How to Teach Drawing

How to Teach Drawing


When teaching art we can use non-visual ideas, questions and sensations such as sounds, smells and touch. These activities require individual imaginative thinking to make them into visual expressions. We can use stories (without showing pictures) to ignite the child's imagination and desire to experiment and then produce a picture of what they imagine.

We can use memories, experiences, and observations from actual objects (not pictures of objects). All of these thought processes require thinking skills in order to translate them into artwork. None of these allow for imitation and mirroring.

All teachers, whether they themselves were lucky enough to develop their brains for observational drawing, can teach drawing. Teachers should not show children how to draw by drawing for them or use "how to draw" books that prescribe patterns and formulas for making various animals and other objects. These methods perpetuate false ideas about the way drawing is learned. When you learn a formula for drawing a fish, you haven't learned to allow various fish to tell what they look like. You simply know one fish symbol. While symbolic language may function for basic communication, real observation and expression is so much more empowering and effective.

Teachers can encourage children to examine things closely, slowly, and carefully, compare sizes, study the slant of a line, and compare everything with everything else in the subject being observed. Not only the objects are observed, but the spaces between objects must be carefully compared in size and character with the each other and the objects (art teachers call these the negative spaces). Drawing becomes a perfect way to record this data. Drawing becomes the perfect way to encourage this learning by examination. A beneficial self perpetuating circle of learning is initiated. Observation makes better drawing and drawing motivates better observation.


Assume that every child's brain already has a picture of a flower ready to draw. This is an obstacle when teaching perception.

The part of our brain that learns how to make careful observations does not develop if drawing from what our brain thinks that it already knows about how things look. New observations are blocked or overlooked because of these preconceptions. In order to learn to draw we have to see the world without prejudice.

Try not to practice "learning to see" on something for which the child's brain has already formed an image. To do so would require unlearning as well as learning.

Subject matter should be such that the brain has not yet stereotyped and catalogued. (Familiar things like a well loved toy animal can be made to look unfamiliar by turning it upside down, backwards, etc.)

The subject observed should be:

challenging enough to require some detailed study butsomething that is easy enough to avoid frustration.

new and unfamiliar (not yet learned) so that careful looking is required, not things for which the child's brain has already created and stored a stereotyped image.

For an early experience that is easy for anybody, bend a length of coat hanger wire into an abstract shape. Hang it in front of the room. Have them all do a blind contour drawing of the wire. Progress to stuffed animals, to plants, to people, to scenes. The best subjects are those they have never seen posed this way before so they don't rely on their learned way of drawing. If it is not new, make it harder by placing the objects upside down.

If you have routinely been teaching by showing examples, it can be very creative to come up with alternatives that use questions, experiments, preliminary sketches, and list making instead of showing visual answers.We all know that a heart stands for love. How many other symbols could an art class list that could also represent love? Would it make a difference if the class session started with this activity rather than starting without any idea-generation activity before making valentine cards?


Start every class with a warm up ritual. Do a few minutes of quiet concentrated blind contour drawing from observation of a real object, person, setup, or scene. Instead of striving for a unique surprise each day in art, propose for each day to begin predictable, stable, fulfilling, skill building, brain building, and above all centering. Date the drawings. Place them in each pupil’s folder or use a sketchbook where this developmental record is kept.

End every session, after cleaning up, with another drawing time. Have a discussion centred on the meanings and implications of what they did today.

After they finish their work, if they are interested, share with them some examples of drawing of other artists. This gives them an idea of what can happen after many years of practice.


The child's attention needs to be on the contour edges being observed. Teach them to imitate seeing, looking, touching, but do not show them any drawing.

Teach them to look carefully at the edge of the object being drawn while the pencil moves. Use a 4B or 6B soft pencil so it shows. No erasers. This is practice. Just add another line. Never look at the paper while the pencil moves, but look at the paper any other time.

A blinder is an 8 x 8 inch piece of heavy paper with a small hole in the middle. A pencil is placed in the hole. The blinder hides the paper while the pupil draws a new object. This keeps their eyes on the subject instead of the paper. The child selects various edge lines and practices each line once or twice, but is told that they will have a chance to draw the whole thing after they have practiced all of the lines once or twice. This practice process produces a jumble of lines on the paperbut the individual lines are amazingly faithful to their sources. This is fine because it is rehearsal. This is a preliminary practice of the individual lines, not the whole thing.

