How to Draw Rocks

boulder pencilRocks are common elements in almost every landscape. On a big scale they are mountains, on a small-scale they are the boulders or stones in a field. Getting comfortable with depicting rocks that show planes and structure will help many of your drawings. Here are the key points for success.

  1. Learn to see planes, even rounded boulders have planes.
  2. Show planes with shading line angle, shadows, and cracks.
  3. Use a simple value scale and see the shapes in each zone.
  4. Look for and include the light and dark wedges (more on this below).
  5. Cracks will change angles as they move from one angle to another.
  6. Ground the rocks with dark shadows.

platonic solids shadowPlanes are the angled surfaces of a rock. If you want your rock to have real volume, you need to see and show these planes. One way of showing the planes is with a line on the edges between the planes. This can be unsatisfactory because there really are not lines there. Another way to show the planes is with shadow. The line between light and shadow will fall at the edge of two planes so showing this  shadow defines some of the planes of your rock. If a cast shadow falls across two planes, it will change its angle as it does.

edges contourYou can also indicate the direction of a plane by the orientation of the shading lines across it. If your shading lines show up in your final drawing (instead of being blended together), you can use this to your advantage. Orient your shading lines such that they show the path that a raindrop on the rock would take across the surface (down) and horizontal for a flat surface. If the plane is not facing straight toward the viewer, down will not be vertical but at an angle. It can be difficult to visualize how this works at first. A 3D model inscribed with vertical lines will help you visualize these angles. Download and print out the dodecahedron model and assemble it. Observe how the downward oriented lines change angles as you rotate the model. I put mine on the back of the toilet tank and looked at it daily for a week until the angles became intuitive. Give it a try.

paltonic sectionsCracks and veins also help show the planes. The cracks change direction every time they pass onto another plane. Look for cracks in your rock. Make sure they change angles along with your shadows and shading lines.

Now lets take a look at a step by step drawing that incorporates these concepts and others to give the illusion of an angular rock, emphasizing the planes and solidity.

boulder sbs 1bDraw the outlines of your rocks. I started with a pale non-photo blue pencil to block in the basic shapes. If you look closely you can see it in the background. I also indicated the edges of the major shadows and planes.

boulder sbs 2





Next I drew the major shadows using lines to carve the planes of the rocks. For the purposes of this demonstration, I am making the  shading lines fairly bold. I usually would handle it a little more subtly. This is a little too prision bar stripey for my taste- a jailhouse rock?




boulder sbs 3Now the dark and light wedges… Look along the edges of the shadows on (many) real rocks and you will see places where wedges of shadow intrude into the highlight and wedges of light creek into the dark. Add these to your shadow edge and the shape of the rock becomes much more interesting.




boulder sbs 4Now the fun part- cracks. If your boulder does not have cracks, just say no to crack. But if you are lucky enough to be drawing a rock that has been fractured, the cracks will dramatically help you show the planes of your rock. The angle of the crack should change each time it moves from one plane to another.

You will notice dark divots in some of the places where two cracks meet. These accents, called snodgrassing by illustrators, give a lot of depth to the rocks. They are easy to make. fill in the tip of the narrowest section of rock with graphite. This small tip is more vulnerable to erosion, making it recede more quickly than the rest of the rock.

boulder sbs 7In this last step I have modified three things. First I have added a little bit of texture to the rock, especially in those areas where the shadow moves to highlight. In this region, light glances across the face of the rock, emphasizing the texture. In the middle of the highlight areas, the texture gets washed out by direct light. To suggest the texture, I make a combination of little scratches and dots. Second, I have deepened the shadows on the left side of the rocks to suggest stronger sunlight. Last, I add shadows at the bases of the rocks to ground the rocks to the earth and give them weight. Note that the texture in the shadow suggests short grass.

In this drawing, I use a limited number of value (dark to light) steps. My poor brain can not keep track of a million shades of gray. I usually can handle about four. Rather than worrying about blending subtle shades of gray, I concentrate on using my small palette of grays carefully, making subtle value shifts as I move from one plane to another and carefully carving the shapes make by highlight and shadow.

