Le sigh. Another lap ’round the hot orange ball in the sky, the calendar flips over to mark an arbitrary passing of time. We get the chance to reflect on the bad automotive life choices we’ve made over the last 12 months, staring wistfully out of the window smoking cigarettes and wondering what fresh hell the next orbit through the empty black void will bring. Will I ever be able to buy a Ford Maverick? Am I missing out on the best in life by not eating spaghetti in the shower? Will my back ever let me enjoy an Urban Tiger-colored fox-eye Honda Fireblade? Am I going to make the same old mistakes or glorious new mistakes?
Still, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. New Year, new attempts to improve the quality of our futile existence. David is moving to sunny Los Angeles if his questionable dietary choices (or Torch) don’t kill him first, Mercedes has discovered a new love in the Volkswagen GTI (I’m gonna open a book on how long it is before she buys one) so while you lay on the couch fattened by holiday excess maybe you could take a lesson from these two. Or rather, take a lesson from me, because I am going to teach you how to sketch.
Self-improvement is our motto here this week, so wash the turkey grease off your fat fingers and forget whatever misguided car-related projects you had in mind for January. I am going to open you all up to the inner creative side that’s probably been crushed under years of just, you know, trying to survive.
Why is sketching so important? It’s how you communicate your ideas to senior designers and modelers. But in the first instance, it’s about getting your ideas down on paper and figuring out what you want your design to be. Think of it as the ‘working out’ part of the process; what do I want my design to look like? The ability to churn out loads of quick sketches either digitally or on paper helps a designer understand what might work and what might not. Designers do their thinking on the page; sketch a front view and you’ve got a starting point for a load more variations, just by tweaking the lines and shapes you’ve already put on paper.
You might think you can’t draw. I am here to assure you that you can. You might not be great at it at first, but you can do it. Believe it or not, I don’t just get paid here to write about car design. I get paid to teach it as well. And I have always firmly believed sketching is a teachable skill. So let’s get to it.
To start with you don’t need any fancy pens, pencils or paper. Whatever you have lying around will do. A lot of student designers (myself included when I was studying) will try different pens according to the linework style of whatever sketch they’ve seen on the internet that week. But nearly everyone, professionals included, circles back to the good old (and design classic) Bic ballpoint. I usually use the fine nib version with the yellow barrel (for reasons I’ll explain in a bit). The clear version is also fine but try to stay away from the broad nib black barreled versions, as they make your linework too heavy.
As we’re not going to be using markers yet there’s no need for a marker pad. Just grab some plain white paper out of your printer for now. I usually sketch on A4, but because America doesn’t use THE INTERNATIONAL STANDARD of paper sizes, letter (11”x8.5”) is close enough. Got your pen and paper? Good, let’s go.
To start with, we’re going to do some warmup exercises. It’s like doing stretches before going to the gym. These will help “get your eye in.” Without touching the pen on the paper, start by moving your hand round and round in a circular motion. Move your hand from the elbow and shoulder – the wrist and fingers should be rigid. When you’ve got a good consistent circular movement going, gently lower the pen onto the paper, and draw a circle. Repeat this several times, drawing your circles in a line across the page. You should end up with something like this:
Keep going until you nail a reasonably round shape every time. They don’t have to be perfect, but they should be of similar size and repeatable.
Once you have circles down, it’s time for some straight lines. Start with your drawing hand nearer your torso and move the pen away from you in a straight line. Your drawing hand will naturally move away at an angle, so rotate your paper to compensate. Draw a line in a single stroke like this:
The trick here is like steering a car or riding a motorbike. Focus your eyes on where you want your hand to go, rather than watching what your hand is doing. Get the lines down quickly as this will help keep them straighter. Again, total accuracy is not the goal; consistency and repeatability are.
Try to keep your line work nice and light. You can always darken a light line, but you can’t lighten a dark one. This is why I usually use the fine nib Bic as if you’re heavy-handed like me (because I’m autistic I also have a condition called Dyspraxia, which affects all sorts of weird things like coordination, fine motor control and language processing). We’ll get onto the importance of line weights in a future lesson, but for now just try to keep a nice light touch of the pen on the paper.
