Lesson 7: Drawing Vehicles

As of October 8th 2016, after roughly two years of offering free critiques, I will now be limiting my own critiques to patreon supporters ($3 or more). But don't fret - you are still welcome to freely submit your work and questions directly to the /r/ArtFundamentals subreddit to be reviewed by the community.

Up until this point, I've been very adamant drawing everything freehand, with felt tip pens, and so on. And this has been for a good reason - it's important to maintain a certain degree of the right kinds of challenges to ensure that you guys gain as much as you can from each lesson.

This lesson, however, is going to be a little different. I am allowing, and in fact encouraging the use of the following:

  • Ballpoint pen for initial construction lines
  • Felt tip pens/fineliners for adding line weight and emphasizing important existing marks
  • Brush pens for filling in large areas with solid black
  • Rulers/straight edges for drawing precise construction lines
  • Ellipse guides for constructing and aligning your ellipses

Whenever drawing freehand, I still want you to apply the methodology I've outlined in the past - the ghosting method, drawing through ellipses, and so on. That said, in this case it is inevitable that with all of the necessary construction lines, and the significance placed on precision, it's important for you to be able to use tools that will allow you to focus more on the meat of the lesson, which is really about the manipulation and construction of complex compound forms.

As before, do not use pencil or digital media.

Before we start, I assume you've completed Lesson 6 (and its prerequisites). Each lesson builds upon the last, so while you think you may know enough to jump in half way, or that the previous topics are of little interest to you, you'll be missing out on quite a bit. Start from the beginning, and you'll be glad you did.

Analytical and Constructive Drawing from Observation: Drawing Vehicles

Now we're moving onto vehicles - the last of the dynamic sketching lessons, as far as I've planned. This lesson is very similar to the last one, the only difference being scale.a It's definitely an interesting experience, drawing these subjects from life - especially the first two: trains and tanks. Wrapping your head around an object so much larger than you can be tricky at times, and it makes for great practice.

Since I pretty much split one lesson into lessons 6 and 7, this is pretty much a review of the last one.

Planned Form Intersections

So by now you should be fairly comfortable with the form intersections. The exercise in lesson 2 focused on combining forms arbitrarily. This time, however, we need to configure them in particular arrangements, to match whatever it is we're constructing. Figure 0.1 is an example of how simple forms (boxes and cylinders) can be arranged to capture the rough likeness of a steamroller.

Finding the Center of a Quad

Maintaining the correct proportions in 3D space is extremely important to making your drawing look believable. This means you'll have to study those proportions carefully. Starting off with a side-view proportion sketch is a great way to begin. You'll note your major forms and how they're positioned and scaled relative to one another.

Finding the center of a plane by finding the intersection point of its diagonals (as discussed last time) is a solid way to break a surface down into a grid.

Repeating a measurement in perspective

You can also use the reverse of this concept to take a measurement you already have and repeat it back or forwards in perspective (very handy for placing wheels). Since we know that the diagonals of a plane will intersect at its center, you can treat two planes that are side-by-side and equal in length as being two halves of the same plane (I'll refer to it as the compound plane).

Knowing this, if you have a center-line running through them in one dimension, the center of this 'compound plane' lies at the point of intersection (in red) of that center line (in blue) with the line that separates the two individual planes.

To copy the measurement over, just draw a diagonal from the corner of your plane through that red point, as shown in figure 0.3.

Cab-Over Truck

I wanted to start off with something at least somewhat straight forward - this cab-over style of truck is pretty much a few boxes and a few cylinders. Unfortunately things do get complicated when we get into its detail (and I stumble on it myself, as you'll see) but the core construction of it is straightforward as can be.

For those among you who are current patreon supporters of drawabox, there is a video recording of this drawing available:

Some Boxes

While the rest of this lesson will focus very heavily on proportion studies, for this one I wanted to jump right in, due to the relatively simplistic construction. I set in a simple box (which right off the bat I made too wide, so I had to cut it back a little on the right side of the drawing), a box underneath and the beginnings of a plane for the wheel. Notice that I defined one vertical line and two lines going off to the left, with no second vertical. This is because we don't yet know where that second vertical should go. We want this plane to be a perfect square (so it can contain the wheel, a perfect circle), so we'll be using the techniques outlined in the videos above.

