Basics of Drawing: Fine Arts, Week 1 for Classical Conversations

I am sharing my step-by-step instructions to draw a horse using the OiLs method. However, this is my first art lesson on the first day of class to new students, so I don’t launch into step #1 directly. How do I talk about drawing and art with my students–especially when I don’t know what baggage or beliefs about their abilities in this area they may carry with them? To read how I introduce this unit, read How I Talk to My Students About Drawing on Day 1.


Here I share a basic drawing lesson, created for students age 8-12.  For Classical Conversations folks, where I taught this lesson in a classroom, this is a week 1 drawing lesson that arguably could fit the theme of any cycle; I’ve used it for cycle 1 and may use it for cycle 2 this year. I like starting with animals, because kids usually like them, and a horse is  particularly safe way to go, for both boys and girls. I found the original drawing here.

horse cc cycle 1

  1. Step #1. Every student gets a copy of this horse, and for my first instruction, I ask students to take their pencils and trace the “OiLs”: any circles, straight lines, dots, angled lines and squiggly lines–directly on the drawing. This is basic stuff I know they know; easy. Kids in this program have been taught these basics from Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes each year. But this may be the first time someone asked them to not just look for the basic shapes but trace them on the image. Then we take it the next step–my own next step, taking the OiLs concept to the next logical step. I draw basic geometric shapes on the bord: triangles, rectangles, etc. I show them how those shapes are made out of OiLs shapes–how merely putting angled lines together gives us those shapes.

Step #2. I ask the students to look at the horse head and try to see basic geometric shapes making it up. I ask them to trace/outline what they see on their paper. I do that to my paper as they do, and then I show them mine. I point out how I see a circle at the cheek pouch, triangle ears, then on down the neck, which I see as a big triangle. Now, my way of breaking the horse up into basic geometric shapes is not the only way–students may break the form up differently, as it should be! Step 2 is complete when the entire horse is carved up into basic horse drawing step 2 001

Note added weeks after publishing: the above way to do step 2 worked well the first time I taught this lesson. But my class yesterday prompts me to add that some classes may need more direct coaching on how to do this, or you will see drawings that do not reflect any of the basic shapes, and you will see an abundance of teeny “gumby” legs! 

What I will do next time around if I do not know where my students are at in their ability to draw: I will walk through step 1 as a group. I will hang my orignal drawing on my board.

I will ask, what shape do you see the horse’s neck making? When they say triangle, or two angles, I will , with a marker, trace that onto my horse and give them time to do the same. I’ll move up to the ear and the space below and ask them what shape they see (two more triangles, though of different shapes). I will trace them and give students time to do so. Then perhaps I’ll give them a shot at breaking the face down into basic shapes on their own. If what happens on their pages demonstrates they still need coaching, I could bring them all back to my drawing and demonstrate what I see again. And then I would walk them through the shapes for the torso and at least one leg. The key to those legs is getting students to break down each leg by segment. Students who merely traced curving lines were unable to replicate them later. If you can get students to break down the entire leg into circles/rectangles/squares, they will have something to work with! After doing one leg together, I will give them a chance to do one on their own.

THIS is THE skill for this week–spend the most time here for the biggest fruit for the unit! For more on this, and what happened in my class yesterday, see my post-class reflection at the end.

Step #3. Next, I hand every student a blank sheet of paper. I ask students if they are capable of copying one of their circles or triangles or rectangles from the body of the horse–and they smile or laugh! Of course they can! This is it, at its most basic level: breaking down complex shapes into simple ones, and copying those simple shapes.

Tips: This is a sketch! Draw lightly, and meander into the best/correct shape. Take a look at just one oval I drew to form the horse’s torso. How many ovals did I draw on top of each other, around and around, feeling out the space until I settled on the one I felt was the right size and shape? 10-15? Yep–we’re just testing things out, drawing lightly, warming up.

Also, note that some students will find this frustrating. Particularly ones like my son whom I taught in class last year, who may feel they are good at drawing and don’t want to be bothered with this step! You may have many students who have their own way of approaching a drawing and want to continue in it. They have habits already–they want to start with the eyes and eyelashes and work their way down the rest of the page, detail by detail. They may want to do details first or to always completely draw the head before even sketching anything else.

Part of the reason I encourage all students to have the grace to follow instructions is that part of what I am trying to teach is a way to get them out of bad habits. My son has them; many students have them. They don’t know why their drawings get larger and larger as they go, giving the horse hindquarters twice the proportionate size as it head! Or they get frustrated the head looks perfect in all its details, but the body looks like a deflating swim toy.

