A Beginner's Guide to Drawing Bikes

The bikes you see pictured on this website are the result of nearly twenty years experience as a professional motorcycle designer and illustrator for the biking press. But even as a child, I was always busy scribbling bikes and cars, much to the dismay of my mother, who assured me that no good could possibly come of it.

The desire to draw bikes came through frustration. As a young teenager, I desperately wanted a motorcycle, but age, money and disapproving parents made that seem an unachievable dream. So I drew them, hundreds of the things, in an attempt to satisfy that desire. The first ones were, frankly, crap. They improved with time though, and any ignorance of what filled that complex space under the fuel tank was gradually understood by trawling through bike mags, or studying the machines the older kids turned up to high-school on.

Of course, most readers will never feel the need to draw a motorcycle in their lives, but anyone who plans to modify their bike will find it easier to try things out on paper first - its certainly quicker and mistakes are considerably cheaper to rectify. A few readers may consider developing a career in design, or simply fancy sketching bikes as a cheap and creative pastime, but whatever the reason, you'll find you learn a lot about motorcycles in the process. For all potential scribblers, here are a few hints to help get started.

At first, begin with a picture of an existing bike. The best way is to photocopy an image from a magazine, enlarge it to the correct size, and use this as an underlay. Work with slightly transparent paper - "layout" paper is best, which is relatively cheap and has the right amount of opacity to see through whilst allowing your drawing to remain dominant. Tracing paper is too clear. Pads of layout paper, usually sold in blocks of around eighty sheets, are available at most art stores. It's best not to go too large on size. The smaller the page, the less detail you'll need to draw, and the less paper you need to cover. Too small though, and it can get fiddly, so I find A-3 size (420 x 297mm) ideal.

Use a medium pencil (mine is a humble HB), which is soft enough to allow shading, but which can be erased without smudging. Keep that erasor clean too, by rubbing off the excess graphite onto a piece of textured paper, or even the carpet, otherwise you'll smear more onto the page than you erase. As you gain confidence, you'll find a dark, coloured pencil gives more depth and feeling, and markers can be used to block in solid colours on rough sketches. Neither of these can be erased, though, so the trusty pencil is still the best starting point unless you have an unlimited supply of paper. And patience.

In terms of design, start by keeping the areas you like, then try modifying those you don't. Any sketches you like can be used as an underlay for further development.

There are an awful lot of parts on a bike, and it's easy to get bogged down with detail, so concentrate on the major areas of bodywork like the tank, seat and any fairings. Over time, you will develop a good feeling for styling by copying aspects of the best designs, and modifying them, but ultimately those origins should not be recogniseable.

If starting afresh, without an underlay, get the general proportions right first. Experiment with the wheel size, wheelbase and larger visual areas like the cylinders, engine casings and major body parts, and try to make them look like they belong together. Lines and features in one area can be picked up in another, or parts can be made to interlock, like pieces of a jigsaw (as those intake trumpets on a V-Max are used to merge both tank and carbs). Large, flat sections of bodywork can be broken up into more interesting shapes by adding body lines, air intakes/outlets and material or colour splits. Each feature has to work with all the others though, so try to maintain a similar feeling to the forms and the general direction of line. And keep the styling simple. The more flamboyant you make something, the more you will hate it in years to come.

Motorcycles being virtually two-dimensional, most designs can be understood when seen only in profile. This is very fortunate, as bikes are notoriously complicated to draw in perspective. When drawn from three-quarter angle, all those circles become ellipses, and the angle of each ellipse changes slightly from front to rear. Perspective laws come into play too, a subject many people, including some professionals, find difficult to grasp. And don't even think about turning the front wheel until you've had a bit of practice - the headstock angle changes the wheel's perspective drastically, and it requires a mind like Einstein's to figure out where it goes.

The only time three-quarter views are really necessary is when there is a lot of bodywork, as with fully-faired bikes, or if the "face" is an important feature, with complex headlamp shapes.

If you really must draw in perspective, again choose a good photo with sufficiently high definition and work directly from it - that way, the ellipses and perspective are already sorted out and can be traced off. If you want to experiment with different details, like that headlamp region, then just draw the area in question which will save a lot of work.

For the rest of the time, take my advice and stick to side-views. In profile, most mechanical parts can be drawn with the aid of a ruler and compass. Curvaceous body lines are best sketched initially by hand, then corrected using a template such as "French curves" which are available at many stationers, or preferably with "faster" and less baroque templates known as "sweeps". For these you will need to find a more professional supplier. Likewise, ellipse templates exist in a variety of sizes and angles, but these are not cheap and require a basic understanding of perspective principles. If you keep to side-views, you won't need them.

Once you're happy with the design, the next step is to try a more polished sketch. Look through the bike magazines for "artist's impressions" or design sketches, and note the techniques used by different illustrators. Don't be ashamed to copy at the beginning - after some practice you will start to develop your own style.

Coloured markers are used to fill in block areas for the main colour and any shadows. Layout paper will handle this reasonably well, although some do bleed through to the page beneath, so beware if your underlay is precious. For higher standards of rendering a better paper will be required, such as "Marker paper", which has a bleed-proof coating. This is less transparent, although you can still just about trace through from an underlay. Always keep the work surface clean, and rest on a sheet of scrap paper to avoid getting dirt or grease on the sketch.

