Category Archives: Tips/Tutorials

Hot Tip: Getting Sideways With Your Pencil


The very first thing SI students learn is how to hold the pencil on its side while drawing basic lines and shapes. The overhand grip, as it’s called in the art world, is a bit awkward at first. But with practice, it quickly becomes second nature to sketchers. One advantage of the overhand grip is how much easier it is to create sweeping pencil strokes and large shapes. Another advantage is that you gain control and flexibility of your wrist when drawing angled and curved lines. You’ll also see increased sensitivity and control when varying line widths and adding tonal values (shading). And the overhand grip is less fatiguing, allowing for longer, more relaxed drawing sessions.

Shown in the photo above, SI student, Kirsten, demonstrates how resting a fingertip on the paper helps to stabilize the drawing hand when accuracy is needed. As students progress, they learn to switch from the overhand to tripod grip (standard writing grip) when working on smaller details; then move to an underhand grip when opening up with broad strokes at an easel.

The following photos show our students using variations on the overhand pencil grip. Give it a try! Get sideways with your pencil! Experiment with extending your grip to the end of the pencil, changing the angle of the pencil, and changing the position of your fingers. If you have questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you.

Getting Started:

1. Have a fairly sharp point on the pencil so you can use the side of the pencil point.

2. Relax your fingers. The pencil should almost fall from your fingertips.

3. Practice large ovals on a sheet of paper. Also try patterns of angled and curved lines. Keeping your hand and arm off the paper, move your whole arm when drawing. (This takes some practice to get used to.)

4. Start with the pencil touching lightly on the paper; then, little by little, put more pressure on the pencil, creating darker lines and shapes.

5. Rotate your pencil every 5 or 10 strokes to maintain a sharp point.

6. Enjoy!

Julia, at Salinas Community school, in classic overhand grip, ready to attack her study sketch of the skull.

Helen, during our classes at the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center, glides through mapping out a still life. Drawing, while standing at an easel, is much easier and more enjoyable when using the overhand grip.

A Star Community school student extends the overhand grip for control on curved contour lines of an aloe plant. Notice how relaxed her drawing hand is. (Good music always helps in learning to draw!)

Karla shows excellent overhand technique with an extended grip. Notice how her arm is off the table while sketching initial large shapes of a shell.

Megan adds bold pencil strokes with care and accuracy. Note her excellent underhand technique of holding a snickerdoodle cookie while drawing.

Casey shows how an elbow resting on the table can be used as a pivot point for the whole arm while drawing.

Seeing Like an Artist: Edges and Space

Originally posted 10/08:

Do you ever get frustrated when you’re trying to draw something you’re looking at, and just can’t get the shapes to look right? Here’s a lesson that’s guaranteed to help you draw the accurate shapes of things. It may be the easiest drawing lesson you’ll ever try, since you don’t even need a pencil or paper. All that’s needed is 2 minutes per day for one week during your lunch break or your walk to school.



Positive and Negative Space

Since the dawn of history, humans have instinctively viewed the world as positive and negative space. It’s how we see the dangerous brown shapes of a hungry lion (positive space) lurking in the tall green bushes (negative space), or the beautiful full moon (positive space) in a dark sky (negative space). Drawing is easier when you know how to use positive and negative space.

Start this lesson by looking at the clouds and sky in the picture shown above. The positive space is the white and gray areas that form the clouds. The negative space is the blue areas of the sky. Take time to study the picture. You’ll begin to see the imaginary outlines around the clouds, where the blue space meets the white and gray space. Draw the outlines and you will have accurate shapes of the clouds in the sky.

Another way we artists use the word space is when we divide our entire drawing into distinct parts. This is called composition. Our guide, LOOPI the Fantastic Line shows where the sky meets the ground in the picture. This is called the horizon line. Notice how the horizon line divides the space of the picture into two parts, the sky and ground. This makes the composition of a picture.

Getting Edgy

Okay, so you’re walking to school. Suddenly everything takes a turn on the wild side. A gigantic dinosaur walks up and offers to pose for you? Wow! Could you draw it? Being able to see positive and negative space and edges will make it way easier to draw a portrait of your 12-ton prehistoric buddy.

Outlines of a dinosaur showing positive and negative space: Notice how the outlines break up the space of the page, creating a composition.




Can you spot the negative space in the picture of the dinosaur? Typically, negative space is the background area surrounding the shape of the object or creature you’re looking at–in this case a very large dinosaur. So, the negative space is the blue area around the dinosaur. The positive space is the brownish color of the dinosaur. Notice how the light blue space and dark blue spaces make the edges of the dinosaur’s shadow. It’s easy to see where you would draw the outlines to form the shadow. Do you think the shadow is positive or negative space?

