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Drawing Exercises – Pen and dexterity focus

Timothy Jahn
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Drawing Exercises – Pen and dexterity focus

This is an In-depth guide of recommendations for  daily  exercises to increase hand control. By developing the habit of working to improve these daily you will help to foster yourself to be ready to handle any art challenge that comes to mind. 

Overview of drawing exercises. 

Now we are going to get into the skill building exercises that you can use to help improve your control.

One of the things I noticed as a student and teacher is that many of the concepts in art are not really that difficult for people to understand. What becomes difficult is the application of a fine motor skills.

Many people struggle with fairly simple drawing tasks. It’s not that they are incapable of learning them, it’s just they have not fully developed that skill set. To make rapid and continued improvement your learning process needs a clear plan.

If you are able to ISOLATE, IMPROVE and INTEGRATE  the skills into your working process then you will make much progress.

These target exercises isolate the common interaction your eye and hand have with the image. When done with clear focus and understanding of their objectives they will help you to improve and increase the control over the marks you’re making.

You will first go through and learn each skill independently. Follow the direction and do the prescribed number of sheets. After you have completed learning the exercise you will then cycle through two or three of them every day as warmups before you draw. This will allow you to continue to hone your skills and help maintain the control you’re now developing. 

After the skill building exercise you will learn how to INTEGRATE these skills into your drawing practice while increasing the dynamics of your  images. 

All of the materials I utilized are listed on my materials list here. 

Using your whole arm to draw 

Let’s start by improving our range of motion and ability to gain full control over our arm. 

arm position Timothy Jahn

Your arm has three joints that you can draw from. 

  • Your wrist. 
  • Your elbow. 
  • And your shoulder. 

A big hurdle some people have to get over is drawing only with their wrist. While drawing with your wrist allows you to have micro control it can be limiting due to the reduced range of motion.

Pen orientation Jahn Atelier

A better alternative is to draw with your whole arm. In art school students are quickly brought into a life drawing class that encourages them to draw big with daily sweeping motions. While this somewhat fixes the drawing from the wrist problem it creates some other issues. Mainly that students tend to get very sloppy with their mark making and can abandon any accuracy. 

So when doing these exercises try to initiate the motion from your shoulder. Out of all of the joints on the body the shoulder has incredible range and dynamics. 

By building the strength and control of drawing with your shoulder you will not only have a a larger range of motion but you will also have the ability to create confident marking. Your elbow will eventually be part of the movement but first understanding that the whole arm has to move will begin to help your overall dynamics. If you start moving from two or three joints simultaneously you’re going to quickly lose control. 

This may take a little getting used to but your control will really improve from the small adjustment. 

Drawing exercise with a pen 

Timothy Jahn Sketchbook

Why do I suggest you practice with a pen? We are picking this tool to accelerate your learning process.  By drawing with an unforgiving tool it will force you to fail faster and because of this you will have to slow down on each mark you make to gain any sense of accuracy. 

This will force you to explore the objects in a more expansive scenario. This does not mean that you should draw sloppily. Rather you will have to think through every line that you put down because you can’t erase your work. You will have to slow down and think. Remember: These are studies! Not finished drawings. The thinking part really is the key. In the long-term this builds the habit of thinking and focusing on your work.

Don’t rush. Spend the necessary time to get good at the underlying rudimentary information that exists in all drawings. 

When starting the exercises please note what tool is preferable and try your best to work with that tool for that exercise. The skill building exercises will all take place with a felt tip pen. It’s unforgiving and will clearly show you your “mistakes” or a better way of looking at them is as learning opportunities. This tool will help you learn accuracy very quickly. I was amazed at how much my understanding of space and control happened when working with only the felt tip pen. And, yes, just like you I was intimidated at first.

Give it 21 days of consistent hard work without any judgment. You will see improvement. Then give it 90 days and you will be shocked by how much you have grown. Remember, time will pass whether you get better or not. You came here looking for a way to improve but improvement is not always easy and sometimes you have to be uncomfortable to grow. If you only do what you are comfortable with you will only get the same results. 

Our goal is to learn to see objects on a 2D picture plane in 3D. 

Line repeats – Drawing Exercise 

Drawing Exercise line improvement

Mastery goal:

Draw a line with confidence that originates from your shoulder. The goal of this exercise is to gain control over the marks you make.


