Drawing Straight Lines

I have to begin with an apology to the person I’m addressing with this post.  A couple weeks ago I had an email dialogue with someone who told me she couldn’t draw a straight line.  I couldn’t explain how to learn to do it in a way that was clear to her and I told her I’d do a blog post on it.  This is that blog post, albeit at least two weeks late.

Truth is, you don’t have to be able to draw straight lines, but it helps to be able to get them somewhat straight.  Artists talk a lot about “hand-eye coordination” and “muscle memory,” neither of which have much to do with eyes or muscles, but we don’t do much to show people how to achieve it.  The reason is that, well, it’s boring and the internet has become all about showing people fun stuff.

In fact, we don’t do much at all to teach what we mean by “practice” and everyone believes it means that you should go out and draw stuff.  But a home run hitter doesn’t get good at the craft by playing baseball games, they get good at it by endlessly hitting balls off a tee, practicing one-arm swings along a particular path, and watching videos of themselves doing these exercises.  We need to be more like home run hitters.

Anyways, I went back into my piles of sketchbooks and found one set of exercises done back when I “couldn’t draw a straight line.”  Let’s discuss them.

2-point lines

The first thing you have to do is learn HOW to draw a straight line.  You don’t do it by drawing very slowly while watching the tip of your pencil.  This NEVER works.  Instead, you look at where you want to go while quickly drawing the line.  A good exercise for this is to 1) drop pairs of points all over a piece of paper. 2) put your pencil on one dot, look at another dot, and 3) pull  your pencil to the dot you’re looking at.   It will take a bit of getting used to but you’ll soon see that drawing straight lines isn’t so hard afterall.  In short, hand-eye coordination isn’t about drawing buildings, it’s about acquiring these sorts of skills such that it become automatic.

3-point curves

The same sort of exercise is done to draw curves, only now you’ve got to start the pencil on one dot and take in two other dots with your eye as you draw the curve.  Just don’t look at your pencil as you do this.

Super-imposed lines

This is another useful exercise.  Draw a series of line (use a straight edge) on a piece of paper.  Then, repeatedly draw lines on top of those lines.  I found this enforces the hand movement and improves your brain’s ability to do these movements, and it is your brain, not your hand, that is doing these movements.

I hope this helps at least as much as it embarrasses me to post all these crooked lines.  They say that looking back on your earlier work is a good thing.  I’m not so sure (grin).

6 Responses to “Drawing Straight Lines”

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  1. Kate says:

    This is a great post Larry! And it’s quite true that most of the time good artists emphasize that up must sketch a LOT to get better, which is true, but only half the story. As to have so week put it means LOTS of practice with a specific purpose in mind, like achieving straight lines, or accurate ellipses, or buildings with property proportion. All those require a specific focus and repetitive exercises. Pianists play scales for a reason, there are exercises for art too. The only thing I would add to your excellent exercises for practicing straight lines, is to reorient your paper or sketchbook into a position that is most natural for the arc of ones arm movement. Sketchbooks don’t have to remain in one position. But it’s good to practice lines from all sorts of angles and directions to make sure you don’t have to flip your paper completely upside down constantly too.

    • Good point about shifting the paper to accommodate. I don’t recommend it for practice because the more you can draw straight without this the better off you are but I do that shift ALL the time when I can. I really don’t know why artists think they are immune from doing practice exercises. USk sort of encourages this view by saying “just draw” but…

  2. Kate says:

    Ugh… Sorry for all the typos. Tiny screens and auto correct always cause me problems.

  3. Tina Koyama says:

    Ah, yes… I remember doing those exercises from drawing books, too. I should have practiced more… my power lines are always crooked. 😉