My son is a perfect example of this. He taught himself to draw his way, and that is a strength–but also a weakness became he does not first lay down the over-all shape before he commits to details. And I find students who get that head just right and then realize they drew it too far to the left, or at the wrong angle, to get it to match up with the body–well, they do not want to erase their wonderful details in order to re-capture the integrity of the over-all shape. And so I encourage all students to humor me and get the basic shapes down before they do any details!

cc horse step 3 001

What you see above is what I preserved on paper to show my students; I did this work at home for the first time so I was prepared. But now that I’m more experienced, this coming year, I aim to do step 3 live, on the board for them, in marker. THAT will be a bit weird–trying to draw larger and in marker, but I taught the History Camp for practicum this summer and tried out a drawing lesson this way and I think it is most effective. Students got to see me do it in real time–and most importantly, they got to see not just my finished product, but all the lines I didn’t keep. They saw how the knight I drew from a Prescripts illustration had one leg longer than the other and his neck and head too far to one side. They got to see how I navigated making corrections. They got to see that someone really good at drawing is still making many changes!

I want to model that drawing is a practice–not a performance. This is both good for novice drawers as well as those who identify themselves as artistic. The latter group especially needs the freedom to see a drawing class among peers as a place to try new ways and practice–rather than always performing and proving and protecting their identity as “artist.” It is hard for such students to follow instructions and try something new; they can feel they have a lot to lose if their first attempt isn’t brilliant. A tutor/teacher who can show the vulnerability to practice on the board and show the whole journey to a good drawing–incorrect, erased lines and all–gives more to his/her class than the tutor who shows a perfect, polished example.

Step #4. Now this next step, I don’t really have reproducible for you to see. I tell students now is the time to look at all their overlapping versions of those basic geometric shapes, choose the best ones, and erase the rest. Erase those lines of cirlces in the mdidle of the torso–they were aids to give us the shape, but they are no longer needed.

Step #5. Then we get to the part that most have been itching for. Start anywhere–say the backbone. Trace the line of that backbone on the orignal print-out I gave. Go over it a few times until your hand gets the feel of it, then try it out on the basic shapes drawing–make this line connect on top of those series of circle. Complete all the outisde lines of the horse’s body.

Step #6. Once the outer lines of the contours are drawn in, it’s time to erase any unneeded remnants of the basic shapes that guided us. Hopefully you can see the faint remnants of all my prep work. After erasing all the basic shape prep-work lines, it’s finally time for all those details! Eyelashes. Bridle buckle. Hair. Nostril, etc.

cc horse step 4 001

Unfortunately, the length of our class is not long enough for most students to complete a polished drawing. Remind them, this is merely practice. I encourage my students to finish their drawings at home and bring them back to class the next week. And some have done so, and I have seen that inspire others.

Thankfully, this is week #1 in CC, and there is not much material to review for the review portion of the class, so that if you need a little more time complete this lesson, it’s possible. It’s good to really do all these steps together. In my plans, this is my template for each week. We will add other skills in, but each week, I have my students repeat these same steps. Week 1 with extra time is a good way to lay the groundwork well.

For another idea that works well with week 1, due to the extra wiggle room, check out Drawing Demystified’s lesson 1 idea of doing a baseline drawing in week 1–so that at week 6, students can draw the same image again and see with their own eyes how differently they have learned to approach their drawing tasks. I am considering doing that this coming year.

Let me know if this kind of post is useful or helpful and if you’d like to see more art lessons like this–or suggestions for what would be more helpful.

Update: Thank you for the feedback you readers have provided in other forums. As some of you expressed appreciation and requests for more, I’ve added more drawing lessons.

Post-class Reflection:

Just yesterday, I taught this lesson for the second time. I had a different experience with it than I had the first time. When I taught it the first time, students did pretty well with it. I found my new group of students, ages 9-11, did need more specific coaching than I was accustomed to giving. While the horse is rearing in the picture, I saw some students draw its torso horizontally. I saw many, many sets of “gumby legs”–teeny little rubbery legs jutting out from the big, muscular torso. Upon reflection, I think what was going on was that the students needed more coaching about how to COMPLETELY break down the image into the basic shapes.

When I went to help individuals, I found the gumby leg drawings came from students whose tracing of the basic shapes, at step #2, did not break the legs down enough. They treated each leg as one curving shape. Yes, that does fit what I asked them to do–they were finding the “s” curves. But that wasn’t enough to help them transfer the correct shapes.

One student, when I went back with him to his original for the tracing part, did then observe and trace little circles for the joints. I went back later and found that that was as far as he went. He struggled, having drawn his own horse torso and then placing the circles, floating, in the blank space. To connect those circles to the body, he drew lines that still gave him the rubbery, gumby leg result. With multiple students, I walked them through the KEY observation for the legs: how to get from one part to the other. Between the joints are, basically, rectangles or ovals. If students don’t observe and draw the shape and size of each segment of the leg, they will not get better results. (Sadly, for my students, we ran out of time to do any more. For a student who needed help for the head, I never got back to check in with him at all.)

