Observation: The Most Important Drawing Skill to Learn
Drawing and Sketching by Looking Closely
Someone recently asked me what I thought was the most important skill for drawing. I think they were expecting me to talk about some kind of watercolor, pencil, or pastel technique. At first that's where my own mind went as I pondered the question. Then I realized that no technique for using media is as important as the skill of OBSERVATION.
When I am drawing and sketching, most of the
time I spend twice as much time looking at the subject I am about to sketch
than I spend actually sketching it. Later on, I may go back and redraw it a
few times, adjust the coloring, lay it out in a nicer, more artistic layout
for a more visually pleasing end result, but when I get down to it, most of
my time and energy is spent on seeing. Looking. Experiencing. Watching. Paying
attention. Observation is an essential and important drawing skill.
Learning to Look before you Draw
Is there something in particular we should look for when we are observing before drawing?
First of all, decide what your subject is, and focus in on that. I think it's best to understand it this way: you can't focus in on 20 things at once, or each of those will look distorted in the final picture. When you are taking a photograph with a camera, the camera can only focus on one thing. There needs to be a subject, a main focal point in your picture. Decide first what that is. Maybe it's a snowman or a rabbit, or a flower. We'll look at what is going on around our subject, too, but we need to first decide what our subject is.
Here are some general tips that I look for when observing nature for the purposes of sketching:
Pay attention to the light as it hits your subject. What direction is the light coming from? Is the light hard and bright, or softer?
Note where the shadows are. Notice where shadows form on your subject, and where the light creates highlights. A good example of this would be a very shiny red apple. Take some time to look at one, and you'll see areas of shadow, and areas of highlight. What does light do on the surface of your subject? Is it reflecting back, or does it simply make the area brighter?
Often, we draw by using light guidelines to start. Using some basic shapes (squares, circles, rectangles, ovals, curves, lines...) we can create some general guidelines to help us lay out our picture, before going back and adding more detail.
When I teach art to the Kindergarteners and First through Third graders, I try to break down a picture to the most basic shapes to help them start their drawing more easily. However, the easiest way for artists of any age to perfect their drawing skills is to note the shapes in their subject, and start off by drawing those basic shapes, before adding details.
Look at your subject. What shapes do you see under the surface? Sometimes it's easier to see shapes in some objects than others. For example, a snowman is usually three circles and then a triangular shaped carrot nose. Pretty simple, right? After drawing those guidelines, we are able to go in and fill in more detail, but the simple shape guidelines help me get most of my picture down before I start getting too bogged down with details early on.
What kind of textures do you see in your picture and on your subject? Short fur, long fur? Scales? Reptile skin? Bumpy leaves or smooth, waxy leaves? Soft pussywillows or thorny rose branches?
What colors do you see? Don't just look and say, "That's a carrot; it must be orange." Look closer. What do you see? What shades of orange, yellow, brown, and gray do you notice on the carrot? Pay attention to the subtle differences in color on a subject. For example, I just sketched a rabbit, and one thing I notice when I look carefully at this one rabbit in my yard is that he seems to have a gray undercoat, with some white in it too, and brown fur over that fluffy gray/white undercoat, with some black. When I first look at him though, I see a brown bunny with a white tail. When I take a closer look, I notice all of these different colors and how they work together. The light also affects how the colors look too, of course.
Also, notice how the colors of things around your subject are affecting the color of your subject. Sometimes, color from other objects will reflect up onto the subject very subtly.If a girl is wearing a red blouse, sometimes the underside of her chin will look slightly reddish, from the color of the blouse.
While we're mostly focusing in on our subject instead of letting ourselves be distracted by trying to focus on too many things at once, we should notice the setting we've found our subject in, too. When a rabbit is in the snow, can you see all of it? Does the snowman sit perfectly on the top of the snow too? Probably not. look at how those things around the subject affect it.