How to Draw in Six Steps

How to Draw in Six Steps

Anyone can draw. We can prove it to you!

Andy Wright

  • May 6, 2020

Drawing can be a meditative way to relax. Do you want to learn today? Here, let us show you!

Binyamin Appelbaum is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, focusing on business and economics. He also doesn’t know how to draw, so we made him try this out as our model.

You will need:

  • Any pencil, pen, or even Sharpie will do. Artists we spoke with especially love No. 2 pencil and Uni-Ball pens

  • Paper

  • A timekeeper

Step 1

Gather your materials

Copy paper does the job but cardboard, old takeout menus, and mail are also all acceptable canvases.

Arshile Gorky sometimes drew on napkins and newspapers; Pablo Picasso’s obsession with scrap of all kinds, from Vogue magazine pages to hotel letterhead, is the subject of a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

“We all have art supplies at home,” said Diane Olivier, a San Francisco-based artist and educator who has been teaching basic drawing classes to college students for over three decades. “We’ve just never looked at them that way.”

Step 2

Choose an object (like a mug)

Don’t go searching for grand subject matter, consider an object with simple lines, like a piece of fruit or coffee mug. Vincent van Gogh painted his boots.

Carson Ellis, an Oregon-based illustrator who has posted drawing prompts on her Instagram under the hashtag #QuarantineArtClub, spent her childhood drawing horses and cats. But for adults shorn of youthful self-assurance, she recommends not choosing a treasured subject.

“Starting with something that you don’t feel precious about, that you don’t have sentimental attachment to is a better place to start,” she said. “Start with the mug.”

Step 3

Break down the shapes

Almost any object can be broken down into shapes: a circle, a square, a rectangle. A mug is two ovals connected by vertical curved lines. The handle is a large half circle with a smaller half circle inside of it.

Horses, for instance, are notoriously hard to draw. “The head of a horse is generally rectangular,” said Tony DiTerlizzi, a best-selling children’s book author and illustrator. The body is an oval, and the legs can be sketched as straight lines. The human face is a sphere, he said, and an antique car is a bunch of boxes.

Step 4

Sketch an outline

Pick a point on your object and — very slowly and carefully, while looking at your object a lot — start to sketch simple lines and curves of the object. The key is being observational.

Keep looking up, and draw what you think you see. Play with your line thickness, applying pressure for a heavier stroke.

Your result may be — probably will be — a little wonky. But, who cares? “You’ve still captured something about the shape of that thing,” said Ms. Ellis.

Once you have a line drawing, start adding in details — like doodling the diner logo on your mug. If you chose to draw a piece of fruit, you can tap your pencil point to mimic the dimpled skin of an orange. A pet portrait? Make lots of quick little strokes to denote fur.

Step 5

Shade in your drawing

Observe where the light is coming from. Whether it’s the sun or a lamp positioned over your object, look for where the brightness hits, making one side light, one side dark, and casting a shadow. You can even draw arrows to show the path of light if that helps.

Then, take a moment and look closely: When it comes to the cast shadow, it is probably not a round, black puddle. It, too, may be both light and dark, and it might also be long and stretched. Draw the shadow as you see it.

For shading, pencils are your friend, because they allow you to vary line darkness through pressure. Try using the side of your pencil point to create a broad stroke, building up layers for the darkest bits. Or use the tip to make lots of little marks on top of each other. Try smudging with your finger, which will quickly earn you an artists’ messy hands. In a pinch, ink works, too. Apply a little water (or even spit) to create a diluted wash.

“If you’ve got a light and a dark side,” said Ms. Olivier, “You’ve got a sense of that object having form. And if you put a shadow on it, then you have a sense of it sitting down on something.”

Step 6

Know when to start over

If you have never drawn before, you will most likely need to practice. Want to start over but keep some of your original drawing? Place a blank page over your first drawing and press both to the window for easy tracing.

Setting a 10 minute time limit on your first drawings is one way to avoid overworking them. And while some would advise beginners to persevere through tough times, Ms. Ellis is a fan of fresh starts. “My advice is crumple up that paper and throw it away,” she said. “Some drawings are just jinxed.”

Novice artists can take rueful solace in the fact that even professionals routinely question their talent. Focus on what you have accomplished, said Mr. DiTerrlizi. “You made something that didn’t exist an hour ago. And I feel like that is magic.”


  • Don’t get discouraged and go easy on yourself. “If you can sign your name, you can draw,” said Helen Birch, an author of instructional art books, including the recently published “Just Draw Botanicals,” who is tracing the shadows that cross her walls to pass time while sheltering in place. “The idea that everything we make is art to be judged is rubbish. It’s just an experiment. It’s about saying, ‘Look, this is playing, it’s making me feel better while we’re in lockdown.’”

  • Remember: there is no right or wrong way to draw. “Any form of self expression is valid and worthy,” said Ms. Ellis. “Any time you sit down and try to draw something, even if you’re disappointed in the outcome, you’re going to learn something. It’s interesting work for your brain, a way of focusing your mind.”

  • Keep your materials out in the open to remind you to practice, even for ten minutes a day. “If you really want a daily practice, it’s like anything else,” said Ms. Olivier.

  • Drawing can act as a time capsule of this time: Ms. Olivier remembers sketching a tomato slice on a trip to France: “When I look at that drawing I remember the temperature, I remember where we were sitting,” she said. “I remember the shadow falling across the picnic table. I remember the people I was talking to. And when I look back at that drawing, it carries a couple hours of my life with it.”

  • Bonus tip for another assignment: If you want to just have some fun, try a self portrait in the mirror using blind contouring techniques a method by which the artist does not look away from what they’re drawing as they draw it suggested Ms. Birch. “You get these funny, mismatched drawings of yourself.”

Videos edited by Meg Felling.