So we’ve done our warm-ups, it’s time to actually sketch a vehicle. First up, it’s always important before putting pen to paper to understand in your head what you are going to draw. Is it a sports car, an SUV, or a luxury saloon? Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up to draw a mess. Because we’re just starting out here, we’re going to keep it simple and sketch something that’s close to all our hearts, a sporty two-door coupe.
One of the problems students have is that they are learning to sketch and learning to design at the same time, two different skills. For now, we are just concentrating on the sketching part. Don’t worry about including design ideas in your sketches – for now, we are concentrating on the basics. And the simplest of all is the side view.
The proportions of all vehicle categories can be ballparked by multiples of wheel diameter. So the first thing to lay down is the wheels. A small-ish sports couple would have a wheelbase of about 2 3/4 to 3 times the wheel size, so sketch two circles about that far apart. It’s okay to use a ruler, a straight edge or if you’re super fancy a circle template to help get this right. When you have your wheels, draw a faint straight line connecting them to represent the ground. Try to cut the very bottom of the wheels off with this line. This will flatten the wheel where it sits on the ground.
Next up rough out the roof and general outline. You should be aiming for a nice sweeping curve with its highest point about 1 3/4 wheels from the ground. Our little coupe is going to be FWD, so the A-pillar is going to point past the centerline of the front wheel. The C pillar should land above the center of the rear wheel. Put the lines in very, very lightly until you think you’ve got it right. Once you have that in place, start thinking about the rest of the body work. You want to keep it quite tight to the wheels, and because our car is FWD the front overhang is going to be longer than the rear. You should end up with wheels and an outline profile like this:
Now it’s time for graphical elements, starting with the Daylight Opening, or DLO. The DLO is the glass area between the first and last roof pillars.
Although this is a single-point perspective side view, we are going to cheat the sketch a little and show some of the curvature of the front and rear windshield, to give it some depth. Sketch in a DLO, keeping it well within the outline you’ve created. When you’re happy with that, draw in the edges of the front and rear windshield.
When I used to build 1/24th scale car kits I could never resist gluing and painting the wheels first and offering them up to the body to get an idea of what the finished model would look like. It’s the same with sketches – getting the wheels done helps turn this collection of ballpoint scratches into a car. Start off by indicating the center of the wheels with a little circle to represent the badge, but don’t place them dead center. Instead put them towards the middle of the car, to give the appearance of depth. We’re going to have 5 spoke wheels, so on the very edge of the wheel make a small mark at 12 o’clock, two more on each side just above the center line, and again two more just above where the wheel touches the ground line. This should space all five marks out roughly equally around the circumference. It’s not a perfect method, but for the level that we’re at here, it’s close enough. You can then use these as a guide for a spoke pattern. I suggest drawing a small rectangle around these five marks to represent the holes in the rim.
Let’s add features to the body side. Draw a line running front to rear to describe a feature line. This should angle slightly down toward the front of the car to give it a bit of dynamism. Then to show the shape of the body, draw a curved line connecting the ends of the line between the wheel arches.
Now add in some lights. Press a little harder to emphasize them and then go over the lines of the DLO to pick that out as well. Do the same for the holes in your wheels.
Time for the finishing touches. Tighten up the outline of the car, trying to keep the lines nice and expressive. Then, add a couple more lines at the bottom of the car to indicate the tires on the side we can’t see. Again, this helps the illusion of depth. Finally, add a line to show the curvature of the body and where the highlights will fall. This is going to be about 2/3rds of the way up the body. Hopefully, you should end up with something like this:
If you’re struggling, print these images off and use them as an underlay to sketch over. There is absolutely no shame in this. Professionals do it all the time. Keep it loose, expressive, and emotional. The idea is to have fun here, so if you’re getting frustrated, put the pen down, have a cup of coffee and take a break. I’ve kept this very simple and tried to explain as best I can, but if you’ve got questions I’ll be lurking in the comments as usual.
So put some bouncy music on to get you in the mood and get sketching!