As the title of this topic likely gives away, my goal in this post will be to give as detailed a look as possible at drawing realistic aircraft, for all those who are interested.
@BravoCharlie also made a great drawing tutorial on his style here. It’s quite concise, so if you want a great overview and are short on time, it might be the better resource! My style differs in multiple aspects, so if you’d like, utilize the information in both topics to decide which way works best for you, and create your own unique technique!
Now, drawing can be quite complex depending on the level of detail you’re looking to include in your finished product. I aim for as much realism as I can muster, so as a result this post is really long (sorry!), but I hope that doesn’t scare you off. Like I said, this will be comprehensive, but hopefully by the end of it you will find multiple tips and tricks that will help you when you begin your own drawing. The information in here is not dense - I do my best to explain things as simply and clearly as possible. There are just a lot of aspects to cover!
Everything is in sequential order, so you could even have this guide pulled up as you start drawing, and it should hopefully walk you through each step. It is also laid out with tips and sections blocked off and highlighted for ease of quick navigation and reference. So without further ado, I invite you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the read!
Table of Contents:
-Supplies -Lines (Freehand) -Curves -Details
Now We Begin
-The Nose -The Rest of the Front -Livery Text -Passenger Windows -Wings and Engines -End of Fuselage and APU -The Tail -Landing Gear
-Old and New Photos, General Comments
-Addendum 1 (Boeing 777-300ER) --> Please jump to post #10
NOTE: If you’re already a somewhat experienced drawer, I’d encourage you to read the section regarding freehand lines, but otherwise, feel free to skip to the next section!
- Photograph for reference
Notice that I put the eraser before the pencil. This is to emphasize that you must be willing to make mistakes, and when you do make them, you’ll need to erase. My style is completely freehand, which takes practice but can be quite fun. It can also cause you to erase large sections of a drawing if you really mess up and don’t realize it until later. If you’d prefer using a ruler the whole way through, I’d encourage you to still read this post, as not everything is strictly based on whether you use a ruler or not. BravoCharlie uses a ruler in his tutorial, so if you feel more comfortable going that route, check out his post!
Draw lightly, so that you can easily erase incorrect or messy marks without too much trouble. Once you’re happy with your line, then you can go back over and make it as dark as you’d like.
Lines are perhaps the most important part of drawing an object such as a plane. Lines make up almost all sections of the plane, from the fuselage to the tail and wings. Freehand lines can be incredibly hard, but don’t worry - there’s always a trick. Rulers are an easy way to go about this, but let’s say you don’t have a ruler or want to test your abilities.
Don’t make a single line without picking up your pencil. Instead, make short light marks on top of one another that slowly march down the page. Approach it as if you are doing a very rough sketch.
Look at the photo below. The top line was drawn without picking up my pencil, and without practice is what happens when you first try and draw a line. You can see that it jumps around and isn’t straight. Now the second line was my best freehand attempt. Even it still isn’t perfectly straight. The third line is what I’m talking about. It consists of short marks that overlap one another, creating a rough line up close, but step back and it looks decently straight. (I didn’t make it perfect here since I wanted to make sure the small marks were visible). Use the sides of the page as a reference to help keep the line straight. If you aren’t careful you can end up with a subtle curve (look closely at the right of the line). The bottom two lines are just for reference to see what the line looks like up close. These would be too messy/big for an actual drawing. Using a sketch technique also automatically creates a shadow effect, perfect for that 3-D effect that makes your drawing really stand out. Two birds with one stone!
Curves come into play at the nose and engines of a plane the most, and can be quite tricky. I’ll cover them in the nose and wing/engines sections in-depth, so I won’t get into it too much here. For the engines, the biggest thing to keep in mind is that they are not rectangles. Each engine has a slight curve to it, and most have a sharper curve at the front than at the back. When I first started out (I’ll post the photos at the end, don’t worry) my engines were very block-like, and it took away from the realism of the drawing. Make sure that you look closely at the engine in your reference picture to imitate the curve as accurately as possible. See the wing/engines section for more detail.