The pupil may peek at the paper when the pencil stops, but not while the pencil moves because while the pencil is moving the hand is learning to move according to what the eye sees. Remind them to look intently and carefully at the edge of subject or object being observed. Just practice one edge, not a whole shape at first.

After this "seeing practice" take the blinder off and make another drawing while looking at the paper and at the subject.

Offer another piece of paper for this, but leave the practice sheet where it is easily seen. I remind them to look at the object most of the time and see if their hand can follow without constantly looking at the paper.

Try to not draw when teaching drawing. Practice the vocabulary that is needed to transmit the message.

TACTILE PRACTICE - seeing with the touch game - tactile awareness:

Start by running your finger slowly along the side of the object from the same viewpoint that the child sees it. Then ask the child to do the same thing, moving slowly enough to notice each change of direction. Talk about these movements as the finger traces the edge. "Now we are going sideways, not it slants a little, now there is a little wiggle, now it curves, now it goes sideways." In tactile practice, they are not drawing, but they are becoming aware of the actual shape and contours of the object.

AIR PRACTICE - drawing in the air as visual comprehension.

Air practice is simply pointing to edge of the object and drawing slowly in the air. Point your finger about 12 inches back from the object. Explain which edge you are following. Again move your finger very slowly and talk about the motions, so each little change of direction in the contour of the shape causes your finger to copy it in the air.

Encourage children to practice drawing in the air with their own finger. Pick another edge and both do it together in the air while you talk it through. You want them to habitually look at the edges of objects before drawing them. Encourage air practice and invisible drawing on the paper with just a finger to build confidence.

Next let them to point with a pencil and do a careful imaginary drawing in the air. Draw invisibly on paper with only a finger before using a pencil. Children will find it easier to draw something if they have studied it this way before drawing it.

When first doing air drawing and blind contour drawing, children may be confused and annoyed by double vision. Many are able to close one eye to avoid seeing double. If a child has problems holding one eye closed tape the paper to hold it, they can use one hand to cover an eye while doing observation.

From time to time, add new techniques. Try a new way to hold the pencil. Try charcoal. Try markers. Try the other hand. Try it much bigger. Try it much smaller. Try white chalk on black paper. Try only negative shapes. Maybe every fifth day, explore a new way to make drawings. But always come back to basic pencil on paper. It is skill and creativity, not exotic materials or cute looking tricks that build skill and self-confidence.


If they want to erase, suggest they just go ahead and draw new lines and leave the old lines. Then after they are finished, they use the eraser to take out parts that they do not want. This avoids endless erasing which is hard on self-confidence. It is common practice among artists to delay erasing because it facilitates more learning from mistakes. We draw the whole thing then we see the alternatives and start fixing it until we like it. As artists, we often draw something several times until we get it right. Sometimes "right" is not the most realistic, but the most evocative. Creative artists realize that some of their best discoveries come from mistakes. Without accidents and mistakes we would miss many ideas.

Viewfinders can simplify the drawing task by isolating the important part of the subject being observed.They learn to make comparisons of spaces, proportions, sizes, values (tone), shape, line character, and textures. The viewfinder makes the task small enough for them to feel confident in their ability to achieve success.Pupils learn to make choices with the viewfinder. They are instructed to look for and make note of the relationships between the positive and negative areas. They are to find the most interesting interplay between object and background considering, size, shape, orientation, overlapping, vectors produced, textural richness, and tonal gradation (shading and shadows).

By making these informed choices, they are learning the principles of design and composition.


To draw well pupils need to learn to see highlights, shading, and cast shadows. Directional light on still life objects that are painted all white and placed on white makes shadows and shading easier to see.Produce a contour drawing. Ask them to first find the lightest part and keep that area of paper white. Then find darkest areas. Then middle tones, etc. Then add PEN hatching and cross-hatching for tone. When finished they must erase the pencil outlines to see the form in tones.

How to see negative spaces - negative shapes

To draw well, pupils need to learn to see negative shapes and spaces.Good objective seeing requires that we see everything. We learn to pay attention to things that might affect us and we ignore the empty space. To teach about negative space, ask them to draw only negative (background) areas. Positive parts are sometimes added after the negative parts are all finished. A viewfinder is helpful to give definition by framing the space.

One assignment has them looking at winter tree branches and only drawing the sky shapes between the branches. If any extra lines are included, they are asked to erase them.

Another assignment has a bunch of sunflowers in a vase places in front of a dark brown or black paper background. Viewfinders are used to frame compositions tightly limiting the amount of negative space showing.