How to draw basic shapes

The complex world around us can be divided into simple shapes. Learn how to draw them accurately and your artwork will take off.

Breaking any process down into small chunks is a great way to tackle what can seem like a daunting task. When it comes to drawing, whether it's learning how to draw a bear or how to draw a face, if we break a subject down into simple shapes we can begin to describe its overall structure.

In the opening stages of a drawing you should be looking to describe your subject, and its environment, in very simple terms: always avoid details too early on. By drawing with simple shapes we can focus on proportions, composition, planes and the relationships between forms. It's all about working big down to small; simple to complex; basic shapes to crafted details.

There are three basic shape archetypes that any form can be fitted into; the cube, the cylinder and the sphere. At the heart of these form shapes are two simple geometric shapes; the square and the ellipse.

Learning to accurately draw and combine these will help you to construct any object, observed or imagined. In walking you through this process we will have to deal with concepts like perspective and foreshortening, so we'll take a very brief, practical look at them.

We'll start with drawing the square, leading onto the cube – the most articulate shape when it comes to describing geometry in a drawing that has perspective.

There are three basic shape archetypes that any form can be fitted into; the cube, the cylinder and the sphere

Having six basic planar faces, the cube's proportions help to echo their relationship within 3D space. This aids further description of more complex rectilinear, cylindrical and curvilinear forms.

You might think that drawing simple shapes is... well, simple. But don't be fooled. It takes immense skill to perfect drawing freehand shapes like a simple circle.

01. How to draw a square

How to draw basic shapes: how to draw a square

Drawing a basic square is the simple connection of four straight lines

Drawing a basic square is the simple connection of four straight lines, two along the horizontal axis and two to describe the vertical axis. Drawing these lines is all about living in the future: pinpoint your start point; imagine the end point.

Place your pencil on the start point, relax and focus on the end point. Pull your mark along the imagined path removing the pencil once it reaches the end point. Pull your lines towards their goal: this uses more adept muscle groups.

02. Squared exercise

How to draw basic shapes: squared exercise

The barrel of the pencil should rest naturally in your hand's web space

The grip shown here is one we're all accustomed to using when writing. Grip using the thumb, index and middle finger. The barrel of the pencil should rest naturally in your hand's web space. Avoid closing the web space, as this forces the barrel to rest on the knuckle of the Index finger and promotes strokes using finger gestures only. Avoid grasping at the tip of the pencil, as this can limit line length(s) and lead to less fluid, continuous lines.

03. Beginnings of a cube

How to draw basic shapes: beginnings of a cube

For a cube seen in nature we need to apply perspective...

Using the simple square as a starting point [A], begin to describe a box in 3D space. Draw another square that overlaps the first [B]. Connect all the corners of one square to the adjacent corners of the other, using 45o lines [C]. This process of showing all six sides of the cube is known as 'drawing through', and here it highlights a problem with this oblique drawing of a cube: it's an impossible shape in nature. For a cube seen in nature we need to apply perspective...

04. How to draw more natural cubes

How to draw basic shapes: natural cubes

When you first start drawing cubes, it helps to study with an object in front of you

When you first start drawing cubes, it helps to study with an object in front of you. The first line to go down is the vertical line closest to you [A]. The next two lines are for the inside edges [B]. These start at the top of our first stroke as we're looking down at our cube and the top plane is visible. The degree at which the inside edge lines are drawn depends on how much top plane we can see: if it's a lot, the lines are drawn at an acute angle, for less, a more obtuse angle.

05. Finishing your cube

How to draw basic shapes: finishing your cube

The length and angle of the inside edges depends on how much of the front and side is on show

The length and angle of the inside edges depends on how much of the front and side is on show. If both are equal, the angle and length of the inside edge lines are also equal. Turn the front face more towards you and the line gets longer, the angle more horizontal. This turning creates the opposite; the line is more vertical, shorter. To finish, go to the end of each line and join the remaining edges with converging lines.