Front Wheels

So in figure 1.3, you've got a cylinder with three concentric ellipses on each side. The reason for this is... well, my wheels weren't big enough to start with, and in my second attempt they still weren't big enough. Yeah, there's no magic here. The inner-most ellipse is the result of what we were doing in the previous step - I laid in the ellipse so that it fit snugly between the first vertical and the two horizontals, and I used a degree that made it so the contact points above and below (where the ellipse touches those top and bottom horizontal lines) align vertically. As explained in the videos, this only matches up when the ellipse accurately represents a perfect circle within the context of this perspective system. Once this has been achieved, we can draw the remaining vertical to close off the ellipse in a plane - which also happens to now represent a perfect square in 3D space.

Note: freehanding ellipses with all of this business of specific degrees and matching up contact points is hard. You're not likely to get it down perfectly, so as I mentioned above, you are free to use ellipse guides, rulers, etc. to make your life easier. If you happen to do it freehand, that's fine as well, just don't get frustrated if you don't nail your ellipses. A bit of deviation won't ruin things, it's totally fine.

Another thing worth mentioning here is that unless your wheels are at an angle relative to the body of the vehicle, you should start the wheels on the same axel off as a single cylinder. You can cut them up later, but in general it's a lot easier to work through these phases with larger cylinders rather than squatter ones already cut to the size of each individual wheel.

Using Wheels as a System of Measurement

Looking at my reference, I roughly judged the distance from the front wheel to the back wheel to be roughly 5 wheels. When dealing with wheeled vehicles like this, it's extremely helpful to use those wheels as units of measurement. Since they're perfect circles, we can fairly easily understand and apply their proportions in multiple dimensions, using them for length, height, and even sometimes the width of the object.

Here I've applied the technique to carry measurements back in perspectve (also described in the videos above).

Measuring the Height in Wheels

Same deal - upon looking more carefully at my reference, I realized the height of my truck was way off, and that the whole thing is about 3 wheels tall. So, again, I carried that measurement up and defined a more correct box.


At this point, most of my primary construction is done, and I can start refining those forms - that is, rounding off edges, carving more complex information, and so on. This truck's finer details were deceptively complex, and I ended up leaving a great deal alone due to its insignificance in the context of this demonstration. Honestly, I wish I'd left more of it alone, as it ended up being a bit of a rabbit hole that just kept going deeper and deeper...

More Refiniement

More of the same. I pretty much just stopped it at this point, as it was eating up far too much of my time, and I'd already hit the major points I wanted to discuss with this demonstration.

Coast Guard Boat

For the sake of variation, let's leave the terrestrial behind and try our hands at a boat.

For those among you who are current patreon supporters of drawabox, there is a video recording of this drawing available:


Last demo didn't go so well, let's slow down and try doing more preparatory work this time. By doing an orthographic proportion study, we can start to lay down basic landmarks against which we can place our major forms. I always start this off by drawing a rectangle that roughly matches the overall length and height of my subject. Then I subdivide it like crazy, creating a grid. When I actually draw the side view of the object, I try to stick to straight, clear-cut lines. I'll only use a curve when it's integral to the form I'm building, and even then I'll often start it off as straight cuts, coming back afterwards to smooth it out.

A Box for the Base

The approach I'm using here is a mixture between the encompassing-box technique I first introduced in the last lesson, and the more standard stacking of forms. I'm using the encompassing box to create sections of my object, rather than the entire thing. In this case, the section is the base of the ship.

Constructing the Bow: The Footprint

The first step I'm taking to construct the bow of the ship is to establish its curvature with a sort of footprint. In order to construct this, I further subdivide the front section of the box a fair bit, in order to give myself a finer grid to work from. The important thing here is that I want to make sure that if the curve passes through certain points on one side, the opposite side of the curve should pass through the same corresponding points. This helps maintain consistent perspective distortion, which can be tricky without any additional reference points to rely upon.

