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What Is Freehand Drawing? (Plus Top Tips to Improve)

Today we wanted to talk about freehand drawing, what is considered freehand drawing and what isn’t, as well as some tips to improve your own freehand drawing.

Freehand drawing is creating an artwork using only a drawing implement and canvas without the assistance of any tools or mechanical devices.

Freehand drawing means the artist created the artwork with only pencil and paper and without the assistance of any mechanical or digital devices. For some, freehand drawing is the purest form of art and for others using the assistance of tools can help create more accurate and realistic pieces.

Key Takeaways

  • Freehand drawing refers to the process of creating art without the use of guiding tools or aids, relying solely on the artist’s hand, imagination, memory, and observational skills.
  • Freehand drawing only involves the artists imagination, pencil, and paper (or any other medium/canvas)
  • It does not include tools used to assist the artist like projection, tracing, gridlines, rulers, or refence images.
  • Many artists use freehand drawing as:
    • a warmup
    • for initial sketches
    • to enhance creativity
  • However, most professional artists will commonly use tools and aids like rulers and reference images.
  • While you are certainly able to use tools to practice drawing, you shouldn’t incorrectly market your work as freehand if using some form of assistance like tracing, gridlines, projections (many believe these stifle creativity and aren’t true pieces of art).

Here is a table that categorizes tools into those used and not used in freehand drawing:

Tools Used in Freehand Drawing (Basically any drawing medium or surface)Tools Not Used in Freehand Drawing
Graphite PencilsRulers
Pen and InkProtractors
Colored PencilsFrench Curves
CrayonsMechanical Pens
Brushes (with ink or paint)Projector
Tracing materials
Reference images

What Is Free Hand Drawing?

Again, Freehand drawing can be defined as the practice of creating sketches or images using only your hand and a drawing implement, without the assistance of any tools or mechanical devices.

It relies on the artist’s accuracy, precision, and keen observational skills.

As an artist, your hand is your primary tool, which means that mastering the art of freehand drawing can feel like learning to speak a new language. It’s a raw form expressing creativity and imagination that also tests your visualization and spatial understanding skills.

What Are the Rules for Freehand Drawing?

The main rules for freehand drawing are:

  1. you can only use medium and surface
  2. try to rely on your imagination
  3. start with basic shapes first
  4. work from general to specific
  5. focus on effective shading
  6. try to maintain consistent line quality
  7. generally, no other tools, materials, or references images are used

What Method Do Most Professional Artists Use for Drawing and Painting?

Most professional artists will rely on certain tools to create more accurate works of art.

Professional artists will commonly use reference images, rules, and even previous sketches to create art.

While many professional artists use some tools, most do not rely on tracing, gridlines, or projections. It’s likely they spent years to hone their craft and therefore have develop keen observation skills.

Beyond these basics, the method employed by professional artists often depends on their preferred medium.

  • For instance, an oil painter might start with an underpainting to establish tonal values, then gradually add layers of paint to create depth and detail.
  • On the other hand, watercolor artists might start with a loose wash of colors and then refine their work with more precise brush strokes.

Interestingly, many professional artists employ the technique of “sight-size” or “relative measurement” while drawing or painting. This involves comparing the size of the subject to a fixed point in the diorama, thereby maintaining accurate proportions in the artwork.

Lastly, some creators (like myself when I attempt to draw or paint something realistic) may rely heavily on a single reference image to help capture accurate proportions and likeness.

See below for one of my drawings and reference image:

Do Professional Artists Draw Everything Perfectly Freehand?

Contrary to common belief, no, not all professional artists create every work perfectly freehand. Their work is often a combination of their observational skills, creative interpretation, and technical competency and the use of some tools like reference images and even rulers.

Most importantly, the aim of an artist isn’t always about achieving ‘perfection,’ but often about expressing an idea, an emotion, a perception.

“In art, perfection is not the aim; it is rather the honesty and authenticity in the portrayal,” as noted by Pablo Picasso.

Hence, whether an artist draws freehand or uses aids, it is their unique creativity that cascades life into the artwork, making it resonate with the audience.

Why Is Freehand Drawing Important?

Freehand drawing is the purest form of drawing that solely relies on an artist’s observational skills, precision, and imagination.

Three reasons why its important are:

  • it fosters fine motor skills, visual analysis and the hand-eye coordination

This combined effect sharpens an artist’s ability to imprint their perceptions onto paper with heightened accuracy.

Side note: A study conducted by the University College London revealed that artists have more developed observational and visualization skills compared to non-artists. Freehand drawing is likely a substantial contributor to this enhancement.

