✔︎ Last updated on December 10th, 2023
Excalidraw is a free online whiteboarding tool that lets you draw and sketch with ease. What sets it apart is the way its diagrams feel almost like they’ve been hand-drawn. Unlike many other tools claiming to support hand-drawn elements, Excalidraw’s drawings come closest to capturing that natural, handwritten vibe.
This is one of the reasons that in a short time, it has become quite popular. Also, it’s full of useful features while keeping things minimal, and the best part is it has a smooth learning curve.
Starting with Excalidraw is simple, but if you have never touched any whiteboarding or graphic design tool before, a quick guide can make you really good at it. If you’re planning to use Excalidraw a lot, it’s a good idea to spend just 10 minutes learning it.
Here’s a step-by-step Excalidraw tutorial for absolute beginners:
📌 This is the beginner’s guide to Excalidraw. For more advanced Excalidraw tips and tricks, read part 2 of this series.
- Getting Started with Excalidraw
- Advanced Tools in Excalidraw
- Saving, Sharing, and Exporting in Excalidraw
- Wrapping Up
Getting Started with Excalidraw
To access Excalidraw you don’t have to download anything. It’s a Web app that can be accessed from Excalidraw.com and it doesn’t require any signup.
Excalidraw keeps things simple with its user interface. There are mainly two parts: the toolbar at the top, where you find all the tools for drawing and writing, and the canvas, your space to draw or write.
There’s also a handy menu bar that pops up to the left when you select something, offering specific options. When nothing’s selected, it quietly disappears.
The canvas in Excalidraw is an infinite playground. Draw wherever you want and move it around freely. Plus, you can zoom in and out up to 3000%!
Here’s the magic part: your drawings stay sharp, not blurry, even when you zoom all the way in. Why? Because Excalidraw works with SVG, which stands for Scalable Vector Graphics. In simpler terms, SVG keeps things looking crisp and clear, no matter how much you zoom in or out.
Creating basic shapes in Excalidraw
Now, let’s dive into the fun stuff – drawing in Excalidraw!
To draw basic shapes like a rectangle, ellipse, or diamond, just pick the matching tool from the top toolbar. Click anywhere on the canvas, then drag your mouse. When you’re happy with the size, let go of the mouse button.
If instead, you wanted a square, circle, or rhombus (height=width), hold down the Shift key while dragging the mouse. Holding the
shift key while drawing or resizing objects keeps their aspect ratio unchanged.
After creating an object, select it (if it’s not already). You will see that a menu appears to the left of the canvas. You can tweak Excalidraw objects with the options on this toolbar.
Here’s a quick tour of these properties:
– Stroke Color: Choose the border color from 15 options, including white and transparent. You can also use your own color with Hex values.
– Background Color: Pick a fill color from 15 choices or set your custom color.
– Fill Style: Decide on the fill style – Hachure, cross-hatch, or solid.
– Stroke Width: Go for thin, bold, or extra-bold.
– Stroke Style: Choose solid, dashed, or dotted.
– Sloppiness: Adjust the stroke style – Architect (clean and precise look), Artist (carefully hand-drawn look), or Cartoonist (roughly hand-drawn look).
– Edges: Square or round.
– Opacity Slider: Make your object as transparent as you like.
Here are a few variations that I created of these basic shapes using the options in the left menu bar:
Resizing objects in Excalidraw
To resize an object in Excalidraw, simply select it with the selection tool (
1), and then grab one of the corners of the bounding rectangle and drag it. If you want your object to retain its aspect ratio, hold the
shift key while dragging.
If instead, you want your object to resize symmetrically on both sides of its center, hold the
Option key on Mac and
Alt key on Windows. This effectively keeps the center of the object fixed.
Rotating objects in Excalidraw
You can also rotate objects in Excalidraw. Simply select them with the selection tool, grab the rotation handle (a circle that appears above the bounding rectangle on selection), and rotate.
