How To Outline a Drawing: Techniques For Perfect Outlining

Quick Tips For How To Outline a Drawing

  • Learning how to outline a drawing is the first step in drawing that helps you plan your picture, focusing on how thick or thin your lines should be, and what the drawing will look like.
  • Use a sharp pencil and smooth paper, and make sure your drawing area is bright, to help you outline better.
  • Use tracing and transferring methods to clean up your drawing’s edges and add sharp details, making your art look polished.
  • You can use the ‘grid method’ to transfer or outline a drawing that is being copied.
  • I think you should attempt a free-hand outline of a drawing before you use other methodical ways to outline a drawing.
  • Learn to draw thick and thin lines, keep your hand steady, and use light and dark areas to make your drawings look real and pop off the page.
  • Focus on the shape of what you’re outlining and not the mental image of what you are drawing.
  • Try using different line styles to create textures, and use outline shapes to add a 3D look. These tricks can make your drawings look more detailed and lifelike.
  • Outlining is an essential step in drawing that sets the stage for the final artwork, involving decisions on line thickness, texture, and tone.

The Difference Between Outlining a Drawing and Copying/Tracing a Drawing

Before we get started, I do want to make it clear that outlining and copying a drawing are two distinct and separate things in art, each serve a different purposes and use different skills:

Outlining a drawing:


Outlining is typically used to create a basic structure or framework of the artwork. It involves drawing the main lines and shapes that define the form of the subject. This is often the first step in a more detailed artistic process.


When outlining, you focus on capturing the contours and features of the image without filling in all the details. It’s about sketching the general shapes and layout that guide further development.

Using Freehand – Steps:

  1. Sketch Lightly: Start with a light sketch of your drawing using a pencil. This sketch is like a rough draft, where you can make mistakes and try different ideas without worrying. It’s best to use simple shapes to form the basic structure of what you’re drawing.
  2. Refine Your Sketch: Once you have the basic shapes down, start refining them. Adjust the shapes and proportions to better match what you’re trying to draw. This step is about improving the details gradually.
  3. Decide on the Outline: Look at your refined sketch and decide which lines are most important. These will be the lines you’ll use to create your outline.
  4. Start Outlining: Using a darker pencil or a pen, begin tracing over the lines you’ve decided are crucial to your drawing. Press a bit harder to make these lines stand out, but be careful to follow the curves and angles you refined in the earlier step.
  5. Clean Up Your Drawing: Once you’ve outlined the main parts, take an eraser and carefully remove the lighter sketch lines that you no longer need. This step helps to clean up your drawing and makes your outlines clear and sharp.
  6. Enhance Details: With the main outlines done, you can add details to your drawing. This might include textures, patterns, or additional small shapes that complement your main outlines.
  7. Final Touches: Review your outlined drawing to see if any areas need more definition or if some lines should be smoother. Adjust as necessary to finish up your drawing.
outlining a drawing using freehand

Using Tracing – Steps:

  1. Choose Your Drawing: Start with a drawing you’ve already made. This will be the picture you want to transfer.
  2. Tracing Paper: Place a sheet of tracing paper over your original drawing. Tracing paper is thin and see-through, so you can see your drawing underneath it.
  3. Trace the Outline: Using a pencil, trace over the main lines of your drawing on the tracing paper. Make sure to include all important details that you want to transfer.
  4. Prepare the New Surface: Get the new surface ready where you want to transfer your drawing. This could be a canvas, a different piece of paper, or even a wall.
  5. Transfer the Drawing: Turn the tracing paper over so the pencil lines are facing down onto the new surface. You can tape it down to keep it from moving. Use a pencil to rub the back of the tracing paper all over. The pressure from the pencil will transfer the graphite from the tracing onto the new surface.
  6. Retrace and Enhance: Remove the tracing paper and you’ll see a light outline of your drawing on the new surface. Go over these lines with a pencil or other drawing tools to make them clearer and add details.
  7. Finish Your Art: Now you can add colors, shading, and other artistic touches to complete your artwork on the new surface.
tracing a drawing over a window

Skill Development:

Outlining helps develop an understanding of shapes, proportions, and spatial relationships. It trains the artist to see and replicate the fundamental aspects of any subject.

Copying a drawing:


Copying a drawing involves replicating an existing artwork as closely as possible. This can be for practice, to learn a particular style or technique, or to reproduce an artwork.


Copying requires attention to detail and a precise duplication of the original work, including textures, shading, and sometimes color. The goal is to mirror every aspect of the original image.

Skill Development:

This technique improves observational skills, precision, and technique in using various artistic tools and media. It also helps artists understand and absorb styles and methods from other artists.