Looking at the edges is like touching the edges of the dinosaur. And touching the edges is like drawing them. You don’t believe me? Take a moment to look at the dinosaur picture. First, in your mind, separate the positive and negative spaces in the picture. Next, imagine running the fingers of your drawing hand around all of the rough, bony, outside edges of the dinosaur. Now, imagine drawing the outline of the dinosaur, slowly tracing around its entire body–don’t forget the area inside the huge, beak-shaped mouth. Something very interesting happens. You’ll notice that there’s not much difference between the effort it takes to see, to feel, and to draw all the edges of the dinosaur. Your brain is opening up to learning how to really draw!

Your drawings will improve dramatically after you’ve learned to see positive and negative space and edges. In the meantime, turn off your computer, open the door, and take a walk in the world of positive and negative space. It will be the first step towards seeing like an artist.

Setting Up Your Art Studio

Originally posted 1/07

Your art studio is a special place for drawing and painting. It can be a small area in the corner of your bedroom or it can be a large room with a drawing table, computer, and art materials. You can even make space for a studio in the kitchen or family room.

For hundreds of years artists have created their artwork in studios. Your studio is a place where you can spend time alone, sketching ideas for a story. It can also be a place to work on school art projects with family and friends.

Setting up an art studio is easy. Find a place where you enjoy working. If possible, it should have a wall to put up your favorite artwork. A bulletin board is nice for pinning up your pictures.

Try to set up your studio space near a window. Looking out through a window helps you to relax and think of new ideas. A window also brings light to your working area.

Lighting is very important when making art, especially at night. Bright light helps you to see colors and details. It also helps to keep your eyes from getting tired. A table lamp works best for lighting your work area. You can adjust a lamp to shine directly onto your artwork. The next thing to think about is your art table.

An adjustable art table makes your drawing and painting easier. You can adjust the table top to an angle that is comfortable while working. This makes it easier to move your arms and to see your artwork clearly. Adjusting your table also helps to keep your back and shoulders from getting tired.
If you do not have room for a drawing table you can use a drawing board instead. A drawing board is smaller than a table and easy to carry. You can set a drawing board on your lap or bed giving you a hard, smooth surface to work on. Some drawing boards can be adjusted to different angles. They work well on top of your kitchen table or desk.


Your pets can keep you company while drawing. If you have a cat, be careful to put your paintings in a safe place. Cats love to sleep on top of tables and artwork!

You can get ideas for designing your creative work space by looking at the studios of professional artists.

Talk with your art teacher or a professional artist to get ideas for setting up your studio. They can suggest where to go for a table, chair, and other things you may need. Artists can show you ways to store art supplies such as pens, pencils, brushes, and paper. You can also learn about ways to store your artwork so it won’t get damaged.

It’s nice to have your computer, artwork, and books nearby while working in your studio. Having lots of art books within reach helps to give you ideas while drawing.

You and your parents can have fun making your art studio. It will always be a special place for you to draw and paint for many years to come.







Sketchbook: Animal Instinct

Originally posted 1/09:
Animal sketching can be a fun challenge. The fun is in quickly capturing a likeness of your subject, and the challenge is in accomplishing your sketch with a minimal amount of lines, before your subject decides to change position.

In his 1925 book Animal Sketching, renowned sculptor and inventor of mobiles, Alexander Calder (1898-1975) included sketches and helpful insights, such as following the rhythm of your subject. “When an animal is in rapid motion, or moves so that you do not expect it to return to its original position, leave what you have drawn and start a new sketch. Use a large sheet of paper and make your sketches small. You must work quickly and it saves much time in changing with the animal’s movements. Do not trouble to have your drawings right side up or sequential. Keep rapidly transmitting your impressions of the animal’s movements, and enjoy what you are drawing.”

Calder then goes on to mention animal instincts. “In drawing animals we must have the feeling that they are doing something, no matter how simple the thing may be. In spite of our vast mental superiority, animals have minds and use them. In man, reason has taken the place of instinct to a great extent. Animals think with their bodies to a greater extent than man does. In anger or fright, ears flatten against the head, the hair along the spine rises. The dog at sight of food drools at the mouth, male birds courting display their feathers. There is no self-consciousness: animals are always intent upon the thing they are doing, and we must feel that they are as we sketch them.”

Ready to give it a try? Domestic pets will usually oblige in your household sketching safari by providing an endless stream of poses to fill your paper. Calder felt that cats make splendid models. “If a cat is asleep, make it completely, luxuriously asleep, the belly supported by the floor, legs limp, muscles sagging. If it is alertly awake, get the attitude; all the muscles tense, ears erect, eyes observant, tail poised to give the best balance for a sudden spring.”

Some animal sketches to check out: Derrick Jr. DreamWorks Feature Animation artist and sculptor David G. Derrick Jr. likes to get out of the house to do his animal sketching. David took his sketchbook with him while traveling in Kenya. His recently published book, African Diaries has wonderful sketches of wild zebras, lions, exotic birds, and a wide variety of other African animals. David’s website features galleries of his artwork.