Lastly, freehand drawing enhances creative thinking. It lets your pencil simply explore the page and doesn’t confine you with rules, reference images, or even scenes found in reality.

How Do You Improve at Freehand Drawing?

While freehand drawing may seem difficult or frustrating, you can definitely improve at it with practice.

Here are some ways to improve faster plus general tips that have definitely helped during my own artistic journey:

  1. Focus on Basic Shapes with Gesture Drawing or Light Lines: Start figures with gesture drawing or light lines to capture basic poses or forms. Focus on shapes and gestures rather than details.
  2. Draw Big Shapes First, Then Details: Begin with larger shapes before adding smaller details. This approach makes the drawing process less intimidating and more manageable.
  3. Focus on Proportion and Relation: Pay attention to proportions and how different parts of your drawing relate to each other. Use shapes to measure and compare different elements.
  4. Learn About Different Pencil Types: Familiarize yourself with various types of pencils (graphite, charcoal, colored, etc.) and their specific uses. This knowledge is crucial for picking the right tool for your art style.
  5. Practice Shading: Work on your shading skills to add realism and depth to your drawings. Understand light sources and how they affect the appearance of objects.
  6. Avoid Smudging with Your Hand: Use techniques like a paper under your hand or different pencil grips to prevent smudging your work.
  7. Try Holding Your Pencil Differently: Experiment with different pencil grips (tripod, overhand, underhand, etc.) for various effects and to improve comfort and control.
  8. Using a Blending Stick: Use blending sticks or stumps for better blending results compared to using fingers, which can create unwanted smudges.
  9. Use an Eraser for Highlights: Employ an eraser, especially a kneaded one, to create highlights and add dimension to your drawings.
  10. Be Okay with Erasing and Starting Over: Accept that making mistakes is part of the learning process. Don’t hesitate to erase and redo parts of your drawing as needed.
  11. Trust the Process in Early Stages: Understand that early stages of a drawing might not look perfect. Trust the process and wait until the drawing is more complete before judging it.
  12. Practice Drawing Everyday: Make drawing a daily habit, even if it’s just quick sketches. Regular practice leads to improvement and helps solidify drawing as a habit.
  13. Focus on the Positive: Acknowledge the progress and positive aspects of your work, even if not everything is perfect. Appreciate your own effort and dedication.
  14. Accept Frustration as Part of the Process: Understand that frustration and failure are natural parts of learning to draw. Take breaks as needed, but don’t give up entirely.

Freehand Drawing vs Tracing vs Projections vs Gridlines vs Reference Images

Freehand drawing differs significantly from tracing, projections, gridlines, or using reference images, primarily through the acquisition process and the skills involved.

Again, freehand drawing is an uninhibited expression of creativity that relies exclusively on the artist’s observational skills, eye-hand coordination, and intuition. There is no help from external tools.

Here is a comparison table outlining the differences between freehand drawing, tracing, projections, gridlines, and using reference images:

AspectFreehand DrawingTracingProjectionsGridlinesUsing Reference Images*
Expression of CreativityUninhibited, personal creativityLimited creative amplitudeCan impact originalityMay stifle spontaneitySupports accuracy in depiction
Reliance on ToolsNo external tools usedDirect tracing of existing imagesProjection of images onto surfaceGrids divide image into sectionsDependence on visual references
Skills InvolvedObservational skills, eye-hand coordination, intuitionLess emphasis on observational skillsLess focus on hand-eye coordinationHelps manage proportions in sectionsEnhances observational skills
Accuracy vs. CreativityBalances accuracy with creative interpretationFocuses on replicating accuracyAims for accurate replicationBalances between accuracy and interpretationCombines accuracy with personal style
Proportions and DetailsDependent on artist’s skill for proportionsProportions directly taken from original imageMaintains original proportions and detailsAids in upscaling or downscaling accuratelyAids in capturing likeness and proportions
Artistic IntuitionHigh reliance on artistic intuitionLower reliance on intuitionReduced scope for spontaneous creationLess immediate intuitive expressionBalances intuition with visual guides
Learning and DevelopmentDevelops drawing muscle, refines perceptionCan be a stepping stone for beginnersUseful for maintaining scale and detailsUseful for detailed and proportionate workHelps in early stages of skill development
Transition and AdaptationGradual transition away from aids, towards self-relianceUsed as initial support, less relevant with skillMay be used in early learning stagesCan be a tool in initial stages of learningGradual reduction as skills improve

Different Types of Freehand Drawing

Freehand drawing primarily falls into three categories, namely: observational, memory, and imagination drawing. Observational drawing, as the name suggests, involves drawing from real-life objects or scenes directly. Artistic renditions are created with an eye on the object or scene, mirroring the elements present in real life.

