How to draw anything by simplifying the picture into shapes

For a long time, I have been asked by my art students and enthusiasts how do you manage to draw really complicated detailed drawings. I mean we are referring to portraits, landscapes, complex objects and what not. The simple and clear solution is simplifying. Every subject/object can be simplified so it is easily understood and deduced. The smoothness and polishing like shading, rounding of rough drawn lines is done later.

How to simplify? For this we will go back to foundations. As I have mentioned before in my drawing articles, you do need to have a solid understanding of drawing fundamentals to improve your drawing. Without these, you are going to lack major concepts which really make a huge difference in how your art turns out to be. The foundation we are going to be applying here revolves around the very basic shapes - 3d shapes, i.e. Cone, Sphere, Cube, and Cuboid; and then 2d, triangle, circle, square, and rectangle).

The 3d shapes mainly help simplify shading and 2d mainly simplify form. We may intermix where we find necessary; these are NOT RULES but act as guides that make it easy to understand subject contour, and outline.

Please remember that you want to try to make the below steps a long term habit because these steps are not going to perfect overnight! Recall, how I mentioned drawing is a skill and takes time and practice. A side note - I will be using multiple references to explain concepts so I can cover a wider range of objects/subjects and I also don’t want you guys to be comfortable with just drawing one thing. If I have a new reference, start a new drawing afresh so you can practice the previous concept. 

So without further adieu, let’s begin using shapes to draw pictures!! 

1.  Deconstruct into simple geometric shapes

This is the first and foremost step - this is to identify the major shapes of the subject. This shape should essentially identify sort of what the object looks like if there was no lighting, no dimensions or texture, and no curved edges (for the most part) -  only 2d shapes. 

Take, for example, the image of this lamp below from Pexels.


On first glance, some of you may find it very complicated to draw given there’s so many variations in the form but that is why we are simplifying it, right?! The full lamp can be mainly simplified using rectangles like this. Does not look as complex. right?


If you are feeling confident about drawing like above, you can also totally draw the wires and such using curved cylinders like this.


Now, it is very important to draw proportionally. If some of you struggle with drawing shapes properly, use a hypothetical vertical line in the middle that can be used as a reference to draw this correctly. Or you can measure the left and right sides with a ruler initially but it is best if you train your eyes to spot the irregularities.

Rectangles like below are NOT ACCEPTABLE unless they represent the shape of the area well - this will come with practice but please keep refining this skill as it is very important.


Also, remember to always draw outlines very light so they can blend in with shading easier. Harsh strokes are unnecessary and leave an impression on the paper which cannot be rectified.

2.  Using 3d shapes to add dimension

Once we have the 2d shapes drawn out, we will proceed to adding dimension. If you did the above step appropriately and have an understanding of cubes, cuboids and spheres, this should be as smooth as silk. Let’s take a look at the picture of a camera below - full image at Pexels.


You should be able to spot the main 2d shapes now but here is a reference if you need help.


For 3d shapes, let’s look at the very basic shape of a camera - you guessed it - Cuboid! A camera is basically a cuboid with more detailing on it. So draw a cuboid facing right just like how the image has the camera facing right. On the top of the camera, draw another cuboid (the front face to the right being a trapezius) and now extend this cuboid forward as some of this part follows towards the lens outside of the cuboid. Then right below this is another cuboid which has the lens attached to. This will be the base of the lens (cylinder) extension.

Do this until you have a full 3d skeleton of the camera ready. This may time time to perfect but once you have good practice, this will be super quick. Below is sort of what your drawing should look like.


I recommend working on step 1 and step 2 on multiple objects and subjects to get an in-depth understanding and working knowledge of this concept. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO RESTART!!

Here is another example of a subject (hand, in this case) simplified by shapes.


Once you are happy with this drawing, move on to the next part.

3.  Add details, blending, and finishing up

Congrats buddies! You made it this far!! This step is now the testing time - meaning, it will decide the final outline of your drawing. This is the part where you can get to dive deeper into the form but now that you have an armature, the form will be far more easier to draw.

This step requires you to have good control on your stroke thickness, stroke intensity, and shading (if you plan to add lights and shadows to your drawing). Now that you have your 3d structure all ready, you need to smoothen out edges where you need. For instance, in the camera, the top part (cuboid/trapezius) had rounded corners so this will be the time to do just that. You can move further by adding more details like adding the texture. This article is focussed on Simplification only but if you really are unsure how to go further then go ahead and read my Improve your Drawing article; I have shared some really important tips that can help you transform your drawings in the right direction.

That’s all for now!

If you need more guidance on any of the above, please reach out to me on my email and attach the drawing you are working on so I can give you my insight and possibly some useful tips. Till then, keep practicing.