Toucan Blog Banner

Carousel 003: Drawing From Observation

There are all sorts of ways to improve your drawing skills—reading articles, practicing in your sketchbook, taking a class—and each method will add its own unique arrows to your quiver. But above all, I'd say the most effective route to improvement is drawing from observation. That is, looking at a subject and attempting to record on paper what you see. Observational drawing forces you to recognize the gap between how things look and how you draw them, and it challenges you to close that gap. Closing that gap is not the goal of art, but it is the calisthenic that will undergird everything else you do.

We're often given advice about how to practice drawing observationally. Much of this advice is sound, but some of it can send you down useless paths, wasting your time. I'd like to describe ways to avoid those pitfalls and ensure you'll get the most out of your practice.

One piece of advice I often see is "Always be drawing!" Students are advised to carry a pocket-sized sketchbook with them everywhere, and to draw during every spare moment throughout the day. The rewards of this method are obvious, but there are hidden problems.

For one thing, we chafe at tasks that are ill-defined. How does one "always" draw? If I draw while sitting at the bus stop but not while sitting in the park, have I failed? It's hard to feel good about your craft if every moment spent away from it provokes guilt. Instead, I recommend that you pick occasions when you know drawing would be rewarding—a trip to a museum, for example—and bring a sketchbook along only then. The rest of the time, leave it at home. This approach creates meetable goals. (It also means you aren't confined to sketchbooks small enough to bring with you everywhere.)

Another problem with the "draw always" method is that it encourages us to draw the people we see when we're out and about. But those people aren't models; they change position constantly. And when they move, we typically continue the drawing from memory, supplying any missing information with our existing ideas of how people look. We therefore trample over the reason we began the drawings in the first place: to replace our flawed notions of how things appear with accurate information from the external world. It's as though we're taking notes on a science lecture during a thunderstorm, blithely guessing at the parts we're unable to hear. "The boiling point of water is [SIX HUNDRED AND FORTY] degrees; its freezing point is [MAYBE TWICE AS HIGH] ..." What's worse: we do this with the confidence that we're improving, and that the imagery we record in our sketchbooks can be trusted.

There are plenty of other opportunities to draw from memory, but when we draw from life, we enter a teachable mindset, where it's important to guard against bad information. Some details of passers-by may be worth recording, such as an interesting purse, or a unique posture, or silhouette, but I'd caution students to record only those few, burning details that caught the eye, without filling in the rest of the figure from memory. A better use of on-the-spot sketching, generally, is to record scenery: plants, rocks, vehicles, architecture ... anything that will actually remain still for you to make a faithful record of it.

Another piece of dubious advice: "Drawing from life is far preferable to drawing from photos!" This advice comes, I guess, from the fact that there are certain drawbacks to drawing from photos (which I'll discuss below). But it ignores the fact that there are also drawbacks to drawing from life. For one thing, even the best life-models can't hold dynamic poses for long. If you want to learn to draw someone leaping, for instance, you're far better off consulting photos, or a video. Also, clothed life-models are uncommon, especially if the clothing you wish to draw is from some past era, or some far-off locale. In those cases, a Google image search, or a period film, will have more to offer than any life drawing session. (This is also true of exotic plants, scenery, architecture, etc.) And professional life-models tend to occupy a narrow range of ages and body types. If you want to draw children, the elderly, or overweight people, you'll find more examples in photos or films. Dim lighting is also hard to draw in person. Try drawing a darkened room from life—you won't be able to see your tablet! Even if you train a light on your paper (or use an electronic tablet), the light bouncing off the tablet will ruin the shadows you're trying to capture. Finally, life sessions can be expensive and hard to get to. Even at the best of times, few artists can attend more than a session a week. Photos, on the other hand, can be consulted at any time.

As I mentioned above, photos also have their drawbacks. Photos of nearby objects often suffer from distortion. And photos are two dimensional, so we can't view their subjects in "stereo," the way we observe three-dimensional objects in life. Though subtle, that extra bit of depth we get from viewing an object from two vantage points (our right and left eyes) can help us depict objects with more depth than we can manage when drawing from a photo. (Certain parts pop out more in person, prompting us to emphasize their depth cues in the drawing.) The timelessness of photos can also be a drawback. Changing sunlight or a tiring model will place natural time-limits on a life drawing; these limits force you to make bold, intuitive choices that won't occur to you if time is on your side, such as when you're drawing from a photo. Also, photos come with many pre-made choices (such as where to place the viewer, or crop the image), that should ideally be made by the artist.

Methods of learning fall in and out of fashion, but every method has both drawbacks and advantages. The methods you follow should not be determined by what's commonly advised, or even by what suits you (since learning is about growing beyond what suits us), but rather: what suits your goals? Find the methods that will best get you where you're going, modify them as needed, and trudge into the storm!

See you next month,


Jesse Hamm's Carousel appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!