How to Draw Course
My review of the How to Draw course by The Great Courses Plus.
Anyone can learn how to draw - all you need is the right course or teacher! Learning how to draw is one of those skills that people often assume they either have or they don’t. If you didn’t enjoy drawing when you were a kid because you struggled to draw anything beyond stick figures, then you might assume that you simply weren’t born with artistic genes or natural talent. If that describes how you feel, you’ll love the How to Draw course because it blows that myth out of the water!
The How to Draw course is a streaming on-demand video course, consisting of 36 lectures, that uses a gradual, step-by-step approach to take anyone (including total beginners!) through the basics of drawing, and onwards to advanced topics like linear perspective and the figure.
Art is Fun has many tutorials that can help you express yourself through art, but when I found this How to Draw course, I knew immediately that it offered a comprehensive approach that I could never match. Because I was already a paying subscriber to The Great Courses Plus, I decided to take the course myself and evaluate it for my readers. I spent the last 6 weeks progressing through all 36 lectures, taking exhaustive notes that add up to almost 20,000 words! In this review, I’ll tell you what I think and hopefully help you understand whether this course is right for you.
Table of Contents
What is The Great Courses Plus?
The Great Courses are created by The Teaching Company, which started back in the 90s with college-level video courses that you could order on CD or DVD. Now those same courses - plus hundreds of new ones which are continually added - are available via an on-demand streaming service, similar to Netflix. They have a 14-day free trial, so you can dip your toe in the waters and see if you like the format. If you enjoy your free trial, you can sign up for a subscription (around $15 per month, cancel anytime) and you get instant access to hundreds of courses whenever you want!
I own numerous DVDs from the Great Courses, but I prefer the streaming service because you can watch it from anywhere in the world and from a range of platforms (computers, mobile devices, TVs). You can can also download courses onto your mobile device to watch offline. I also enjoy the ability to quickly sample any of their courses and see what strikes my fancy. I’ve recently been progressing through their photography courses, and my husband has been enjoying their ancient history courses.
Check out the How to Draw course page on The Great Courses Plus to learn more about the course and watch the trailer. From there you can sign up for the free trial and browse the hundreds of other courses on offer.
Before I tell you more about the specifics of the course, I want to emphasize its greatest strength: it will prove to you that you don’t need any talent to draw. Drawing isn’t mysterious or gifted only to certain people. It’s just like any other activity that requires some knowledge and practice.
“I have never yet…met…a person who could not learn to draw…there is a satisfactory and available power in every one to learn drawing…just as nearly all persons have the power of learning French, Latin, or arithmetic.” - John Ruskin
People also underestimate how much technique is involved in drawing. As I mentioned earlier, it’s NOT a matter of talent - it’s more a matter of learning the right techniques. Generations of artists have developed and refined all kinds of tips and tricks that allow them to achieve the very difficult task of expressing three-dimensional scenes on a two-dimensional surface. It’s no wonder you might feel frustrated if your drawings don’t look as realistic as you want them to, because even with lots of practice, without learning the right techniques it can difficult to replicate what it took generations of artists hundreds of years to figure out!
“Things that seem like they require artistic genius become a simple matter of knowledge and patience”. - Professor David Brody
It wasn’t until the Renaissance when these techniques (like linear perspective) were codified and spread with the printing press. But even then, the expertise wasn’t easy to come by. If you were lucky and well-off enough to have artistic ambitions, you still had to find an artist to take you on as an apprentice, and then it took years of practice to forge a career and find patrons.
Yet we now live in a time when all of this expertise is freely available, which I feel is quite exhilirating! The professor of this course has spent over 30 years teaching drawing, figuring out what works best, collecting all the useful techniques, and now it’s presented to you here in an engaging video course. All you have to do is set aside your doubts and put in the time.