Memory drawing, on the other hand, is based on recalling information from your past experiences. Unlike observational drawing, this type requires the artist to rely on memory to recreate a scene or object. This type is often employed by artists when the object or scene isn’t physically present or available.

The third type, imagination drawing, doesn’t require a physical representation or prior memory. This type circles around an artist’s creativity and imagination. Often artists leverage this kind of drawing to venture into fantasy, surrealism, or conceptual art genres. Each type of freehand drawing helps to enhance certain skills, like observational skills, memory recall, and creativity.

Here are some further examples of the different types of freehand drawing:

  1. Doodling: Doodling is a spontaneous and often subconscious form of drawing, where the artist creates simple shapes, patterns, or figures without a specific plan or intention. It’s a casual and relaxing way to express creativity, often done during idle moments.
  2. Single Line Drawing: This technique involves creating a drawing without lifting the pen or pencil from the paper. The continuous line forms a cohesive image, emphasizing fluidity and simplicity. It’s a challenging but rewarding style that often results in unique and abstract forms.
  3. Contour Drawing: In contour drawing, the artist focuses on capturing the outline and major edges of the subject. This method emphasizes the form and shape of the object, often ignoring details and textures.
  4. Blind Contour Drawing: Similar to contour drawing, but with a twist: the artist does not look at the paper while drawing. Instead, the focus is entirely on the subject. This technique helps improve observational skills and hand-eye coordination.
  5. Gesture Drawing: Gesture drawing aims to capture the essence, action, or movement of a subject, often in a quick and fluid manner. It’s commonly used in figure drawing to grasp the posture and basic form of the human body.
  6. Shading: Shading involves using variations in tone to create depth and dimension in a drawing. Techniques such as blending, gradation, and varying pressure with the drawing tool are used to suggest form and light in the image.
  7. Hatching and Cross-hatching: These techniques involve drawing closely spaced parallel lines (hatching) and layers of crossing lines (cross-hatching) to create texture and tonal effect. The density and angle of the lines control the depth and intensity of the shading.
  8. Stippling: Stippling uses small dots to create values and shading in a drawing. The density and placement of the dots determine the depth and texture. It’s a time-consuming process but can produce highly detailed and precise imagery.
  9. Scribbling: Scribbling is a freeform and expressive technique, where the artist uses random and erratic lines to create an image. It’s often energetic and emotionally driven, making it a liberating form of expression.
  10. Cartoon or Caricature: This style involves creating exaggerated or stylized drawings, often of people, in a humorous or satirical way. Cartoons and caricatures simplify and amplify key features, conveying character and emotion effectively.
  11. Wash Drawing: Wash drawing combines drawing with a wash (a thin, semi-transparent layer) of ink or watercolor. It’s a technique that blends line drawing with tonal work, allowing for a range of textures and depths.

Benefits of Freehand Drawing

When it comes to the benefits of freehand drawing, there are numerous advantages that directly impact an artist’s growth in the field of art. Here are some other benefits I’ve found for freehand drawing

  1. Can Be Used as a Warm-Up: Freehand drawing is an excellent way to warm up before embarking on more complex or detailed art projects. Often I’ll draw some 3D shapes like boxes, cubes, or human limbs to get my brain and hand working before diving into a larger piece.
  2. Helps Enhance Creativity and Imagination: Engaging in freehand drawing exercises the imagination and fosters creativity. This form of drawing encourages artists to explore ideas and concepts without the constraints of strict guidelines or rules. It allows for experimentation with shapes, lines, and compositions, leading to the development of unique and innovative artistic expressions. By regularly practicing freehand drawing, artists can expand their creative horizons and find new ways of visual storytelling.
  3. Increases Spatial Awareness: Freehand drawing requires a good understanding of space, proportions, and perspective. Regular practice helps artists develop a keen sense of spatial awareness, which is crucial in creating accurate and realistic drawings. This skill is not just beneficial for artists, but can also be valuable in everyday life, enhancing one’s ability to judge distances and spatial relationships in various contexts.
  4. As a Form of Stress Relief: Drawing has therapeutic qualities, and freehand drawing, in particular, can be a very effective form of stress relief. The free and uninhibited nature of this type of drawing allows individuals to express their emotions and thoughts without judgment. The focus and concentration required can also serve as a form of mindfulness, helping to calm the mind and reduce anxiety. Many people find that engaging in freehand drawing is a relaxing and enjoyable way to unwind and take a break from the stresses of daily life.

