Learn to how to divide a drawing into easy sections. Conquer "I can't do that, it's too difficult!" by breaking everything down into manageable parts. Haven't got the patience to spend 200 hours or more on a single drawing? Neither has Mike. He spends half an hour each on 400 small drawings that seamlessly join.

Division reduces stress, and greatly increases your involvement and understanding of each area. And it promotes a natural and realistic appearance, because it gives your mind time to recall everything you already know.

This in-depth video, the first of three, concisely explains and demonstrates how and why you should break every drawing down, into smaller and smaller sections, for results that will almost certainly surprise and delight you.


An introduction to division of work in drawing


Any drawing can be simplified by breaking it down into its individual elements. Working on only one at a time eliminates many problems, concentrates your attention, and relieves the stress of working on the whole drawing.
How do you have the patience to spend 25 hours on a single drawing?

Patience? None required...

Mike's often asked how he has the patience to work on a 25 hour, or even 250 hour, drawing. He doesn't! As he explains, he stitches together many small drawings that can be completed in a short time.
The concept of breaking a drawing down into manageable sections

The basic concept

Learning how to break down your work might be one of your most important discoveries. Mike presents the basic concept of breaking a drawing down into manageable sections that seamlessly flow into each other.
The more you break down any drawing the easier it becomes.

Identifying the parts

You must first learn to see the various parts of a project rather than the whole. The more you can break down any drawing, the easier it becomes.
Mike explains that a seemingly complex drawing is simply a repetition of a single shape.

Complex? not really...

Mike explains that a seemingly complex drawing is simply a curving lock of hair repeated again and again - drawn one lock at a time.
A list of the main division types in a pencil drawing

Division types

A breakdown of the principle types of division. And each of these can be broken down yet again.
Position as a division - background, midground, or foreground

Division by Position

Position explored as a means of dividing a drawing - that's background, midground, and foreground. How to recognise them, and why drawing one before another is beneficial.
Using textures to separate a drawing into areas.

Division by Texture

Using a child's spade and bucket, Mike explains why drawing sand, plastic, wood, and steel at the same time is not the ideal approach. And how separating them into individual parts benefits each of them.
Dividing the work in a drawing into different areas of undestanding.

Division by Understanding

A drawing can be divided, at any time, into areas you understand and those you don't. Mike gives advice on how to treat those "unknown" areas in a way that doesn't affect the pristine surface of your paper.
Breaking down different areas within a drawing

Division by Area

Dividing by area can, for example, be by object or surface. But each area can be broken down into even smaller and more manageable parts. Mike explains how a dog's nose can be divided into many separate drawings, which promotes a greater understanding of each part.
How to divide even single solid structures into a number of separate dxrawings

Dividing solid areas

Even solid areas, such as an old wooden door, can be divided and then divided again into sections. Every division serves to simplify the drawing even further.
Conclusion to the dividing of drawing for simplification

And finally...

Not only does division give your mind time to recall everything it knows about the subject beneath your pencil, it also focuses your attention and simplifies the drawing.

Watch the 2-minute PREVIEW:

Divide and Conquer
Duration :
12:00 mins
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Crispin Gundry
I have just bought the Divide and Conquer lesson. I have found your tuition the most effective drawing techniques I have learned.
Scott Feighner
This will be helpful.


Let me introduce you to a way of working that uses division to conquer a number of common problems. Division involves the breaking down of a drawing project into manageable parts - so you can work on just one element, or small area, at a time. This not only avoids many problems - or even eliminates them - but it also greatly simplifies any drawing you undertake.

A question I'm often asked is "How do you have the patience to spend 25, or 50, or even 250, on a single drawing?" The answer is: I don't. What they see as a single drawing is really a series of small adjacent drawings. I spend perhaps half an hour on each of 50 - or 100, or 500 - small drawings that join up to form a single drawing. In other words, I break it down into manageable pieces. And then, as I'll explain, all those pieces can be broken down into even smaller pieces.

Learning how to logically divide your work might be one of your most important discoveries - especially if you want to render complex, realistic drawings. By breaking down a drawing into manageable parts, you can:
  • Defeat the “I can’t do that; it’s too difficult” belief.
  • Relieve the stress of taking on a daunting project.
  • Not feel rushed to finish an important drawing.
  • Focus your full attention on each element.
  • Improve your understanding of that element, and the way it fits into the overall picture.
And the benefits and rewards go much deeper than that.

To succeed, you must first learn to see the individual parts of a project rather than only the whole. Logically, this dog is in front of the background. Each is clearly defined. When you can see the dog and the background as two separate units, you can draw either one first. The more you break down your drawing into different parts, the easier it becomes, and any type of division can be used to narrow your focus to a single achievable area. With patience and practice, you can learn to divide even the most complex arrangement of shapes and textures.

For example, this dog's ear is a single curving lock of hair, repeated again and again, using the exact same technique, until it's complete. At first sight, this subject is seemingly complex, and rather intimidating. But, all you need is the ability to draw a single curve in a lock of hair. Finish it. Move on. Draw the next, and the next - one simple lock of hair at a time.