You can lock the rotation in multiples of 15 degrees by holding the
Use keyboard shortcuts for faster workflow
You may have noticed a few numbers below the tool icons on the top toolbar —
These numbers represent the keyboard shortcuts for each tool. Instead of using your mouse to click on the icons, you can just press the matching key. For example, pressing
2 activates the rectangle tool,
3 the diamond tool, and
4 the ellipse tool.
The keyboard shortcuts in Excalidraw are pretty intuitive. Although not shown on this toolbar, you can also press
R for rectangle,
D for diamond,
E for ellipse,
A for arrow,
L for line and so on.
You can pull up the list of these keyboard shortcuts by pressing the key combination
Shift + / while you are working in Excalidraw.
Selection tool in Excalidraw
The selection tool in excalidraw (dark arrow icon) is used to select an object or multiple objects on the canvas. Whenever you want to make changes to an object, you need to select it first using the selection tool.
Move the canvas around
The hand tool (✋) in Excalidraw helps you move the canvas around. After picking the hand tool, just click anywhere on the canvas and drag it. Alternatively, you can hold the
space + click with your mouse and drag.
You can also click with your mouse wheel on Canvas and drag to move it.
If you are using a trackpad, you can use a two-finger touch on your trackpad to move your canvas.
Undo and Redo
If you have made a mistake, you can undo it by pressing
Cmd + Z on Mac and
Ctrl + Z on Windows. To redo, simply press
Cmd + Shift + Z on Mac and
Ctrl + Shift + Z on Windows.
You can add text to your drawings by using the text tool (
Adding text is such a common scenario in whiteboarding that Excalidraw comes with a natural shortcut to activate it: double-click. You simply have to double-click anywhere on the canvas and the text tool is activated.
After writing your text, you can modify or customize it however you like. If you want to give your text a background, you can right-click on your text and select Wrap text in a container.
Excalidraw ships with 3 font styles: Hand-drawn, Sans-serif, and Code (monospace).
If you want to use a custom font, read this article.
Advanced Tools in Excalidraw
The tools discussed above are good enough for creating shapes and text boxes, but they aren’t enough to draw complex diagrams and flowcharts.
Let’s now discuss a few more tools Excalidraw ships with.
Creating irregular shapes in Excalidraw with the Line tool
You might have noticed that there is no tool for shapes like triangles, pentagons, stars, hexagons, etc.
You can draw these shapes using the line tool, which creates straight lines. Just choose the line tool from the top toolbar or press
6 on your keyboard, then start placing points on the canvas. A closed shape is formed when you click on the first point, allowing you to add fill color and fill style.
If instead, you want to create an open shape, you’d need to press the Esc key (or double-click) when you are done with drawing.
Adjusting the corners
To adjust the corners of these shapes, you can use the Edge tool in the left menu. There are two options: a sharp corner and a smooth corner.
To switch between them, first select an object using the selection tool, then choose a corner style from the contextual menu bar.
There’s also an arrow tool for creating straight arrows, similar to the line tool. To create an arrow, simply place as many points as you like on the canvas, then double-click or press
Esc when you’re done.
After drawing the arrow, you can customize its color, stroke width, and arrowheads at both ends.
The arrow tool is more than a line tool with an arrowhead. It has some unique features, which set it apart from the other tools.
— Named arrows
You can double-click anywhere on the arrow body and give it a name. This is great for showing intermediate steps in processes and flowcharts.
— Arrow Binding
You can bind arrows to other objects so that when the object moves, the arrow remains connected to it. To do this, drag the arrowhead close to the object you want to link it to. When you see a faint outline, just let go of the arrowhead, and they’ll be bound together.
You can see both of these arrow features in this demo:
If the shape tools don’t suit your requirements, you can opt for the freehand drawing tool by selecting the pencil icon (✏️) in the top toolbar or pressing
7 on your keyboard.
This tool aims to replicate a real-world fountain pen. Moving it slowly results in thicker strokes while drawing quickly produces slightly thinner strokes.
Grouping and ungrouping objects in Excalidraw
You can group objects in Excalidraw to combine multiple elements into one cohesive unit. For example, you may want to group several shapes so you can move and resize them simultaneously.
