Never Skip the Line – 5 Exercises to Improve Line Quality

I’ve trained two apprentices to tattoo, dozens of students to draw, and the ONE problem I run into the most is always line quality. Because that’s where I start – with the basics.

Take a look at the images below, which one is more legible?

Which one looks professional and polished? Which one communicates the point better?

Yeah – Option 1.

But new artists have a habit of leaning toward option 2 when they pick up a pencil.

As Mike Mattesi puts it in this amazing video on the FORCE Drawing Method (via Proko), doing multiple little lines communicates a different idea with each stroke. A long, smooth line shows confidence and communicates a single idea.

Steve Huston echoes this advice in almost every piece of content he’s ever created.

So you need to learn how to communicate with confidence. That means simplifying your lines and executing them in a single stroke.

I’ve developed a super-simple warmup page that I execute every day to help with this. Want to take a peek?

A disclaimer:

Before we start, I want to remind you that I do this warmup page EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

I made a commitment to do this page and one other simple drawing as a “floor” exercise so I can keep my skills sharp (or improving). Even on the worst day ever.

I’m asking you to do the same. Your warmup page might not look like mine, but the commitment to do some sort of art every day is a powerful one. That’s how you get better.

Alrighty, here we go:

Exercise 1 – Superimposed Lines

The first exercise is so simple that it’s hard to see how much of an impact it can have! I draw the straightest line I can across my page (freehand) in a SINGLE stroke.

And then I trace it. Five times.

Sounds easy enough, right? Give it a shot!

How accurate are your tracings? How accurate was your first line?

Some issues to watch out for:

First — the wobbly line. Having strange wobbles in your line is a symptom of moving your hand too slow or drawing too much from your fingertips.

Try to make your lines in a smooth, fluid motion from the shoulder. Also, practice rotating your page in different directions and either pushing or pulling the line to find out how you’re most comfortable.

Second – The feathered line. If your accuracy is off, sometimes you’ll get a feathered line at the end. I don’t expect anyone to ever get this one perfect, but you can get close. Start to SLOW DOWN your strokes if this is happening.

I just gave two contradictory pieces of advice, speed up if you have wobbles, slow down if you’re drawing feathers. Which is it? The magic is in the sweet spot, drawing a line that’s just right, like baby bear’s soup.

Keep experimenting until you get it right, and remember – a little bit of practice every day goes a long way.

The takeaway: Learning how to draw straight lines and controlling the speed of your hand will help you build more confidence as you make marks, and make your marks more accurate.

Exercise 2 – Superimposed S-Curve

You probably guessed it, and I’m not going to go into TOO much detail on this one (because it’s almost the same as the first exercise).

I want you to draw a smooth, flowing s-curve from one end of the page to the other.

Then trace it five times.

The benefits of this exercise are like the first, but you’re practicing a natural curve that changes direction. Almost every line you make while drawing will either be a straight, a c-curve, or an s-curve.

Of the two curved lines, the s-curve is more difficult, so I practice it every day. Besides, an s-curve is two opposing c-curves, so it’s a double-whammy.

Again – if you have wobbles, speed up. If you have feathered ends, slow down. Take your time to get it right.

Pro Tip: I try to alternate the direction of the s-curve every day (if I remember) so I don’t build up too much muscle memory in one direction.

After you’ve finished the superimposed s-curve, do another super-imposed straight line beneath it. It’s extra practice on the straight line and it sets up a frame for the final exercise.

The takeaway: Super-imposed s-curves help you build dexterity with CURVED lines, like the first exercise. This combines practice for c-curves and s-curves.

Exercise 3 – Connect the Dots

Up to this point, I’ve usually filled about half of the page, so I move down and to the left for the next exercise – connect the dots.

Make 4 dots or x’s on the page that could create a square plane in perspective.

This is how I set mine up, you can do yours differently if you’d like (switch the direction or make it more extreme).

Now, MAKE that plane in perspective by connecting the dots together. Try to do each line in one pass without passing any point. You want to start and stop on a dot.

Pro Tip: I’ve found it easiest to “ghost” my lines to practice the motion. Hover your pencil over the page as you practice the mark. Once you feel comfortable with the motion, drop the pencil to the page while you repeat the motion again.