In short, outlining is all about laying down a foundational sketch, while copying is about creating an exact replica of another artwork. Both techniques have their place in art education and practice, helping to develop different sets of skills.

In this article we discuss more the copying/reproducing side of outlining drawings but these techniques can also be applied to the foundational sketch of a drawing.

how to outline a drawing

Preparing to Outline Your Drawing

Outlining your drawing makes up part of the planning process of making art and sets out the direction your pencil will take.

Let’s get everything ready, so your outlining trip is smooth sailing.

Choosing the Right Materials

First things first, pick the right tools. What you should use to outline your drawing matters a lot.


A really sharp pencil is your best friend here because it gives you thin lines that are perfect for detailed work.

Light grey Polychromos pencils, like Cool or Warm Grey I or II, are great choices.

They keep a sharp point and make lovely outlines. If you’re working on a specific color theme, like a sunflower or a green tree, grab a pencil in one of those colors.

Yellow pencils are great for light-colored themes because they’re kind of transparent.

Drawing Pencils and Erasers


For paper, smooth is the way to go. It’s like choosing a clear path over a rocky road.

Most types of papers are fine, just pick one you find is suitable for your art. If you want to learn more about paper then I have an article here.

If you’re working off paper stuck to a desk or wall then use a low-tack artist tape to keep your paper in place won’t hurt your computer or TV screen if you’re using one of them as your light table.


Setting Up Your Workspace

Let’s talk about where you’ll be creating your masterpiece. Your workspace is your mini studio. Make sure it’s well lit.

I prefer a cool light source as it helps me see colors better, but many people prefer warm light sources as they’re less harsh on the eye and are more calming.

Natural light is fantastic, but a good desk lamp does wonders too. Keep your tools within arm’s reach. This way, you won’t have to stop mid-flow to hunt for your eraser or sharpener.

If you’re using a reference image, position it where you can see it easily without straining your neck.

If you’re drawing from a photo, think about how to turn that picture into an outline.

Maybe you’ll trace it using a window as a makeshift lightbox during the day, or perhaps you’ll go high-tech and use your computer or TV screen.

When you’re all set up, take a moment. Look around. Breathe in. You’ve got this.

With everything in the right place, you’re ready to begin the exciting process of bringing your outline to life. Remember, outlining is not just about tracing shapes.

It’s about turning those shapes into the foundation of your artwork.

Whether it’s creating continuous lines, deciding the line width, or refining the sketch effect, each stroke of your pencil brings your vision closer to reality.

Basic Techniques for Outlining

artist copying a drawing using the grid method

Outlining a drawing might sound simple, but it’s like the skeleton of your artwork. It holds everything together.

Imagine drawing without a clear outline – it would be like building a house without a blueprint.

Not the best hey? Let’s go through some basics that will turn this important step into a piece of cake for you.

Understanding Line Weight and Variation

The thickness of the line, or as the pros call it, “line weight,” can make or break your drawing. Think of it as the narrator of your artwork’s story.

A thick line can shout for attention, marking the important bits, like the edges of a character in your sketch.

On the other hand, thin lines whisper, hinting at soft shadows or delicate details like the wisps of hair or a faint smile.

Variation in line weight adds drama and depth. Picture drawing a tree. Use thick lines for the sturdy trunk and thinner ones for the fluttering leaves.

It’s all about setting the scene and guiding the viewer’s eyes where you want them to go. Remember, your drawing tool, whether a pencil or pen, plays a big part in this.

Pressing harder will give you thicker lines, while light touches are great for thin lines.

Mastering Steady Lines and Shapes

Let’s talk about getting those lines straight and shapes looking right. First things first, relax your hand.

A tense grip on your drawing tool will make your lines wobbly. For straight lines, try drawing from your elbow or shoulder, not just your wrist. It might feel weird at first, but it gives you more control.

Drawing circles or other shapes? Don’t try to nail it in one go. Make light, sketchy strokes to get the shape you want, then define it with a more confident line.

And remember, practice makes perfect. The more you draw, the steadier your hand will get.

One tip for smooth, curved lines: keep your eye on where you want the line to end up, not where your pen is. It’s like magic. Give it a try!

The Role of Light and Shadow in Outlining

Light and shadow aren’t just for painters. They’re key players in bringing your outlines to life. Think about where your light source is coming from.

This will decide where your drawing gets its highlights and shadows.

Adding shadows around the edges or inside your outline shapes gives your drawing a 3D look, popping it off the page.

Don’t shade everything the same way. Parts closer to the light will be brighter, so use lighter or thinner lines.

