Understanding Drawing is the culmination of over 6 years of research, investigation, testing, practice, failing and learning. During this time I’ve taken hundreds of courses, gone through hundreds of tutorials and demos from different artists, read a multitude of books, trying to piece together what it is that I need to do in order to improve my art. I’m self-taught, I’d never taken art classes before, didn’t draw as a kid and started at 25 with 0 previous experience and no idea what I’m getting myself into. Sometimes I got it right – very often though – I got it wrong.
Regardless of whether you’re studying with an experienced artist, or learning by yourself – you’re always in charge of your development. It’s your responsibility to piece together a big picture view of art and to try to figure out the next steps for your work. At the very beginning – this can be a very daunting task. Art can be massively complicated, with so many skills being tangled together. There is overlap between different fields, language that is imprecise – words are used to mean several very different things to different artists. Things can get very confusing very quickly.
My goal with this course is to provide you with context. To go through what’s important and what is not. As beginners it’s very easy to mistake a convention or a style as something we need to be doing, only to realize later on we never developed the thinking and the skills required to produce our own work.
Drawing is an incredibly important skill to develop. It’s essential for visual communication. And with practice and internalization of skills, it becomes very powerful and so much faster. We begin to be able to think through drawing, in order to create what we imagine, rather than being constrained to technical issues. But this development of skill has to be deliberate. We have to be able to see the big picture, in order to know what we need to do next to progress.
We’ll start from the very beginning – we’ll talk about what the purpose of drawing is. We’ll examine visual language. We’ll talk about structure and how we often mistake the end result we see for the work that went in to produce the image. We’ll talk about cause and effect. How to begin training our ability to think dimensionally and spatially. How to start creating objects. We’ll deconstruct drawing down to separate Levels, tied to distinct Skills that we need to train in order to go from absolute beginner – from symbolic drawing, to realistic or stylized imagination work. These Levels and Skills are also coupled with Knowledge – we absolutely need to acquire certain theory and drill it to a very high level, in order to internalize it and be able to act on it, without having to think about it.
Dear Volen, I needed to let you know how grateful I am for the Understanding Drawing Roadmap you have developed. When I retired, I wanted to learn to draw and have been trying to find my way through this learning journey for about six years. It has been loaded with frustration not only with results, but more importantly with how to move forward as I sought out tricks and shortcuts, jumping around to various mediums as I dabbled. I didn’t know what I needed to learn, nor how to approach learning. And it was so frustrating not being able to “see” what others could see. And I didn’t know how to get there, not understanding that you need to actively train my brain as well as my hand. Your Roadmap has laid out the steps and process, as well as the circular nature of the learning process. This has helped immensely to truly enjoy the process and to see balance and movement in my practice while staying within the necessary learning territory. I am currently focused on learning perspective and your recommended resources, in combination, have been marvelous tools as I learn more about this fascinating area which I had previously understood only at a surface level. Thank you for opening up the journey to be a place of joyful discovery rather than drudgery. I know there are times when it is tedious, but you have put it all into a context that gives me perspective and direction even in the times that are the most challenging. Your work ethic is an inspiration for me to work harder and your straightforward manner of presenting things objectively really speaks to me. I am thrilled that you have compiled this information and are sharing it with others. It was the best money I ever spent on my artist endeavors. You have certainly made a huge impact on my creative journey and I thank you.
I’d like to thank you once more for what you’ve done. I’ve never seen someone suggest paradigms in art before I came across you and yet here you are talking about the mind behind the art, not something silly like color dodge. “The greatest journey is that of the mind”, as Earl Nightingale used to say, and I’d say you’re doing a great job at helping people, myself included.
I have just purchased Volen’s Guide to how to become a better artist. This guide shows you how to study the most effectively, what pitfalls to avoid and where to put your creative efforts. If you follow his guide and do the things you need to do, you will without a doubt become a better artist. It’s important to understand Volen’s Guide shows you what and where you need to learn, but its up to you to put in the work in. Therefore his guide can be reviewed many times in order for you to get the best information from it. Don’t Rush through it, whenever you hit a wall, review Volen’s advice with regards to the problem your having, it will help you understand the best methods to enhance your understanding. There is so much material here you could easily rush through it and miss vital information. To get the most from this course i would suggest you review a chapter and determine by practice if you understand the principles within it. If you don’t, follow Volen’s advice and only after you are comfortable with that knowledge should you advance. This guide is something that would have been invaluable to me when I was younger, though now it’s helping me to put all my foundational skills together into practical knowledge. 10/10 for the knowledge and hard work Volen.