06. How to draw a circle

How to draw basic shapes: build a circle

Draw your circle tangent to the sides of the square and using the plot points placed two thirds from the centre

Measure out a square using a ruler. From the top left corner, draw a line [A] to the bottom right. Draw a second from top right to lower left [B]. Add two centre lines, [C] and [D]. On the eight short lines going out from the centre, plot dots at incremental thirds [E]. Now draw your circle tangent to the sides of the square and using the plot points placed two thirds from the centre. 'Ghost draft' this to practice first.

07. How to draw an ellipse

How to draw basic shapes: ellipse

Simplify the process by drawing two lines dissecting each other, one short and vertical

To draw a circle that appears tilted in perspective (an ellipse) repeat step 6 but this time start with a square drawn on an imaginary angled plane. You can simplify this process by drawing two lines dissecting each other, one short and vertical [A], the other horizontal and longer [B]. Now plot end points. Those on the horizontal line should be equal in distance from the centre.

08. Complete your ellipse

How to draw basic shapes: complete the ellipse

It takes a lot of training to draw accurate ellipses

Once again it's about connecting these points with a curvilinear path. But this time the upper semi-circle [A] is more foreshortened than the lower arc [B]. Practise this process small at first, just to build up your confidence – then move onto larger ellipses, which require more gestural arm and shoulder movements. It takes a lot of training to draw accurate ellipses.

09. How to draw a cylinder

How to draw basic shapes: cylinder

First you need to determine your cylinder's size and orientation in 3D space

You first need to determine your cylinder's size and orientation in 3D space. Draw an angled line measured to express its length in depth [A]. Introduce a line that runs parallel to it to determine the cylinder's width [B]. These two lines should be tapering to an imagined far off point to express any foreshortening that's occurring. The shape of both end ellipses depends on your viewing angle; in both cases the angle of each is perpendicular to the established sides.

10. Complete your cylinder

How to draw basic shapes: cylinder

Your ellipses should run perpendicular to your edge lines

Your ellipses should run perpendicular to your edge lines; knowing this helps you avoid 'squished' cylinders, a common issue when using horizontal ellipses to cap the ends of angled cylinders. Applying this rule will also help you describe cross contour lines accurately. When you need to add a cross contour line to a cylinder, lightly 'draw through' the entire ellipse in question, this helps maintain the curved ends found when the visible line connects to the form edges.

11. How to draw a sphere

How to draw basic shapes: sphere

We can express spherical form using cross contour lines

We can express spherical form using cross contour lines. Repeat step 6, but take it further by creating an ellipse within the circle. Starting at [A], lightly draw a curve with a trajectory that passes through the first third-from-centre plot point [B] then follows around to the opposite edge [C], continuing through to the next third-from-centre [D] point, ending where it began [A]. Erase the upper or lower arc.

12. Cube exercise

How to draw basic shapes: cube exercise

Your goal is to populate the paper with 3D cubes as seen from various angles

Draw a horizontal line across your surface, this will act as your eye line or imaginary horizon line. Draw a square directly in the centre (note no sides should be visible). Now, above the horizon line and off to the right, draw a cube as if you'd picked up the centre square and moved it up and to the right. Your goal is to populate the paper with 3D cubes as seen from various angles.

13. Cylinder exercise

How to draw basic shapes: cyliner exercise

Establish a horizon line, then draw a plumb line directly down the centre of your paper

Establish a horizon line, then draw a plumb line directly down the centre of your paper. From the converging centre point, draw a set of diagonal lines reaching outwards mimicking the length and width lines [A & B] from step 9, and cap it off with an ellipse. As this first cylinder started life at a single point (the vanishing point) we've actually drawn a tiny cone. Now continue to draw more cylinders, continuing along the established perspective plane

Words: Paul Tysall

Paul Tysall is an illustrator, graphic designer and writer for design and image creation publications. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX's How to draw & paint bookazine.

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