To group objects in Excalidraw, first select the objects you want in the group by clicking on each one while holding the Shift key. Then right-click on the selected objects and choose “Group selection” from the context menu. Alternatively, you can press the key combination
Cmd + G on Mac and
Ctrl + G if you are on Windows.
This will group all the selected elements into one grouped object that you can manipulate as a whole.
To ungroup objects in Excalidraw, select the grouped object and right-click on it. Then choose “Ungroup selection” from the context menu. Alternatively, you can press the key combination
Cmd + Shift + G on Mac and
Ctrl + Shift + G on Windows. This will separate all the individual objects in the group, allowing you to edit each one independently again.
Ungrouping can be useful if you need to modify a specific object within a group individually. Grouping and ungrouping objects is a helpful way to work with multiple elements as a single unit or individually in Excalidraw.
Adding external images
Excalidraw supports inserting external images into its canvas. To do so, click on the picture icon on the top toolbar or press 9. From the file selection box that appears, locate the image on your computer, select it, and press the Enter key.
You can then click and drag it to position it where you want. You can resize the image by clicking and dragging any of the corner handles.
Inserting external images opens up a world of possibilities. You can make collages, annotate those images with Excalidraw tools, stitch two or more images together, Give them a white or transparent background to make them fit a particular aspect ratio, give your drawings a background of your choice, and more.
Saving, Sharing, and Exporting in Excalidraw
Now that you have made your drawings, it’s time to save them or export them for further use.
Excalidraw saves all your drawings automatically on your device. That means, when you close the tab, your work is safe in your browser’s storage. The next time you open Excalidraw on the same device and browser, your drawings will be right where you left them. You can just continue working without any hassle.
Now, let’s say you want to work on the same drawing but on a different computer. No worries! You can easily save your entire canvas in a file with
.excalidraw extension. This special file keeps all your scene data intact, so you can access it whenever you want.
To save your canvas, follow these simple steps:
- Click on the hamburger menu icon on the left side of the canvas.
- Choose “save image.”
- Then, click on “Save to disk.”
That’s it! You’ve successfully saved your canvas. You can now pick up your work later by dragging and dropping this file in the Excalidraw browser tab or even transferring it to another computer.
If you need to copy your drawings as PNG or SVG to use in another program, follow these easy steps:
- Select the objects you wish to export.
- Right-click on the selected object(s).
- Choose “Copy to clipboard as PNG” or “Copy to clipboard as SVG,” depending on your needs.
If you choose PNG, keep in mind that it’s a raster file format, so the images may appear pixelated when zoomed in. But here’s a cool feature – you can copy PNG images in
3x resolution for higher quality.
To do this:
- Click on the hamburger menu icon.
- Go to “Export image.”
- Set the scale to
Now you’ve successfully copied your drawings in higher resolution, ready to be pasted into another program.
You can also share your canvas as a read-only link by Clicking on the hamburger menu -> Save to -> Export to link. This link is permanent so it’s a great way to share your work with teachers and clients.
You can invite others to collaborate with you live in the session by sharing a common link to your canvas.
To do so, click on the two-people icon (👥) appearing on the right side of the top toolbar. You will get a dialogue box to put your name and a sharable link.
Simply, give it a name and share your link.
You should now have a good understanding of how to create custom diagrams with Excalidraw’s array of drawing tools, group and manipulate objects on the canvas, and collaborate with others in real time. We also discussed how to save, export, and share your Excalidraw drawings for use in documents, presentations, and online.
With these fundamentals mastered, you can start leveraging Excalidraw to bring your ideas and concepts to life visually. Its accessibility and array of capabilities make it a valuable tool for brainstorming, planning, collaborating, and communicating.
This tutorial was aimed at complete beginners but Excalidraw is much more than these simple tools. It has many more features that you can use but that are beyond the scope of this article. For example, Excalidraw can automatically draw tables from charts, create flowcharts from text input, and do so much more.
I have covered these features in detail in this article. If you are ready, be sure to check out the linked article.
Thanks for reading. Please drop a line below if you have any questions or suggestions.