tips-me1I have been teaching both private and group classes through the Community Services Dept. in Torrance, Ca. for the past couple of years, and the question usually comes up from my beginning painting students: “Do I need to take a drawing class before I can paint?” My answer is: It depends.

Generally speaking, I say it never hurts to take a drawing class because it teaches you the basics of shape, perspective, and composition. Depending on what type of painting you are wanting to do, will determine how much drawing you will need to accomplish your goals; the more detailed or realistic you want to paint, the better your drawing skills should be.

If you want to do abstract painting, most drawing skills can be minimal at best, you do, however, need to concentrate on composition if you plan to do abstract well. I am not a fan of abstract. My opinion of abstract is: If monkeys and elephants can do it, a human should do better. I know that flies in the face of a lot of so called art critics; it’s just how I feel. That said, there are some abstracts I do like and when I’ve analyzed why I liked them, it was because there was some actually thought that went into them besides throwing or smearing paint on a canvas. They had composition and eye flow, things that are sorely lacking in 99% of the abstracts I’ve seen, even of the “masters” of abstract.

Composition is the key to all paintings; it is absolutely critical in abstract.

So far in my teaching career, most of my students want to paint somewhere between impressionism and realism. For those students I say that drawing can be very helpful and I encourage them to take a class, especially for those wanting to do watercolor or pastel. I encourage them to draw often, even if it is only sketches. By drawing your subject, even in a primitive looking sketch, it helps you become more familiar with your subject and work out your composition. I didn’t believe this until I started doing it, and my paintings have shown my efforts.

tips-me2When I am sketching my design on my canvas for my acrylic painting, I use a soft vine charcoal to indicate where I want the elements in my painting. Oil painters can get away with sketching with their brush because their paints stay wet for days or even weeks and the sketch will blend in as they paint.

The key word here is sketch. I may just make indications that only I can understand for the different elements in the painting like lines for trees, inverted “Vs” for mountains, if I’m doing something with detail such as an animal, I will do an accurate sketch as far as scale and placement of eyes, ears, etc. but not much more, I work much the same in pastel sketching with a neutral light gray soft pastel, letting the shape of the colors, highlights and shadows do most of the work. I am using my knowledge of drawing for shape, perspective and composition but I use the paint or pastel fill in the details which helps keep the painting from becoming to tight or paint by number-ish.

My watercolor is a different story. Since my style of painting is somewhere between realism and impressionism, I like things to look more or less the way they appear in real life when I am doing a watercolor painting I need to know where everything is because while there are ways to correct “errors” in watercolor, if I get something in the wrong place or paint in a shadow where I should have had a highlight, I probably have to start over.

Since I usually work from my own photographs, most times I draw directly on the watercolor paper with a 2B pencil. This can cause problems if I happen to erase an area too often because it could damage the paper. If I’m doing a composite – using several different photos as reference – I will first do a drawing to work out my vision for the painting, then do a line drawing on tracing paper the size of the watercolor paper I will be using then transfer my line drawing to the watercolor paper using either graphite paper or more commonly just rubbing a soft pencil (4B or softer) along the lines on the back side of the tracing paper then going over the lines with a pencil or stylist, I find this is neater than the graphite paper which tends to leave smudges on the paper where you’ve rested your hand.

If you are interested in improving your drawing skills and you don’t want to take a class – though I highly recommend it – there are two books that helped my drawing more than I can begin to express here. The first and best is by Betty Edwards called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” ( The first time I read it, not too long after her book first came out, I skipped a lot of the clinical stuff she mentions and I only did about a third of the exercises but I was so excited by how much better my drawings were, well, I skipped the rest of the book. Now I wish I hadn’t. When I was asked to teach a drawing class I went back to her book and this time when I read it cover to cover. This time it was different, I had to learn how to teach other poor souls who were counting on me to help them do better than stick figures so their grand kids wouldn’t laugh at them. I went through the book, beginning to end, and did all the exercises. I was absolutely amazed at the results! (See examples and note the dates) Has it helped my painting? Without question! I can now look at a problem area and can see what I need to do to correct it; I have also found that I really enjoy drawing in and of itself. It is a slower process than painting, even with pastels, but it is very satisfying.

Another book that help me when I was teaching a home school group of kids and then the classes with adults, was “Drawing with Children” by Mona Brookes ( Both of these books emphasize we can only draw or paint shapes, their approaches may be a bit different but the message is the same: Look at the shapes that make up your subject, whether it is a landscape, still life, animal or human, the elements of those things are just simple shapes and if you get the shape of the elements right your subject will take care of itself.

So in closing: Drawing is important, but not absolutely necessary depending on how you want to paint. I think that a lot of people want to learn to paint so they can avoid drawing and that’s okay, but I hope that all people wanting to paint will take a basic drawing class because, from my own experience, it has helped my painting and given me a greater sense of accomplishment, because I am painting things more the way I see my paintings in my head then having to be satisfied with a result that doesn’t quite measure up to what I expected. Now more times than not, I exceed those expectations and it brings a sense of joy to my art that just wasn’t there before. Remember: It’s just a piece of paper. Until next time, thank you for visiting


To find out about the classes Lerri teaches through the Torrance Parks and Rec. Department, go to: http://www.tprd/

Lerri is now also teaching classes at the Palos Verdes Art Center.