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Secondary High Art Drawing Skills

The fresh-faced pupils sat in front of you for the first time have had a long history of drawing and have formed some very strong opinions about their ability. They have all judged themselves against the best 'drawer' in their previous school and they believe that to be good at art you have to be good at drawing. Art teachers may tell them otherwise but they believe it's true. In fact, not many pupils pass an art exam at a high grade if they can't draw unless they have a pretty special teacher.


So their first art lesson is usually a still life observation drawing, sat in silence drawing a simple object (usually shoes, yawn) so you can see who can construct, measure and shade already. And it's usually a minority of the class. Then you spend hours in their lessons over the next few years teaching them how to shade, perspective, proportion etc. and you test them again when they get to exam level and you find that STILL the majority of them aren't that good. Isn't it frustrating? But the problem isn't them, it's you. All you have taught them over the last few years is that drawing is realism and they have to learn to draw realistically to be good, which is what they believed in the first place.


But drawing isn't all about realism, that is only one style of drawing, so why are you still sticking shoes in front of them? Drawing is a hugely diverse field and a lot of contemporary drawing relies on graphic communication rather than realism. And since graphic drawing is the most popular form of drawing in children why aren't you allowing them to draw that shoe in a graphic style? Or what about on a tablet? Maybe they might prefer to do a sculptural drawing of it in wire? If you narrow your success criteria to realism then a large proportion of your class will feel like failures right from the very first lesson. So you have to constantly teach your pupils that:

  • Drawing is diverse.

  • There are lots of different styles of drawing.

  • They have to find their own style of drawing and develop it.

  • Drawing isn't a competition to see who's best.

  • We should only compare our drawings to our own earlier drawings, not anyone else.

  • You don't have to be good at traditional drawing to be good at art.

GCSE Exam Level Drawing

The specification for GCSE art requires drawing to be a much more focussed element to Assessment Objective 3.


The natural temptation therefore is to spend more time mastering traditional drawing skills, especially in Key Stage 3 and certainly into the first projects of Key Stage 4. Now, I agree these skills are important and I've produced a whole web page of presentations and tutorials on learning traditional drawing techniques. They are important and they require regular practice, repetition and practice to develop. The beauty of my Online Drawing Programme is that your pupils can do it themselves at home too. But teaching drawing skills is a delicate balancing act between developing the Fine Motor Skills needed for accurate Realism and developing other, equally valid forms of Expressive, Abstract, and Exploratory Drawing. Your Key Stage 3 curriculum should contain a wider drawing programme that includes other styles of drawing such as contemporary, abstract, sculptural, digital or expressive. Pupils should learn to draw in a variety of ways and find which ones suit their learning style.

This is borne out in the GCSE art exam itself which goes to great lengths to tell us that drawing is diverse and varied and nowhere is it mentioned that pupils will be measured by their ability to draw realistically. Take this quote from the OCR GCSE (9–1): Drawing for different purposes and means, February 2015:

Whichever specialism is studied, the method of drawing should be appropriate to the area of study.

• In Fine Art students recording from observation could work in a traditional and descriptive way or they could use expressive mark-making to document their response to things seen. (Source Pearson Exemplar material.)

• Learners in the textiles specialism draw in pencil, with fabric materials as well as with stitch and weave.

• In Photography, photographers draw with ‘light’. They use and compose images that take into consideration line, tone, texture, pattern and line.

• Drawing in three-dimensional design can take a number of forms including Marquette, sketching manually or by instrument (straightedge or set squares and the drafter may use several technical drawing tools to draw curves and circles) and computer-aided drawing.

• Critical and Contextual candidates ‘draw’ using collected or researched materials as well as in written forms

• Drawing for Graphic Communication uses line art, graphs, diagrams, typography, numbers, symbols, geometric designs, maps, engineering drawings, or other images.



Let me illustrate what I mean. Let's take that infamous shoe drawing exercise we all know and loathe. Now you might get all your class to draw this shoe from observation and test their ability to accurately compose, shade and render it in pencil. You might even take them through how to draw it step by step. This will raise the perceived standard of technical ability, but what you lose is personal expression. What also happens is that about a third of the class learn it well, a third are ok or satisfactory and a third either struggle or give up in frustration. Most are bored out of their skull. But what if we set a different task? What if we said:

Draw the shoe in one of the following ways to suit you:

1. Representationally with a pencil

2. Sculpturally with wire

3. Sculpturally with clay.

4. Digitally with a tablet.

5. Using pattern.

6. Graphically with outline and colour.

7. Expressively with texture, collage or surface

8. Using abstract methods.

Can you see how much more exciting this is? I'm still giving pupils the option to just draw it from observation, but I'm encouraging a wide variety of expression now and opening things out with much more creativity and engaging more of the students.

