What to think about when drawing objects.
I get asked a lot how to get better at drawing human-made objects like furniture or buildings. For me, this comes naturally, so it’s hard to point people in the right direction and “administer” a set of exercises to help. Recently though, I finally discovered the source of my fascination with things.
This thought process started from a broken keyboard – a few days ago, the button “B” on my wireless Apple keyboard suddenly stopped working. I can still get it to type a “B” if I press very hard and just at the right angle, but as you might imagine, writing became very frustrating. Not only there are very many important words containing the letter “B,” but also it’s needed for the “Brush” shortcut when painting in Procreate (I think that maybe the repeated presses of “B” for Brush and “E” for Eraser are what finished it off).
The thing is, this keyboard is quite new, and I would like to still use it. The small fault of just one button forces me to probably send it for repair (it is, of course, just after the warranty period), but I would actually prefer to fix it myself. A quick inspection reveals no visible means of taking it apart, and the button itself looks as if it would break completely if I try to take the keycap off. This is very frustrating, but it started me on a new adventure.
Using the broken keyboard as a small excuse, I began the process of making a custom made one. For those of you who don’t know – you can buy all the parts (base, circuit board, switches, plastic buttons, and so on) separately and put them together yourself, making just the keyboard to meet your fancy. Looking at all the parts online, imagining how they will fit together, I realized that I always see things like this – with components and how they make up bigger objects.
I remember my mother’s side grandfather, Tadek, as a man who fixed things. His drawers and cabinets were full of parts, tools, and books describing how stuff worked. It was common to see a radio being repaired when we visited, or him being absent because suddenly something broke at a friend’s apartment. Depending on the type of emergency – a broken TV or a leaking pipe – he would choose one of his two heavy, leather bags and would be off for a few hours. Later, he would turn up with his hands greasy or smelling of soldering fumes. I loved playing with all the spare parts and tools at the grandparents’ place, even though he never allowed me to touch the fascinating but delicate vacuum tubes.
My childhood house – a flat in a concrete apartment block – had a gas heater that would turn on whenever you wanted to use hot water. I was a bit afraid of it because of the loud sound the gas made when igniting, but this heater features prominently in some of my earliest memories. Whenever that heater broke, my father would call Tadek, and they would repair it together. I remember how they would look at the gas heater, turn it on and off a few times, listen to the hissing and clicking sounds it made. Then they usually said things like, “obviously it’s the gas subsystem’s membrane gone wonky again,” or “it’s good I have few spare parts from the last repair at so-and-so’s.” (You must realize that because of the Soviet Union’s influence, at that time in Poland everyone had the same boilers, washing machines or TV sets. This was a bit boring, yes, but made fixing stuff much, much more manageable, as spare parts were easy to match.)
I would then witness the gas heater being carefully dismantled to bits (after turning the gas and water off, obviously). I would learn how the thing worked, what was the ailing part’s role, and finally how to put the device back together in the right way. Sometimes I was even permitted to put some screws in myself!
Now, looking back, it’s hard to imagine that we did all those repairs ourselves. We fixed home appliances, electrical installation faults, did car engine maintenance, and any other DIY stuff that was needed. This probably was why I thought that things – meaning appliances, cars, robots, houses, etc. were interesting, and I always saw them as made of components. While my classmates drew cartoon characters, I was content with filling my notebooks with drawings of chairs, lamps, or pipes with careful diagrams of their parts or how they moved on their hinges.
This attention to parts helps me now enormously in drawing human-made objects. If I have to sketch a window I know what elements it’s made of, and even if I don’t feature everything in the final piece I understand what is there – a rail or a frame element, a latch or a hinge, how thick the glass and the frame have to be, and so on. If two pieces of wood meet, I’m aware of how they are connected, so I know where to draw a line and where there should be none. It’s easier to paint a bent pipe when I know how a joint like this would be constructed and how the whole thing would be held against the wall. Such details matter – not because they add “stuff” to a drawing and make it more impressive – but because they help me tell what things are.
So if you would like to get better at drawing “things” – study the parts like a painter would study anatomy to get better at painting people. Start with stuff you have in your apartment and try to sketch interesting objects whenever you find something new. If you have some free time and a sketchbook – look around!
In the end, the gas heater had a small explosion that sent a part of its metal case flying across the bathroom while I was in the shower. Soon after that, my father decided to buy a modern, safer one with electronic control. Sadly, like my keyboard, we cannot take it apart when something brakes.