I won’t cover details in too much depth now, and instead save the discussion for the individual plane sections. However, know going in that the size of your paper dictates how detailed you can be. For an A350 that fits on an 8.5x11" paper, anything smaller than a passenger window will be a small dot. The important thing to take away from this is that it is important to include dots, as they will add that extra level of detail that brings the plane to the next level. The bigger an object on the plane is, the better chance you have of really nailing an exact likeness, as there is more room to maneuver.
Now We Begin
I tend to pick photos where the plane’s nose is pointing to the left. Personal preference - it makes drawing the nose easier for me since I’m right-handed. My personal style is to go from left to right, starting at the nose, finishing everything and steadily marching across the page, finishing the drawing when I finish the tail. I’ll post photos for reference as I get into the nitty-gritty details so you can see what I’m talking about.
I tend to start with the nose first because it is a good indicator of how my plane will turn out. Getting the nose right is very important in making the plane recognizable. Each plane is different, and it’s hard to have an easy step-by-step of the nose as a result.
When drawing the nose, draw the cockpit windows early on. These help you build the nose around them, as they are placed where the curves of the fuselage change.
In photo 1 below, you can see what I’m talking about. The curve of the nose meets the downward curve of the fuselage at the cockpit windows, so they serve as a good marker for getting sizing right. You can see that the 737 has a pretty pointy nose. That took me multiple attempts before getting a shape I was happy with. Be prepared to do a lot of do-overs and erasing before you get the right shape.
The Rest of the Front
I actually spend the most time of my drawing on the nose and front of the plane. That is because once you have the nose, cockpit, door and a few passenger windows drawn, you basically have the width of your fuselage set and ready to go, and enough reference lines for the rest of the drawing. This is where spatial awareness comes into play. You have to see if your plane will fit on the page with the fuselage size you just created. I’ve run into that problem before, where I just barely squeeze everything onto the page at the end. In fact, the Alaska 737 that I’m choosing to use as an example here isn’t fully on the page. The page ended with the tail, so I couldn’t finish the wing or APU. Whoops. It still turned out alright - plus, for the future I knew to plan better. One example of a mistake turned into lesson.
Refer again to photo 1 of my Alaska Boeing 737. You can see that line style I talked about in the basics section. I use the extra lines as a guide to see where I will place my doors, windows, and livery text. Drawing them lightly means you can erase them without leaving a trace of their existence. I usually extend these lines way past the area I’m currently working in, so they can serve as a future guide as I work my way down the plane fuselage.
Here are the references I use when drawing the front of a plane. A reference is a shape or recognizable part of the plane that I can find in the photograph and use as a landmark for the placement of other shapes.
- I use the top of the front-most port entry door as a reference for where the fuselage starts curving down to the cockpit windows. Notice that in photo 1, the fuselage is already level when it reaches the door. I actually realized that my 737 looked more like a Shinkansen Bullet Train than it did an aircraft, so I changed it in photo 2. (For reference, you can see where the old door ended from the eraser mark). In photo 2 notice that the foremost door is now right about where the fuselage ends/begins its curve toward the cockpit windows. Obviously each plane may be slightly different, but in general that’s usually a good marker.
- Once you draw the cockpit windows and door, the passenger windows usually are in line with some part of the cockpit window, whether that’s the bottom of the cockpit or directly in the middle. I usually use my reference photo to see exactly where they line up. The passenger windows are usually lined up around the middle of the entry door as well as a secondary reference.
Per my style, I’ve already finished some shading in the nose area to try and ensure a 3-D look. Besides the fact that the nose of the plane is now pretty much done, early shading also helps me in visualizing the angle of the plane, which I need to get the right perspective as I draw further. Given than the plane isn’t exactly sideways to me (the viewer), I also had to offset the cockpit windows, as well as curve the lines of the door. Remember, a fuselage is somewhat circular when viewed from the front, so to achieve that effect you have to visualize the plane as a cylinder when viewed from a side angle like this. All this early work on details on the fuselage helps make sure the plane stays in the right perspective later down the line.
Photo 3 is another drawing, this time of a Thai A350. This is really just for another reference on how I approach the drawing of the front of a plane. Again, you can see that the door is lined up with the end of the fuselage curve, and the passenger windows are lined up with the cockpit and front entry door. The nose of the A350 is quite unique, and quite recognizable as a result. Again, multiple attempts will eventually lead to a proper nose shape.
