Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Drawing Hints for Complex Subjects

Drawing complex subjects can be intimidating for even experienced sketchers. We often take the easy way out and end up drawing just a small part of the scene rather than deal with the overwhelming complexity of a subject like this....

Well, there's no need to run from complicated scenes that you'd love to sketch. The key is to break the complex scene into smaller, more manageable parts. Let me show you how I did just that when I drew this quick 30-minute sketch of the altar of the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, Canada. (Click here to see the complete collection of sketches from my Canada trip.)

5" x 7" ink sketch in an Earthbound sketchbook with 90 lb. paper

I always start any sketch by roughing in the image with pencil. This enables me to judge a sketch's proportions, size, and position on the sketchbook page. Then I ink the sketch, adding additional detailing as needed. I find that I can draw very quickly with ink once the major shapes are correctly roughed in with pencil.


For this sketch, I first drew the columns on the left side and had them arch across the page, leading the eye into what would be the altar, framing it, and giving a sense of depth.

All of the guidelines shown in the following steps are similar to what I drew in pencil when I laid out the altar sketch. For this step-by-step explanation, new guidelines are shown in red and guidelines from previous steps are blue.

I studied the altar to find a pattern or a repeating measurement that I could use to figure out the proportions of the sketch. The uppermost turret was about 1/4 of the total height, so I used that as my measuring unit. The entire altar was four turrets high, so I divided the sketch height into fourths with horizontal guidelines. By holding my pencil out in front of me and marking with my finger how tall the large turret was, I could hold that measurement and move it down the altar, noting what elements would fall at each quarter guideline on my sketch.

Here's a good tutorial from urban sketcher Andrew Banks that explains further how to use sighting techniques when drawing architectural subjects.

The three largest turrets were the dominant vertical elements, so I drew guidelines running down through each one. (Remember, I was drawing this very quickly, so my sketch isn't absolutely accurate...but you get the idea, right?) This also served to divide the sketch into fourths horizontally.

Then I continued dividing up the sketch into smaller sections. I drew guidelines for center lines on the turrets and to mark heights, columns, and niches. I looked for relationships between the various elements of the scene. How did they relate to one another? Is the top of that turret slightly lower than the larger one next to it? Is the statue 2/3s as tall as the niche it's in? Is that crosspiece about halfway between the turret top and the column base? I kept comparing sizes and positions to estimate where things should be drawn and how large they should be. I drew as many pencil guidelines as I thought I needed to position elements for inking, but I did not waste time drawing all the details in pencil.

Once the main elements were drawn, the hard work was over and it was time for the fun stuff! I grabbed my pen and began inking the larger sections and adding all the little details like the triangle tops on the turrets, the turret bases, the statues in their niches, smaller crosses and columns, and other minor details. This was fast and furious sketching! (And I was having trouble with my fountain pen while I was doing it!)

The sketch is messy and not entirely accurate, but it captures the essence of what I saw that day in Montreal.

Let's look at another example of dividing a subject into manageable-sized sections to make finalizing the details easy later on.


This is the exterior of the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal...

and this is my sketch, which was drawn in about 20 minutes...

Looking at the church, I noticed that it was divided approximately in half vertically by a broad band across the center. I checked the measurements by sighting with my pencil.

The upper half divided neatly into thirds, and the lower half was divided into two sections. I drew these guidelines in pencil on my sketchbook page.

I decided to draw the church in perspective rather than straight on. I thought it would emphasize the height of the cathedral and make the sketch more interesting. First I drew a center line, so I could judge the angles of the towers to be drawn next.

Measuring with my pencil, I could see that the space between the towers was wider than the towers themselves, so I allowed a wider space in the center when I sketched guidelines for the sides of the two large towers. I paid attention to the angles of the lines, trying to make the left and right towers mirror images of each other.

I continued adding guidelines that would help me when inking the sketch. First I marked more of the major horizontal divisions on the towers and center section.

Then I added vertical guidelines for the side columns and center lines for the arched openings.

With the large shapes blocked in, it was time to rough in the arched shapes for the windows and doors. Then I inked the sketch, adding detailing like crenellations, statues, windowsills, etc.

I hope this gives you an idea of how to handle complex subjects when sketching. Just focus on large shapes to work out your sketch size, proportions, and placement on the page, then gradually break the shapes into smaller, more manageable section, as I've shown above.

And remember, it's unlikely that your sketch will ever be compared with the original scene to see if it's accurate. Energy, enthusiasm, and capturing the essence of a place are what's most important. Wiggly lines, tilting walls, and lopsided figures just add to the charm!

There's a whole big world out there just waiting to be drawn. Why not dive in and give it a try? Remember, all that's at stake is a piece of paper.

Creativity takes courage.
Henri Matisse

Be courageous, and sketch something wonderful today!


  1. Replies
    1. You're welcome, Christine. Glad it was helpful to you.

  2. Great tips, Leslie! I imagine your sketches evoke every exquisite detail even though you only hinted at them—a very valuable lesson! I’d love to know how you sketch a complex landscape, like your Vieux-Quebec from your previous post, and still maintain proportions and positions. I love that sketch!

    1. With that sketch I started by placing the castle in position at the top and the first row of buildings at the bottom, then I filled in between, leaving out LOTS of stuff. I wish I could post a photo of the scene here in the comments so you could see how much I eliminated. The overall impression of the scene is true but it's not technically accurate because I left out a lot of the buildings.

    2. Of course! That makes perfect sense, given the lesson of this post! :-)

  3. Terrific tutorial Leslie, your analytical mind breaks it all up into pieces. Great way to make it less intimidating. Your work is so wonderful!


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