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10 sketching tips to help you make your first marks

Leading artists share their top sketching tips for beginners.

Getting started with drawing can be more daunting than you might expect. For this article, we asked seasoned artists for their top sketching tips for beginners. This expert advice should get you off to a flying start. So get your best pencils ready and dive in.

Once you've mastered the basics, check out our article on pencil drawing techniques or our collection of tutorials showing you how to draw just about anything. Alternatively, pick up a copy of the Beginner's Guide to Sketching, where you'll find more tips from the artists featured in this article.

01. Take control of your pencil

Sketching tips for beginners: Control

Tripod (top) and extended tripod (bottom) grips

"If you position your hand closer to the end of the pencil, you have more control and precision, but heavier strokes (darker markings)," says illustrator Sylwia Bomba. "Gripping further up the pencil will give you less control and precision, but lighter strokes (lighter markings)." For more advice, read our article on how to hold a pencil correctly.

02. Avoid smudging

Sketching tips for beginners: avoid smudging

Use an extra piece of paper under your hand to avoid smudging your work

"When shading, use an extra piece of paper underneath your hand," advises artist Brun Croes. "This will minimise the amount your hand smudges your pencil lines. If you're right-handed, start shading from left to right; if you're left-handed, start at the right and move to the left.

"There's nothing more frustrating than trying to make a clean-looking drawing that loses its brilliance and value thanks to smudging. Instead, use smudging to your advantage every now and then to smooth out shading. You can do this with several tools. I use a simple piece of tissue paper to get the job done."

03. Use a blending stick for smooth shading

Sketching tips for beginners: How to sketch sky

Create subtle shading by smudging large areas of soft charcoal

It is possible to create smooth, blended effects using pencils – for example, to capture a sky. "Sometimes it's preferable for your shading to be less sketchy and more smooth and subtle," says artist Marisa Lewis. "Pencil lines don't blend perfectly unless you're very careful."

To avoid your initial scribbles showing through, Lewis uses a particular art technique. "Use spare paper to doodle a big swatch of soft graphite or charcoal pencil, then use a large blending stick to pick up the soft dust to use for your image," she explains. "Keep using the blending stick and adding more scribbles as you need more graphite." You can then build up darker areas to create definition.

04. Vary your lines

Sketching tips for beginners: Use varied lines

Shifts in the width and darkness of your lines will create interest

Use varied lines, says illustrator Rovina Cai. "Not all lines are equal. Subtle shifts in the width and darkness of your lines will create a dynamic, visually interesting drawing. Controlling the kind of mark you put down can be tricky in the beginning, but with practice you will be able to create a variety of marks that work together to make a cohesive image. Experiment with different pencil grades (from 3H to 6B) and with holding the pencil at different angles."

05. Make characters readable as silhouettes

Sketching tips for beginners: Silhouettes

Here, it’s clear that the first girl is holding a mug, but what about the second one? It’s not as clear!

Character design is a whole discipline in itself, but this helpful sketching technique is a good place to start. "Have you ever noticed that every important character in an animation movie is recognisable from their shadow alone?" says artist Leonardo Sala. "This magic has a name: the silhouette. The purpose of finding a strong and interesting silhouette is to create an easily recognisable character that will remain clear in the visual memory of the viewer."

To see if your characters are recognisable in silhouette form, place a piece of tracing paper on your sketch and trace around your character, filling it in with solid colour. Then show a friend or colleague, and ask what they see.

06. Create curly hair with simple lines

Sketching tips for beginners: Curly hair

Drawing curly hair in four steps

Want to draw curly hair? Illustrator Eva Widermann suggests these sketching tips: "Draw two straight vertical lines; these will be your guidelines for the width and length of the curl. Now loosely draw a wavy line down between the two lines.

"Double this wavy line a little below the first. You can already see a curly ribbon forming before you. Now connect the open parts on the sides, remove the guidelines, and add some details."

07. Flip your image with tracing paper

Sketching tips for beginners: Mirror with tracing paper

Flipping the image can help highlight any problems

If you've spent a long time looking at a drawing, it can be difficult to see where the errors are. Artist Justin Gerard has a nifty sketching tip to help. "A benefit of tracing paper is that you can flip it over to see how your drawing looks from the reverse angle," he advises. "This can help reveal errors in proportion. As you work, take advantage of this in order to arrive at a more successful drawing."

08. Keep some texture

Sketching tips for beginners: Keep some texture

The final image of Patricia's kangahorse

Designer Patricia Ann Lewis-MacDougall often works with watercolour pencils, but acknowledges that these come with their own challenges. "Some artists might find using watercolour pencils a little on the grainy side," she says. "However, I like the added life the grain gives to a sketch. You don't have to add water over the whole image. Leave some areas untouched to add a bit of texture to your sketch."

09. Make it symmetrical (but not quite)

Sketching tips for beginners: Symmetrical but not quite

Keep a nice contrast going between a finished look and a more of a sketchy feel

"I like symmetrical drawings, but they often look boring all too quickly," says Croes. "A good way to prevent this is to add some subtle changes and only keep the general lines symmetrical instead of mirroring every small part. Keeping some elements asymmetrical helps to avoid boring repetition."

10. Mix things up with irregular lines

Sketching tips for beginners: Mix it up

An example of an illustration using irregular lines

"The use of irregular lines when shading adds a lot of dynamism to your sketch," Bomba says. "If you want to create a fresh and unique portrait, architecture sketch, or piece of concept art, you should definitely try this technique." Bomba uses it to add interest to flat backgrounds.

Related articles:

How to become a better concept artistHow to draw a rose: beginner and advanced tipsHow to choose the right drawing tools

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