Pro Tip 2: Pay attention to where you place the pencil on the page, then focus on the mark you’re trying to hit as you move the pencil (instead of looking at where the pencil is currently making the mark). Your eyes will guide your hand and arm to the dot.

Once you have your plane in perspective, start dividing it up. Make an “X” from the corners of your plane.

Then create a horizontal division where the “X” crosses, followed by a vertical division. This defines the center of your plane and the center of the outer edges.

The takeaway: This exercise is phenomenal for building hand-eye coordination and accuracy in your mark-making. It also makes you think about perspective in your drawing!

Exercise 4 – The Atom

This next one is a challenge but helps to loosen your shoulder.

My bottom-right exercise is one that I like to call “the atom.” It’s based on one of Chris Beaven’s warmup exercises. I should ask him where he picked it up at…

Moving on, though!

I start with a large circle. I try to fill the remaining space on the page and make the circle as close to perfect as possible in one stroke.

Pro Tip: Ghost your circles and the ellipses that follow here, too. Ghosting your lines is one of the best ways I’ve found to draw confidently and accurately. It’s like a test run before you commit.

Once you have a circle that you’re happy with, divide it in half horizontally and vertically to find the center, then draw a much smaller circle in the center to act as a guide.

From this point, I draw 16 ellipses INSIDE of the larger circle that wrap around the center circle. The center circle acts as a guide for the minor axis of the ellipse, and the outer circle is the “target” for the major axis of the ellipse.

I start with the “cardinal” points in the circle, North, South, East, West.

Then I aim for the intercardinal directions, NE, NW, SW, SE, and finally, I fill in the secondary intercardinal directions.

It makes it easier to think about the directions of your atom as the directions of a compass.

The takeaway: This exercise helps you build confidence and dexterity with targeted ellipses in every direction. You need to be able to create ellipses in many directions while you draw, and this exercise helps you build muscle memory.

Exercise 5 – Targeted Circles and Ellipses

Circles and ellipses are the ultimate challenges. You’ve already warmed up a bit with the Atom exercise, now it’s time to finish off the page with some targeted circles and ellipses.

I usually start with circles above the s-curve. Use the top super-imposed line as the top boundary for your circles, then the s-curve as the bottom boundary for your circles.

Then, under the s-curve, I do ellipses. Again, use the s-curve and bottom super-imposed lines as targets for your ellipses. And make sure you’re doing these circles and ellipses in one stroke if possible. Don’t forget to ghost!

Finally, where we have a divided perspective plane, use the cross at the center of the x to identify the center-points on the outer boundaries of the plane.

Now, draw an ellipse that hits each center-point on the outer edges plane. This is the most challenging part of the entire warmup page, take your time and practice by ghosting before you commit to a mark.

The takeaway: Targeted circles and ellipses will help you draw more accurate forms the first time, so you don’t have to erase and repeat as often.

Don’t Skip the Line! Here are the takeaways:

This warmup page has helped me get comfortable with every new medium I’ve tried, so don’t skip it.

On top of helping you get comfortable with a NEW tool, it helps you loosen up before you draw or paint on any given day. It’s like the pre-workout jumping jacks and stretch.

I can tell a major difference when I don’t warm up before I draw. My drawings are stiffer, less confident, and less natural when I skip the warmup. And that’s exactly why I don’t skip it anymore.

  1. Committing to one set of exercises every day will help you improve over time by compounding the muscle memory. It doesn’t take much!
  2. Super-imposed lines build confidence and dexterity.
  3. Super-imposed s-curves let you practice two curve exercises in one.
  4. Doing point-to-point perspective exercises improve your accuracy and hand-eye coordination.
  5. Practicing circles and ellipses will help you do difficult drawing tasks with confidence.
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Michael Orwick
5 months ago

Love this! Thank you. I would love to share this with my students using oil paints.

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Reply to  Michael Orwick
5 months ago

Of course! I’m glad you found it helpful. Thanks for leaving some feedback. 😀 Hopefully we’ll create a ton of content that’s worth sharing in the future. Slow but steady!