So how long will it take you to learn to draw? Professor Brody agrees with the 19th century artist and writer, John Ruskin:
“Supposing then that you are ready to take a certain amount of pains, and to bear a little irksomeness and a few disappointments bravely, I can promise you that an hour’s practice a day for six months…some hundred and fifty hours practice, will give you sufficient power of drawing faithfully whatever you want to draw…” - John Ruskin
With all this daunting talk of technique, time and practice, I want to emphasize that drawing is fun! As you progress through this course you’ll be delighted by how your powers of expression bloom. Drawing is more than just a technical exercise in replication - it’s an enriching lifelong journey that will change the way you think and see the world.
The How to Draw course consists of 36 video lectures that each run for about 30 minutes, which adds up to 18 hours of video. However if you take your time and complete all of the assignments, it could take up to 8 months or a year to complete. Each assignment is designed to help you understand the concepts he explains in each lecture, so I highly recommend that you do all of the assignments. The only way to learn to draw is to practice diligently and the assignments will help tremendously with your learning and your artistic progress.
The course also comes with a handy 212-page course book (in PDF format) featuring lecture summaries, additional exercises, and recommended reading.
The instructor is David Brody, a professor of painting and drawing at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has a calm and measured teaching style that I enjoyed throughout the course. If you’ve completed a lecture series before, you know how important it is to connect with the professor. You spend a lot of time with them, and it can be hard to concentrate if you’re frustrated by their presentation style, so I’m happy to give David Brody’s teaching style a thumbs-up!
Who is this course for?
You’ll learn what Professor Brody teaches to his university students, and the content is similar to what I learned when I completed my Fine Arts degree almost 15 years ago. If you’ve never drawn before, you’ll begin by learning about the materials you need and how to draw basic shapes with the help of techniques like construction lines. If you’re more experienced, you’re still likely to benefit from advanced techniques, such as linear perspective and figure proportions, that can take your drawing to the next level. I’ve been drawing seriously for over 30 years and this course covered techniques that even I’ve overlooked and should definitely incorporate into my drawings.
Pros and Cons
This course is just like taking an expensive college course, except it’s much cheaper and you have the luxury of taking your time. You can pause the video to take notes or rewatch sections that need reinforcing. You can also fit in lectures (or even just segments) whenever you have time.
The video format also allows Professor Brody to utilize a range of teaching methods. He does practical demonstrations that allow you to follow along. He also uses countless examples from art history to illustrate how great artists have applied the techniques we’re learning. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn about the art of seeing and art criticism.
Professor Brody also makes frequent use of his own students’ drawings, which gives you a good idea of what’s possible for beginners.
The course’s production crew also created hundreds of computer-generated animations (like the one on the right) that explain tricky concepts in creative ways that a book or live class could never achieve.
I also enjoyed Professor Brody’s holistic approach. Much of the course is focused on realism (because that’s generally what people want to learn), but he expands well beyond that by discussing all kinds of creative methods of expression. He helps us see that drawing is an enriching, lifelong pursuit, not just an exercise in copying down what you see.
The only disadvantage of this course is that you can’t ask questions or get feedback from the instructor. However, you can compensate for this by doing the course with a friend (which would also help keep you practicing) or you can join a local drawing group. There are also plenty of online forums, like Wet Canvas, where you can post your art and other artists will provide feedback and advice.
Here’s my attempt to summarize 18 hours of content. I’ve had to leave out a lot in order to condense each lesson into a few sentences, so think of this as more like a small taste of what you can expect to cover in this course. I’d recommend you watch the second half of Lecture 3 (beginning at 16:45) where Professor Brody gives you a visual overview of the entire course.
Remember that as you read through my summaries, much of it might not make sense to you now, which is completely normal. Rest assured that if you watch the course, it’ll all become clear!
Lecture 1: Introduction
Professor Brody introduces us to the history of drawing and emphasizes the point that drawing realistically is simply a matter of learning and practice, just like any other field of endeavor. If you’re having doubts about your ability to learn to draw, I encourage to at least sign up for a free trial and watch this first lecture. It may just give you a newfound faith in what you’re capable of.
Lecture 2: Drawing Materials for Line
In this lecture you’ll learn all about the tools you’ll need to complete the course. Don’t feel like you need to go out and buy everything at once because you don’t need much right away. Here’s what you should start off with, accumulating other art supplies as needed:
Pad of 18” x 24” white drawing paper.