Constructing the Bow: Raising the Form

In retrospect, I probably could have created that footprint on the top face of the box, but I felt that having it on the bottom would help me relate it more easily against the actual footprint (which is slightly smaller and more tapered). Ultimately, I replicate that footprint on the top face, tuck in the base section a bit and connect them together to produce a three dimensional form.

Stacking on the Next Tier

This ship has three tiers to it, so now I'm stacking on the next one. Before I do so, I want to place its footprint (which is pretty straightforward this time since it's just a box) on the existing base. In order to do this, I take a rough estimate on one side, and then mirror that measurement across the center line of the base form. Then it's just a matter of extruding that foot print up.

Warning: Anyone with half an eye for perspective can start to see that my lines are.. well, falling apart a bit. The reason being, the angle I'm drawing this at required me to work in three point perspective, which is notoriously difficult to estimate. I strongly encourage you at this stage to focus on constructions in two point perspective. Being able to trust that your verticals are all running straight up and down is incredibly useful. If you are going to be working in three point perspective, laying down a series of lines that go off towards the same vanishing point when you start out can be incredibly useful - just make sure that they are consistent in their alignment.

Stacking on the Wheelhouse

Same idea, once again. Establish the footprint, extrude the form up.

Carving the Wheelhouse

As you can see in the reference image, the wheel house is a little more complex than a basic box. It's got bevelled front edges, and it tapers down to its midsection before flaring back out. Deal with each of these details one at a time - probably the tapering/flaring first, then the bevelling.

Line Weights

For the sake of time and my sanity, I'm skipping over the big structure on top of the wheel house, as well as a lot of the extraneous details. Here's the point that I want to start organizing my lines and generally sorting through my mess. The best way to do that is, of course, to add line weight to key areas. The biggest thing I want to reinforce is the overall silhouette of the object, bringing it out from the rest of the construction lines.

Details and so on

Continuing to do what I can to bring the meat of the boat out of the mess, while adding some minor details. One approach that I often use to help organize heavy messes like this, is to lay down some large, deliberately-designed shadow shapes. The key here is being deliberate. You have to think about how those shadows will run along surfaces, and you have to make sure the angles of projection are consistent. Basically, think about where your sun is going to be, and what direction it's going to be casting its shadows. Having a shadow come out towards your light source is a big no-no, as it'll break the illusion. Don't go too heavy with this, just place shadows in key areas, especially where it's going to help separate a key shape or form out from the frey.

1967 Chevy Camaro
1967 Chevy Camaro

And lastly, a car. I love cars, but I hate drawing them. The thing about cars is that they all have very specific proportions to them, very specific carves, very specific form language. It's very easy to stray ever so slightly, and people will notice. That said, the technique applied to the computer mouse in the last lesson is pretty effective for this sort of thing.

Oh, notice how I'm using two reference images here? There's no reason you should ever stick to just one, and with cars it's ridiculously easy to find all kinds of angles, especially side views. These make proportion studies a breeze.

For those among you who are current patreon supporters of drawabox, there is a video recording of this drawing available:

Proportion Study

Whenever dealing with cars, ALWAYS think in terms of wheels as measurement units. I mentioned this in the truck demo, but it's even more important here.

You'll notice that I've got a set of somewhat lighter wheels - six of them - running along the length of the car, not actually aligned to the car's actual wheels. Looking at the reference image, I noted that the car is roughly six wheels long and two wheels tall. I did extend my car a little further in each direction, largely to compensate for little discrepancies with this method of estimation.

Getting Started

In order to properly establish the proportions of my car, I want to use the perfect-circle approach. In order to do so, I define a vertical and two horizontal lines - the vertical to act as the bounds for the ellipse I'll be drawing, and the two horizontals to establish a vanishing point off in the distance, and define my perspective system.

