Lines, Ellipses, Perspective, Cross Contours, Bugs and Animals, Oh My!

One of the most important goals in my 600-page Project Megasketch was to develop line quality, and move away from chicken-scratchy type sketches that destroy the flow of beautiful lines and graceful forms. It's difficult to place a line exactly where we want it as it curves around a form, or moves straight across the page.  We compensate by trying again, and again, and again. What we end up with is a hatchet-job of a sketch, created with lots of small lines in an attempt to correct what we didn't do right in the first place. Even if one of those many lines is correct, the sum of the parts is not pleasing.

I searched online to find a process that would lead to an improvement in the quality of my line work, and came upon Draw A Box.  I think it's one of the best free resources for drawing on the internet. Don't miss the opportunity to take advantage of it! If you've decided to take on Project Megasketch, I'd highly recommend that you make it part of your Megasketch journey.

You may get tired of drawing lines and ellipses after several days of it, but the eventual payoff is huge. Don't skip over it. I stopped counting the pages toward Project Megasketch that I spent on the lines and ellipses because there were so many of them. I found them invaluable as warm ups. A couple of months later, I pulled out some vases, pots, pitchers and bottles to sketch. I wanted to see if it helped as much as I hoped. I found that I could draw them directly with ink in just a couple of minutes, and even if they weren't perfect, the improvement in my ellipses when applied to drawings was dramatic.

The Draw A Box lessons lead you to understand first hand the role that ellipses and lines play in conveying roundness and form with cross contours.  Below is a group of amoeba-like shapes on a page. Variations in the cross contours give different three dimensional forms to those shapes. This can be applied to everything from animals and tree branches, to abstract objects in developing 3D drawing skills.

The cross contour lines are akin to blowing up a balloon, or sculpting a piece of clay. As a painter who mainly used value to build form, it wasn't often that I got to experience the role that line alone can play. It made me realize how much brushwork and stroke direction could help shape an object's form.

But Draw A Box lessons don't stop there. They also go extensively into one, two and three point perspective. Although I knew the rules of perspective, I hadn't spent weeks and months actually doing it every single day. Practice makes such a huge difference in developing skill. It's like the difference between knowing how to read music, and actually being able to play the piece. Practice, practice, practice. You'll do a lot of it in those online exercises.

The lessons have you do both measured perspective using a ruler, and eyeballing the perspective like you'd often have to do out in the field, then checking your work with a ruler and making corrections. For the page below, I did the exercises in two point perspective with a green pen, eyeballing the angles, then went back with a red pen and a ruler to self-check and correct where needed.

So, are we done yet? No! You'll also work on form intersections, and then draw several pages of plants and flowers. Here's one of mine:

Then you go to the lessons for insects and other animals.

These are just a fraction of the drawings I did in Project Megasketch that were from the Draw A Box lessons. (I used other resources too, which I'm happy to share.) I wanted to show a number of them to convey the breadth of what's covered in the lessons on that website. You'll have some frustrating days, but if you go through all the lessons and trust the process, you will be well rewarded for your efforts in terms of improved skills and concepts.

If you missed the post that gave an overview of Project Megasketch and what it involves, here is a link to that post.


  1. Hi Jamie,
    When I read your Project Megasketch I was amused because I had decided to do something similar this winter. I wasn't as organized as you, just generating exercises from my book library. But Drawabox looks to be a superb framework to organize both my thoughts and activities. Thanks for the reference. I hope you'll continue talking about this as we plough through winter.

    1. Larry, thank you for your comments. I'm glad you're doing something similar. Finding the right reference material to meet whatever goals you set is one of the hardest parts of the challenge. It's easy to totally break the flow and grind progress to a halt if we have to continually stop for long periods to find the next thing to sketch. I also relied extensively on my own library, but came up with a bunch of other ideas that I will definitely share! Feel free to add anything you've found to the comments too. I'm glad you like the Draw A Box site.

    2. My approach has been more helter-skelter than yours. I'd just been using photocopy paper and cardstock to do drawing exercises and experiments with gouache. All of that stuff has gone in the garbage as I did them.

      Your more ordered approach made sense to me and I've shifted to putting this stuff in a 9x12 book. I couldn't bring myself to buy one of those huge books because I didn't think I could convince myself to tear it apart and I knew that working with such a thick-spined book wouldn't be workable.

      Like you, I'm starting to do the DrawABox lessons, drawing half a dozen heads from TV every day, and some paint stuff. Specifically, I started doing 3-tone watercolors using Paynes Gray as the base color but I was enthused by your earlier gouache series where you had (I think) mixed up a 5-tone palette. I want to do the same thing. I'm such a copycat :-) Thanks again for your inspiration.

    3. Larry, I think it's really important to save it all, so I'm glad to hear that you've stopped throwing away the sketches. When you reach the end of your time frame (whenever that is), you'll be able to see how the process has led you from one thing to another. The sum of the parts will probably tell some kind of a story that you can reflect on. Saving it doesn't mean you need to show it to anybody else, and you might gain a lot from reflecting on the journey and leafing through it. Also, removing the pages from that book allowed me to incorporate different types of paper by cutting it to the same size. That gave me the freedom to experiment with different media, priming, and effects.

      You're wise to give yourself a number of different things to work on each day. Battling the restlessness and exercise boredom is an important component of getting through the process!

      I'll have to take a look at my earlier gouache palette with five colors. It's been awhile since I posted a setup! My gouache palette is very heavily laden with colors right now, though I often limit use on a given piece to just five or six. I do like working with just a few colors too, and monochromatically. Much depends on subject matter and mood.

      Keep up the enthusiastic work. I'll look forward to hearing about it as your project evolves.

    4. I'm someone who doesn't look back at what I've done so I see keeping everything simply as a way of keeping score to keep me producing quantity. Everyone talks about reflecting on your progress so I assume that's a good thing. I just don't do it. When I finish a sketchbook it just goes on a shelf with the rest of them. I rarely look at any of them.

      I hedged a bit when talking about your 5-toned gouache palette because I wasn't really sure it was gouache. You presented a bunch of beautiful landscapes with the gouache label and some others as acrylics. The one where you actually showed your little monochrome palette didn't say which it was. What's certain is that it's a good idea (grin).