An Introduction to Classical Drawing

Classical Drawing
Classical Drawing

One of the most misunderstood aspects of learning to draw comes from classical drawing lessons and training. Aside from the strict nature of classical drawing, the secrets of the historical masters are unlocked and can give you a better perspective on daily drawing skills.

What is Classical Drawing?

Fine Art Life Drawing
Fine Art Life Drawing

If you've ever been to an art museum before, you've likely seen ancient paintings of people and landscapes. Nearly all of these paintings that are considered classic are commonly associated with ancient Greece and Roman art. The truth is that these art styles are similar except the new styles that were developed after these ancient empires defined the techniques still used today.

The new classic drawing skills were taught by a select few who all pushed the envelope to show drawings and sketches translated into finished paintings. These are now referred to as the ‘Old Masters.' They taught their techniques to their students from their influence. These classic techniques are still taught today and are what art students will instantly know as classical drawing skills.

Each skill learned with an introduction to classical drawing gives you a look back into history, using individual rules and steps taken to preserve the classical method of drawing. These rules can be updated and improved, yet they still follow a pattern that sticks to the classic instruction by tradition.

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Elements of Classical Life Drawing:

Without going too far into detail on what the old techniques had in mind, the focus was to make paintings that appeared three-dimensional and as accurate as possible. This was long before photography could capture a moment, but the meaning and symbolism placed into a drawing told a story specifically for the educated to understand. Yet on other levels, these drawings could be simplified for anyone to admire and self-explain.

Drawing a Classical Statue

Since we know that classical drawings and paintings are meant to convey emotion, symbolism, myths, and messages, they also embrace the exact principles of photography. Here are the primary examples that give life drawing a remarkable realism that are all the hallmarks of what we can see in real life. The artist Richard Smitheman creates excllent examples of figure drawing which focus upon the proportions and dimensions of the human form.


Value in life drawing is capturing the essence of creating the proper contrast. Yes, just like photography, you need to compose a drawing with various light and dark grades. Adjusting these levels, you can compose a drawing that gives your finished drawing more impact translating varied levels of emotion.

These values aren't limited to black and white either, so using grades and tones will increase the visual aspect you're looking to create. They do this more often in films and commercials to increase the dramatic effects of lighting. In classical paintings, it was seen more often to convey the differences between light and dark. Using a grading scale of shades, the level of tints and shades is balanced to enhance your figure or scene that you've drawn.

If you aren't good at shading or using highlight and shadow, you'll miss the opportunity to make the proper amount of value in your drawing. Learn how light works and where it’s coming from in your picture and allow the natural path where value shades need to be placed.


The opposite of value is shadow and is the result of light hitting an object which creates various darkened spots to form over your subject or object. To be a master of creating shadow, you need to use your natural sense of light and shadow. I won't do a pretty dance around this element since it's too easy to make shadow mistakes. This is why you need to study how light falls over various surfaces.

This is made more accessible by using miniature figures and a lamp or small-scale props, but it won't hurt to have a model you can photograph for reference. This way, you can see where your light is, creating shadows. Imagine how precise the Old Masters needed to be when getting their shadows placed with numerous model sittings at the same time each day to get the light just right.

Digital cameras make this hard work seem easy except for the shadow grading and subtle details you're adding. If you're going to do a lot of classical life drawing, invest in an adjustable LED spotlight with a dimmer placed on an extendable tripod to get different heights.


Without sounding like I'm going back to preschool games, you should already know about basic shapes. Everything in our world is based on a basic shape, from buildings to living creatures. These shapes will always include geometric shapes, including cubes, spheres, cones, and cylinders. Then you jump right into organic shapes and forms that will give you everything from trees to animals.

Your forms are set into a drawing landscape using a simple process of determining what angle it needs to be seen. Where you place your horizon line and vanishing point lines make geometric shapes easier to place, while organic shapes will be slightly more complicated. The biggest hurdle is learning about perspective to get the proper angle for seeing your object or model. Don't try to cheat the angle. Learn perspective for all the forms your draw.