This series of short lectures will detail how to best structure your art practice from an overall/big picture viewpoint. Very much worth the $ if you feel overwhelmed trying to figure out what overarching concepts you should be trying to improve upon. Its greatest impact may be in its usefulness to determine where your skillset is lacking the most and ultimately holding you back from achieving your goals. Volen will not deliver you any magic silver bullets here, only heartfelt truth grounded in over half a decade’s worth of experience teaching himself how to make concept grade art and the assumption that you will practice what he’ll teach. First things first: These lectures are NOT a step by step guide detailing every exercise you’ll need to become the next great artist. Volen will not suggest a practice schedule for you (although he does talk about it a little in the final lecture). He will not reveal to you any secrets that will cure your crippling procrastination issues (he has other videos about these topics on his YT channel!). What he WILL deliver, is a clearly defined idea of the concepts that are necessary to practice in order to progress as an artist. Most valuably, Volen shares a unique skills hierarchy that is very helpful in determining where your own practice needs to be shored up. If you are starting out as a COMPLETE beginner this series is a great primer to help you understand what skills you should be spending your time on to ensure you have a healthy foundation that will support the advanced skills that we all dream about when we first grab pencil and paper with wild ideas in mind. Folks with more developed skill sets can also benefit from Volen’s organizational systems as they will encourage a more non-traditional way of thinking about drawing as an approach to understanding the world around us. Really everyone can benefit from the skills hierarchy that he explains in depth in this series.
7 Hours 54 Minutes of content, with 1 Hour 40 Minutes of fully narrated sketching – different examples of the ideas and principles we talk about, multiple drawings of the same subject to explore different thinking and problem solving.
The videos are stream only – they can’t be downloaded. But you will have unlimited access to these.
If you are not satisfied for any reason – send me an email, I’m more than happy to refund you in full.
01 – Introduction
In this first short segment we’ll talk about some of the major difficulties in learning about drawing. Drawing is a compound skill, made up of multiple smaller skills that need to come together. Drawing is also responsible for multiple facets of an image – it’s involved in the thinking behind our work and also in the practicalities of making it. Drawing is the core of visual language, with perspective being the grammar.
It can be very difficult for a beginner to find their way as drawing can be done in such a variety of ways – from elaborate construction drawings, to just quick line indications the way a painter might draw. There is a very high risk to mistake drawing for simply making lines, or to disregard it as just a means to an end – to be skipped or gone through as quickly as possible.
Drawing is at the core of painting as well. The same structural understanding we need to develop to draw well, is the same type of thinking we apply to light and painting afterwards. So it makes perfect sense to start our development with drawing.
02 – Overview of Contents
03 – Understanding Drawing Roadmap – A first look at Levels, Skills, Traps and Maps
We’ll take a look at our Roadmap – the Levels, Skills, Traps and Maps that determine our artistic development. We’ll have a brief overview of the Levels – Observation, Understanding, Feeling Form, Knowledge, Design, Imagination and we’ll connect these to the Mechanical & Perceptual Skills required to improve.
These are not only levels of skill, but understanding of pictorial language. They determine our ability to engage with an image – are we capable of only copying, or can we make artistic decisions, edit and change what we see?
We’ll explore what it takes and what we need to study and in what order to go from absolute beginner – to imagination work. We’ll also talk about skills and practice. Connecting your training to what you find satisfying on a deeper level. Connecting it to your primal motivations. Artistic training is never complete and requires years of work – it has to be enjoyable.
04 – Maps – Drawing as Language, Compound Skill, Pro vs Beginner, Theory vs Practice, Levelling up
In this section we’ll talk about detangling skills. When a high level artist is drawing – each and every stroke they put down has multiple purposes – they’re doing multiple things at once. They can rely on the internalized knowledge and skill they’ve trained over the years. As beginners we need to isolate and train the individual skills. We can’t work the same way the master does. We’ll also talk about building intuition through skill acquisition.
