The most important thing to keep in mind is to start with the largest shapes, and gradually work down to the small details. This allows you to regularly check your angles and proportions. The earlier you catch a mistake, the easier it will be to fix it. The idea is to draw imaginary lines through the important points of your subject, and use a couple of checks to make sure they are accurate, such as using easy divisions (halves and thirds), and checking against horizontal and vertical lines.
The best way to explain this is by example. Let's make a sketch of what is possibly the fandom's most popular critter, the red fox:
The first step is to block in the large shapes. On the left you can see the imaginary lines I've picked as the basis. The sketch is still very light at this point: the idea is to make the corrections on the fly, instead of slowing yourself down by erasing lines.
Figure 1.3. Blocking in the outline
Now pause and check if everything is still correct. I'm going to give a few examples of what you could look for, so you can get a rough idea of this process.
The proportions are okay: the line through the eyes is supposed to be a bit below halfway (say, at 5/8ths) the lines of the ear tips and the chin. Also, if I draw an imaginary line from the intersection near the left eye to the right ear tip, or from the mouth to the ear's base, the angle is the same on the sketch.
Eyeballing diagonal lines through your figure is called "caliper vision" by [Ryd]. Ryder uses the block-in and the caliper measurement only on the contour, not on features inside the contour such as eyes or a mouth. Personally, I prefer using the same system for the entire subject. It's only a tool, how you use it is up to you.
The line through the eyes doesn't have quite the right angle though. It should be rotated clockwise a bit. I'm keeping this in mind as I use this line to place the eyes in the next step:
With the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth indicated, it's time for a check again. If we look at one of the original construction lines, it's easy to spot the mistake here. The cheek is way too close to this line.
The top of the head seems okay; the distance to the eye line is the same as the distance from the eye line to the chin. Or, from the eye line up to the ear tip line, it's approximately at two-thirds.
Figure 1.7. Refining the sketch
The cheek is fixed, and the sketch is really starting to take shape now. I added some details and shading to show how the process would continue.
I realize this bears an eerie resemblance to the many "How to draw a <insert subject here>" tutorials. But although I could add a jarring background, post it to DeviantArt, and call it a day (tempting, tempting...), I hope it's clear that this is not the intention. I'm not trying to teach you how to draw a fox, not yet at least. I'm just showing you how to approach a sketch.
These techniques are not just for copying photos, you can also sketch from life in the same way. It is a little more difficult, so if you'd like to practice with 2-D references first that's okay. Instead of drawing blue construction lines on a photo, some people use a thin knitting needle or a piece of thread. You hold it in front of you while closing one eye, and check if everything lines up the same way as on your paper.
Now go grab your pencil and your cheap paper, and sketch whatever you find interesting. It doesn't matter if it is a pet, a person, or the spontaneous still life on your desk. The goal right now is to learn to draw what you see, develop your sense of proportions and angles, and train your eye-hand coordination.
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