What should you start with, shape or form? ͏ ‌     ­ ͏ ‌     ­ ͏ ‌     ­ ͏ ‌     ­ ͏ ‌     ­ ͏ ‌     ­ ͏ ‌     ­ ͏ ‌     ­ This newsletter is about drawing. It goes out every Friday. Want to draw? Then check out my free workbook!

#119 - Start By Drawing Large Shapes, First, And Then Imagine the Form and Fill In The Details

What should you start with, shape or form?

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A reader asked the following question:

“Your process for drawing the head model Morpho study
It’s the one in profile.
Why do you start with the outline of the nose, then the small contours around the eye, etc.?
It appeals to me, but I don’t think I’ve seen it taught that way. Rather, I think I’ve more often seen advice to start with the big shapes like head, jaw, etc.”

I think they are referring to this one (click on the image to go through the drawing steps):

It is a good question.

Usually, when you draw a skull-like structure like this, you draw a sphere, put down a drop line along the center of the face, and draw the eye line, and you construct from there: eyebrows at one-third from the top, eyes halfway, nose two-thirds down, mouth one third down from the space underneath the nose, eyes one eye apart, a half eye to either side, the ears going from the eye line to the nose line.

You may even go as far as using the Reilly method, drawing rhythm lines on the head to help place facial features.

These are good methods for constructing heads; I don’t suggest abandoning them. Your eye notices when something is off, especially in the head and hands, things we see often. Heads of women and children are even harder to get right.

So why freehand draw? Why eyeball it? Several reasons:

I Was Following Kim Jung-Gi

I came upon this by analyzing what Kim Jung-Gi did. If you haven’t seen his work yet, especially his YouTube videos, where you can see him live-draw, I suggest you check it out. He is from another planet. I wanted to understand how he did that.

He draws directly with pen or brush, without an underdrawing. He had a mental image of the underlying forms, so it was like he had made an underdrawing. His drawings are expressive and lively and look amazing, and I wanted to learn to do that. He freehand-draws in the details directly without first constructing the big shapes.

It is useful to see the big forms in your head and to draw accordingly. You can be more playful that way and change the big forms instantly in your head.

Correcting Your Prejudices

Drawing by sight, then measuring to see what you got wrong, and correcting is a great way to find where you are often off. I know someone who consistently draws heads too big. I draw lower legs too short if I don’t pay attention.

Freehand drawing, then measuring, and then correcting is a great way to discover and correct your visual prejudices.

There Are No True Proportions

There are no true proportions of the human body. We’re all so different. This also gives us creative freedom to play with proportions, to come up with them playfully so the drawing conveys the feeling we want it to convey.

A person is about 7.5 heads high. If we make the form fewer heads high, the person looks more like a child. If we instead make the figures 8, 9, or even ten heads high, they will look like a mythical person.

If you measure and construct beforehand, you’re stuck with the “right” proportions. There are no “right” proportions. We’re all different. As an artist, it is better to develop a sense of where the line would look nice and where it feels right. Playing with proportion becomes another tool in your artistic tool chest.

Constructing Is Not Always The Easiest Option

Constructing is not always easily possible for arbitrary poses, and it is useful to get things approximately right by sight, to train yourself to sense where a line looks right, where it looks correct, or, more importantly, where it looks nice.

Freehand Gives Livelier Results

You get much more lively drawings when you freehand-draw. Finished pieces often look stiffer. The original sketch it was based on often looks nicer and more alive.


It is also plain fun to draw directly without underdrawing.


You can also combine! First, make loose freehand sketches. Pick the one you like, and trace the drawing on a separate piece of paper, but this time, construct the underlying volumes, correcting little mistakes here and there. The excellent Proko caricaturing course teaches you to lay the Reilly rhythm lines over it, and it helps get the facial features in the right place after you arrive at a dynamic caricature. Doing the construction after freehand drawing helps tighten the drawing and get everything at the exact right spot. The Proko Caricature course is a really good course, I can highly recommend it. They show how you combine freehand with construction. I also wrote more about measuring versus drawing freehand here.


You don’t have to choose. You can do both, even in the same drawing.

A caveat: don’t listen to advice from someone who doesn’t know your goals. That includes me, too. I don’t know what your artistic goals are. All I can present is what worked for me, but something else might work better for you! You’ll know when that is the case: the advice will feel wrong, although you can’t explain why initially. With time, you’ll understand. I had that with the art academy I attended: they were training me to be a kind of artist I didn’t want to be. Teachers are not always right, especially when they don’t know your goals. What works for them might not work for you, but at the same time, all a teacher can do is present what works for them.

Also, there are no rules. A teacher will ask you to draw one way, and another will ask you to draw another way. It’s not that you have to draw like that for the rest of your life! Often, the teacher wants to show you something. That’s why you need to work with different teachers. They will seem to contradict each other, but really, they are not. They are just presenting what worked for them.

Try out the different options. I love freehand drawing a lot and enjoy trying to make a drawing work after I make a mistake, but constructing the big forms first might be the thing for you. Freehand drawing can train you to become a better artist overall, as you become better at getting lines in the right spot in one go without needing an underlying construction drawing, and it gives you the freedom to come up with more dynamic, less stiff, less composed drawings.

If you have a question I can answer, please don’t hesitate to ask!

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