We’ll also be comparing drawing to learning language – we need to go through the same process. From simple to progressively more complex learning, in order to be freed from technical constraints. We need to employ the same strategy here, starting with very basic expression and building up to freedom of communication.
We will also discuss Depth over Breadth, reducing rate of failure – but expecting it to happen. Levelling up and a lot more.
05 – What is Drawing – Visual Illusion, Structure vs Outline, Styles & Copying, Brain & Perception
To begin with, we’ll spend some time talking about what drawing is – what is its purpose, what is it used for in the creation of an image. There are many types of drawing and multiple purposes that drawing serves. Painters, for example, may only use drawing as a block-in – so what we see on their canvas might only be placeholder lines where patches of color or tone will be afterwards. However, structural thinking and drawing will still be something they use as they paint afterwards. There are also design drawings that may look like scribbles – they are visual notes the designer uses to look for ideas. There are highly stylized drawings using line and shape – manga, cartoons, comics, etc. And there are also highly realistic drawings in full value – communicating structure, form and light. We’ll try to connect these various styles together.
We’ll spend a significant amount of time discussing structure and space, and how it’s the foundation of drawing. We’ll talk about cause and effect in drawing, how everything we see can be traced back to structure – volumes, geometry and form.
We’ll go through some examples and various different styles of drawings, and we’ll spend some time trying to find what the common thread is underneath all these. The reasons why we understand realistic drawings are more easy to define – this is how our world works, but figuring out why combinations of line and shape also create compelling visual illusions for our brain, requires some more investigation. These combinations are the core of different styles. We’ll also see the same image communicated in different visual means and how it changes.
We’ll talk about how our brains perceive the world, what we look for and common traps for beginners – such as looking to create outlines and not understanding the cause of these. Or getting caught in conventions or styles rather than understanding how the visual illusion of drawing works. You’re then able to make deliberate choices about your art, which is the true path to developing a unique style.
06 – Types of Drawing, 2D and 3D, Cause and Effect in Images, Drawing Through, Experienced Artists and Structure
Here we’ll look at types of drawing and more importantly – types of thinking we can employ while drawing. We’ll discuss engaging with images on a more direct, shallow level – thinking of images and scenes as flat, made up out of various shapes. We’ll contrast this with the ability to analyze and deconstruct scenes – to not only look at the final result, which are the flat shapes, but determine their cause. This is at the core of the issue of copying vs studying.
We’ll have a look at multiple examples, with a focus at the cause and effect relationship of the final appearance of images. We’ll talk about shapes and where they come from – what causes them. And we’ll relate this to structure, light and how we see the world. We’ll also discuss how it’s possible for artists to make things from imagination, without looking at reference and what is necessary to know to be able to do this.
We’ll talk about structure, one of the main purposes of drawing, and developing the understanding necessary to make changes to images and not be constrained to copying only. This is essential on the road to imagination work. Small changes first, understanding scenes, then slowly with training – being able to invent things.
We’ll have a look at 3D software and how it’s able to represent scenes from any viewpoint and apply light to them as well. We’ll discuss how we can apply this same thinking to drawing, in order to be able to produce work that doesn’t rely on copying what we see only.
We’ll also take a first look at Organic Perspective (Feeling Form) and Technical Perspective. In Types of Drawing we defined these as Volume Construction and Industrial Design. These are different types of use of perspective.
07 – Form as Combination of Structure and Light, More on Shapes and Volumes, Multiple Passes of Drawing
This is one of our core concepts – separating structure from light in order to isolate different issues and skills, train them individually, then recombine them. Doing too many things as a beginner with little experience is a recipe for failure. We need to detangle, understand what each component is responsible for, train these separately, then slowly begin putting things together.
If we’re learning to draw, having to also contend with values, edges and light is far too much to take on. It’s better to first develop our ability to produce correct shapes and structure.
We’ll also discuss misconceptions when learning from general drawing tutorials. How-to tutorials often only offer very limited information. We need to go far beyond that in our training if we want to produce images from imagination. Memorizing individual shapes and working in a 2D way would result in the necessity to have to memorize thousands of shapes for the same object. This is an impossible way to work. What we need to develop is an understanding of form, combined with memorization and use of reference for key shapes only. We can then problem solve and figure things out as we go.
