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Simplify Drawing Using Straight Lines on Rounded Objects

by Lori Woodward on 9/14/2011 10:17:56 AM

Today's post is by Lori Woodward, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  She has been a member of the Putney Painters since 2004, a small invitational group of painters who are mentored by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


At the age of ten, I taught myself how to draw using a Walter Foster instructional book, How to Draw Dogs. The pages of this book are a compilation of step by step drawings by Walter T. Foster. Each illustration begins with an outline of the dog's head and features - drawn with straight lines. I copied most of the drawings in the book repeatedly, and ultimately learned to draw most anything beginning with straight lines of various angles and lengths.


When I began studying with Richard Schmid, he advised that if we draw each of our objects using straight lines instead of curved, our final painting would feel more accurate than if we had tried to draw the actual curve that we see. Perhaps that's why the beginning stages of a painting is often called a block-in. Many artists and illustrators begin their paintings by blocking in with angular shapes, whether the object is a building or an apple or a human head. 


Most everyone uses straight lines when drawing buildings and boxed like shapes, but it almost seems ironic that one should use bone-straight lines to draw figures, rounded fruits, hills, and tree foliage. Here, I'll share some examples of how artists (Daniel Keys and Richard Schmid) use straight lined drawings when blocking in their painting compositions.

Above: a painting block in - by Richard Schmid. Notice how the hat consists of angular lines with varying lengths. He even used angular lines for the facial features. Richard doesn't always begin with a line drawing - sometimes he paints patches of color, but even the patches are angular, not curved.


Below are a few examples of block in stages for paintings by Daniel J. Keys.  He, like Schmid, teaches his students to use angular lines to designate the shapes of fruit and even teacup ellipses. If you look closely at the final stages of Daniel's paintings, you'll see that the orignal "blocky" shapes and angled lines are still apparent. Yet, our minds read the final result as round/curved. Try drawing your rounded objects with angular straight lines... I think you'll find that it makes drawing a lot easier. It takes a little practice using this method, so don't give up if you don't get the hang of it right away.

Above: A still life painting block-in by Daniel J. Keys. Here, Keys uses the same principle that Schmid used above. Drawing angular lines is  especially helpful when drawing the ellipses of bowls and teacups. Notice how the plate and bowl shapes are not perfect circles.
Above: The same painting by Daniel Keys a little further along. The 2nd image with the blue bowl shows how the green fruit retains its straight, angular lines along the edge. In other words, while this apple is finished, it retains the original angles of the block-in drawing. What's amazing is that we don't notice that the edges are angular unless we look for that aspect.
Above: I watched Daniel Keys paint this still life during a workshop he gave last year. The first image shows just how angular he draws the initial shapes. However, the 2nd image shows how those straight lines eventually made an accurate ellipse of the teacup. The orange peel is also "angularized". These straight angles and lines give the objects strength and character in their final rendering.

Above: Here is a detail of the same painting further along in progress.
These images are used with permission by Daniel Keys. You can see more of his work at his website:

This post is Part I - on drawing with straight lines. Part II will contain my own drawings and examples using landscapes as subject matter. Don't hesitate to comment or ask questions on this blog post. I hope this approach has been helpful in understanding how masterful artists make their block in process a bit simpler.


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Topics: creativity | FineArtViews | Instruction | Lori Woodward | painting 

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Diane Overmyer
Great tips Lori! I learned about this technique from Richard's Alla Prima book. There techniques along with careful edge work really do work effectively. Lost, found or ragged edges (as I call them) help to bring edges into or out of focus, to create more of a desired illusion.

Lorrie Beck
What first caught my eye for your article was the name Walter Foster. I have his "how to draw horse heads" book that I was given as a gift when I was a child some 35 years ago. I still have it and have instructed others using his methods. Your article went on to give some wonderful tips on drawing and though I use these techniques, I never really thought about my process. Thanks for putting it into such useful words!

Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors
Dear Lori
thanks for this gift. I will try it today!

jack white

Thanks for the memories. About 30 years ago I was in California and visited the Walter Foster company. On their second floor was art that had been used to make their books. There were several Robert Wood oils laying flat, un-framed on a table along with a lot of other pieces of valuable art.