Start observing rocks around you. Try your hand at simple studies to carve the planes and give your rocks volume. The best way to learn how to draw rocks is to practice with real rocks you find around you. Also learn a little about geology and the history of the rocks you draw. They will become even more wonderful to you.

boulder pencil 4

14 thoughts on “How to Draw Rocks

  1. Paul De Vinny says:

    There’s a whole freight-load of comments I could make to get your opinions in regard. You got an email address you could share? I don’t think many of my comments are appropriate for your “rock site”. PD

  2. Paul De Vinny says:

    John, thanks for the information. Here’s another thing. (I don’t know if you do it or not.) Drawing is … Well, it’s great, it’s wonderful, it’s fun! Only problem there is IF you get it right!! If it’s not fun it’s this terrible, frustrating procedure. And who likes terrible, frustrating procedures? I’ve loss count of how many times I’ve told myself: Forget it. I’ll NEVER get it right. I’m NO artist! How these people do what they DO is beyond my comprehension!! But somehow, at some point, you pick up a pencil and start anew. I guess I’ve made a few thousand drawings. Now these can be small studies on scrapes of paper or a napkin or a match book cover or whatever. (It’s STILL a drawing folks!) Most of these are trying to grasp some concept and getting it right. (Currently I’m trying to master drawing shoes!) But back to my initial statement. That is in making so many mistakes and discoveries — I told myself — maybe to take the edge off I should start compiling some sort of chart to remind myself of all the Do’s and Don’t’s. The result was an Art Philosophy List. I’m rather astonished of how much I’ve put down. There’s something like 22 listing per page and guess I’m up to 8 pages. In any event wondered if you did something similar. Because — just like so many things — I think people at WHATEVER level, at least periodically, need to be reminded of certain things. (I read in my statement about “mistakes”. THAT’S a big one. People are SO put off by making mistakes. But guess what? A mistake can be this fortunate discovery!! Mistakes? MAKE lots of them!!)

    • I love these thoughts. I agree about mistakes. Your journal must be full of them, without fear, an ready to make more. It is all practice, the more we do, the better we get. My mantra is that I journal for three reasons (and pretty pictures is not one of them) 1)to notice something that I otherwise would not have noticed. 2) to wonder about things I otherwise would not have wondered about. and 3) to make connections and remember an experience more vividly. Keep journaling and the world opens to you.

  3. Paul De Vinny says:

    Here’s the thing: I draw in a stylized way. Rocks? I want them stylized as well. (Surreal?) That is I take the basic information in and run it through a “prism”. So John, I’m kindof alone here. That is you draw in a very realistic way. I don’t draw “Realistic”. If everybody mastered drawing Realistic you couldn’t tell one artist from another. Now could you? It’s like what Emerson said — better to fail at something original than succeed in imitation.

    • Hi Paul, I agree with you. If we are just trying to copy some other drawing we are not out in the world observing. The important thing is to get out there, engage with the world, and make art. It is impossible to make a truly realistic drawing of anything. In the end, every artist is making decisions about what to leave out and what to leave in. That choice is different for everyone because each one of us is interested in different aspects of our experience and even that experience is different for each of us. Therefore we never need to worry about becoming clones. I do find a use for copying though. When I see a technique or solution for a drawing problem that I like, I copy the work of that artist as a way to figure out how they do what they do. If I am successfull, I come away with a new tool in my toolkit. I take ideas from everyone. My personal way of combining all these influences makes me the origional that I am. I highly recommend the book “Steal like an Artist” by Austin Kleon. He unpacks this idea in a very practical way. Also subscribe to his newsletter. It will blow your mind on a regular basis. Also there is no mastery. It is all practice…

  4. Marianne says:

    Thank you it’s so hard to find a simple tutorial for such things. It seems like the everyday things you don’t think about are the hardest.

  5. Cris says:

    Rocks have always been very difficult for me. Your tutorial made it easy for me to see rocks as you do! Thank you so much.

  6. Paul De Vinny says:

    There was a comic book illustrator by the name of Carmine Infantino. He immortalized The Flash with his uniform, multi-imaging and speed lines. I intently have studied his work.

    They asked him in an Intensive interview what his favorite thing to draw was. I was on tenterhooks of suspense. His answer? Rocks!

  7. Tom Lichtenheld Studio says:

    This is fabulous. I’m a children’s book illustrator, working on a book about a construction site, so lots of rock drawing is required. Thanks for your generosity!

  8. Kim Ray says:

    I work for the Owensboro Science and History Museum. I have two museum blogs, one for educators and one for kids. I would like to put links to your website on both blogs.
    Thank you for your consideration.
    Kim Ray

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