Livery text placement is also usually done quite early in my technique, during this stage of design. Livery text is perhaps the hardest part of drawing a plane. Each airline uses a different font and style, and it can get quite complicated. I usually do my best attempt to replicate their style, but I know it will not be 100 percent perfect. That being said, my Alaska 737 came pretty close. Its large text size made it easier, as the bigger something is, the most chance you have to add the proper detail (see the details section in basics). Also see the DHL livery I drew below. The large letter size allowed me to have better control of my lines and imitation of the real font.
Windows can be painful, especially when you have a lot of them in a long-haul aircraft. It is easy to want to race through them, drawing small circles in a haphazard way, but this can seriously detract from a crisp piece of artwork. As seen in photos 1-3, use guide lines to ensure that the windows are in line with one another and a reference point, likely the cockpit windows or foremost entry door. When actually drawing them, aim for a shape in between a circle and rectangle. They are really more of an oval, but at this scale it is hard to get them spot on. I actually use passenger windows as the building blocks of my artwork. They are perfect for getting the scale of an aircraft down. Literally count the windows, and draw that exact number with the appropriate spacing in between, and you will find that your plane comes out to the exact right length every time. I also use them to approximate where my engines and wing start and end, as well as other details like the wifi hub and so on. If the wifi hub appears over window 25, and runs along the fuselage the length of three windows, then I know exactly where to place it on my aircraft. Same thing for my engines (see next section). As I said earlier, I extend my fuselage and guide lines further down from the spot I’m currently drawing in. Same goes for passenger windows, because like I said, they are important reference points for all other parts of the plane.
Wing and Engines
As I mentioned earlier, it is important to get the curves of the engines down to have an accurate representation of them. Refer again to photo 4. Notice that the engines on the 757 curve more on the bottom than on the top. Make sure to include details like this to ensure maximum realism. Also when shading your engines, be sure to make the bottom half darker than the top half, to mimic the effect of a curved surface. Again, use the passenger windows as a guide for how long your engine should be, where it starts and stops, etc. This is a huge help in getting your scale right. (Since I have a cargo airline drawing right above this, a quick tangent. I actually lightly draw some rough windows on a cargo variant to ensure proper scale, then erase them before finishing up. This is easier than eyeballing everything).
For the wing, it is again important to maintain straight lines. Actually, this is the one case where a slight upwards curve may be helpful, as it can imitate wingflex quite well, perfect if your reference photo is on takeoff or landing! Use the passenger windows as your guide! See how many windows exist before the wing hits one, then approximate how many are covered by the wing before they appear again behind it. All of this tells you how wide and long to draw your wing. I usually count the number of full windows, then the number of partially covered windows, then approximate the number of windows you cannot see.
Again using the Thai A350 as an example, notice that 3 windows are touching the wing. I also use the doors as a way to break up the numbers, preventing you from committing an error when counting 50 some-odd windows. So, start from 1 at the first door, then 1 again after the next door, and so on.
Shading is most important on the wing. Given that the underside of the wing is almost always visible in photos, you want to make sure that it is shaded darkly to mimic shadows in the photos. In photo 5 you can see I already started some shading, getting darker as I get towards the belly of the fuselage.
Returning to the 737 for a moment, this photo shows the shading of both the wing and flaps. Be mindful of gaps in the shadow caused by the flaps, as you can see with the white line and small marks between the second and third flap track fairings. Also, the leading edge of the wing is usually still in sunlight, so make sure to take that into account when drawing your wing. You can see this in photo 6.
Always draw the engine before the wing when following my style. This follows the build the aircraft left-to-right technique, and helps make sure the engine and wing are proportionate to each other and the plane itself. It also helps ensure your wing is in the right place along the aircraft fuselage.
End of Fuselage and APU
We’re getting towards the end of the drawing process. I hope you’ve been following along all right and I haven’t lost too many of you. Almost there! But keep in mind, the 15 minutes of reading you just did equated to 5+ hours of drawing if you are really taking your time. No one said drawing is a lightning quick activity! And it also doesn’t need to be completed in one sitting. See the final thoughts section at the end for more.
