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What to Draw As A Beginning Artist? – pick the right subject

Step 1 in the Drawing Process in Art – Choosing the Subject

The question beginning artists ask most is: What should I draw? What to draw depends on your skill and interests. Find an easy subject to draw, one that interests you, and that you emotionally connect with. Here are suggestions for simple drawing subjects, along with helpful lighting tips that make drawing easier. For drawing success, it’s critical that you pick the right subject.

Best Subjects to Draw for a Beginning Artist

Frustration results when a beginning artist chooses a difficult subject. On the other hand, choosing a subject below one’s skill level impedes artistic development. Here’s how landscapes, still life, and portraits rank for difficulty in drawing:

The Easiest Subject to Draw – Landscapes

Landscape drawing, David Johnson, pick the right subject to draw
Landscape drawing, David Johnson, American, 1874, Public Domain

Landscapes are the easiest subject for a beginning artist. Drawing a rock, hill, or tree different from how it appears in nature is ok. Even the colors can be off, like a landscape with blue grass and green sky. People viewing the artwork will think maybe it looked that way, or perhaps the artist is expressing a particular mood or theme.

Next Easiest Subject to Draw – A Still Life

Still life drawing of fruit on a tray, easy to draw
Still life drawing of fruit on a tray. Image by 灵 钟 from Pixabay

Still life drawing is another easy subject for a beginning artist but is a bit harder than drawing a landscape. Unlike the organic forms we find in nature, inorganic forms comprise the still life subject. Circular, spherical, and cylindrical shapes abound in still life drawings. For a believable and realistic drawing, these shapes require an accurate rendering. Drawing cups, vases, or fruit in an abstract style is ok, but the viewer should recognize them for what they are.

The beginning artist should start a drawing a still life with no more than three objects. Each object should have a simple shape. This allows for an easy composition, with minimal form and cast shadows.

The Hardest Subject to Draw – Portraits

Portrait of a woman drawing, Anonymous, French
Portrait of a woman drawing, Anonymous, French, 19th century, Public Domain

Portraits are difficult to draw for beginning artists. I don’t want to frighten a beginning artist away from the subject of portrait drawing. It’s just that the slightest inaccuracy in the drawing destroys a likeness. If the portrait doesn’t look like the person, everyone will know. As a new artist, first get comfortable drawing landscapes and still life before tackling portrait drawing.

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Drawing is Easier with the Best Lighting

Dramatic lighting with lots of contrast is the best illumination for any subject. Drawing is easier with clearly defined highlights and shadows. Contrasty lighting is accomplished with a single light source focused on a particular area of the subject. A lighting angle of 30 to 45 degrees works best. A drawing with sharp transitions between the highlights and shadows has lots of visual interest and ‘pop’.

When to Draw a Landscape for Awesome Lighting

Landscape with dramatic lighting
Landscape with dramatic lighting. Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

The best time to capture the beauty of dramatic lighting in a landscape is in the early morning or near twilight. Early morning light produces a landscape with nicely saturated colors and contrasty shadows. Near twilight, there’s a time called the ‘golden hour’. During the golden hour, the sun is at a low angle and fills the landscape with beautiful orange and yellow colors, and casts long shadows. 

Dramatic lighting on a landscape during the golden hour
Dramatic lighting on a landscape during the golden hour. Photo by Petr Vyšohlíd on Unsplash

Drawing a landscape while trying to capture this dramatic lighting isn’t easy because, as time goes on, the light is constantly changing. A solution to this problem is to begin a drawing outdoors on location, known as ‘en plein air’, and finish the work in the studio. Monet did much of his work this way. Nowadays, an artist can start a drawing at early morning or twilight, capture the lighting with a camera, and return home to finish the work.

A beginning artist must consider the available lighting before starting to draw a landscape and decide if it is worthwhile to begin or to wait till the lighting is more favorable.

Lighting That Makes a Compelling Still Life Drawing

Still life image with dramatic lighting coming from the side
Still life image with dramatic lighting coming from the side by Artturi Mäntysaari from Pixabay

A single light source, positioned at around a 30-45 degree angle to the subject, works best for a still life drawing. This type of lighting produces high contrast highlights and shadows. If possible, the subject should be illuminated by one light source without any ambient light. For example, with window curtains in my studio closed, I use one light bulb to illuminate my subject at around a 45 degree angle.

Trying to draw using one light source is challenging because there’s not much light left shining on the drawing paper. It’s hard to see what I’m drawing!

A method I’ve found effective for drawing a still life with a single light source is the following. Using lots of ambient light, lay out the composition and draw the subject with the basic shadow masses. Removing any ambient light in the room, light the subject using a single light bulb. Then take a photo and use this as a reference to draw the remaining highlights, mid tones, and shadows.

Lighting for Stunning Portrait Drawings

Portrait with dramatic lighting roughly at 45 degrees
Portrait with dramatic lighting roughly at 45 degrees. Photo by Nartan Büyükyıldız on Unsplash

Lighting at approximately a 45 degree angle produces a flattering light on the subject for a portrait. This type of dramatic lighting produces well defined highlights and shadows, as well as a full range of midtones.

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Connect With Your Subject

Drawings are successful and engaging when the artist has a personal connection to the subject. If you like landscapes, draw a landscape of places you’ve visited. Compose still life drawings from objects you have at home, objects that you’re fond of and enjoy having. Draw portraits of family and friends.

Guidelines for What to Draw as a Beginning Artist

The question ‘What should I draw as a beginning artist?’ is answered by considering skill level, lighting, and personal connection. Your chances of creating an excellent drawing increase with the number of questions you ask before starting to draw. So, ask away, and create an awesome drawing.

Step 2 in the Drawing Process in Art: Plan the composition