First things first, be realistic. Nobody's going to be a Leonardo or Rembrandt the first time you put your pencil to paper. Great artists get to where they are by drawing everyday for years. It takes not only talent but a lot of discipline, dedication, and commitment. For the casual sketcher who is just starting off, it might be helpful to remember that Leonardo started off where you are now. You are at a point where the greatest artists used to be once in their lives!
Beginning with the Basics
First thing you need to know is what level you are at and what kind of sketching you want to do. Not all subjects or styles require the same skills and proficiency in those skills. If you're content with drawing stick figures and oddly shaped buildings and landscapes that don't look like the real thing, you could very well do without learning some drawing fundamentals. For that kind of drawing, you're probably more concerned with having fun and recording what you feel than recording what you see. But if you want to reproduce what you see and create beautiful looking and convincing artwork, then there are some basic rules you need to understand and learn, such as:
- How to handle a pencil
The humble pencil is perhaps the most versatile tool in your arsenal. It can give you different textures and tones, isn't messy like charcoal, nor unforgiving like watercolours. It can be layered, erased, dark and light, and give you broad as well as narrow lines. It is easy to pick up, and though it takes time and effort to master, it is still easier to become proficient with it than with other media.
There are several different ways to hold a pencil. Different grips are used for different drawing styles (http://drawsketch.about.com/od/learntodraw/ss/howtoholdpencil.htm). Some grips are better for fine detail, requiring smaller movements from the fingers or wrist. Other grips (like the overhand grips) are better for large broad strokes, which will require you to use the whole arm (from shoulder to elbow).
Do not underestimate the pencil. Get to know it well, and it will be your best friend.
Tone refers to the light and dark values. A familiar word may be "shading", but it's actually a little more fundamental than that. "Shading" is made up of tones. It is easier for beginners to work in black and white because handling colour can get quite confusing, but that doesn't mean your drawing will be boring if it's in only 1 colour. When you're able to handle different tones well and know how to use them to create depth, texture and mood in your drawing, you're in a better position to handle colour.
Getting different tones using the pencil is simply a matter of controlling the pressure with which applying. More pressure = darker tones. Nothing complicated like trying to mix darker blacks (when using paints) or doing cross-hatching (when using pen and ink). The trick is knowing where to put the dark and lights. One tip that artists use to see tonal values better is by squinting. When you squint, you don't see so much detail and colour, which can be overwhelming and distracting when you are trying to get the big picture into your... er... picture.
Ever tried drawing a building and felt that it was "not quite right"? Like maybe the ground seems to be ascending into the distance when in reality it's flat, or some objects on the ground seem to be floating in your drawing? It may be because you got your perspective wrong. No, I'm not talking about the way you're looking at a situation. Perspective is the phenomenon where things seem to recede into the distance.
While people have always seen things in perspective since the beginning of time, rules for perspective drawing were developed and proliferated in the Renaissance period. Yes, that is during Leonardo Da Vinci's time. That's why when you look at some medieval paintings, the ground plane looks quite awkward and the placement of objects in the painting look all over the place.
Drawing things in perspective is not very difficult. Learning to create perspective lines and knowing how they work can greatly help you keep the subjects in your painting grounded (pun intended). Check out these links on how perspective works and how to use it in your drawing:
When we talk about proportion, we're talking about relative sizes. For example, the length of your arm compared to the length of your leg. That's why some children's drawings of people have arms longer than legs. That may work for gorillas, but unless you're drawing Beast in X-men, they don't work for humans.
You use proportion when you draw something bigger because it is nearer than something smaller in the distance, or when there are differences in sizes and lengths of objects next to each other (either in 3D space in real life or 2D space on your paper). Learning to see relative sizes can help you indicate distance and size in your drawing when used together with tones and perspective. If you have seen artists hold out their pencil at arm's length, close one eye and look past it to the object they are drawing, what they're really doing is using the pencil to measure the object before they draw it on the paper. Here's how we do it:
Trying to reproduce on paper the colour we see in real life can be a challenge for beginners. Our eyes can see a greater range of colour (which are actually different wavelengths of light) than our paints or computer monitor can reproduce. That is why learning a bit about colour theory and how light works can help. If you're doing more cartoony style, trying to reproduce what you see may not be as important as choosing the right colours and colour-combinations to create something pleasing to the eye. A quick search on Google for "colour theory" (or "color theory" if you're American) wih give you many resources to choose from. But if you're just using graphite pencils, this may not be that necessary.
The way I see it there's a lot more space for artistic creativity in the use of colour, so don't get too hung up on it as if you're trying to do a photo-real drawing.
If you're sketching, it's not so much about creating a photograph with your hand. It's about capturing the essence, the atmosphere, the feel of the environment in that moment in time. Have fun doing it. That's the most important. These tips are here for those who want to get better at creating better drawings, not to rob you of your fun or stress you up by trying to be a Rembrandt or Leonardo.
You can learn these things from books, videos (Youtube is a great resource) or other people. Go to the library, go out with other artists on sketchwalks, go take courses! You don't become an artist overnight or in a weekend (I'm highly skeptical about those books that claim they can take total beginners and teach them to draw within a weekend). It takes time and practice, so don't be too hard on yourself if your drawings don't look like what you had in mind. If you keep at it, you can only get better :)