The Key to Successful Drawing: Looking for the Basic Structure of Things

Whether sketching buildings or humans, Drawing Lab students learn to attack their studies with the same key strategy: Find the basic structure of your subject before going to a finished drawing.

Drawing Lab student, Mike, sent us this sketch while vacationing in Edinburgh, Scotland. The view from a B&B shows his fascination with angled structural planes and textures of a building.

Drawing from observation can be a meditation on how surface planes fit together to make a house or depict the forms of hands and feet. This drawing meditation also helps us understand the underlying architectural frameworks that hold these surface planes together.

Being able to visualize the architectural framework of a building or a human figure is what makes our final work look realistic. Drawing from observation is the sketcher’s way to take notes on the basic structure of things—on the surface and below.

During Thursday’s Drawing Lab, Morgan accurately blocked in the architectural framework showing the positions of bone structure and muscle sets beneath the foot’s surface planes.

It is delightful to see students forge ahead while practicing our block-sketch-draw method as we help each other solve various challenges along the way.

Taking time to measure proportions with angled directional lines and dominant shapes becomes an enjoyable habit of accuracy. Blocking in surface planes, as shown in the study of the foot, is the crucial stage of a drawing. It makes it easier to finish with accurate contour lines and modeling (shading) with light and dark values.

Youth sketcher, Laurel, finished with contour lines and modeling that depicts muscles underneath the skin surface.
During Thursday’s session, Devin and his mom, Becky, take advantage of the long summer afternoons to study the structure of buildings outside the studio.
As he fit the pieces of his composition puzzle together, Devin captured a nice balance of organic and man-made shapes.
Meanwhile, in the studio, Tina imagined how the surface planes of buildings would fit together during our 2-point perspective lesson. (Trotting between students inside and outside the studio during sessions is a fun challenge for me!)
Adult sketcher, Zak, worked hard to spot complex relationships between surface planes and perspective angles.

Alternating between doing sketches of buildings and people can give you a powerful perspective on drawing from life. What makes you a well-rounded drawing artist is knowing that the architectural structures of buildings can inform your architectural studies of the human body and nature.

By studying the basic structural similarities in everything you see—and don’t see—you will achieve accurate, successful drawings.

Dylan, self portrait. This youth sketcher’s knowledge of perspective and surface planes helps him draw buildings and people—even Iron Man!
Adult student, Lenore, demonstrates her dedication to practicing her study of architectural frameworks and surface treatments of the human form.
With fluid contour lines, youth sketcher, Faith, gives us a good idea of how muscle sets perform beneath the skin’s surface. Notice the exquisite structural framework of the far right figure.
Scout brings it all together for a finished Thursday evening drawing from a Charles Bargue print.

This Week’s Student Gallery

A polished drawing of a woman’s head by Scout.
Becky’s wonderful take of a building outside our studio. The structure of a porch looks like we can step up and walk right into a room.
Storey’s watercolor drawing does an excellent job of depicting the architectural framework of an old cabin. We get an immediate sense of tired leaning walls and sagging roof line covered with weathered textures. Notice how she emphasized the details of the brambles in the foreground and showed less details in the background, giving a balanced depth of field.
During Thursday’s 2-point perspective lesson, Amma created an environment where her characters can walk around and between buildings. The car is happy about that.
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Rob Court

Founder and drawing coach at the Scribbles Institute, Rob helps adults and kids learn basic drawing skills for work, school, and enjoyment. He is the author of a number of how-to-draw books.