Smaller sketchbook: 9x12 or 11x14
A drawing board to accommodate the 18x24 paper (and some clips or tape)
A set of pencils ranging from at least 4B to 2H.
Erasers. I especially recommend the mechanical and kneaded erasers.
A view finder that he shows us how to make. This is first used in the Lecture 6.
Lecture 3: Drawing Fundamentals and First Exercises
Here you’ll get an overview of the entire course. There are also some exercises to help you develop your hand-eye coordination.
Lecture 4: Line and Aggregate Shape
It’s common to think that artists always draw free-hand, their pencil gliding over the paper as a beautiful subject emerges. While that might be the case with sketching and gesture drawing (which we learn about later), in most instances artists use construction lines and shapes to help guide them so that they can achieve symmetry and correct proportions. Think of it as like scaffolding to create the outline of an object.
In the image below, you can see a vertical construction line was used to achieve symmetry, and various construction shapes that were used to form the outline. You then just round the corners and remove the construction lines.
This lecture also introduces us to another kind of construction shape: the aggregate shape. This helps artists arrange multiple objects in the drawing so that they don’t run out of space. For example, here’s the main aggregate shape for Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper:
Lecture 5: Volume and Figure-Ground
Now we learn about cross-contours and how they can help us make shapes appear three-dimensional. Look at the hexagon on the left: a simple contour-shape. But when we add cross-contours it suddenly appears to have volume.
We also learn about the importance of figure-ground relationships in creating a believable drawing. In the example below, the figure is the triangular aggregate shape of the objects, and the ground is the table and wall (suggested by the horizontal line).
Lecture 6: Positive and Negative Shapes
The objects in our drawings are called “positive shapes”, like the cup, bottle and bowl in the image below. Negative shapes are simply the spaces in between these objects, and in this lecture we learn that negative spaces can be just as important in creating and interpreting a drawing.
This is also when we’re introduced to how we can use our viewfinder to help us draw observationally. With this tool he introduces us to the fun and instructive exercise of drawing a still-life by creating only negative shapes.
Lecture 7: Composition: The Format and its Armature
We learned in the last lecture that the full shape of an artwork is referred to as the “format shape”. This is usually a rectangle. “Armature” refers to the framework or structure of the format shape. This can take many forms, like the rule of thirds, and it helps you arrange your subject within the format.
Lecture 8: Composition: How Artists Compose
This lecture gets to the heart of composition and the strategies that artists use to influence the viewer. There’s too much here to properly summarize, but Professor Brody covers format shape, geometric stresses, horizontals, hierarchy, focal area, focal point, balance, and visual weight.
Lecture 9: Line and Shape: Gestural Line
Professor Brody dives deeper into line varieties by talking about value, width, length, continuity and more. He then introduces us to my favorite type of line, gestural line, which is drawn quickly and expressively without as much care for precision. Artists often use gestural line when trying out different compositions and ideas before starting the final drawing. (I personally have found gestural drawing extremely useful when needing to create lots of art under tight publishing deadlines.) Rembrandt is famous for gestural line, as in this example below.
Lecture 10: Composition: Shape and Advanced Strategies
This lecture concludes the section on composition by investigating other strategies like “the target,” repetition, variation, pattern, and especially contrast. For example, here’s a screenshot from Professor Brody’s examination of the visual rhyming created by triangles and spheres in this drawing:
Lecture 11: Proportion: Alberti’s Velo
Artists have long struggled with how to accurately represent a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional surface. When glass panes became affordable, some artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, would look at a scene through glass (with one eye closed) and trace what they saw. Alberti’s Velo expands on this idea by viewing the scene through a grid, and then plotting points on a proportionally similar grid on paper. Once you’ve plotted enough points, you can connect the dots and you have a perfectly proportional outline of your three-dimensional scene.