For areas in shadow, go for thicker, darker lines. This contrast creates a more dynamic, realistic drawing.

Imagine drawing a ball. To make it look round, you’ll want to outline it lightly on the side facing the light and use a heavier line on the opposite side.

This tricks the eye into seeing a round shape on a flat piece of paper.

Remember, outlining is more than just tracing; it’s about giving your drawings depth, character, and emotion. Keep these tips in mind, and watch your drawing skills soar.

If you’re interested in learning more I have an article on how to use shadows in art.

Advanced Outlining Techniques

artist outlining a drawing of a cat

Let’s step up your game with some cool tricks to make your drawings pop. Remember, every line tells a story. Now, let’s get fancy with our lines.

Creating Texture with Line Work

Imagine you’re drawing a furry cat. To make it look fluffy, you can’t just draw a blob and call it a day.

Your lines need to work together like a team at a tug-of-war, pulling the viewer’s attention this way and that.

Use thin lines for delicate fur and thicker ones for the shadows. By varying the thickness of the line and how close they are, you create a texture that feels almost real enough to pet.

Think of your drawing tool as a magic wand you’re waving over your drawing surface, bringing your cat to life.

Adding Depth with Contour Lines

Next up, let’s give your drawing some muscles, like we’re beefing it up. Contour lines are your best friend here.

Imagine drawing the human body. Where the arm curves, your lines curve. This trick makes your drawing go from flat to having more curves than a roller coaster.

The secret? Draw curved lines that follow the shape of whatever you’re drawing. It’s like you’re a detective, and your pen is uncovering all the secrets hidden in the shapes.

Techniques for Smooth and Consistent Outlines

And here’s the kicker for those who want their outlines to be as smooth as butter. First things first, relax your grip.

If you hold your drawing tool like you’re arm-wrestling it, you’re going to end up with shaky lines. Use a light hand and let the pen do the work.

For super straight lines, a ruler is your best pal. But remember, life’s not always straight; don’t be afraid to go freehand to get those natural curves.

Finally, practice makes perfect. Don’t expect to nail it on your first try. It’s like learning to ride a bike.

You might wobble and fall, but soon you’ll be drawing outlines that make everyone say, “Wow, how’d you do that?”

Transferring and Tracing Techniques

artists outlining a drawing using a lightbox

Transferring and tracing are like the secret sauces in the world of drawing. These techniques can turn a “meh” sketch into a masterpiece with clean lines and sharp details.

Let’s jump into how you can master these techniques without a fuss.

The Basics of Tracing Artwork

Tracing sounds simple, right? You just follow the lines. But there’s a little more to it if you want your artwork to shine. I love tracing and I do not think it’s cheating. I even say so here where I go into more detail about tracing art.

First things first, pick a clear reference image. This image is your roadmap, and without it, you’re just guessing where to go.

Now, for drawing without tracing paper, a light source like a window on a sunny day works wonders.

Tape your reference image and drawing paper to the window and trace away. This method is easy and doesn’t cost a dime.

When it comes to what you should use to outline your drawing, a sharp pencil or a fine-tipped pen is your best friend.

These tools help you capture those thin lines and small details that make a drawing go from good to great.

Remember, tracing isn’t just about copying; it’s about understanding the shapes, lines, and how they all fit together.

Grid Method To Outline a Drawing

You can try the ‘Grid Method’ by drawing a grid over your reference image (or do what I do and have a clear plastic sheet pre-drawn with grids and overlay it) and another grid on your drawing paper. Then, fill in your outline one square at a time.

artist using the grid method to outline a drawing

Tips for Cleanly Transferring Your Outline

Transferring an outline is like moving your drawing from one place to another without losing any of its charm.

Sounds magical, doesn’t it? Transfer paper is your magic wand here. Place it between your original sketch and the new surface, make some light appear under it so the bottom drawing appears under the blank paper and then trace over your original lines. Voilà!

Your image is transferred. Whether you’re drawing onto paper, canvas, or even a wall, transfer paper works like a charm. I also like to do transfers over a window with natural light.

For those who love drawing with technology, using a lightbox, drawing in Illustrator or using a tablet can be a game-changer.

You can draw directly on your device and then print your outlines or sketches. If you’re using a home printer, just make sure it can handle the type of paper you’re using for your final masterpiece.

An important thing to remember is to keep your lines clean. Whether you’re using a pencil, pen, or tablet, the thickness of the line matters.

Too thick, and your drawing might lose its delicacy. Too thin, and it might not stand out the way you want it to. Finding that perfect line width is key.