Draw a line with a ruler. Trace over it eight  times with a confident line. When drawing your line, make sure there is no pausing and no wavy lines. The beginning of the line MUST be accurate; start it exactly on the ruler line. In the beginning, the end will be off. That is ok. You will end up with a line that looks like a frayed piece of fabric. Over time this, as you improve, this fraying will correct itself and the line will become more consolidated. For now, focus on gaining confidence with placing your line down uninterrupted. Without wobbles, pauses or wild arcs. 


Don’t draw too slow or too fast. You will need to do some experimentation to account for your biomechanics, the pen, and its interaction with the paper. There will be an ideal speed for you. If you find that the line is arcing above or below the intended line you can exaggerate the line in the opposite direction. Then go back to making the intended pathway you’re looking for. You can turn the page to the ideal angle for your arm. 


Some of us have built a habit of repeating lines or what’s commonly called chicken scratch. By developing the habit of putting down a strong confident line, your confidence will greatly increase. 

To increase complexity: When you gain confidence with this exercise and your lines become more consistent, start this without the ruler line. This skill is the first warmup I do every day. 


Point and Line – Drawing Exercise 

Drawing exercises point and line

Mastery goal:

Draw an accurate line with confidence that originates from your shoulder blade.  


Place two points down and connect them with one confident straight line. No pausing or stopping. Move all the way through the line. 

Do’s and Don’ts:

  • Do avoid coming up short. When this happens your line stops before the intended target. This is a miscalculation that is happening between your hand and eye.
  • Don’t miscalculate the line length.  This is when your line hits the intended target but extends long after it.
  • Do start at the first dot and end on the second dot.    


  • To help you gain accuracy with your lines try ghosting over the pathway that your line needs to be placed. Ghosting is similar to practicing a golf swing or the swing of the baseball bat before entering the batter’s box. It allows your brain to connect with the muscles required to make the marks that you’re looking for.
  • Over time, by utilizing ghosting lines you will develop your gain automaticity.  In common parlance this is what people are referring to when they say muscle memory. When your brain reaches automaticity in drawing a controlled line, it allows you to focus your efforts on other tasks. It allows you to think about the emotion or stylistic choices of the images you create.

Often beginner artists don’t have much control over the marks they are making and in an effort to rush their learning, begin to focus their efforts on more slightly advanced concepts. But due to the inability to clearly indicate a simple line in the right place, the task they are trying to achieve falls short. 



Planes – Drawing Exercise 

Drawing exercise planes

Mastery goal:

Gain a higher degree of control and underling of how a plane sits in perspective. 


Draw a box. Connect the diagonal corners creating an X across the box. This X indicates the center of the box. Now draw a line indicating your horizon line. You’re now going to draw a plane of a cube in an approximate perspective that diminishes in size as it approaches the horizon line. Repeating the early stage of connecting the diagonal corners creating an X across the box. Fill your page with varying sizes of planes. 

Do’s and Don’ts:

  • Do use ghosting to place your lines down accurately. Attempt to have the receding line head to an imaginary vanishing point. 
  • Don’t place down choppy marks or chicken scratch lines.  


  • As you work to improve that, with this skill you have the chance to continue to improve the accuracy of your lines. Just like with the point and line exercise you can increase the overall accuracy of your dexterity. 


  • A cube has six sides or six planes. A plane in drawing refers to a flat surface sitting in 3D space. When the surface turns into perspective, to find the center of that plane we can place an x on it to show us where the center sits in space. We can also use this technique for eclipses multiplying and mirroring the plane in 3D space. Look for more information on this in the future. Keep it simple now and just work to improve the accuracy of your lines.  
  • To increase complexity: If this exercise becomes easy and you are familiar with the concept, attempt bended planes or, as I like to think about them, as pieces of floating paper blowing in the wind. 



Parallel Lines and Cross Hatching Lines – Drawing Exercise 

Hatching Cross Hatching Jahn Atelier

Hatching uses parallel lines to represent value. Depending on how close or far away the lines are to each other the value will appear lighter or darker. Attempt to fully concentrate when you’re placing your marks down and be very clear about the direction they should be heading.

Mastery goal: Control over your marks. 


You can practice laying lines down at a consistent distance to one another as well as work to improve your overall concentration when you are working. 

After you feel more confident, build a small value scale to be able to see the values at your disposal. 


  • A common mistake artists make when using this technique is rushing. 
  • If you make an error, keep going. They do happen. Over time and practice your application will become more consistent. 
  • Loss of concentration can really be an enemy to you with this technique. 
  • Attempt to fully concentrate when you’re placing your marks down and be very clear about the direction they should be heading.