Here’s a section of a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer that illustrates Alberti’s Velo in action:
Lecture 12: Proportion: Accurate Proportion and Measure
This lecture delves into other tools for accurate proportions: the clock hand method, a standard unit of measure, level lines & plumb lines, and sighting the half. Here’s a diagram that demonstrates how the clock hand method helps you accurately draw angles.
Lecture 13: Creating Volume and Illusionistic Space
We’ve already looked at recreating the volume of an object. Here we look at 12 principles that help us create volume and dimensionality in the space an object occupies. One principle is the power of diagonals to create spatial depth. Look at how the diagonals of the triangle below and how they read as a receding road.
Lecture 14: Six Complex Drawing Projects
Taking everything that been covered so far, Professor Brody takes us through 6 projects to deepen our skills. Too much to summarize, but here’s an example of a completed project from one of his students.
Lectures 15 to 19: Linear Perspective
Over the course of these five lectures, Professor Brody slowly guides the learner through what can be a daunting technique: linear perspective. It’s simply a method of drawing that relies on geometric principles, and you’ll see that it’s much easier than you think. Once you’ve internalized the principles, it’ll help you see with greater clarity and it will improve even your rough gestural sketches because you’ll have a better sense for how to construct 3D spaces.
The first few lectures focus on the most common type: one-point linear perspective (a single vanishing point). For example, you’ll learn how to precisely draw these buildings:
Professor Brody also demonstrates how you can use one-point perspective to create a gridded room that allows you to place objects proportionally. Below is the gridded room we learn to create, and also an example from one of his students demonstrating how the grid can be used to place and size objects accurately.
In the next lecture Professor Brody shows us how to draw ellipses and patterns in perspective. Here’s an example of a common tile pattern drawn in perspective with the help of a gridded room.
We learn about two-point perspective, whereby objects can be rotated in different positions, requiring two vanishing points to draw them accurately.
He then guides us through this exercise of creating a group of cubes drawn in two-point perspective.
He ends this lecture with a discussion about three-point perspective, which is much less common than one-point and two-point perspective.
Lecture 20: How Artists Use Value
We now move on from line drawing and begin to tackle value and tone.
We learn much more than just shading with value. We learn about tonal scale, value contrast, and how value can affect the feel and mood of a drawing, like with the blocks below.
We also learn about how value can bring out the dimensional form of objects and Professor Brody discussed this drawing by François Boucher as an example of value contrast being used compositionally.
Lecture 21: Value: Drawing Materials for Value
This lecture is a deeper look at the materials you use for creating value and tone. He talks about the differences between graphite and charcoal, and demonstrates how to use ink. He also touches on blending tools, erasers, fixatives, and paper types.
Lecture 22: Black & White and a Value Scale
In this lecture we learn about creating shapes with value instead of line. We also see how we don’t need to copy the values of a scene to recreate it. You can create an interesting mood and a convincing portrait, not to mention the illusion of light and volume, using just black and white.
Lecture 23: Eight Complex Drawing Projects
At this point in the course Professor Brody briefly revisits everything we’ve learned about line and value, accurate proportions, and volume & space. He then assigns us a series of projects designed to help us practice these techniques. Here are what one of his students created from two of these projects:
Lecture 24: Side Light and Cast Shadow
In this lecture we learn about the fascinating geometry of cast shadows. Professor Brody shows us how we can use linear perspective (aka the perspective of shadows) and the direction of the light to precisely plot the exact length and shape of a shadow.
Lecture 25: Oblique Light and Cast Shadow
This lecture continues with cast shadows and how you deal with light coming from different angles, and even multiple light sources.
We then finish off the lecture with some projects designed to hone our skill at drawing cast shadows. Here’s an example from one of his students.
Lectures 26 & 27: How Artists Use Texture
In these lectures we learn about the different ways artists can use and create texture in their drawings. Texture in the context of drawing can refer to the physical texture of the drawing (e.g. rough paper), the visual texture (created by certain brush strokes) and the texture of the subject (e.g. you’re drawing a furry dog). In this context we also get introduced to hatching and other forms of mark-making. Take a look at the way Van Gogh uses hatching to create wonderful texture in the drawing below.