To give the effect of shine you will need to gradate the colour in some areas, and there are several solutions for this. Pastel was the traditional method, being available in chalk-like sticks, which can be applied to the paper via a tissue or cotton wool. It is extremely messy though, and there is a limit to the depth of colour which can be achieved, although various spay fixatives exist which allow multiple applications. To restrict the spread of pastel powder to the desired area, it is best to use masking film, a transparent self-adhesive sheet applied to the paper and cut with a scalpel to the exact shape required. This is a tricky and time-consuming business beyond the level of this introduction, as is airbrush, which is far preferable to pastel if you're taking the trouble to cut masks. Masking film will also destroy the surface of layout paper. Marker paper will just about take it, if removed with extreme care, or there are various specialist papers available for that purpose, but not all these like marker.At the opposite end of the scale to airbrush, there's always the coloured pencil, which is a cheap and simple way to gradate tones, although the final effect is clearly limited.

Let shadows show the bike's contours, which even in side view can give a feeling of width, responding to the depth of shadow drawn. If a shadow falls on a flat surface, it will be straight - if it falls on a curved surface, then the shadow will bend. Likewise, reflections and highlights can help emphasize the forms, although try to keep these fairly simple or they can overpower the picture. Beware of over-clever backgrounds too which can take a disproportionate amount of time and actually detract from the bike you're trying to show. Light use of reflecting colours, typically blue from the sky and beige from the ground (or "desertscape" as it is known) can also help show whether surfaces are facing upward or downward, depending on which colour is reflected. This is especially useful for illustrating white, silver and chrome where there is little or no inherent hue.

An alternative method of sketching is to start with coloured paper. This is taken as the base tone for the bodywork, and then darkened or highlighted as required. Photo-realism is not the aim with this method, but the overall effect can be very pleasing. The paper's opacity will be 100%, so underlays can't be used directly, but designs can be developed on regular paper and transferred over for the final rendering using erasable carbon paper. This technique was very popular with car stylists during the fifties and sixties.

But whatever method is used, it is vital to be consistent with any principle you apply, otherwise it will confuse the viewer. The illustrator is an illusionist, creating the impression that you are looking, not at a piece of paper with some lines and colour, but a real object. Every method used must help create this illusion. For example, light must come from the same source, so shadows must always fall in the same direction. It's just basic logic.

To finish off a rendering, and give a little sparkle to the picture, highlights can be applied using a soft white pencil and/or paint. Again, don't overdo it, or it will look like a scene from The Birds.

Of course, all the above can now be done on the computer, using 2-D graphics programs like Photoshop,  Micrographx or Corel Draw. There are many advantages to this, not least the ability to press "undo" if you really mess up. Photos can be scanned in and reworked with amazingly high levels of realism, although drawing on a graphics pad to move a cursor on the screen is like operating a machine by remote control. College students seem to manage fine, but when you've been drawing by hand for thirty years, it's not so easy to adapt. Tactile screens are starting to hit the market, but for recreational purposes these are prohibitively expensive. Computers do, however, save a fortune in art materials.

Drawing principles on the computer are virtually identical to the manual approach, with most materials being reproduced electronically and masking used to create parameters for specific areas. Images of real components can be interspersed with computer-drawn parts, athough to be done properly, this is not as straightforward as it may seem. All photos used to create any one picture must have a similar light source, contrast and colour bias, or be modified to do so in order to continue the illusion. That takes time, and a good image produced in this way is no faster than using the manual approach.

In my own case, the "artist's impressions", which appear in the biking press from time to time, are still produced mostly by hand. Each picture takes around 3-4 days, and uses various materials including pencil, marker, biro, airbrush and gouache. Lately, I've found the best results are achieved by enhancing the artwork on the computer, which permits colour experimentation, plus quick and easy application of graphics, such as lettering, which by hand is extremely demanding and time consuming. Some nice effects are possible too, such as texturing which can reproduce carbon-fibre, aluminium mesh, and many other surfaces.

Drawing ability and design sense take time to acquire, but don't be put off. They can both be developed without formal training, although if you're thinking of taking up the subject professionally, there are specialist transport design courses available at a few select colleges around the world.

But either way, don't let inexperience put you off. Talent doesn't really exist. There may be a modicum of aptitude involved, but for the most part, ability is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, as one wise person once observed. That goes for sports champions, musicians or artists. The only important thing is drive - if you have that, the rest will follow naturally.

(Glynn Kerr, March 2001)



Image #3a: Draw the upper tank line in marker, to the body colour you require. Try to taper the marker to match the varying thickness of the tank to show width - here it narrows towards the rear.

Image #3b: In the same tone, draw in the horizon or main body contour.

Image #3c: Fill in the encircled area in a lighter tone of the same hue if using a bold colour, or with a little of the ground colour added if not.

Image #3d: Now for the tricky bit. Blend in a gradated core of the body colour, leaving a "shine" of white paper on either side. Into this merge some sky colour for upward-facing surfaces, and ground colour for those facing downwards.

Image #3e: Finish off by picking out the highlights in white pencil and/or paint, and sketching in any reflections and shadows.

Image #3f: On computer, this kind of effect can be done afterwards by masking areas and altering the properties within. By hand, the colour splits and shadows need to be planned out in advance. Either way, ensure that any reflections, highlights and shadows follow the same rules, irrespective of colour.