How to Draw Cars

I’m asked quite often how I create a drawing or rendering… what the technique is, what tools I use, and so-on… But the most common question and comment seems to fall back on “What programs do you use? How can I get my work to look like yours?” There’s a simple reply to that:

The secret isn’t in software. It’s in the sketches that come well before that stage. I was taught early on that observational drawing is the greatest skill any designer or artist can have, and I took that to heart. I took a number of life drawing classes, and sketched a LOT as a kid, and later in life. Developing this skill makes any software use in your tool set that much more fun and effective. The sketches you lay down before hitting the digital side will have a profound effect on what your artwork looks like in the end.

After many, many emails, phone calls and requests on the Facebook Fan Page, I’m putting a few “overview” tutorials up here, just to give a sneak-peek at the full-tilt versions that I’ll be releasing soon. Again, these are by no means full-on, “learn-to-draw” lessons, but a glimpse into my process, and a means to show the basic skills you’ll get to grips with prior to moving on with the more advanced techniques that I’ll be sharing. (This is a sample of the “static” tutorials. Video and audio-enhanced versions to follow.)

That said, let’s draw a deuce three window, shall we? (these images are saved from my time on Dave Lane’s project, which went on to win the 2011 Goodguys Street Rod of the Year award, Dave’s THIRD, BTW!) The ’32 is an iconic design, to say the least, and one of the most popular hot rod platforms of all time, and certainly one to pop-up time and again if you begin a career as a hot rod artist or custom car designer. Besides, it’s a fun car to render, with a great variety of planes and shapes to capture your attention and time on, and a great way to hone your shading and highlighting skills!

Let’s start with the standard box method. We know that a three-window will have a top, the main body, and some fenders, so a typical two-box, profile view will do great for this exercise. Let’s get the roof pillars in the correct locations, with reference to the length of the body, taking into consideration how long the hood is, and how short the deck appears.

sketching box technique

Simple? Yep. The idea here is to break even the most complex of shapes into their most rudimentary forms. In “art-speak”, we’d call these primatives. Your goal here is nothing more than figuring out where the car will exist on paper, and then plotting the main shapes, placing them in the proper proportion. I use a straight edge for this on occasion, as shown here, simply because the sketching will get a bit messy moving forward, and if I build on a clean, solid foundation, I can be certain that I’ll keep that in mind when finishing everything.

From here, let’s throw in some guide lines to act as landmarks. We’ll get an idea of where the windows, doors, hood and wheels will go. Keep it gestural and loose, and simply mark the areas that these elements will live in the drawing. Too much detail here will cost time, and lead us to re-working if the placement is off even just a bit. Let’s start tightening the sketch up, once we are sure of where we’re placing things… Use your landmarks to judge where lines will be places, like the belt line, window reveals and so-on:

refining basic shapes

With the general guides in place, let’s figure out where those windows and other elements will appear, always keeping it light and paying close attention to the proper proportions, so that our rendering will look right:


Doesn’t look like much here… but as we continue to add the windows and door lines, it’ll all come into view, and you’ll be thankful that you gave yourself some sort of guidance:

refining the sketch

I’ve begun to throw in some curves, keeping it all freehand. As we begin to tighten things up, reach for your French Curves, which will be tremendously helpful in laying out the guides…

adding panels

…not to mention using a circle template to rough-in the wheels. Pay close attention here to the scale of the wheels. I often place a center line in, just to help envision the stance. As you can see, I adjusted this one a bit, getting that front end nice and low, almost menacing! I’ve even thrown some thought the way of the door handle and belt line at this stage. I’ll lower that hood just a touch… The importance of sketching comes to light! Better to see it off just a hair at an early stage, versus re-drawing the whole thing later on.

Let’s start to darken-in and clean up the lines that we KNOW we’re keeping…

sketch character

At this point, I often throw in a shadow. It grounds the drawing for me, and helps later on as I add shading. My reason for this is balance, pure and simple. I want to keep the dark areas visually equal with lighter areas, and use those dark fills to balance-out openings like windows, negative space and so on.

PCK TIP: Remember, it’s not just a sketch, it’s a composition unto itself. Many times, a rendering will help to sell the job. The better the drawing looks, the more excited the client will be. Capitalize on that energy all the way through.

sketching a shadow

I’m going to throw in some wheels now, just because. As they’re wires, well, I have some work ahead… so I’ll figure out the basic lacing pattern, and give myself a road map to follow when I get to tightening things up later on. I’ll thank me then… By the way, notice my draw-erase-redraw on that rear wheel. Ick.

drawing wire wheels

Let’s darken that shadow a bit, and start cleaning up those stray guidelines and original sketch marks… We don’t want to trap an unused line under anything, and ruin a clean look, or even worse, confuse ourselves moving forward.

drawing a hot rod

We’ll begin figuring out our shading at this point, as well. Throw a few guides in, indicating where the shadows, highlights, and even some hot spots will go. As always, go loose, and remember to use your observational and reference materials… keep it real, but feel free to add your own artistic spin to it.

