How to Create the Best Outline When Drawing Realistic Photos

Outlines are the initial lines of shapes an Artist draws when creating the structure of the Drawing. There are skill sets required to lay down really good outlines that determine how similar the drawing would turn out to be by recreating the shapes of the reference image. Don’t worry too much about this stage in drawing, outlines can be fixed and corrected as the drawing matures, just keep in mind not to introduce wrinkles or dirt when erasing mistakes on the Drawing Paper.

Sometimes experienced artists can bring a drawing to life* even without having an outline accurately drawn down onto the paper. Not to say that all artists follow the same path to drawing by first outlining the shapes of the object but knowing this step will help master one of the critical stages of a Drawing.


Drawing Free-Hand

Free-Hand Drawing is when an Artist draws from observation, normally without some sort of method applied to how the drawing is produced.

It is a hope for many artists to be able to draw freely but acquiring this skill takes more practice and mastering techniques to correct mistakes. One of the techniques to correct the mistake when one is made is by starting out with lighter outlines.

Start by drawing really light strokes of the outline then gradually work yourself to make them visible to the human eye. This could be worked upon in layers or could darken the lines at one. My advice will be to first draw the subject with lighter pencils and after the subject is visible to you (An Artist) then you can work on darkening the outlines.

Drawing Outlines from a Grid-Method
As a beginner, it is important to get the outline of a drawing as accurately as possible because the whole drawing will be based on that outline.

In other instances when an artist doesn’t need an outline to draw a realistic picture, all they need is a reference photo or even imagination to draw.

As mentioned earlier, if you need a method to guide you to achieve great accuracy then Grid-Method will help you get the right perspective. We will look into Grid-Method in Chapter 7.

Figure I1

Figure I2

It is important to know at this level that a good outline can be achieved by drawing light strokes of pencil on the paper. When outlining, make sure not to damage the paper by drawing hard lines as it becomes convoluted to erase hard lines and might end up damaging the paper.

[Tip] Don’t forget to plug the earbuds/headphones in and listen to your favorite music while you outline the image. This will put you in the right mood and enjoy the process.

Below are steps to consider when making an outline

  • Make sure that you are not pressing your pencil hard on the paper when making outlines.
  • Prepare H5 and HB Pencils to start outlining the image, H5 will help start structure/shapes.
  • Start with light strokes and then move on to a slightly darker one by using HB Pencil. Most artists are absolutely fine working from lighter strokes and avoid harder strokes at all costs unless needed. Keep in mind when working with HB, that is the darkest you can go when drawing an outline, be extremely careful not to press hard on any lines otherwise you might leave dark marks that are hard to erase.
  • As you make outlines, picture the image in shapes and understand why those shapes are there and how they coincide with each other.
  • Don’t be afraid to rotate the image to understand shapes, this is very helpful in seeing the image from another angle.

    [Note] One technique I can share with you when drawing outlines is that I completely ignore what I am going to draw but only focus on drawing shapes from the reference image.

    In doing so, the outline of the shapes becomes close to the original image, this technique is very effective when you are drawing from a very small reference photo and expanding the drawing on a larger scale.
  • If you have time, use a mirror to observe the shape of an image and see how they connect to each other. Using a mirror helps you see the shapes from another angle, or another perspective, and easily spot the distortion in the shape.

    [NB] The substitute for using a mirror is by using binoculars in a long-range mode, this helps find mistakes that you could otherwise not be able to find with human eyes.

    When using tools to spot imperfections, pay attention to the first instinct and note down your observations. It is those little things that makeup Drawing a realistic masterpiece.
  • Use a clear and clean Eraser to erase mistakes and remember to keep the outlines as clean as possible.


Outlining is very important because it lays down the structure of the drawing. Getting this stage of drawing right will help you head in the right direction when drawing a realistic image. If you find yourself struggling to agree on whether the outline is good enough or not, remember outlines can be corrected at a later stage in the drawing.

The most important takeaways are not to damage your paper by drawing hard strokes and be patient enough by understanding the outlines cannot be as the reference image itself (The Outline will always be an outline, that is what makes a drawing admirable). Keep it clean and lighter, that way you can add pencil graphite to your outlines in layers.

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