I asked the manager wasn't he afraid someone would steal those great pieces of art. He seemed shocked I'd make such and observation. It never crossed his mind he had thousands of dollars worth of art laying on tables not stretched or framed. I suggested he put them in a vault. A crook could have rolled up a half million dollars worth of art and simply stuck them down a pants leg.

I think Walter Foster has done more good for artists than any one person. Millions have learned from his books.

Also you wrote a spot on article. jack

Lori Woodward
Thanks Jack! If it weren't for Walter Foster Books, I may have never started drawing.

Lorrie, I still have the original copy of my WF "How to Draw Dogs". It was a Christmas present in 1966, and the price listed is $2 - wow, I sure got my money's worth out of that!

George De Chiara
My life drawing teacher, Bill Parks, use to compare drawing to golf. "Make a stroke in one direction, if it's not right make another stroke. Very rarely do we get a hole in one" was one of his favorite sayings. He also encouraged us to use straight lines when drawing the figure. It's a great technique.

Donald Fox
As usual you give succinct lessons with immediate applicability. The illustrations are perfect compliments to the text. In essence, the suggestion to use straight lines is emphasizing simplicity. Most people cannot draw the mirror image of a curve to create the two sides of an ellipse. Neither can they draw a resonable circle, but they usually can make short, straight lines at different angles that when combined will locate the opening of a bowl or the proportions of a vase. It's always fun to watch inexperienced students used this technique to surprise themselves.

H Margret
Very interesting post on drawing. I recently saw the movie "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and was astonished at how beautiful the animal drawings were....not an angle in sight. They knew their subject so intimately. Not to bash on our modern methods, but these artists probably drew very little in their daily lives and were capable of such wonderful expression.

Esther J. Williams
Lori, I think I have my teenage years Walter Foster books somewhere. I bought one on Perspective and How to Paint in Oils. Later on I bought more at estate sales. Some are so dated, bad advice in some of them, like what colors to use.
I learned much about drawing with straight lines when I took architectural drawing and construction. Later it influenced me greatly when I took figure drawing in a fashion design course. I like how a straight line or shape can be measured more easily in relation to other shapes or lines, it helps guide proportions and perspective better. We used a compass all the time in my architect courses, it is useless in fine art. I learned how to draw a circle without it after awhile.

Jo Allebach
Lori, Thanks for writing about this. I will have to do some of this straight line drawing and painting. And Esther, you comments about being easier to measure in relation to other shapes and lines to help guide proportions and perspective better is great.
I have been exposed to this method of drawing but the simplicity with which it is explained here gets me excited to do more of it.

Margie Guyot
Great article! I'm starting a new still life today and will put this "drawing elipses by starting with straight lines" to use. I often use elipses and have found them very difficult to get right.

This reminds me of the life drawing exercises in school where we had to locate and render figures in planes as opposed to contours as such.

Donna Robillard
I just learned about the drawing with lines just a couple years ago. I was really surprised how it makes the drawing take shape so immediately. Sometimes I forget to use it; so I will work more on starting out with it.

Yes---if it wasn't 4 the walter foster books-- don't think I would have ever started painting.
things seemed so simple in those days-- now we have so much--- and many things 2 think about --art--before we can even begin---just the different kinds of paints avaliable------ sometime s hard 2 follow!!!.

Lori, I have blocked in paintings using pencil or charcoal, but found that the lead will smear into the paint and affect the color (especially light colors). I noticed in your examples the lines are red. What kind of pencil should we use when blocking in, to prevent that smear problem?

Lori Woodward
Patricia, the lines in Daniel's painting are an oil color (transparent oxide red) thinned down with a little Gamsol (paint thinner). He uses a small round brush or the chiseled edge of a flat mongoose brush to paint in these lines.

Because the red paint with the thinner dries fast, it stays on the canvas when new paint is added.

I personally avoid using charcoal because it's dusty and dirty, and pencil shows through the oil for some reason. It's best to draw thin lines with paint right on your canvas. You don't have to use red, you can use brown or blue or whatever because you'll be painting over them. Daniel chose red here, but he doesn't always use that color.


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