Freehand Drawing Exercises

Here are some freehand drawing exercises that don’t require tools or reference images. These can help you warm up and get our creative juices flowing:

  1. Patterns of Straight and Curvy Lines: A simple place to start is to begin with simple patterns combining straight and curvy lines. Vary the thickness and experiment with different pencil grips. This exercise enhances line control and discourages the habit of “chicken scratching,” where lines are repeatedly drawn over.
  2. Drawing in One Line: Practice drawing continuous lines without lifting the pencil. Start slowly, then increase speed to improve line steadiness. This helps in developing confident, less shaky lines.
  3. Drawing 3-Dimensional Shapes: Start with basic 3D shapes like cubes and triangles, then progress to more complex forms. Draw from various angles to improve understanding of perspective. Optionally, introduce basic shading techniques like stippling and hatching.
  4. Quick Sketches of Your Environment: Sketch familiar scenes or objects around you, like your living room or backyard. Focus on quick, loose sketching without worrying about clean lines. This exercise trains your brain in the habit of drawing and enhances observational skills.
  5. Drawing the Same Object from Different Angles: Choose an object and draw it daily from various perspectives. This practice improves your understanding of angles and perspective, and helps break down complex objects into basic shapes.
  6. Loose Figure Drawing – Gesture Drawing: Practice drawing human figures in basic forms using circles and rectangles. Focus on capturing poses and movements without detailing smaller features. Use dynamic poses from movie scenes as references.
  7. Smudge Drawing: Practice smudging or blending in your sketches to create a three-dimensional effect. Use different pencils and smudging tools like fingers, cotton swabs, or blending stumps for shading.
  8. Additional Drawing Exercises:
    • Contour Drawing: Draw only the outlines of objects or figures.
    • Different Grips: Experiment with various pencil grips for different effects.
    • Non-Dominant Hand Drawing: Try drawing with your non-dominant hand for a different perspective.
    • Blind Drawing: Draw without looking at the paper, relying on hand movement and memory.
    • Timed Drawing: Set time limits (5, 15, 30 minutes) to observe how time affects drawing quality.

Related Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Difference Between Sketching and Freehand Drawing?

Sketching can sometimes utilize tools like reference images while freehand drawing generally does not.

The main thing that separates freehand drawing from other types of drawing is the use of tools. Again, freehand drawing only involves medium and canvas.

Sketching can be used as a brainstorming session or as a way to map out a later finished piece. While freehand drawing is used to explore creatively and draw solely from imagination or memory.

Are Using Gridlines Considered Freehand?

Gridlines, while extremely convenient and beneficial in achieving precision, cannot be labeled as tools used in freehand drawing. The essence of freehand drawing lies in the unrestricted flow of creativity, using nothing but your own hands and observational skills.

Gridlines, on the other hand, serve as guides or aids, providing measurement and alignment assistance. Using them can result in accurate proportions and symmetry, but it shifts the task from a purely imaginative endeavor to a more structured and controlled process.

Which Tools Are in Freehand Drawing?

In its truest interpretation, freehand drawing does not involve the use of any mechanical tools or aids. Instead, artists use only simple drawing instruments – usually a pencil or pen, and paper.

For instance, when you’re freehand drawing, you wouldn’t utilize rulers to create straight lines or compasses to draft perfect circles or reference images to better capture likeness.

Is Freehand Drawing a Skill?

Absolutely, freehand drawing is a skill that can be nurtured and developed over time. It calls for a blend of various abilities including fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, observational ability, spatial awareness, and the capacity for visualizing the representation of objects on a two-dimensional medium. These are skills that can be honed with dedicated practice and a keen understanding of light, shade, perspective, and form.

What About Tracing vs. Free Hand Sketching for a Painting

While both tracing and freehand sketching may serve as initial stages in creating a painting, they differ significantly in intent and technique.

Tracing focuses primarily on copying an existing image onto a canvas with precise accuracy. Tracing provides an exact blueprint, showing an artist where to paint. This process, while effective for beginners and helpful in detailed renditions, may somewhat stifle personal creativity and style. It’s more of a mechanical process of reproduction rather than an artistic exploration, thereby narrowing the scope for personal interpretations and deviations.

On the contrary, freehand sketching for a painting heavily depends on an artist’s observational and interpretational skills without employing any physical guides or aids. Essentially, freehand sketching is an act of artistic interpretation, a personal and subjective representation of the observed reality versus a photographic replication.

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