This is another excellent reason to practice many exercises where you're timing yourself in making a 1-minute sketch or 2-minute sketch. This will force you to speed up your perception of angles and recreate the basic shapes against a background. Using light and shadow will give you more control of learning where natural shadows fall on these forms.


Our eyes tell us to recognize the infinite number of shapes that we see all around us. This is why we'll often see shapes in random things such as fluffy clouds or a bowl of spaghetti. Depending on how creative you happen to be, you can see shapes forming in your coffee when adding creamer or the burnt spots on your toast. When it comes to classical drawing, shapes are more complex since they're one-dimensional.

It takes a careful process to make these shapes appear three-dimensional. This means you need to trick the eye into thinking these shapes have mass or weight to them. Light and shadow play a significant role in plotting, where you make any shape look natural. Then again, the value of the tones and shades you use need to be appropriate to the lighting in your drawing.

This is the required balance; otherwise, your shape will stand out in your drawing like a sore thumb. Your shapes need to exist within your drawing unless it's supposed to stand out from directed light. Just like something is spotlighted on stage, there can be secondary light sources for elements in your drawing.


How to Create Classical Pencil Life Sketches

With an introduction to classical drawing methods, other rules will give you a rounded skillset that you'll need to draw characters and scenery with each of these techniques. You need to be proficient with one or more of these that are listed here. Over any length of time, you'll be able to learn the steps how they all work and master them as you go.

But for what it's worth, I assure you that you'll end up learning all of these skills at some point in your classic life sketching experience.

 Figure Drawing Skills

How much do you know about figure drawing and anatomy? It might give you a better understanding of the human form by taking some lessons on figure drawing. This isn't just sitting in one spot and drawing what you see. You'll also be tasked with breaking down the flesh all the way to the bone. This involves learning about the placement of muscles and joints and the subtle differences in cartilage that help bones sit properly between each joint.

Learning about various poses and how the human body can achieve these poses without looking unnatural. Life drawing cannot be based on fantasy like you see in many movies and comic books, which is why all of these artists take figure drawing to create accurate depictions of how the body will appear when placed into a pose. Getting good at drawing figures is equally important as the finishing touches that are added to them.

Essentially, anatomy is the first thing you want to learn about, which can be learned from buying a book about human anatomy. Get familiar with the terminology used and the names of muscles and bones. The more you know, the better off you’ll be for identifying parts of the body that all professional artists are familiar with.


Classic portraits are very typical, but that doesn’t mean they are all the same. Making a portrait simply means that your model is seen within a background. This can be an entire image or a partial image. A partial image can start at the waist or from the shoulders up. With full images, it's not uncommon that full-length figures are placed within a setting, such as a room with decorations.

With partial portraits, these details will also be present but not featured prominently. Just like a close-up in a photo you zoom into, these background details aren't always in focus or in the frame. Unless you decide to reposition a background prop in your drawing, it might only be for visual interest. It shouldn't distract from your focus that is centered on the character that you're drawing.

Portraiture drawings must be well designed and chosen for composition. Unlike the modern selfie that we see everywhere on social media, portraits convey status and emotion. It takes time to set up formal portraiture with your subject being lit to convey a natural or dramatic effect. The lighting is further used to make your subject stand out as the main focus of your picture.

Bust Portrait Painting and Drawing

You've heard this word buzzing around for a long time and lost some of the impacts that it really means. A bust portrait is a drawing or painting of any model. Seen from the mid-chest to the top of the head. Most people know this word from the number of statues that hold a human figure under the chest supported by a decorative base. These were the ancient carved versions if you've ever seen plaster or marble busts at a museum.

A painted or drawn bust is the same idea, except the background is not drawn, and only your subject is the primary focus. The intent of finishing the rest of the lower body is not needed. Either since this representation of your model is supposed to be rough. If you do a painted version, this can include a background color that helps to highlight your model. The edges toward the bottom of your bust can be muddied or undefined. It’s allowed having a bust portrait that looks slightly unfinished.

The detail you put into the facial expressions must be as realistic as possible, keeping the human emotion as possible.