We will also briefly discuss process – how a very clean image may have gone through multiple iterations and much messier early stages. A clean drawing could be the result of more elaborate construction, multiple passes of design, then redone with final lines. Thinking things are done in one single pass, or that the final appearance is indicative of how the image was made, is another way that beginners may get blindsided.
08 – My Early Work – Going Through Levels and Improving Skills, From Symbolic Drawing to Imagination
When I was starting out I would always try and find beginner work from artists who are further along in their learning. I still do. It helps to see and know that we all go through the same process, and that our beginner work is no worse than anyone else’s. I will take you through some of my biggest mistakes, misconceptions and what advice I would have given myself at the different Levels. I will also share some of the most useful ideas, resources and instructors I’ve come across in my own development.
We’ll also have a look at an earlier level – Symbolic Drawing. This is how children and completely untrained people, with no understanding of visual language draw – that’s where I started from.
09 – Levels & Skills In-Depth, Progressing, Skill Training and the Brain
Here we’ll discuss the organization of the Levels and Skills that I’m proposing as a way to progress from beginner to imagination work. I’ll walk you through my thinking, how I tried to consider a progression that would allow one skill level to feed into the next – with the skills being useful throughout the entire time of climbing the improvement ladder. Often as beginners we’ll spend a lot of time doing things out of sequence. That is exactly what I did. I first studied anatomy and couldn’t use it for the next several years until my drawing skills caught up.
Knowledge is also a crucial component of this progression, the levels require not only skill, but certain theory that needs to be internalized in order to move forward.
The goal with this progression is to free you from technical constraints. To design and create imaginative work – we need to have internalized the tools to a stage where we don’t need to think about them actively. If technical issues are our primary concern – we simply can’t focus on what our visual message is. If we were writers, this would be like having to think about each individual letter, rather than our essay or story. It’s simply impossible to do both at the same time.
The levels are meant to be repeated, this is a cycle that never ends. As long as you’re looking to improve, you will be somewhere along this scale and in-progress.
We’ll also talk about building skills more in-depth. Why it’s imperative to train the way an athlete would, rather than simply read books, watch tutorials, take courses, etc. We need to ingrain knowledge, convert it into skills, rather than being a repository for information. Our goal is not to be librarians, but to be practitioners. We need to train, not just read, in order to build myelin in our brains, speed up our reactions and automate the technical skills in order to focus on the creative side.
10 – Observation – Training Like an Athlete, Developing Perceptual & Mechanical Skills, Proportions, Alignments, Relationships
First level of training. We’ll talk about combining Mechanical Skills and Perceptual Skills. Each level is a combination of both. We need to develop hand control. We need to train the sensitivity of our brains to shape, alignment, proportion, etc. Spending extended time developing more and more precision develops our perception, we become more sensitive to subtleties in images. This is similar to a musician and how much more trained they need to be in detecting different sounds and variations. As artists we need to far surpass the visual development and understanding of the untrained person. We need to become keen observers of images and scenes.
We’ll also discuss the fact that if observation drawing is your primary interest – you may choose to spend 90% of your time here, only training the other levels peripherally to enhance your work and have further options for more creative freedom.
We will also talk about sticking to things too closely. We’ll have a look at a few examples of how artistic images differ from true reality. An artist observes, edits and chooses what to put in their piece. A copy machine copies indiscriminately.
The mechanical skills developed in this level will directly feed into the next level of Understanding. As a bonus I’ll show you what happens when observation and accuracy are not up to par and how easily problems compound to decrease the quality of the final image. I will again show you some early work and will provide advice on how I would have gone about improving.
We will elaborate more on the pictorial importance of shape, why it’s so crucial to become more acquainted with shape design and how proportions change the “feel” of a shape – making small changes can make a shape heavier, lighter, slower or faster. This is crucial for design.
11 – Understanding – Construction, Perspective, Going from Flat Shapes to Volumes, Reading 2D images as 3D
This level is all about going beyond the surface. No longer looking at the final result, at the finished image – but considering the scene, the geometry, the building blocks of objects and scenes. Perspective is the major component at this stage and it facilitates our ability to think about cause and effect, so that with time we can understand and change objects and scenes.
We will make a comparison between 3D and 2D drawing, how our thinking differs when we’re analyzing as opposed to copying. We will look at why it’s impossible to draw from imagination with only memorizing shapes and we’ll talk more in-depth about structure, volumes and building complex objects. We will also have a look at examples and discuss how to read an image as three dimensional and converting 2D shapes into 3D volumes.
