Observational Drawing - teaching students how to see like an artist
Over the course of my career teaching the visual arts I have come to be more judicious about telling students to “draw with your eyes, not with your hand”. One must be mindful of direct translation, especially in a non-native English speaking environment. What I am trying to convey to students is to draw what they see, not what they think they see. In other words, to ‘draw’ with their eyes, not with their minds.
It’s very easy to draw what our intellect tells us something looks like, as opposed to what our eyes are actually seeing. The majority of students subconsciously draw what they know, not what they see. This is most obvious when working with young children.
It did not matter if it was a classroom in the United States, Vietnam, Argentina, or one of the world’s most vertical cities (Hong Kong), when I asked children to draw their house they all presented almost identical structures. You know the house already. You can envision it, because you are drawing from your mind, like they did - a triangle atop a square, with a door, a few windows, and usually a chimney. Either many of these works depicted a house in a cold climate, or I have had a fair share of child arsonists, because nearly all of the aforementioned chimneys emanated smoke. I never spotted a chimney in Vietnam, Hong Kong, etc., or so many identical houses with the omnipresent vertical and horizontal support structures in each window. Nonetheless, what students presented was their house.
(Example of a child’s house drawing, Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures)
You might think this would differ if the students draw directly from observation, but it does not, because they still draw what they know instead of what they see. They have not yet developed the skill of acute visual analysis. Give a 4-year-old a mirror and set them up to draw a self-portrait. Before you finish passing out materials, others will have finished. What will this masterpiece be? Two dots for eyes, a curved line for a mouth, and four appendages (limbs) radiating from a circle that serves as, both, the head and entire torso. Most will have hair, some will have noses, few will have ears. This is when I begin probing for more careful visual analysis. After we address the missing neck and so on, to elicit a reaction and more keen anatomisation, I tell the children that they all have hair on their face! After some objections, and student-made comments about my own facial hair, they agree with the more discerning analysis of their face, and all add eyebrows to their portraits.
(Example of a child's self-portrait, Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures)
At the secondary level, this propensity to draw from the mind is also assessed formatively by watching students' eyes predominantly affix on their drawing surfaces instead of the subject matter they are illustrating. I interrupt and encourage students to critically analyse the subject so as to circumvent their eyes from being deceived by their perception and acumen. As said by Andy Warhol, "Perception precedes reality". When using critical observation, students' eyes share time looking at the subject matter and their drawing surface. Their eyes dash back and forth, guiding their hand.
Interested in this phenomenon and eager to show students the results of this practice, I conducted a ‘study’ where students were first simply asked to draw a binder clip from observation. Their approach and methodology was completely unguided and independent. Some students decided to suggest areas of light and dark (value) in their work, while others ended with contour line drawings.
(Student work - Alex, Braylon, Lincoln, Tate, unguided binder clip drawings, Year 7)
The following lesson students were led by teacher instruction, much of which consistently emphasised the importance of visual analysis while remaining cognisant of our deceptive minds. A binder clip was placed directly in front of each student and not allowed to be moved. This helps to eliminate the distance the eye has to travel between the drawing surface and the subject matter. It also provides a consistent viewing angle. Drawing subject matter that moves is exponentially more difficult than their inanimate counterparts, however, many students cause their object to shift by constantly observing from slightly different angles (i.e. moving themselves). Sometimes students sit upright, while other times they crouch over. This inconsistency invites adversity. It changes perspective, proportion, light, and much more.
Students' mark-making was constantly challenged and questioned in order to continuously evaluate if marks made were based on what they see, or assume. At times, areas of the binder clip were not visible to the student, but evident in their drawing. This obviously causes the work to look inaccurate. When drawing from observation, if you cannot see it, do not draw it. It sounds obvious, but the mind can be deceitful when it comes to perception.
Values were broken down into three: light, mid, and dark. To simplify and reduce the visual information present, the classroom lights were turned off so that the window served as the single source of light. The analysis of value progressed from identifying highlights to ultimately looking at a variety of shadows and reflected light. Observing these minute details and ‘seeing like an artist’ is what allows one to achieve accuracy and likeness in their work. When it comes to portraits, this is the difference between recognising and capturing the different shape, size, and proportion of one person's eye versus others.
(Student work - Alex, Braylon, Lincoln, Tate,, guided drawing of a binder clip, Year 7)
In the end there is not a consensus in the art community surrounding the idea of simply drawing what you see. Many are quick to acknowledge the importance of basing what you see on the knowledge of what you know, within the structure of your subject matter. For example, having knowledge and understanding of human anatomy facilitates more accurate figure drawings, and should not be ignored.
Ultimately, ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’ work in conjunction, hence the importance of the transfer of learning. In any case, the next time you have an opportunity, try to analyse your field of vision with greater critical analysis. Observe, and experience the world like an artist.
Ltd, B. (n.d.). Children’s Person Drawing Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures. Copyright (c) 2007 - 2022 by Bobek Ltd. Retrieved June 15, 2022, from https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=37873&picture=childrens-person-drawing
Ltd, B. (n.d.-a). Children In Yard Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures. Copyright (c) 2007 - 2022 by Bobek Ltd. Retrieved June 14, 2022, from https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=56144&picture=children-in-yard
Nicolaïdes Kimon. (2021). The Natural Way to Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study. Souvenir Press.
Edwards, Betty. (2016). Drawing on the right side of The brain: The definitive, 4th edition. Souvenir Press Ltd.
Andy Warhol quote. (n.d.). QuoteNova.Net; www.quotenova.net. Retrieved June 15, 2022, from https://www.quotenova.net/authors/andy-warhol/q6k3ag