Still life

This is one of the least practiced classic drawing skills taught but rediscovered by new emerging artists. The concept is straightforward when you decide to draw still life. This is commonly an arrangement of objects, including fruits, flowers, and food- It's not limited to objects and items that are non-living. Cut flowers arranged in a vase paired with fruits and veggies have always been considered a classic style.

There is a more dramatic version of still life that includes items that challenge the idea of life and death. These are often skulls placed among items that celebrate life, including food and drink. These can be messages that challenge those who look at your drawings. Still-life drawings are meant to charm the senses but can also make a statement or tell a short story. You can get as creative as you like with still life due to the variety of items you include.

As long as you compose a tabletop or windowsill with exciting items, the potential for capturing great shadows is a big plus. This is another excellent point to bring up since you want to compose your lighting to make the selection of fruits, vegetables, props, and decorations look interesting. Lighting can be natural or harsh, but you should always allow your still life items to be seen as straightforward as possible.

Classical Drawing Courses

There are professional courses you can join with each of these online courses. You can also check them out to see what they can offer you in traditional drawing skills. It's up to you to choose if they will be right for you. Here is a basic overview of who they are and what they specialize in.

Juliette Aristides

Juliette Aristides is one of the harder instructors to track down, but since she is providing courses at art schools all over the world. If you can land a course with her, the experience will be worthwhile and packed with drawing and painting secrets. She specializes in figurative drawing and painting, still life, and lessons on classical painting. She's the author of several books that help instruct new artists with these classic styles.

Udemy Classical Drawing Course 

The courses that you can take with the Udemy classical drawing courses are always available and are budget-friendly, where you can learn the fundamentals of classic drawing techniques. You can learn about the fundamentals of how classic drawing is done, but since this is an online course, these courses are self-study that can allow you to receive a certificate of completion after you've completed these courses.

New Masters Academy

New Masters Academy is another equally budget-friendly self-study course. You can learn from online courses that are also interactive through an optional upgrade. This comes from joining the coaching program that can assist you through the courses. There is also a forum that allows you to interact with others who are taking the same courses. The end result will also provide you a certificate of completion.


What is Traditional Drawing?

Traditional drawing is learning the skills that were used centuries ago that haven't changed much at all. The techniques are virtually the same. As many of the methods used, that were also used by the classic Old Masters. These skills are critical to learning if you want to better understand art and upgrade your drawing skills to a whole new level. This adds value to your skillset and makes your work well-rounded too.

You can still develop your own style, but the opportunity to learn traditional drawing skills can make you classically trained.

What are the 3 Main Categories of Sketching?

Just like classic drawing skills, there are rules for classical sketching additionally. The first method is called Croquis and is used as a one-off sketch that's used to remember something you've seen in person. It's like a visual snapshot that can be recreated later for better definition. The second in this group is Pochade which is a pocket sketch that often includes colors. Just like a postcard, these quick sketches are used for later as well.

If a Pochade is colored, it lays out the exact colors, such as a landscape sunset, so you can create a larger picture using the Pochade sketch as a guide. The last is the portrait sketch, which can get the essential elements of a model and their expression. When making a portrait sketch, several sketches can be created to make a more extensive portrait that you'll paint. These sketch portraits are your roadmap of reference to making the final painting.

Create Art With My Favourite Drawing Resources

General Drawing Courses. I like Udemy if you want to develop your knowledge of drawing techniques. Udemy is an excellent choice due to its wide range of creative courses and excellent refund policy. They often have monthly discounts for new customers, which you can check here. Use my link.

Sketching and Collage. Take a look at this sketching resource I have created. Use this link.

Proko. Is one of my favorite teachers who surpasses in the teaching of Anatomy and Figure drawing. Prokos course breaks down the drawing of the human body into easy-to-follow components aiding the beginner to make rapid progress. For this, I really like Proko.

Art Easels. One of my favorite ways to draw is by using a drawing easel, which develops the skill of drawing on a vertical surface. The H frame easel is an excellent vertical way to add variety to the style and type of marks you create when using a drawing board.

To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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