If I had it to do over again, I’d  do more hand-holding. It’s tough because when it’s the first day of a new class, you really don’t know how much guidance they need. But my note to myself will be: assume on that first day that they need more direction. Next time, I will walk through step 2 as a group. I will hang my orignal drawing on my board (easier for me this year because I have a small easel and can move this closer to the students, so they can see what I do.)

I will ask, what shape do you see the horse’s neck making? When they say triangle, or two angles, I will , with a marker, trace that onto my horse and give them time to do the same. I’ll move up to the ear nad the space below and ask them what shape they see (two more triangles, though of different shapes. I will trace them and give tmhe time to do so. then perhaps I’ll give them a shot at breaking th face down into basic shapes on their own. Depending on what happens I could bring them all back to my drawing nad demonstrate what I see for students who weren’t ready for doing the face alone. And then I would walk them through the shapes for the torso and at least one leg. Then let them go on their own and see if they can break down another leg on their own. I’ll have to wait a year or years to try this again, but I’m very curious how much better students would do at transferring the drawing ot their own paper if set up with this much coaching. I briefly added the tip to do such coaching to my plan above.

This is a skill that takes practice–getting students to look at something complex and break it down to smaller parts becomes easier with more practice. Some students my need more modeling than others.

Observation: many drawing exercises used for the younger students are very simplified (for a reason): for instance, cartoon-like pigs, frogs, dogs, all of which are broken down into very basic shapes, such as circles squares, rectangles, already. The drawing activities the younger students are given do not train them to find the basic shapes on their own. They give them practice at drawing basic shapes to replicate the animals. What I am asking students to do, they truly may never have encountered before my class. I’m trying ot give them ownership of this process–teach them to see the way an artist sees.

Tutors/teachers who have done this lesson, please share your experiences below. What would you tweak? What did you observe when you tried this? The more we share with each other, the more others after us can get the best results with their students!

Other drawing lessons:

Mirror Image Lion Drawing: Week Two, Classical Conversations

Medieval-themed Upside-down Drawing: Week 3, Classical Conversations

Monarch Mash-Up: Abstract Art Lesson, Week 4

Cubist Queen Mash-Up Art Lesson, Week 4

Castle Perspective Lesson, Week 5

“Multiple Choice” Final Drawing Project, Week 6, Classical Conversations


Other teaching/tutoring resources:

  1. Creating an Encouraging Classroom
  2. Fostering Respect and Encouragement in the Classroom: My Journey as a Public School Teacher
  3. Classroom Management: Motivation Without Treats?
  4. Rewards in Classrooms: To Give or Not to Give?
  5. Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom

About Renee Lannan's blog

I live, write, teach and enjoy life from a place of hope and a belief in miracles from seeing first-hand the depths of redemption
This entry was posted in art lesson, teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Basics of Drawing: Fine Arts, Week 1 for Classical Conversations

  1. Rose says:

    Super helpful. I am not an artist in the least and will be tutoring masters this year. I plan to study what you wrote here, and lead my class in this drawing!

  2. Carrie says:

    I am tutoring the Masters class for the first time this year. I find that the Art we did in week one was very boring for them. I wish I would have seen this a week earlier. I may try to sneak it in the first few minutes of week 2. I think this is incredibly helpful for this age group. I don’t have any professional instruction in art myself, but this makes me feel capable of doing it! Thank You!!

  3. Amy Rustrum says:

    These are wonderful thank you, it will be nice to see how my masters class enjoys this! What did you do for a final project?

    • Renee Lannan's blog says:

      I too hope your class learns something from this! As for the final project, I am in the process of posting about that! Hopefully it’ll be up in a day or two. My community starts this week though, so that may slow me down!

  4. Kristen says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us! I am a new tutor this year for a Master’s class and I used this last week for Week 1. It was definitely a challenge for them, but I think it went great! I agree, I probably should have given them a little more guidance because I too saw some gumby legs, but I loved seeing all of their unique creations! I think it worked well for us, and no one got too frustrated though, because we were able to laugh about it! It was ok that one leg looked like it had some edema and the other looked like a stick figure leg, we still enjoyed the process!

    • Renee Lannan's blog says:

      Kristen, thank for sharing how your class went, and I’m glad it was enjoyable. Now we know what to do the next time!

  5. Pingback: My 10 Rules for Handling Election Results | Renee Lannan's blog

  6. Pingback: Dealing with Election Results: What Can I Do to Help Heal the Divide? | Renee Lannan's blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s