Professor Brody also demonstrates various hatching techniques, and other creative types of mark-making that use home-made tools or just a bunch of pencils wielded at the same time.
Lectures 28-30: How Artists Use Color
These three lectures constitute a crash course in the wonderful world of color theory. We learn about the color wheel, properties of color (hue, value and saturation), and the infinite combinations you can create with color contrast. For example, here’s an identical red surrounded by three different red grounds. You might assume the 3 red center squares are 3 different colors, so it’s amazing to learn that they’re all the same red - your eye just thinks they look different due to the different colors that surround each one!
Professor Brody then makes the point that using color effectively is about color limitation. This is something I still need to work on because I love to use every color of the rainbow in every artwork I make, so it was helpful to be reminded that using a limited color palette can be incredibly effective, and even preferable - especially when creating certain moods in an artwork. To illustrate this he takes us through a series of classic artworks and shows us how the artists used limited color palettes to influence the viewer. Here’s an example:
The final lecture on color involves a series of drawing projects that help us explore color palettes and color hierarchy, and how to use them to create space, volume and light. Here are two examples from his students.
Lectures 31-34: The Figure
Figure drawing can be quite tricky because we’re all shaped differently. But Professor Brody introduces us to a canon of proportions we can use as a way to construct our figures. He instructs us on how to draw anterior, posterior and lateral views. We also learn about the trick of using the head as a unit of measurement.
Professor Brody then takes us through the steps of using proportions to draw the head, hands, and feet. He makes interesting comparisons with the useful diagrams that Albrecht Dürer created way back in the 16th century.
We learn about adding volume to our figure, in addition to a quick overview of the bones and muscles of the body, followed by an exercise in learning how to draw them. Here’s an example from one of Professor Brody’s students.
The final lecture on figure drawing involves a series of projects, such as invented figure proportions and placing our figures in a scene, both with line drawings and value drawings. Here are some examples from Professor Brody’s students.
Lecture 35: Advanced Concepts: Pictorial Space
In the penultimate lecture, Professor Brody introduces us to the long running debate of “what is good art?”. We’re prompted to think about how we should approach two important questions that every artist must face: What should I draw and how should I draw it?
We’re also introduced to the concept of “Pictorial Space,” which is the illusion artists create to suggest three-dimensional space. In the late 19th century, artists began rebelling against the tradition, made popular during the Renaissance, that limited pictorial space to receding lines seen from a fixed point of view. Artists began experimenting with multiple points of view and something called “ambiguous space”.
Professor Brody illustrates this shift by discussing Piet Mondrian’s career. He painted both artworks below. The painting on the left is more traditional, and the painting on the right pushes the boundaries of ambiguous space. Pretty cool and inspiring, in my opinion!
Lecture 36: Advanced Drawing Projects
In the final lecture of the course, Professor Brody introduces us to exercises that we can use to take our drawings even further. He encourages us to expand beyond technical and formal considerations and explore themes and problems with which to tackle with our drawings. Drawing well is much more about drawing realistically. It’s about expression and exploration!
If you made it this far in my review, thank you!
There’s no shortage of drawing tutorials online, but the vast majority only teach you how to copy an object in a specific, step-by-step manner. The How to Draw course is one of the few resources available that will give you a comprehensive grounding in the art of drawing, such that you’ll have the skills and ability to draw whatever your imagination can invent!
Plus, the production value of The Great Courses Plus videos far exceed what you'll find for free online. While free YouTube videos can be helpful, they can only take you so far. If you're looking for a professionally-made video course that provides a strong foundation on everything you need to know to feel confident with drawing, you can't go wrong with the How to Draw course.
As I mentioned above, I get a small commission from The Great Courses Plus if you sign up with them via the link below. This review helps keep this site free, and I’ve enjoyed recommending a course and a service that truly will enrich your life!
You can access the How to Draw course by signing up for a subscription with the Great Courses Plus. After a 14-day free trial, it costs around $15 per month and you get unlimited access to hundreds of courses!