Keep the lines at same angle, length, and orientation with the same distance between lines. When doing the cross hatching lines you can start with a fatter line and work to get a thinner mark at the end of the line. 

Circles – Ellipses – Drawing Exercise 

Drawing exercise ellipses circles Ellipses are the bugaboo of many artists. They are unforgiving and take a lot of work to do them consistently well. The good news is if you work at improving your ellipses, you can get good at the skill.      

Mastery goal:

What you are looking for is: starting to build the skill to draw an ellipse free hand. 


Draw a line vertically on your paper. Perpendicular to it draw two parallel lines. Now starting from your shoulder draw ellipses that hit three sides: top, bottom, and left. With the next ellipses hit all three sides but the edge of the previous ellipse becomes your left edge. When working to improve you ellipses it is helpful to establish a top and bottom line that the ellipse must fit in. 

It continue to increase your control you can try the following. Circles between lines. Draw a slight line vertically on your paper. Perpendicular to it draw two parallel lines.

Now starting from your shoulder draw circles hitting three sides; top, bottom and left. With the next circle hit all three sides but the edge of the previous circle becomes your left edge. 


You can draw a line through the minor axis.  Then fold the paper in half at the line. When drawn correctly the right side and left side will aline.  The ideal ellipse will be perfectly symmetrical.  


Remember that an ellipse can sit in a plane. So that early exercise you completed can come in handy here. 

Andrew Loomis Andrew Loomis 

Illustrations from Andrew Loomis 


Types of Practice

We all have been given a gift of adaptability. This is the best thing that has evolved in the human species.

The harder you try to hold on to a belief about innate talent the more difficult your learning will be and the more you will cap your potential. Let’s learn what you’re truly capable of.  

  1. Anders Ericsson spent his career studying expertise. In his research he was able to identify the best way to learn complex skills. 

He isolated and named two types of practice that are required to reach mastery in a given field: deliberate practice and focused practice.

  1. Deliberate practice: 

  • Limited time. Extremely intense. Hyper-clear goal.
  • Pinpoint something you want to change. 

Focus on improving and refining particular skills. Master teacher guides the student through the work. 

  1. Focused practice or purposeful practice 

  • Clear measurable targets can work on this for a longer duration of time. 
  • Can be done with or without a teacher.  

When people study ineffectively they enter into what’s called naive practice

Many artists tell beginning students to,

  •  “Just put in more time”.
  •  “Work long enough and you will get better.”
  •  “You’re not improving because you’re not working hard enough.” 

This was the common advice I received when I was younger. This simply is not an effective way to learn. 

Ideally you want to pull the process apart and attack specific skills that are required for improvement. Over time I was able to learn better ways of improving at drawing and painting. 

My study and research led me to the maximum – Isolate, improve and integrate.

During the improvement stage the most effective way to study is with Deliberate practice. This is the best form of practice and is done with a coach or teacher that can give you informed feedback immediately and help you build a mental representation of skills, techniques and application. Mental representations are patterns of information stored in our long-term memory that allow us to quickly process large amounts of information and respond quickly and effectively in certain situations.  

The skill-building exercises listed in this course are built around purposeful practice. They may seem basic in the beginning but they are meant to have a positive lasting effect on your future work.    

Purposeful practice 

  • Goals —You must have a clear established goal in mind. 
  • Focus — All of your attention needs to be geared towards the task you’re doing. No texting, watching TV or excessive talking with another student. 
  • Leave your comfort zone — Finding areas that challenge you that are just beyond your reach. 
  • Feedback —You need to get feedback about your attempt as soon as possible. 

If you decide to study with me, with each exercise I will clearly state to you the goal, the drill and the feedback loop required for your improvement. This will allow you to self-assess and continue to improve.  

Implementation – How to incorporate into your daily practice. 

Now that you have been exposed to each skill building exercise individually you can use these exercises as warm -ups for your daily drawing. I recommend doing one page that should take you 10 – 20 minutes. Vary the exercises and be sure to focus on the one that is giving you the most trouble. Remember to use full concentration if you’re looking for lasting change to your mechanics; concentration and attention are as important as the poster and mechanics of the marks. 

Thanks for taking the time to go through this information. I hope you have a clearer view of how you learn.

Timothy Jahn - Jahn Atelier

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