There are many ways of breaking a drawing down, which we'll explore in this and the next two videos. Division can be by:
  • Position: Depth - foreground, midground, or background
  • Texture: perhaps a furry ball on a hard wooden floor
  • Understanding: elements you understand and those you don't
  • Area: maybe different objects or surfaces within the drawing
  • Technique: elements that require completely different types of drawing


Position, or Depth, can be used to divide the work into three distinct areas: Background, Midground, and Foreground. And if we take away one element the positions of those remaining change: The pups are now in the background. This wooden box is in the midground (in front of the pups but behind the garden tools). And the garden tools are in the foreground. So, we have our three depth positions, but which to tackle first? The foreground? It often is the main focus and the most interesting to draw. It's also the most obvious and tempting. But might the background be a better choice? Well, yes it would. Because, with the background established first, the foreground elements can interact with their surroundings.

Take these two wilted leaves. If we attempt to draw the leaves first, how dark or light should they be? What range of values can we use? Bearing in mind that any matching, adjacent values used in both the box and leaves will make the leaves disappear. If you establish the background first, you gain control over the visual separation. Subsequent drawing inside the white foreground silhouette of the leaves is much easier once the background surrounds it. Now, as you draw the leaves, you have the ability to modify their shading. You have control. You can make any part stand out, or subtly merge into the background. This is a concept I'll explore in more depth in a later video, but wherever anything overlaps the background element - ignore it and draw around it.


Consider this: Your mind is directly connected to your drawing hand. Relax as you concentrate on just one area, subject, or texture at a time, and your mind will naturally recall all the information it knows. This has four texture elements:
  • Sand
  • The plastic bucket and spade handle
  • The spade's wooden shaft
  • Its painted metal blade
If you try to draw the spade and the sand together, you will not recall everything you know about either of them. The same is true if you draw the spade as a complete object, rather than plastic, wood, and steel. Don't confuse your mind by drawing more than one thing at time. A drawing – any drawing – can be broken down and simplified. However, to present a sense of realism, you must understand the area you are working on - feeling its texture and being aware of its three-dimensional form. Mentally, run your fingers through hair; drag your fingernails over areas of rust and feel them catch on the sharp edges; rap your knuckles on a plank of wood and hear that dull thud.

Essentially, as you draw, you are creating your own world. A world you are describing to others. If you concentrate on, and live, one element at a time, you will build a reality into your work. You will bring your world to life. Remember: you know what that element looks like in reality; so don't dilute your memories by working on anything else at the same time.


To draw any area effectively, you must be able to experience it in three dimensions, to feel its texture, and to know how it relates to surrounding areas. Imagine you’re working on a complex drawing of a dog and you have a good understanding of the section you’re working on. But suddenly you become confused about how the back leg joins to the body. What should you do? Leave it. Work around it. Draw the dog’s tail, then the rear, and then up that problematic leg, so you work towards the problem area from all directions. By the time you reach it, your understanding will be clarified, so you can confidently draw that previously ‘unknown’ junction. In the meantime, you haven't polluted that area of virgin white paper with experiments and tests of possible line and tone.

No matter what you're drawing, work your way around problem areas. Don’t guess – draw only what you understand. As you draw, each area will suggest the treatment of the content of those surrounding it. Eventually, you will return to the problem area that, now surrounded by enlightened and confident drawing, will very often cease to be a problem at all. Why am I so certain this will happen? Well, if all you have it a general overview, an overview is all you'll draw. Your understanding will be minimal. But by breaking a drawing down into small areas, you introduce a major benefit. It promotes a greater depth of vision and understanding. Your immersion in the drawing, and references if you're using them, will be so much deeper.


How often have you been scared to begin a new and exciting but daunting project? That happens to me all the time, but now you know the solution - divide the drawing up into manageable sections. Not literally and rigidly with lines or boxes, but mentally and logically. The joints in this floor will easily divide it into four - with the slanting shadow added on top as a fifth. The canvas bag will divide into at least 30 easy-to-handle parts. And the lovely Bearded Collie into 50 or more. But, remember I said earlier that "all pieces can be broken up into even smaller pieces"? Well, the dog has obvious pieces, such as its eyes and nose. But any dog's nose can be further broken into at least 15 sections. It's how I drew this one - by dividing it up into logical sections. The nostrils first (because they establish the darkest value as a reference). The section to the right of the crease. The adjacent section that connects to the centre of the septum. Notice that the front of the nose is smooth, unlike the texture of the top. They require different techniques, so don't mix the two. And by splitting it up, I can better understand the texture and the three-dimensional form of each section.

How would you draw the wooden door? Would you attempt to draw all of it, or just one plank at a time? Well, not only do I recommend you choose to draw a single plank. I also suggest you think of the top and bottom halves as being drawings in their own right. When you’re satisfied with one drawing, move onto the next. As long as you taper the ends of all your lines, so they overlap seamlessly, that's a perfectly practical plan. And it's far easier to draw away from an edge than it is to accurately stop at one.

Not only does this method of division focus your attention and increase your involvement, it also gives your mind the time and opportunity to recall everything it knows about the area beneath your pencil. And it offers a host of other benefits too. This drawing business is becoming easier by the minute! And even easier when I explore the last division - Division by Technique - in the next video, which divides detail from tonal shading.

© copyright: Mike Sibley 2019

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