Draw your Ellipse

Remember the criteria you're trying to hit. You want your ellipse to fit snugly between these three bounds. You also want the points of contact it has with the top and bottom lines to sit perfectly above/below each other. Use an ellipse guide if you have one. If you don't, accept that freehanding it won't be perfect, but it'll be good enough. Probably. Once you've got your ellipse down, close off the plane to establish what is now a square in 3D space.

Measuring out the Length

Okay, this image definitely looks confusing at first, because there's two things happening here. First, I took the measurement of that square in 3D space and carried it down four more times to establish five equal squares. Remember that the car is roughly 6 wheels long? Well, in observing my reference, I also noted that there are three wheel-lengths between the front and back wheels. This leaves roughly one wheel to be split up between the section in front of the front wheel, and behind the back wheel. To my eye, the front looks to be about 1/3 of a wheel, and the back appears to be 2/3. So what do we do with this information?

First, I don't want to clutter up my drawing by first measuring out six wheels, then placing the actual wheels in a way that doesn't actually align with any of the wheels I've put down in order to masure things out. So, I drew five wheel lengths, with the first and last ones actually corresponding with the car's actual wheels. All that's left is to tack on the front and back sections. But how?

That's where the additional marks come in - first I eyeballed a point that is about 1/3 of the way into the front wheel. Then I mirrored this measurement up and across the left side of that wheel's plane, giving me that same measurement directly to the left of the wheel. Did the same thing for the back - eyeballed a point 2/3 of the way into the back wheel, then reflected it towards the right.

These transferring techniques are extremely useful when trying to figure out little finicky things like this, while maintaining a degree of accuracy.

Transfer Wheel Height

Now we're using the same technique to transfer the height of the wheel up. Since this drawing is in 2 point perspective, our verticals run straight up and down and do not converge towards a vanishing point. This means we could technically just take a measurement of the left-most wheel's left side and transfer it up, but I generally avoid that kind of approach wherever possible. It's just a lot better to get used to thinking about these techniques as tools at your disposal that can be used in any situation, and getting used to reaching for them rather than a measuring tool.

Flesh Out the Remaining Dimension

I will admit something - I skipped a pretty important part of all of this. I did a proportion study for the side of the car, but the front is also very important. Make sure you do proportion studies for every major side of the vehicles you attempt, as it will come in very handy. Since I have no proportional information to go off of, I've pretty much decided to wing it and extend the box out to a point that seems roughly correct to me.

Wheels as Cylinders

As I mentioned when dealing with the truck, you should whenever possible deal with wheels that share an axel as a single cylinder that stretches all the way across. This simplifies things and generally maintains cohesiveness between the two wheels.

Mark out the Major Forms

Now that we have our box fleshed out, we can finally use all of our subdivisions to transfer the forms we identified during the proportion study and build them up by first stamping them onto the side plane of the box, and extruding them across. Notice that I'm not using any curves here - straight lines are in most situations going to maintain a sense of solidity that you want to hold onto as long as possible. Once you've got all of your forms fleshed out as solid blocks, then you can start smoothing them out. Don't do it any earlier than that.

Draw the Rest of the Owl - I mean Car

If you think about it, all of the parts you need have already been drawn - all that's left is to refine your forms and add detail. With all of the subdivision, you can construct the remaining forms in a sort of connect-the-dots fashion, and then smooth over the resulting hard edges wherever necessary. That's the thing about construction - 99% of it is just preparation, but the last 1% of it is where the drawing suddenly jumps out at you and comes alive.


Not a whole lot to say - use whatever techniques, be it line weight, large filled areas of solid black, etc. to help organize your linework, reduce clutter and bring your object out of the mess.

As I do homework critiques, I create new hand-written demos/notes that likely are valuable to others, so I'll be including them here.