Again, using windows for reference, figure out where your aft exit door will sit. Usually, the bottom of the fuselage starts to curve up when you hit the last few aft passenger windows. The aft exit door is another good reference for when the top of the fuselage begins its subtle curve down along the tail. Practice will make perfect, but use the windows and doors to guide you in seeing how and when the fuselage should curve.
I usually approximate the distance from the windows to the aft exit door to see where I should place the horizontal stabilizers. The distance from the aft exit door to the passenger windows should be shorter than the distance from the door to the stabilizer. Photo 7 demonstrates this quite well.
The horizontal stabilizer usually covers the APU in some way, shape or form. It is helpful to use both to approximate how long the fuselage should extend, and how large your horizontal stabilizers should be. Now that you have lost your windows as a reference, it gets harder to scale everything right. I can only say this takes practice. The tail also helps some, but once you do a couple of planes you’ll get a better feel for how long a fuselage should extends past the final aft exit door.
The tail of an airliner should be one of the most fun parts of the drawing process, as you finally get to have fun with whatever airline you chose. Most tail designs range from simple to incredibly complex. You pick, but it’s probably a good idea to start basic and increase in complexity as you get more experienced. Tail designs do vary by aircraft, so it will take a bit of getting used to when trying to get the size and shape down. Use the height of the fuselage in relation to the height of the tail when approximating its size. What I’ve approximated before is the tails are anywhere from roughly 1.25 to 2 times the height of the fuselage. I’ve included one of my earlier drawings below, and I am still quite happy with the United tail.
In my initial post I forgot to mention landing gear, probably because it is an optional feature that I do not always do - in fact, the Alaska 737 was my first time including gear in a drawing.
It can be especially hard to draw landing gear as the wheels are hard to size correctly. The most important thing to keep in mind is that when you are drawing at an angle, the gear are not longer perfect circles, but rather an oval shape. Also, be sure to look at your reference photo to see how the main landing gear wheels compare in size to the nose landing gear. They are almost never the same size.
When drawing landing gear at an angle, add an extra bit to the front left of the visible gear wheels to account for the other tires found on the opposite side of the gear truck.
Getting the landing gear doors right can also sometimes be tricky. They are usually pretty thin, but again, the windows will help provide a reference for how long the doors should be. I also use the engines as a height reference, asking myself whether the landing gear ends above, below, or in line with the engine.
One of the biggest things to keep in mind when trying to draw something this detailed/complex is mindset. As soon as I feel that drawing is becoming a chore, boring, or a struggle, I stop work and take a break. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your drawing (unless you’re @BravoCharlie , but he’s got some serious talent in turning around drawings in record time). Be willing to take breaks and come back to the drawing again the next day or maybe even the next week. If I’m having a good day, I will get into the “zone” and an afternoon will fly by. It’s why I like drawing so much, because you enter a meditative mindset - it can be a great de-stressor.
Above all, remember that drawing should be fun! It will take time, practice, and patience to get to a level of details like you see above. To prove my point, here are two finished drawings I did two years ago:
You can see I had barely mastered shading or scale, and my windows, doors and lines were way off. My engines have that block-like quality to them that I mentioned earlier as well. Two years later, I’m now creating drawings such as the finished Thai A350 and Alaska 737 that were used in this guide:
Another important thing to keep in mind: artwork is a constantly evolving process. You’re always learning. You’ll have good days and bad days, but don’t get discouraged. In addition, don’t think that you can never get to a level of realism like you see in the Suggest any Aircraft thread. You should see my drawings from middle school (I wish I had photos - those were nowhere close to the level of detail I had now). Treat every error as a learning experience, and take that knowledge with you for your next attempt. If you really want to set an ambitious goal, get to the level of @Brandon_Millburg.
If this helped, go show off your work in the (Remade) Suggest Any Aircraft thread! Or take a photo suggestion from there as your inspiration! I don’t have as much time for drawing anymore since I’m so busy, but I hope the above knowledge and your own unique perspectives and skills on the subject will develop into drawings that will take the community by storm. Good luck, and most importantly, have fun!