So hopefully you can see my point that improving your classes drawing skills isn't about the transference of traditional skills to the whole class en masse, it is about teaching them the diversity and beauty of drawing, that it can be many different things according to the specialism being studied. I often think it is the art teachers themselves that need to get their head around this, not the students!


My How to Draw Programme has been developed to deliver skills in an independent way. Designed to be a flipped classroom activity and/or accessed online, they allow your pupils to learn how to draw at their own pace and to their own level, at home or in class. It even contains self-assessment guides so you shouldn't even have to mark it!

Bespoke Consultancy Service

I am available to do in-house CPD for schools as full day training sessions, half day or twilgiht sessions. It's a cost effective way of doing teacher training and it can be tailored to meet your schools' personal needs.

Email me

Contemporary drawing

Contemporary Drawing

The Ebook features 12 modern drawing activities that stimulate creative and unique approaches to drawing and do not require realistic drawing skills.


Contemporary Drawing 

Drawing does not have to be for the gifted few who are naturally talented at realism. There are many different styles of drawing; graphic, pattern based, sculptural, architectural, abstract, digital, you can even draw with clay or wire. However, art projects are often so constrained in design that the only way a pupil can be successful is to followthe teachers narrow ideals. 

By planning more open projects that have diverse approaches you will encourage pupils to work in ways that suit their learning style. This is really evident when you look at contemporary art because this shows you clearly that you can make brilliant art without having traditional realist drawing skills. Try my contemporary drawing exercises to get you started.


Free Drawing Lessons 

Here are some free drawing lessons for you to download.

Drawing from memory should help to build basic memory retention which in turn develops learning ability. Object in a bag and Doodle Bugs are aimed at developing imagination whilst Mark Making focusses on expressing emotions and creative intelligence.

Blind hand drawing lesson plan

Blind Hand Drawing

All ages

Another lovely starter activity that focusses students' attention on something very familiar to them.

Free to download

back to back drawing

Describing Drawing 

All ages

This exercise can be a great literacy activity and is excellent fun too! I use this a lot in class.

Free to download

object in a bag

Object in a bag

All ages

Drawing from visual memory and recall, this exercise is a real test of memory and imagination​

Free to download

Blind contour drawing

Blind Contour Drawing

All ages

Making 'blinds' to go over the drawing hand is a great way of teaching young artists to study hard.​

Free to download

Drawing from memory lesson plan
Mark Making art lesson plan
rubber drawing art lesson plan
Doodle drawing art lesson plan

Memory Drawing

All ages

This staple drawing exercise was used by Henry Moore during the war to draw in the air raid shelters. It is an essential!​

Free to download

Mark Making

All ages

I love this lesson. It's so simple to do, such fun and so expressive. Students love it too and I've seen it done in Early Years through to GCSE​

Free to download

Rubber Drawing

All ages

Alovely drawing activity that deals in drawing in reverse. You take away marks instead of adding them. Great fun for all.

Free to download

Doodle Drawing

All ages

A great starter activity to get your students warmed up for drawing. They love it and so will you. Pass the doodle to the left hand side.

Free to download


Paul Carney Paul is a nationally recognised art & design consultant having delivered specialist art CPD in schools, colleges, galleries, and Universities across the UK and for the UK’s leading training providers. He is a former Council member for the NSEAD, which means he is involved in national art education policy issues.Paul is a published author of two books: Drawing for Science, Invention and Discovery and his latest book Drawing to learn anything. He is also a practicing professional artist and designer. Paul runs his highly successful art website: that provides high quality teaching resources and advice to teachers around the world. He has over twenty years teaching experience at Primary, Secondary and post-16 levels of education, is an Advanced Skills Teacher, ex-Subject Leader for Art and was a member of the DfE Expert Advisory Group for Art and Design. In addition to this he was a member of the NSEAD Curriculum Writing Group that wrote the 'Framework for Progression, Planning for Learning, Assessment, Recording and Reporting 2014.’ 

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