January 24, 2017

How To NOT Get Overwhelmed With A Complex Drawing

by Corrina Thurston


Sometimes you think of a drawing or you see (or take) a photo that you want to draw, but as much as you want to draw it, you hesitate because it’s complicated. Some drawings have a daunting amount of detail. You look at it and pull back because trying to draw it makes you nervous. Here’s the techniques that I use to keep myself calm while attempting complex drawings.

How to not get overwhelmed with a complex drawing.

Work One Section At A Time

The best way to not get overwhelmed with a complicated drawing is to work one section at a time. If the drawing is VERY complex, then make the sections small. Sometimes they can be bigger.

The African Elephant drawing was complex because of all the details in the elephant's skin. So I worked section by section, some smaller, some bigger, until it was a whole drawing.
The African Elephant drawing was complex because of all the details in the elephant’s skin. So I worked section by section, some smaller, some bigger, until it was a whole drawing.

The African Elephant drawing was a rather complicated piece, and as shown above, I worked on it piece by piece until it was a whole drawing. I worked in smaller sections than shown above, especially for the middle of the drawing with all of the little wrinkles and sections of the elephant’s face.

The Kingfisher was another overwhelming drawing due to its complexity. Just look at the splashing water! It was an ambitious piece for me to try and draw, but when I saw the photograph (taken by Wendy Salisbury, who I’m grateful let me use the image as a reference photo!), I knew I had to draw it. It was just too fantastic to pass up.

The Kingfisher drawing, section by section.
The Kingfisher drawing, section by section.

For the Kingfisher drawing, I started with the head, and even while drawing the head I first drew the eye, then the section of the fish, then the section of the blue-green feathers, then the orange feathers, etc.


Work Slowly And Map Things Out

Common Loon In colored pencil
Common Loon finished drawing
In colored pencil

Sometimes, like with water, you can work a section at at time, but it’s better two work on the whole thing slowly, so that it looks uniform. Take my Common Loon colored pencil drawing as an example. Water is challenging, no mater what it looks it. This water was very challenging with all the ripples and disjointed reflection. Therefore, I moved slowly as I mapped out the darkest areas of the water. I moved throughout the entire piece, layer by layer, to make sure it was uniform. I focused on each little section of shadow and highlight and medium coloring as I was mapping, and then moved on to the section next to it.

Mapping out the Loon and the water, layer by layer.
Mapping out the Loon and the water, layer by layer.


Don’t Sweat The Little Stuff, So They Say

One of the best things to help you keep from getting overwhelmed is to ignore some of your inner perfectionist. If you want to get through a complicated drawing unscathed, you need to keep in mind why you’re drawing it in the first place. It’s challenging, it’ll help you grow as an artist, you just LOVE the image, and drawing is something you enjoy doing (and possibly, because you’re getting paid to do it!).

Keeping those reasons in mind, ask yourself: Does this drawing need to be perfect? What’ll happen if I make a mistake? Anything?

Even with commissioned pieces, all you can do is your best, and at least from my experience, people tend to draw better if they enjoy doing it. Therefore, don’t scare yourself and fret so much that you ruin the experience for yourself.

Try not to get too caught up in every tiny detail if it stops you from making progress. If a section is giving you trouble and it’s messing with your enthusiasm or confidence about the drawing, move on and come back to it. Keep moving forward!


Find A Mentor/Ask For Advice

Sometimes you come across a section of a drawing where you just don’t have the experience or knowledge to confidently attempt it. When that happens, you can always just try your hand at it, of course, or you can seek out someone who has done it before. It’s not hard to find artists online (or in your community) who have done similar pieces of artwork. If you have no idea how to begin a section of your drawing, ask for help! Some artists will decline to tell you their “secrets,” but others (like me) will be more than happy to help you out and give you advice. Then it’s up to you to attempt the feat!

I hope you attempt every drawing or painting or sculpture or musical piece, etc. that gives your heart a little flutter when you think about, no matter how complex it is! It may not end up perfect, I know mine certainly haven’t, but they are absolutely worth trying to create, despite the challenges.


Let me know about complex drawings or creations that you’ve tried in the past!

2 thoughts on “How To NOT Get Overwhelmed With A Complex Drawing

  1. I cam across your site and was overjoyed by reading your advice on complex drawing and how to not be overwhelmed. I just have to ask for your advice: How oh how would you break down such a complicated thing as Viking knotwork art?

    I´ve been trying for YEARS to get into it (not exxaggerating, it really is true!) but am still as clueless as ever on how to tackle geometric art like such. Funny thing is, I do have formal art education but alas geometric designs elude me, which is a shame because I would love to be able to draw stuff like that not only for my enjoyment but because it ties in to my heritage too. Every teacher I´ve approached has shied away from explaining how to not get overwhelmed but said “just trace the reference, do a 101 grid…” this is great for established designs but what if I want to make my own? I find such methods make me too dependent on references..

    There must be a technique somewhere in there, I´ve seen concept art sketches where the artist somehow has magically broken down the art into shapes or made an insanely complicated sketch.. I think I´m severly missing something.. but I don´t know what.

    I would be so happy if you could give me advice on my art journey, especially since your skill level is professional tier.

    Thank you if you decide to answer.

    1. Hi Stephania! Thanks so much for leaving your comment. Complicated drawings like the one you’re talking about are particularly difficult. When you don’t want to go from a reference photo, the challenge increases exponentially. With an established image to draw from, I would say using a grid is a good idea and take it in a small section at a time. But when you’re trying to create your own drawing like this, I would say practice with the reference ones and then experiment with drawing ones from reference photos where you change a little bit here and there. Then work your way up to changing more and more of them until you are able to create your own.

      I don’t typically do drawings like these you’re talking about, so I don’t have any specific experience to draw on for suggestions, but like most detailed drawings, patience is definitely key. I typically start with the largest shape of what’s in the image (ie. a circle, the outline of a cat’s head, etc.), as a generic shape, then move into slowly adding more details and more details. Definitely experiment with graphite so you can erase and go back and erase and go back to tweak it the way you want. Don’t feel like the drawing has to be perfect, just think of it as an experiment, that way the pressure doesn’t get to you. It’s a drawing just for you, so there’s no pressure and it doesn’t have to be good and certainly not perfect.

      Each drawing comes together one line at a time, not as a single image. Take your time and work at it a little at a time.

      I hope this helps!

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