Structure and Form Pencil Sketch Art Lesson

Seeing and Basic Form and Structure

camera structure drawing
'Seeing through' an object to build structure. H South

How do you make something look three-dimensional and in proportion?

Lack of structure is one of the most common problems in drawing. It's easy to spot - sometimes you don't quite know why, but something just 'feels wrong'. You can see it when a bottle or cup looks distorted, or a person's arms and legs don't' quite seem to belong to them. A face might look vaguely familiar but the expression is strange.

When this happens, it is often because the artist has dived too quickly into drawing detail. The surfaces look good, but the structure beneath is weak. All the details are there, but they don't match up. It's a bit like a house with a beautiful door that won't close because the frame isn't straight.

How do I draw the structure?

Drawing the structure means ignoring all the surface detail and looking for big shapes. This approach is similar to the 'step by step' method of circles and ovals that you will often see in drawing lessons, where the picture is broken into simple squares and ovals. But instead of flat, two-dimensional shapes, now you need to look for three-dimensional ones that you will sketch in perspective.

Begin with simple objects. You can try to imagine that the object is made of glass - like a fish tank - so you can visualize the edges that you can't see, sketching the main components.

Have you ever built toys out of cardboard boxes? Think of a camera made with a box and a plastic lid, or a rocket made from a paper tube and cone, or a robot made with a collection of small boxes. This is the kind of simplicity to begin with.

The Two Approaches to Drawing Structure

There are two main approaches to drawing the structure.

The first is to start with  a basic skeleton and add detail, visualizing the basic shapes that underly a complex surface, like a sculptor working in clay and adding pieces on. The second method involves an imaginary box, working from the outside in, imagining basic shapes that the form fits within, like a sculptor starting with a block of marble and chipping bits away. Often you will find yourself using a combination of these two approaches. Give them both a try!

The Aim: To practice establishing the basic structure of objects.

What You Need: Sketchbook or paper, HB or B pencils, everyday objects.

What to Do:
Choose a simple object. It doesn't have to be 'artistic', a sewing machine or electric kettle is fine!

Now, imagine you are going to sculpt it from a piece of stone. What rough shapes will you carve out first? Note the very simple cylinder shapes used for the first sketch in the example above. Draw the perspective as correctly as you can, freehand. It doesn't have to be perfect.

Now you can begin to indicate the main shapes within the form, such as the line through a row of detail, or large indentations. Show where details will go, but don't get sidetracked by them. Concentrate on getting the overall proportion and placement.

Finish the drawing if you wish, or just leave it as an exercise in structure.

Going Further: Try drawing more complex objects, always looking for simple component shapes. Try looking for shapes within the objects, like a skeleton, and looking for containing shapes, like boxes, with which to establish your structure. You can practice observing without a pencil too, just observing your surroundings wherever you are.

- Begin with the largest section of a complex form.
- Don't worry about mistakes, they are part of learning.
- Don't use a ruler - train your hand.
- You don't have to 'finish' the sketches.
- Practice!