We will talk about theory vs practice and how perspective needs to be trained, not just studied. You need to encounter thousands of iterations of perspective – different viewpoints, lenses, deconstruct a multitude of objects in order to familiarize your brain and develop a more intuitive feel for the illusion of space on a flat surface.
12 – Understanding Part 2 – Perspective, Camera Lenses, Building Objects, Perspective Resources, Roadmap, My Early Work
In this bonus chapter we’ll dive more deeply into perspective. We’ll talk about what it’s responsible for, how it emulates a camera and is involved in how we see everything. Not only that, but we also use perspective to construct all objects in our scene. So in terms of importance – it’s one of the most crucial skills to possess when progressing towards imagination work.
We’ll have a look at some of the best teachers to learn from, how much theory we truly need and we’ll talk about training this theory to turn it into skills. This will open the door to our next level – Feeling Form.
I’ll also offer you a level progression for perspective, along with some of my earlier work as I was training the theory and skills.
13 – Feeling Form, Knowledge, Design – Internalized Perspective, Using Drawing to Learn ABOUT Things, Simple Designs and Imaginative Pieces
With enough training of the theory and practice of perspective we’ll begin to form intuition – we’ll begin to create an intuitive feel for space and volume. What we draw will no longer feel flat – we’ll be developing a feel for the volumes and structures we draw. We can never neglect to think about the technical, but we can free ourselves to some degree from it.
With this we’re able to focus more on the creative part of art. Instead of constantly being bogged down by technical issues – we’ll have these largely taken care of for us by the lower, faster parts of our brain. We’ll be able to focus more on learning about things through drawing them, then slowly starting to change what we see with design. We’re beginning to be able to create more and more of what’s in our imagination.
14 – Imagination – Reality as Inspiration, Process, Strategy, Using Research, Beginner Mistakes & Misconceptions, Style
Imagination work is the final level. When our technical ability is developed enough to allow us to express ourselves, our thoughts and ideas, combined with inspiration from the real world, can lead to powerful images and designs.
We’ll spend time discussing process here – when we first start out we might think that we’re supposed to just draw things out of our heads, in isolation with no outside influences, sometimes even without training. Watching videos and demos with no understanding and no explanation can lead us to believe that things are done in a way that is just not possible. This inevitably leads to poor results.
We need to understand the elaborate preparation that artists go through as they contemplate an imaginative work. There is a lot of research, planning and testing that goes into this beforehand. We’ll have a look at some examples of preparation.
I’ll also show you some of my earlier work when I didn’t know about process and was just trying to make things out of my head with no training. Later we’ll compare this to before and after I developed a process, leading to a massive improvement over a short period of time. Strategy is an incredibly important component here.
We’ll also briefly discuss style and how it’s secondary to structural thinking, understanding, knowledge and design. It’s like a skin we apply over our structure. It’s like an accent to a language. What’s important is the language, not the accent.
15 – Traps – No Big Picture View, Thinking Not Tools or Style, No Process, Bad Ways to Practice
In this segment we’ll go over things to keep in mind that we often get tangled in. We’ll talk about the need to constantly step back and reflect – try and get a big picture view of our improvement and development in order to better structure our practice. Regardless of whether we have a great teacher or if we’re self-taught, we’re never exempt from doing this work… Especially if we’re trying to figure things out on our own – we have several jobs we need to do in this case and this is one of the most important ones.
We’ll also go over some reminders of what’s important in drawing that we’ve covered throughout these videos. This is to serve as a reminder as you’re consulting the Understanding Drawing Roadmap image from time to time.
We’ll talk about the importance of principles and thinking, not getting caught in style conventions or tools. It’s not the tools that matter – a trained artist can draw with a stick if they chose to.
We’ll talk more about process and how it’s a multiplier to our work. Strategy and planning are critical components that we very often overlook.
We’ll also go over bad ways to practice that will not result in skill development.
And we’ll discuss being open-minded. Digital, traditional, observational or structural – it really doesn’t matter. We can learn from all schools and styles.