A good starting point, for me anyway, is along the side flanks of the car. Find the largest surface area that would reflect something back, and start planning just how light and shade will work off of that. In this case, we have the hood sides, doors and rear quarter panels, and they’re relatively flat, yet have a slight bow from front to back (with the apex of that curve just about in the middle of the door), and everything curves ever-so-slightly from grille shell to trunk. Try to mimic the look of a slight arc to give the car some realistic dimension.

We can do that by bringing the line of our shadow/reflection up just a touch on the ends, and allow it to drop a bit through the door. Remember, we’re aiming for visual excitement here, so allow your lines to be loose and have character.

shading the drawing

Don’t go overboard here… we only need a few basic lines to indicate where our shadows and highlights will fall. I’ve moved mine a couple of times here, seeking to not only render the panels in a realistic fashion, but taking a small amount of artistic license to help balance the composition. I’m seeking to make the coupe look low and aggressive, and that means drawing the eye a bit higher on the body to emphasize the car’s proximity to the pavement… Raising the eye will only serve to make it appear even lower… and when drawing a sinister hot rod, it’s a damned good thing… Make it look sneaky!

It’s a lot to think about, but try to keep an idea in your head of where the drawing is going, and what you hope to convey through the drawing. I try to set the tone, to give voice to the personality of the car. Your job, as an artist, is to stir an emotion through your pictures. Always think of ways to do that!

Once we have the guides, let’s fill-in, very lightly, where our shaded areas will be… play with different pressures and strokes here, and work up tonal values gradually. A light hand, again, will pay off tremendously later on. Give thought, too, to the final color that your rendering will be. Darker colors can benefit from using more light or white space (to mimic reflections), and lighter colors can benefit from a little more darkness. Yellows (where we’re headed here) can be a bit trickier, and require a bit more thought, especially with regard to how light disperses in the pigment, and how reflections will scatter… MUCH more on that in upcoming tutorials… For now, let’s allow our reference materials and observational skills guide us.

Keep things loose but controlled at this stage. We’re thinking about where light is hitting and shadows are formed, but, at the same time, we want to keep a fluid, organic look to it. Too mechanical, and the drawing will processed and cold… too loose, and things will start to look very sloppy. We want it to look almost natural. Keep your strokes consistent.

highlight and shadow

Ready for color? Let’s lightly add just a touch of yellow here… if for no other reason than it looking cool. Seriously, though, this will give us an idea of how successful (or not) our shading efforts have been. I start by blowing-in some hue, whether I’m working in analog (like in this example, with pencils, paper, etc) or digital (in Adobe Illustrator, 99.9997% of the time) to get a feel for how to proceed.

If you’re working on paper, grab your airbrush, and thin-down some color. Hit the image with just a light, translucent coat. We don’t want to bury anything, just get the color showing over our shading efforts. If you’re afraid to mess with your sketch, grab some vellum, and paint on that, OVER your sketch, much as you’d use layers in Illustrator or Photoshop or Painter. Choose a hue that’s close to your final color choice… I usually work a shade or two lighter at this stage, painting it like a candy color. It will add tremendous depth later on.

coloring a hot rod

Once we’re happy with the shading and color test, we’ll start blowing in some saturated toners… play in ALL areas of the car, and give everything some thought… Where can we use this base color? In the glass? Hell yes, The wheels? Definitely. In the shadow? Why not?

PCK TIP: a touch of a warm color on the outlying areas will help to blend the shadow to the fore- and background, and look more realistic!

shading with color

While we’re here, let’s follow my usual plan, and darken-up any lines or blacks… We don’t want to do this last, as it will leave our work looking sloppy, and force an air of “overworked” and “afterthought” all over. Not a good thing. Work tight, but nimble.

PCK TIP: Always, ALWAYS give some thought to line weight.

Alter you line widths to simulate where the eye will be drawn back, to mimic what areas will be closer to the eye and so-on. If you’re new to drawing, please have a look at my primer on line weight. It’s loaded with tips on effectively using different widths and strokes of the hand to not only create the illusion of space, but to add visual excitement to your renderings. One stroke can draw attention to a particular detail, or guide the eye around the piece… and, in many cases, help it to “pop” off of the page! Have fun with this, and go at it with a plan. Give the drawing a nice visual rhythm, keeping the viewer entertained, but not confused.

line weight

Once we have the tone figured out, and those areas we want dark and saturated looking right, we’ll bust out the white. The idea here is to slowly, ever-so-carefully build up highlights, Keep your technique loose but controlled. We want the highlights to scatter a bit… no harsh edges just yet. The white will also act to blend any “sketchy-looking shaded areas. It’s a great two-for-one bonus step. Allow the light to look as though it’s dispersed through many layers of paint… Think “candy” at this point, and you’ll do fine! Again, we’re building in layers, as mentioned earlier. We want some depth in our rendering, not some flat doodle!

color tone in drawing

As always, I suggest some use of a complementary color. We’ll drop in some purple for visual pop, and get just a bit of drama and spice in there… A touch in the shadows, as well as into the yellow hue will help to define the shading, and create some… wait for it… depth! It contrasts beautifully with those greens in the glass, and can add some great taste in chrome. Don’t be afraid to experiement with this. After all, it’s art, and you can have a few freedoms, creating and tweaking realities to suit the look you’re creating.

