Drawing cars is one of the few things that still brings me true joy in this thing called adulthood. Watching my son develop an interest in cars with his growing Hot Wheels collection is another one of those things. You see, cars are awesome.
Hanging on to interests or hobbies that you enjoyed as a kid can help keep the hustle and bustle and grown-up responsibilities in check. Turn all those distractions off and just draw cars for a bit. Those bills aren’t going anywhere, trust me.
You can tell a lot about a car by looking at it from the side. Plus, you don’t have to worry about perspective from this angle.
I’ve been drawing cars for as long as I can remember. In 1990, when I watched April O’Neil sketching Leonardo as he watched over Raphael recovering in a bathtub, I picked up my pencil crayons and started drawing Michelangelo driving a Corvette. Obviously. That was it. I was hooked. Drawing cars and Ninja Turtles is what I will be doing for the rest of my life.
When it comes to drawing cars, a lot of the lessons I learned along the way just kind of bury themselves in the back of my mind. Repetition is the key to feeling comfortable drawing these machines. For a lot of people, drawing cars is pretty difficult. For me, it’s drawing feet. I cannot draw feet. I should invest some time looking into online tutorials and practice. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.
If you’re looking to start drawing cars, or pick up some tips on rendering techniques, there’s an incredible amount of content available for you. In this post, I’m going to lay out a few key lessons that have stuck with me for years, that always help when it comes to drawing my favourite subject matter.
Before we get started, I should state that I have no official training in automotive design, so take anything I say with a grain of salt. That being said, I like to think my background in industrial design helps me look at things a little differently. Breaking down complex forms into basic volumes, understanding how lighting plays with different materials and surfaces, all that stuff.
Now let’s talk about drawing cars.
The Beauty of the Profile View
Most people I know who draw cars regularly got started the same way. Drawing cars from the side, or “profile” view. This is pretty straightforward. You can tell a lot about a car by looking at it from the side. Plus, you don’t have to worry about perspective from this angle. (That is a completely separate animal.) When I’m trying to come up with a new design for a car that will never be built, I always start with a bunch of thumbnail sketches in profile view.
So, what do you need to consider when sketching in profile view?
- Wheels. Two of them, generally.
- Spacing between the wheels
- Ground plane: anchoring the sketch in space
- What type of vehicle you are drawing
- Overhangs: how much the body extends past the wheels
- Belt line: fancy design term for the vehicle’s defining “shoulder”
- Greenhouse: the car’s windows
- Ride height: how high off the ground the bottom of the vehicle sits
When I started drawing professionally, I got to rub shoulders with some pretty amazing people in the automotive industry, including design professors at the best automotive design schools. Two things that seemed pretty unanimous: 1) Make your car always point to the left in profile, and 2) Never finish your ellipses in perspective.
The former is where we’ll get started. First thing to draw is a circle. This will be the car’s front wheel.
Next draw a horizontal line at the very bottom of the circle extending in both directions.
From here, we need to determine the spacing between the wheels. To do this draw three identical circles adjacent to each other on the right of the first ‘wheel’.
Where you place the second wheel will drive the type of vehicle you are aiming for. The guideline here is three full circles between for longer wheel base vehicles like pickup trucks and mini vans.
Or 2.5 to 2.75 circles for sports cars, sedans, or crossovers. Again, this is merely a guideline, but it tends to set proportions off on the right foot when taken into consideration.
The next step is to lay down a line marking the bottom of the vehicle. This one is pretty low, which should point in the direction of a small- to medium-sized car.
These are the most critical steps to get started before letting your inner car designer take over.
But I also like to give myself an idea of where the belt line will sit. The belt line is the separation between body panels and the car’s windows. Here, the belt line is added in blue. The black line beneath is known as the “shoulder line.” I’ve also added vertical lines to illustrate limits for overhangs. (Overhangs will be discussed a bit later.)
Now is where you can really start to explore. At this point, I’m still undecided on a two-door sports car or a four-door sedan.
Same wheelbase, same belt and shoulder lines. The only change made was extending the front overhang, which was a decision based on overall proportions.
From here on out, its all a matter or preference. I attended a session with Scott Robertson, and he went into depth on sketching cars in profile. The key take away for me was a phrase he used called the “visual graphics” of the sketch. He was referring to the bare minimum required to communicate the form of the car. The elements that make up these graphics are the wheels, greenhouse, and blocked out areas for lighting and vents, etc.
This is when I decide if I want to keep going with a pencil sketch, heavy on the line work, or if I want to go more for a sculpted/paint render.
For this post, I’m going to go into render mode to cover some lighting and surfacing tricks.
I’ve blocked out some areas surrounding the wheels to develop the car’s wheel wells. Strengthened the bottom line of the car, and added some very loose shadows under the belly of the vehicle.
Using Kyle’s Custom Wheels Brush Set, I dropped in a quick brake setup, eyeballing the centre of the wheel well on a new layer.
On the same layer I added wheels using the ‘5-spoke – Split’ wheel from the same brush set, adjusting the size of the brush to fit properly. Centre of the wheel aligned with the centre of the brake rotor.
Using the quick select lasso, I repositioned the wheels to sit on the ground plane and centred in the wheel wells. I also added a bit of shadow to pull emphasis off the wheels themselves.
Next I blocked out everything under the “shoulder line” in a dark grey, and everything above with a light grey on two separate layers. Just by doing that we can already see this thing popping off the page a bit.
Locking Transparency of the darker layer, I use a large Airbrush to add a darker tone, effectively pulling the body panels in at the bottom of the car.
This is where I start thinking about the body panels in terms of volume. Personally, I always draw my cars with wide fender arches and “stance” — meaning low and aggressive ride heights.
I added a new layer on top of the light grey, and, using a hard paint brush, added some stark white above the front wheel and more of the same grey above the rear wheel. These will eventually become highlights that help widen the car. Also some more grey on the lower end to illustrate the lower character line and give the body panels some depth.
On that same layer, pull back the paint with a large soft eraser. On the rear arch, with Lock Transparency on, I added white to the grey with an airbrush and then pulled it back with the eraser.
These next steps show a range of details added as it ramps up to completion. The image below Added some black to the top of the dark grey body panel layer forming a ‘crease’, highlights behind the vents on the front and rear valences (bumpers).
Taking the greenhouse and interior into consideration, lower the opacity of the black windows, and block in the window frames, steering wheel, dash and a head rest on a new layer. Some lighter grey was added to the centre of the body panels to lighten things up.
My favourite stage in a render is adding sharp highlights for the glass, and adding door and valence shut lines — because, more lines.
Add a snappy background with a splatter brush and a Large Smudge brush.
Tricking It Out with Reflections
This is my go-to trick for any car sketching demo. I will share it with all those who have made it this far down the tutorial. Note that this trick is only for those using the desktop version of SketchBook.
- Create a new Folder in the Layer Editor.
- Click to select the top layer. Hold shift and click on the first layer above the snappy background. This will select all of the layers in the render.
- Drag all of those layers into that Layer Group.
- Duplicate that Group and Merge the duplicate.
- With the merged duplicate active, under Image, select Flip Layer Vertically. Drag that down so that the ground planes overlap.
Voila! Instant shiny floor reflection.
To spice that up a bit, I use a small but strong Smudge brush to push and pull the reflection. This is a very lazy way of suggesting that the floor is wet. But I think it looks cool.
There you have it: a profile view of a car. Anyone can draw this if you just take it step by step. If you doubt that you can do it, download the final image, import it into SketchBook, and hide that layer until you need to use it as a reference. See if you can replicate what I made.