Carousel 031: Drawing What You See

Toucan reading a comic
Jesse Hamm

Artists are often given the following advice: “Draw what you see, not what you THINK you see.” This may sound profound, but what does it mean? How are we supposed to distinguish between what we think we see and what we actually see? Truthfully, there is merit to the advice, but we need to unpack it further before it will do us much good.

When people look at the world around them, they must sort through all sorts of visual information to make sense of things. That black rhombus to my lower left is my phone; the field of tan surrounding it is my desk; the white region above the tan field is the far wall. As I move about the room, other colored shapes enter my eyes, demanding interpretation. The grey below me is the carpet, the white above is the ceiling, and there are books and furniture besides. To complicate matters, shapes shrink and grow as I move closer or farther, and they seem to change shape as I examine them from different angles. How do I identify everything I’m seeing?

To interpret the visual information we collect, we form fixed ideas of what objects look like under ideal circumstances. So, when I think of my phone, I picture a black rectangle, as though I’m looking at it straight-on. Then, when I see a black rhombus on what I know to be my desk, I know it’s my phone, though viewed from an angle. The same is true of most other objects, too: we tend to imagine them in an ideal state, uniformly lit and facing the viewer in a way that best reveals the objects’ overall shape. (Try picturing a man, a hand, or a fish. You’ll tend to picture the man standing and facing you, the hand palm-out with fingers splayed, and the fish lying horizontally, with head and tail both visible. You likely won’t picture the man from above, the fish from the front, or the hand with fingers curled, even though you may see these sights in nature.) I call this flat-packing: we grant each object a simple shape in our minds so that we can later identify the object, by comparing the colored shapes we see in nature to their “flat-packed” counterparts in our minds. This also aids in thought: It’s easier for me to think about an object if I picture it in its simplest form, rather than picturing that object from every possible angle and distance, and in every possible light.

Unfortunately, though this method of mentally simplifying objects makes it easier to see and think about them, it also makes drawing them more difficult. Our drawings suffer when we attempt to draw objects that are angled or lighted in ways that don’t match our flat-packed ideas of how they appear. The brain doesn’t want a rectangular phone to be shaped as a rhombus, even when the phone lies at an angle that makes it appear as a rhombus. The brain doesn’t want fingers to shorten as they point toward the viewer, or pale objects to darken as they fall into shadow. To a great extent, drawing is a struggle to ignore the brain’s shorthand summaries and instead record the shadows and shapes our eyes actually perceive.

This is what’s meant by the advice to draw what you see, and not what you think you see.

Even when we draw from our heads, rather than from life, the challenge persists. My mental version of how long a finger should be will block my attempts to draw a foreshortened finger, such that I’ll keep lengthening the fingers as I refine my sketch, even if I intend them to point directly at the viewer. I may understand, from memory, that fingers shorten into a circle as they angle toward the viewer … but part of me still wants those drawn fingers to resemble the splayed fingers of the flat-packed hand my brain has filed under “HAND.”

How do we overcome this tendency, and draw objects as they truly appear? Here are several techniques:

  • DRAW UPSIDE-DOWN — Instead of drawing from a photo that is right-side-up, turn the photo 180 degrees, and draw that. This encourages your brain to see only shapes and edges, rather than identifiable objects. By reducing the depicted objects to unfamiliar shapes, you can prevent your brain from pushing you toward the flat-packed images that it typically favors.
  • DRAW NEGATIVE SPACES — Instead of drawing an object, focus on the empty spaces around or within the object, and draw those. In other words, don’t draw the donut itself; draw the hole, and then the outer circumference. Drawing the edges around the object and its parts helps you see only lines and abstract shapes, rather than the symbol your brain typically substitutes for the object.
  • COMPARING LOCATIONS — When deciding the placement of any feature in your drawing, compare the feature’s location in the reference photo to the locations of the object’s other features. For example, does the upper edge of Lady Liberty’s sleeve align with her eyebrows, or is it lower, or higher? Do any of her fingers touch each other; if so, which ones? Specific questions about the features’ relative locations will ensure your drawing’s accuracy better than merely asking,”Does it look right?”
  • MATCHING ANGLES — When drawing a diagonal line or edge you see in a photo, try to determine the precise angle of the edge. Do this by holding up the thumb or forefinger of your nondominant hand and matching its angle with that of the edge in the photo. Then, without tilting your hand, lower it near your drawing for reference, and sketch the desired line at the same angle. (It helps to do all of this with one eye closed, so that your angle of view remains consistent.) This comparison method will eventually train you to judge angles without using it. Just by looking, you will be able to see whether the edges in your drawing match the angles of edges in your subject—a skill crucial to accurate drawing. 

The methods I’ve outlined here are designed to be used when you draw from observation, such as from life or from a photo. However, after you develop your objectivity that way, you can bring the same objectivity to drawings you make from memory. You will recall what it feels like to ignore the flat-packed images your brain assigns to objects, and you’ll remember how you isolated the shapes and edges in your observational drawing, in order to draw those, instead of the symbols upon which your brain often relies. Your remembered experience of drawing objectively from photos will help you accurately depict images you’ve dreamed up yourself. In essence, you’ll draw what you’ve actually seen in your mind’s eye, not what you think you’ve seen there.

See you here next month!

Carousel by Jesse Hamm appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!

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