As homework, I recommend doing at least:

  • 4 pages of form-intersection vehicles. Think of this as the lay-ins, but approach them as you would the form intersections from lesson 2, focusing on drawing through the major geometric forms. The steam-roller form intersection in the lesson section of this page is a good example of what I'm looking for.
  • 8 pages of vehicles. Vary it up, and you don't have to just do things with wheels. Boats and planes are more than welcome. As long as it is used as transport and is large enough to hold a human being within it, it's fair game.

Take your time, and take as many breaks as you need. No need to rush. I expect this to take you at least eight hours, likely more.

Either draw from life, or use high-resolution reference images. Google images (be sure to set the size to large under search tools) and pinterest tend to be good sources of reference.

The demos below are outdated, but still have some relevant information so I've decided to leave them up. Keep in mind that when I wrote and recorded these, I was putting much less focus on the importance of dealing in solid forms and construction than I do now.


They can be a real pain in the ass, but I love locomotives. They're a great example of how a lot of small, intricate forms can be laid out on a fairly simple combination of just a few large forms. By and large, I'd say that this locomotive is mainly composed of a single long cylinder on the top, sitting on a box.

Patreon-only Video Demo (63min, no audio)

Proportion Study

When I approach drawing a vehicle (actually, with any subject matter this is probably a good idea), I study the proportions first. This is best done in an orthographic view - in this case, a profile/side shot. Study how the different major components of the object relate to one another in length and height, and how they relate to the object overall. It's also a good idea to start this off by drawing a rectangle that encloses the whole object, since vehicles tend to be fairly boxy. Even the curved ones are boxy, they're just lying to you about it.

Block in a Box

Just as the proportional study should be enclosed in a box, that's a great first step when you approach the three-quarter angle drawing. Your box not only encloses the space, but it helps you approximate your perpsective. Your vanishing points should be a good distance off the page to minimize distortion, so you won't be able to rely on them for your perspective. Instead, you can approximate based on the angles of the box itself, as well as a horizon line.

It is very important that you use shallow perspective, and this box will force you to maintain it - assuming you don't make the perspective dramatic from the get-go.

Blocking in Other Major Forms

Using your subdivision and measurement-transferring techniques (from the lesson above), you can start laying in your major forms. Here I've got the primary cylinder and the box it sits upon, as well as the box in the back (where the conductor rides). Then I continue to subdivide the forms, finding the correct positions for my wheels and whatever else.

For this, I rely heavily on the proportion study I did before. I already figured out all of those problems, so here it's just a matter of mapping the same information onto a 3D box.

Beyond this, there's really no need for me to describe what I'm doing - it's been the same for all the previous lessons. Just look at your reference, and refine refine refine.

Refine some more!

When I was taking studying this at Concept Design Academy, Peter Han took us to this place called Tankland in South El Monte, CA. If you get a chance to visit, it's fantastic. A big dusty parking lot filled with old military vehicles, primarily as one would assume - tanks. When I went, it was only five bucks for admission, and they even supply you with little fold-out chairs so you don't have to stand around awkwardly trying to support your sketchbook while drawing.

Patreon-only Video Demo (53min, no audio)

Proportion Study

When studying your proportions, keep an eye on major relationships that are especially easy to transfer into 3D. For example, with tanks you'll find that the vast majority of them follow a very similar proportion. The bottom half of your block-in-box is the main body of the tank, and the top half contains the turret. So, if you just find that vertical halfway point and divide it into two portions, you've already got the most significant proportion issue solved.

Block in a Box

Block in your overall box. Remember, keep your perspective nice and shallow. Draw your diagonals for the vertical planes, and split the box in two using the centers (as discussed in the previous step).

Separate your smaller forms

I'm going to quicken my pace, since I'm mostly repeating things from the last demo. Establish a hierarchy of forms. First split it into the tank's body and turret, then the smaller forms that sit on top of those major elements.

The tank's gun is always tricky, because people have a tough time estimating how long it should be. The same problem occurs with the wings on a plane. One way of handling that is to visualize a line coming straight down from the end of the barrel, on the reference. Note what that line intersects with. You can then use that as a landmark for where your gun should stop.

After that, it's just more refining.

Refine More