Formulas – An Introduction to Drawing Shorthand

December 19, 2012 in Beginners, Lvl 0

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Formulas – An Introduction to Drawing Shorthand

The Secret Of Ease.

Some draftsmen are really good  at drawing fast. They sit down and just crank their drawings out.

Watching them draw is like magic, especially when they have a special style they draw in.

When you watch those draftsmen draw, it’s like a performance.  Why is that?

Well, for one thing it’s practice and experience. It comes from drawing, experimenting and making lots and lots of mistakes.

BUT, there’s something more– something that I’ve never actually heard anyone mention and I don’t know why.

Perhaps it’s because no one has ever bothered to articulate it the way I’m about to.

You see, after you’ve been drawing for a while, and you learn from teachers and books, after you’ve done your experimenting and begin to get more and more confident, you start developing what I call a “shorthand.”

What’s a shorthand? It’s what I’m going to be writing about in this post. So let’s get to it.

What A Shorthand Is

Simply put, a drawing “shorthand” is the simplification of a “drawing formula.”

What’s a drawing formula?

A drawing formula, is the solutions a draftsman has come up with, that solve a drawing problem.

At first, drawing is difficult because you have no solutions to drawing problems. The more you draw, the more solutions you develop.  Often, times teachers or books give you prepackaged solutions.

In Kung Fu, you learn what are called “forms.” A series of consecutive movements that make up martial moves. Drawing formulas are like that.

You learn these prepackaged solutions and it speeds up the drawing process.  You end up drawing better, faster. The better you get at using those solutions, the better you’re drawings will be.

Once a formula is repeated so often that it becomes almost an instinct, you begin to skip steps in the the drawing formulas you use. Your mind makes a type of “short hand” out of it.  You are still thinking about the steps but are not necessarily drawing all the steps.

If you have multiple teachers or read multiple books, you end up learning MANY formulas and lot’s of different solutions to drawing problems.

The trick with these solutions is to find the ones that work best for you. The ones that solve the worst drawing problems fastest. This is done through trial and error, as well as implementation of the formulas, learning the formulas well, and using them.

When you do this long enough, something interesting starts to happen. If you’ve learned multiple problem solving formulas, your mind begins to mix them up. You begin to combine them, mold them into something new that works even better for you.

Suddenly, you’ve developed a new shorthand unique to you, based on your experiences with drawing and the formulas you’ve learned over the years. Someone watching you draw can’t really figure out what part of what formula you’re using. It looks like magic.

This creates YOUR formula, your shorthand,  your voice, your style. You have a prepackaged solution that helps you speed up the drawing process and help you solve whatever new drawing problem comes your way.

You now know the secret to drawing. The thing that will help you take the fastest steps forward.

Learn the solutions to drawing problems that great artists before you have discovered. Practice them, apply them, assimilate them, make them your own.

Stand on the shoulders of giants.

Examples Formulas and Short Hand

(The links to the books below are affiliate links.)

Here’s an example of head formulas.  You often see this sort of thing in drawing books.

The first example is a head drawing formula from Andrew Loomis, from his book Drawing the Head and Hands:

Loomis head Formula

There are quite a few steps here. If you use the formula above enough and begin to assimilate it, you end up developing a short hand from it.

It may end up looking something like this:

Loomis heads shorthand

All the steps are there in my head, I just didn’t draw them all out.

Here’s another example of a head drawing formula. This one comes from George Bridgman’s book Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing from Life:

Bridgman Head Formula

This formula is different in that the head is made out of straight lines.

Once you master his formula, you might end up with a shorthand that looks like this:

Bridgman Head Shorthand

Once again, all the steps are still there in my mind, they just aren’t there on paper.

I must emphasize that you shouldn’t rush to “short hand”.  Always work through the full formula until it becomes part of you. You’ll find the short hand will simply begin to happen.

If you rush and don’t learn the formulas well, your drawings will always seem off. They won’t have a solid foundation at their core.

What You Should Pursue

There is no need to get as complicated right now as the examples above.  My advice for you, right now, is simply to look at cartoons and characters you like and try cataloging their body parts.

Copy them. Make a note of their eyes, mouths ears…etc.  What strange shapes do they make. What are they made of?

It should look something like this:

Cartoon Details

They don’t have to be perfect. Simply get used to copying.  Get the hang of it.

Begin to create a library of your favorite cartoon drawing solutions.

Why do this? Formulas tend get complicated. Simply copying and learning features and small body parts help you achieve “small victories” that will motivate you to move forward.  You will be training your eyes to “see” better by copying and you’ll be training you hands to draw what you’re seeing.

There’s no better way to learn these things than copying. From this point on, you’ll be doing a lot of it.


Q: You talked a lot about formulas but you didn’t actually teach us any. What gives?  I though you were teaching us to draw!

A: I am, but I want you to learn to teach yourself first. Observe. Become independent. Experiment.

Level 1 lessons will be all about formulas. This final Level 0 Bonus Lesson was written to prepare you for what’s to come.

Pro Tip

Quite honestly, my best pro tip at this point is to copy.

Copy, copy, copy.

Learn to see. Learn to make judgments. Try to find formulas.

There will be a special copying chapter in Level 1 but begin now.  You won’t regret it.


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning formula questions?

Is there something you understand about formulas or short hand? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows, probably write a post about it.

Leave any comments and questions in the comments below.

Or better yet, sign up to receive more information via e-mail. You’ll get extra tips and advice.  You can ask me questions that way also.