16 – Closing Thoughts, Quotes & Training – If You See The Way Broadly, You Will See it In All Things
Here we’ll go over some quotes from a very famous and accomplished artist. This artist is not a visual artist. But everything about their thinking in regards to practice, applies directly to what we need to do to train. How we do one thing, is how we do everything. So how we choose to train and think about our development is paramount. It’s not just about images, it’s about character development, it’s about who we’re becoming, not the pictures we can make.
Patience, discipline, grit, perseverance – these are some of the most important characteristics of an artist.
17 – Sketching Demo – Simple Cartoon Characters with Volumes
In this demo we’ll sketch out some simple characters made of basic volumes. I’ll take you through my thinking, we’ll discuss how I construct the forms from basic structures combined together. We’ll also discuss general process, going lightly first and trying to get the drawing correct before getting to detail.
We’ll redraw this same image again, this time using a different method – this is how I draw now, getting proportions as we go. We’ll also change the pose of the character and talk about the thinking behind that.
You’ll also see me fail a few times at drawing types I’m not very familiar with, but with a few tries you’ll see how the drawings improve and get faster.
18 – Sketching Demo – Hand with Volumes, Feeling Form
Here we’ll attempt something more difficult. I’ll still be using the same type of volumetric thinking and basic forms, but we’ll have to be more careful with our problem solving. There are many different relationships that need to be observed when drawing a hand – each finger has its own gesture, sometimes multiple gestures, there are many different parts with different proportions fitting together, so we’ll have to go more slowly and deliberately.
We’ll take a look at Feeling Form in action – how as I’m drawing I’m trying to feel and respect the volume that’s underneath, so I convey the correct structure. We’ll talk about the different alignments within each volume and how with each line I’m trying to describe the orientation of the surface.
We’ll also talk about measuring, which I’m doing here on the fly, but for years before that – I had to take painstaking efforts to make sure proportions are correct.
We’ll quickly sketch the hand 2 more times, we’ll explore a more observational, shape driven approach to drawing it, then we’ll think of the hand as simple cube-like volumes as an additional exercise.
19 – Sketching Demo – Gladiator – Figure, Gesture and Structure
We’ll tackle an even more complex object, we’ll draw a figure out of basic volumes, which we’ll detail out as we go. This will be using the Proportions as we go method, same as in the second drawing of the Simple Characters. We won’t be copying the image exactly as we see it, we’ll be drawing the anatomy that’s hidden beneath the armor – we’ll do that through construction. We’ll also change the design of the anatomy, the pose and some of the props.
We’ll see more of Feeling Form, as we draw around and respect each volume’s surface and structure.
We’ll talk more about gesture and structure – the way Steve Huston defines these terms. We’ll discuss how each objects has its own gesture and we’ll make these fit together with the structure – the anatomy over top.
20 – Sketching Demo – Robot Perspective Sketch
Here we’ll sketch out a more tech-oriented subject – a robot in perspective. We won’t be going through an elaborate perspective construction – just setting up a grid with a central axis to mirror objects across. The perspective here is very much in the Feeling Form / Sketching Perspective level. A prerequisite for this type of drawing is technical perspective and a lot of practice to internalize the principles. You can find resources and information on learning about this in our earlier Studying Perspective video.
21 – Sketching Demo – Head Structure and Light
In this video we’ll first construct the head. We’ll draw the anatomy that’s underneath the features – we’ll think of features as volumetric, we’ll draw the eyes as spheres and build the orbits around them. This method is based on the teaching of Glenn Vilppu and Steve Huston.
We’ll also talk about habitual mistakes we make and how to take precautions against these. For example I have a tendency to deform the lower jaw, so I’m drawing with that in mind. We’ll take some extra steps to double-check and make sure these areas we often get wrong are corrected.
After we complete the construction we’ll apply the shadow shapes and darkest darks – this is a very powerful way to begin creating the illusion of light. We’ll discuss how applying light relies on the same structural thinking we’ve been using while drawing. We’ll still think of basic volumes and orientation of planes. This second pass will serve to also double-check our work as it’s an opportunity to go through the entire image again as we’re applying our values / tones.
Finally, we’ll spend some extra time on light, fill in the portions of the drawing that were not available in the reference. We’ll talk about the importance of basics and thorough understanding of core concepts, rather than relying on tricks and fancy techniques.
Afterwards, we’ll critique the image, discuss what could have been better and how future drawings could be improved.
22 – Get Started! and Thank You
Seriously, get started 🙂