Transferring and tracing are more than just copying; they are about refining your drawing skills and bringing your artwork to life in a new way.

By taking the time to outline a drawing carefully and making outlines look good, you raise your artwork from simple sketches to detailed, realistic drawings.

I keep saying it but keep practicing, and don’t be afraid to try drawing onto different surfaces. Each piece of art is a step forward in your artistic journey.

Common Issues and Troubleshooting

Sometimes, making art feels like trying to get a cat to follow instructions – it just does its own thing.

Here you are, trying to outline a masterpiece, but instead, you’re staring at a wonky line that looks more like a mountain range.

Don’t worry; every artist faces a few bumps in the road. Let’s iron out those wrinkles together.

Resolving Shaky Lines and Inconsistencies

When your hand is more jittery than a squirrel on coffee, it’s tough to get those lines straight. The key? Relax and take it slow.

Think of drawing lines as guiding a slow dance across the page, not a race. For straight lines, breathe out as you draw – it steadies the hand.

For curves, turn the paper. Yes, spin that drawing like a DJ, so you’re always pulling the line in a comfortable direction.

And remember, practice makes progress. The more you draw, the steadier your hand gets.

Addressing Over-Outlined Areas

Oops, got a bit overzealous with the outlining and now your drawing looks like it’s been caught in a black hole? Your drawing outline is starting to look more like a finished drawing.

Happens to the best of us. If your drawing tool of choice is erasable, like a pencil, lightly erase the heavy lines and redraw with a gentler touch.

When using inks or permanent markers, transform the mistake into a shadow or thicker border that works in your favor.

Art is about improvisation. Just like in jazz, there are no wrong notes, sometimes unexpected paths lead to the coolest outcomes.

How to Erase and Redraw Without Damaging Your Work

Worried erasing might ruin your canvas more than a toddler with a crayon? Fear not. If you’re working on paper, use a high-quality, kneaded eraser.

They’re like magic erasers making things disappear without a tantrum. Press gently and lift the unwanted lines like lifting delicate spaghetti with a fork. No rubbing like you’re trying to start a fire.

When you redraw, think about using a lighter hand or a tool with a finer tip to get those thin lines just right. If the paper does get a bit rough, a gentle touch with a soft cloth can smooth things over.

Remember, every mistake is a stepping stone to getting better. Keep your chin up, your pencils sharp, and your eraser handy. Before you know it, outlining will feel as natural as breathing – maybe even easier, especially on those stuffy-nose days.

Finishing Touches

artist adding finishing touches to a drawing outline

After putting in the time and effort to get your drawing outlines just right, giving them some final touches can really make your artwork shine.

It’s like adding the icing on a cake but with ink, posca pens, gouache paint, pencils and erasers. Let’s make sure your masterpiece gets the polish it deserves.

Refining Your Outlines for Final Presentation

Once your artwork starts looking the way you want, it’s tempting to call it done. But wait, there’s more.

Grab your drawing tool—whether it’s a trusty pencil or a sleek pen—and let’s get those outlines crisp.

Look over your drawing and spot any lines that seem out of place or too bold. Using thin lines can often make your work look cleaner.

If your lines got a bit thick or messy, no worries. A simple eraser can help clean those up. Remember, outlines are like expressways on a map. Keep them clear, and your drawing will guide the viewer just right.

If you used a reference image, now’s a good time to bring it back. Check your drawing against the photo.

Do the curves of that vase match up? Are the straight lines on the building as straight as they can be? Tweaking these little details can make a big difference.

Lastly, step back and look at your drawing from a distance. Sometimes, we get so close to our work that we miss the bigger picture. If everything looks good from afar, you’ve done your job right.

Protecting Your Outlined Drawing

Your drawing might look fabulous on the drawing surface but think about the next steps. You’ll want to keep it safe, especially if fingers smudge or a sudden coffee spill might threaten its crispness.

One easy way to protect your drawing is by using a fixative spray. It’s like setting spray for makeup but for your artwork.

Spray it lightly over your drawing to keep everything in place. Just do this in a well-ventilated area or outdoors. You don’t want to turn your art session into a sneeze fest.

Another tip is to use a clear sheet or a tracing paper cover when you’re not working on it. This keeps your drawing from getting dirty or smudged.

Also, when storing your drawing, try to keep it flat in a folder or a drawer. Rolling it up might seem like a good idea, but it can lead to creases or even tears.

And there you have it. With these finishing touches, your outlined drawing is not just done; it’s ready to dazzle anyone who looks at it.

Remember, the most important thing is that you enjoyed the process. Every line you draw is a step forward in your drawing skills journey. So keep going, and never stop creating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *