journey:

  • Graphite pencils ranging from:
    • The letters indicate different properties a pencil has. Think of this as a scale from soft/darker/smudgier to hard/lighter/cleaner.
  • Charcoal pencil set
  • Blending stump

    • It’s like a pencil made out of fabric. Use this to blend charcoal or softer graphite rather than your fingers. I linked a set that comes with a sandpaper pad, which you’ll need to sharpen the stump.
  • Drawing pens

    • You’ll want pens that scale from 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.4, 0.6, 0.8, to 1.
  • India Ink
  • Watercolour set
  • Watercolour brushes
  • A3 and A2 Cartridge paper pads

    • This type of paper is excellent for sketches and ideation.
  • A3 and A2 Heavyweight cartridge paper pads

    • This type of paper is excellent for final drawings.
  • Watercolour paper pads.
  • White eraser
  • Putty/kneaded eraser

    • You can shape this eraser by hand to erase with precision, or to create highlights by removing little bits of charcoal or graphite marks.
  • Fixative spray

    • You’ll want to use this on finalized graphite/charcoal drawings to avoid smudges.
  • Drawing board

    • Get a drawing board that is slightly bigger than an A2 pad, preferably one equivalent to the size of an A1 paper.
    • You don’t need a drawing board, but it will make your life easier if you can get one and prop it against a wall or easel.

If I had to rank drawing techniques on a level of difficulty, I do so in the following manner:

  1. Pencil (easiest)
  2. Charcoal
  3. Ink drawing pens
  4. India ink
  5. Watercolour (hardest)

The reason I’ve ranked them this way is: the further you go down the list, the more variables you’re adding to your medium. You’ll be adding fluidity and colour, both of which add a level of difficulty, complexity, and require adapting to different techniques and approaches.

How do I get started?

It can be very overwhelming to get started, so I’ve listed out a series of tasks for you. I listed the tasks in order of increasing difficulty.

Before you get started with the list, let’s agree on a set of rules for each task:

  1. Do not draw from a photograph. Use real objects so you can practice observational drawing.

  2. Each task should take a total of three weeks.

    • Spend the first week creating as many sketches as you can.

    • There’s no fixed number, but I recommended spending at least 1 hour a day sketching the same subject matter, from the same angle. It sounds boring, but this will be an invaluable practice for you.

    • Spend the second week creating detailed sketches.
      • These sketches will be more refined than the drawings you produced in the first week.
      • You won’t produce as many sketches as you did the first time around, I recommend you limit your drawings to 3.
      • If you’ve spent the first week drawing on A3 paper pads, I recommend that you make the jump to an A2 sized pad.
    • Execute the final drawing in the third week.
      • If you’re feeling adventurous, go ahead and draw without looking at the paper pad. You won’t get perfect results, but the drawings themselves will become purely gestural.
  3. Invest at least a total of 9 hours a week, but don’t do them in one go.

  4. Take breaks, rest, and do other things in between. Your mind and body need time and rest to understand and improve how they interface with a pencil or a brush.

  5. Be mindful of how you approach a drawing.

  6. Avoid chicken scratches or hairy lines!

    • Draw with intent.
      • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes teach you much more than any teacher could.
  7. Be patient.

  8. You probably won’t come out with a masterpiece for a long time, and that’s perfectly fine.

  9. Be proud of your failures as much as your successes.

  10. Michelangelo didn’t become a Renaissance master overnight. He put in time and effort to reach his level of craft.

Tasks

Still life I

  1. Get a vase or a water bottle, place it on a box (material doesn’t matter) and draw it.

    • Make sure the objects are fixed in place and won’t be disturbed until you finish with the task.
    • Create a distance between yourself and the objects, I recommend 2m (~6’7”), if you can.
  2. This exercise will focus on two things:
    • Drawing curved objects in space.
    • Drawing rectilinear objects.
  3. Use graphite pencils to sketch, and pen for the final drawing.
    • Use this exercise to understand the qualities of B and H pencils.
  4. Task Goals:
    • Create a gesture drawing that is true to the objects.
    • Don’t worry about drawing something hyper-realistic.
      • Your end-result ought to be a line drawing using ink pens.

Still Life 2

  1. Set up a group of vases or solid cups/bottles (maximum 5) next to a natural source of daylight.

    • If your room does not receive natural light, you can point a lamp at the objects at an angle.
  2. Use graphite pencils only.

  3. Your goal for this exercise are:

    • You will draw multiple objects in space.
    • You will capture how light affects and passes through objects.
    • You will create shadows and observe how shadows fall on objects.
      • Your result will be a shaded drawing.

Space and Perspective I

  1. Sit in a room with a lot of depth, or a narrow and long corridor.
    • Go to one end of the room/corridor, and centre yourself across the width of the space.
  2. Use graphite to draw lines, and charcoal to shade.

  3. Your goals for this task are:
    • Draw a “one-point perspective of the space capturing the lighting qualities”.

Space and Perspective II

  1. There are two different ways we can approach this:
    • If we are in a future where there is no corona, go to a cafe of your choice and draw the interior from a fixed location.
      • In other words, go and draw from the same seat every time.
        • If corona is still an issue where you are, then sit at a corner in the biggest room in your home and draw what you see from that angle.
  2. This task will require you to use an ink pen, and a brush using “India ink”.
    • You can use a pencil to set up the base drawing before you begin with ink directly.
      • Use heavyweight cartridge paper.
    • Be mindful of how much water is on the paper at once.
  3. Your goals for this task are:
    • Draw a two-point perspective of the space capturing the light qualities.

Space, Perspective, and Colour I

  1. You can use the same location as last time, but you will focus on a smaller area (let’s say a 1mx1m section).

  2. Use watercolour paper for this task.

    • Begin with a detailed line drawing drawn very softly with a fine pencil to create a base drawing.
    • Prepare to apply watercolour to your drawing.
    • Select one blue colour as your base.
      • Create multiple shades of this blue by diluting it in water.
      • Use the shades of blue to apply a base coat on areas receding in the distance or areas with less lighting.
    • Select a brown colour as your other base.
      • Create multiple shades.
      • Use the shades of brown on areas that are closer to you, or areas directly being hit by a light source.
      • After applying the base coat, you should have a series of transparent shades of blue and brown. These shades represent the tonal/shading quality of your composition.
    • Apply the primary dominant colour over the base coat.
      • Don’t go too thick with the colours. You still want the base coat to show slightly to create a shading effect.
      • Layer the colours by starting from the lightest shade and slowly building up to the darkest shade. Patience is key!
  3. Your goal for this task is to create a coloured composition.

Final Thoughts

“Descriptive drawing” is a skill you can learn and acquire with practice. It’s a bit tough to teach “descriptive drawing” in an article, but I hope the foundations I laid out will help guide you!

The key to acquiring this skill is to practice, be patient, and most importantly enjoy the process. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, you’ll make plenty of them, and I still make plenty of them! Embrace your mistakes!

If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve created an un-erasable mistake, don’t just stop! Explore how you can turn this mistake in a happy accident, and change your composition to react to it.

I haven’t decided if I want to dedicate a full series on drawing techniques just yet, but I’d be more than happy to do so if any of you ask for it!

What’s most important is that you just get started with drawing, you don’t need to take any classes if you don’t want to. Get into a habit of a holding a small sketchbook, and draw everything and anything you see.

Feel free to contact me if you want any feedback. I’d be more than happy to give constructive criticism and guide you to resources that might help you.

I’ll leave a few resources below to help you on your journey.

Additional Resources

DrawSpace

Art Fundamentals subreddit

FZD School of Design - YouTube

Hello Artsy - YouTube

Draw a Box

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