PCK TIP: Build your complementary colors up in the same way you’ve been building the body base color. This will keep everything looking uniform. Again, a little depth here goes a long way later on for visual appeal. Keep it tight in this stage. Sloppiness kills a great piece.

complementary colors

From here, we’ll concentrate on tightening up the little details, and throw in some blues and purples to get that pop and dimension… Not to mention some green in the glass (it’s my trademark touch, and looks “right”, so why fight it?).

PCK TIP: When rendering any reflective surface, try to use a slightly cooler color. Think in terms of blues and some greens. This will read, to the viewer, as having a slightly smoother and colder feel, just as glass or chrome does in the real world. I tend to work a lot with classic cars, and many of these came from the factory with a slight green/blue tint to the glass. In my mind, it just looks right, and offers just one more place in your rendering to play with reflections, as blues and greens can often reflect light and objects around your subject in a different way than the paint would. We’ll cover this in a much more in-depth way in the near future, but for now, I just wanted to explain why I did that in this and many of my other drawings. Observe how glass reflects its surroundings in the real world, and draw it!

adding depth

At this stage, keep everything clean, and make sure that all edges are sharp, and that any guides or original sketch lines are gone. Play with detailing, and use some pure white to create hot spots, and draw attention to some areas. As always, just HAVE FUN in there. Let it build, and you’ll enjoy the realism and artistic look that your work will pack.

Whatever you do, though, do NOT over-work an area at this stage. Trying to correct a piece that wasn’t right four steps ago will just look ugly. It’s the equivalent of piling white-out on your term paper… it’s an afterthought and looks as such. If you find that one of these “mistakes” is too noticeable, work an area around it with a little highlight or a hot spot to draw the eye away. Chances are, you’re the only one who will see it anyway.

reflective surfaces

Finally, we’ll blow in some toners and shades of the body color, as well as just a hint or purple to create a background texture (I know… “wow, Brian… splatters… who’d have thought?” but it’s my work, my trademark thing… I enjoy it.), which is a major tutorial coming soon. Give your rendering a place to “live” on the paper. As tempting as it may be, keep it fairly toned-down. Granted, I go a bit crazy with it sometimes, but each piece has its reasons, and this one is begging for it…

finished rendering

Thanks again for looking in, and following along! Please let your friends know if you found this useful, and be sure to share your work and progress, as well!

Let’s go over a few points one more time, just for good measure:

Keep your drawing clean. Erase stray and guide lines as you go. You don’t want to trap a line under some ink, as it will show up at the wrong time, and be almost, if not impossible to remove. Work from observation. As you walk from the parking lot to your job, the supermarket, wherever, pay attention to how light reflects and plays on different cars, surfaces, colors… Get an idea of what shapes and panel contours pick up the most reflected light from the ground, adjacent panels or other objects around the vehicle. Get to know what looks warm and what looks cold, and what colors are in play to make that happen.

Always give your work some CHARACTER! Play with line weights and vary the strokes and directions of your strokes to make things come alive! Above all, just have some fun. Don’t forget the FUN. If little details start to become tedious, you’re either tired, or over-working (and over-thinking) them. Step back, take a break, or simply move on to something looser in the drawing to freshen-up your attitude. It’ll happen from time to time, and on a last-minute deadline rush, well, it happens even more often. Just roll through it!

Catch you soon, and keep an eye out for the next installment… and check out my companion tutorials on our Facebook Fan Page! Thanks for reading along, and feel free to leave a comment or questions below…


Tags: , , , , , ,

About drawinghotrods

I draw cars. I also provide full-service hot rod design and illustration, custom car, graphic and web design tailored to the custom automotive aftermarket, including logos, branding, project planning and research, and even apparel design. Need an ad, some copy, or a jump on social media? I do that, too. My mission is straightforward: To consistently provide the ultimate in design creativity and customer service, with an experience and artistic vision that is second to none. While working to raise the standard of automotive illustration, I seek to educate the public with regard to the labor and sacrifice required to create a work of fine art.

2 responses to “How to Draw Cars”

  1. rlcarson says :

    Wow that’s so cool! I can draw horses, and that’s about it! lol I love your blog and the cars! 😀 Keep it up! and thanks for stopping by my blog the other day too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: