How to Draw Draped Fabric for the BEST Results

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You're working on a portrait, and so far it's a win: You're closer than ever to capturing the likeness in the face (go you!), but then you hit a snag — the clothes. The fabric folds are giving you the serious jitters.

No need to sweat it. Drawing realistic-looking fabric is mainly a matter of learning the right steps: breaking the fabric down into zones and studying the formula of light and shade in each. Check out this simple tutorial, and you'll be on your way.

How to Draw Basic Fabric Folds

When you're getting ready to draw fabric, always look out for the areas of tension or force that create wrinkles and folds. Here are some main types:

Compression wrinkles

In images 1 and 2 above, you can see the compression wrinkles, caused by the tension or force created by a moving body part, like an arm or an elbow.

Hanging folds

Images 3 and 4 show the swag and hanging wrinkles that appear on fabric when it's clipped on both sides. You'll see those kinds of folds on Greco-Roman clothes, around the necklines.

Pipe folds

Image 5 is an example of a pipe fold, which happens when a loose piece of fabric hangs freely. You'll typically see these in curtains, flags and the like.

Even if you can't remember the names of these types of folds, now you'll be able to start paying closer attention to the way they look and behave.

If you're drawing clothes, note that body parts like elbows or ankles create compression wrinkles. Also, see how wrinkles form in places where the fabric sags or collapses. As fabric wraps around the figure, creating the folds, pay attention to its movement in relation to the figure itself. Notice how tension or force causes changes in the folds. In the sketches above, you'll see arrows that note the direction or movement of the folds.
 
Aside from the way the fabric is resting, light, value and pattern also play a part in affecting how the fabric looks in your drawing.

Light

Every wrinkle or fold has the same basic breakdown of light and shade. In the image above, you'll see labels marking the highlights (the strongest areas of light); the medium light or middle tones; the form shadows (the darkest areas in the shadow); and the reflected light (the second-darkest shadow that sits on the edge of the fold).

Study this image carefully and start looking for the patterns in your fabric folds, since this variance in light will affect how you draw fabric on the page. Essentially, each fold is a small cylinder with a highlight, middle tone, form shadow and reflected light. 

A strong light source helps you see the value differences much more easily. Diffused light eliminates definite shadows and highlights, creating subtle shifts in tones.

Values

Values are hugely important when it comes to creating a visual illusion on a flat surface. The photo above on the left has its original color. The photo on the right is stripped of color, to reveal the values. Notice how a bright color can change our perception of values. In the grayscale image, you can clearly see the tonal transitions.

Pattern

If you're a beginner, avoid drawing patterned fabric. All that detail and curvature can get confusing. If you're more advanced and feeling confident, give it a try. Remember that as patterns curve around the roundness of the form and folds, parts of the pattern appear and disappear with the folds.

How to Draw Fabric, Step by Step

To start your drawing, mark the most prominent lines that show the movement or specific direction, and then place shadows on those lines. Then we'll get into the more detailed steps you'll take to make your fabric look realistic.

1. Sketch Out the Outlines

Create separation between the light and the shade. Begin shading, focusing on the shadows first. For instance, you can draw the form shadow with the reflected light as a dark block, as you see here.

2. Deepen the Darkest Shadows and Fill In the Background

Fill in the middle tones roughly, to show a slight difference between the form shadow and the reflected light placed next to it. Pull out the highlights with a kneaded eraser.

As you shade, try visualizing the 3D quality of the fabric using the directional strokes, while keeping the parallel strokes in the background.

3. Evaluate the Contrast

Step back from your sketch so you can see if it has enough contrast. Students tend to draw middle-toned images, because they're usually afraid to push the darks to make them work. Reinforce the lights as well, keeping the lightest fold on the left since the light comes from the left. Make sure you're creating transitions between the values.

Finally, make adjustments in the lines and edges, keeping most of them very soft. Fabric can't have hard, outlined edges or it won't look realistic, since it's fluid by nature. You might want to spray the drawing with a fixative outside when you're done.

Drawing Fabric in Colored Pencil

Drawing in color is more fun and more difficult at the same time, because you're not only observing the pattern of light and shade; you're also looking at the color temperature (cool or warm). Part of the trick is to match and layer colors of a specific tone. A drawing of white silk can have cool shades of blue-gray in the shadow and warm shades of light cream and peach in the light. The complex white folds contrast the dark, simple background.

If you draw on colored paper, you'll need to layer white over the light colors; if you draw on white paper, the highlights stay free of any shading, since white pencil would make it cool and chalky. 

No matter what color pencils or paper you're using, drawing fabrics is a challenge — but an exciting one that you can totally conquer. After all, you're already way better at it than you were a few minutes ago, right?

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How to Draw Draped Fabric for the BEST Results