Observational Drawing: Easy tips to drawing what you see from life

Observational drawing is the process of drawing what you see from life. It comes from the word ‘observe’ which is ‘to see’. It is a skill that has been practiced by artists for centuries and is one of the best ways to learn how to draw accurately.

When you undertake observational drawing, you are forced to slow down and take in all the details of your subject. This helps you develop an understanding of how light and shadow affect objects and how perspective affects their appearance.

Observational drawing is a great way to improve your observation skills, which are essential for any artist. Observational skills enable you to see the world around you as an artist sees it – with clarity and precision.

As an observational drawer, you will also be able to better understand the works of other artists and appreciate art in a whole new way.

life drawing class 1

What are the Benefits of observational drawing?

There are many benefits to observational drawing. For one, observational drawing can improve your observational skills and help you become a better artist.

Drawing from life also helps you develop an understanding of how light and shadow affect objects and how perspective affects their appearance.

Drawing from life will help you develop your ability to see clearly what you are trying to capture on paper or canvas as well as develop an appreciation for art that may have eluded you before.

From my own experience, I have seen my ability to break down an image into manageable chunks in my mind before I actually start working.

I can look at a life model or objects and within minutes I can now work out how to start, which object to start on first, and solve problems before they arise.

So in summary, the benefits of observation drawing are: problem-solving, drawing realistically, deconstructing an image into manageable components so that you are not overwhelmed trying to draw the entire image in one go.

still life class
“Cy, teaching a still life drawing class at Living Sky Foundation, Sperryville, Virginia” by steve loya is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How do I start?

The best way to start observational drawing is by finding something that interests you and then sitting down and drawing it. It’s best to start with something simple rather than trying to tackle a complex subject right off the bat.

Don’t worry if your drawings don’t look perfect – just focus on capturing the essence of what you’re seeing.

How to do an observational drawing

In observational drawing, you first need to find a still life or live model to draw from.

This can be anything from a bowl of fruit to a person. I would start with something super simple if you have never tried this before such as an apple or a banana. These objects are made up of simple shapes that are the building blocks of most drawing types.

Once you have your subject matter, set up your sketchbook and paper so that you have a comfortable viewing distance where you can mentally frame the image using the rule of thirds.

Start by focusing on the large shapes of the object or person you are drawing and then move on to the smaller details. Don’t try to draw everything at once; it’s better to take your time and focus on one area at a time.

Use light pencil strokes and don’t worry about making mistakes – these can be corrected later.

Focus on shade as this is what usually makes or breaks an observational drawing. People tend to focus too much on line and outline but the detail is in the shadows which makes things look as they appear.

Here are some tips for observational drawing:

  • Use light pencil strokes and build up the shading gradually
  • Focus on light and shadows
  • Work loosely and don’t focus on trying to draw the exact thing you are seeing as this can lead to tracing or copying
  • In observational drawing, near enough is good enough. We want a likeness, not a copy. But you will get closer to the original with experience
  • Pay attention to just what you are working on and not the entire work
  • Always be looking at the model and the artwork as you work, flicking back and forth every few seconds. Look at the model, draw and look again. Do this over and over.
  • Don’t stare! Draw what you can see and not what you think might be there
  • As observational drawing is the process of capturing a likeness, your first attempts will probably be very poor so don’t stress
  • You don’t have to limit observational drawing to life. Practice observational drawing from photographs as well as from life
  • Feel free to use instructional models to sit in place of real objects or people
  • The best way to start observational drawing is by working from a still life set up of objects that are appealing to you. Even if you’re only intending on working with pencils, do invest in some graphite paper so you don’t have to worry about smudging
  • Find an object around the house or one that interests you and place it near a window so it gets good light and it creates nice shadows that you can draw.
how to make an observational drawing video

What are some examples of what you can draw from observation?

There are no limits to what you can draw when doing observational drawings but if you are just starting out I recommend starting with simple things such as:

  • flowers
  • fruit, vegetables, or other food items
  • household objects like bottles, furniture, etc.
  • models

You could even set up a still life of your own if you’re feeling really adventurous! You can also practice observational drawing by taking photos to use as references for paintings or drawings.

The best results are achieved when practicing observational drawing from real-life direct observation so try to avoid using photographs as references for observational drawings at first.

Depending on the type of observational drawing you are doing though, this may not always be possible and is okay too.

For example, observational drawings done in charcoal where it would be very difficult and time-consuming to find models to pose for every sketch; we settle with photographing or observing family members.

If you are a little more experienced then I would suggest drawing park scenes of people sitting down having a picnic, children at play, birds and other small animals and insects such as butterflies on a flower or an insect on a leaf.

converse still life
“Still Life Drawing 1” by twinblade_sakai340 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Why people should try out observational drawings

The purpose of observational drawing is to help train your observational skills. The more you practice, the better you will become at seeing and capturing the likenesses of things that interest you.

This is a valuable skill, especially if you want to pursue a career in art. But observational drawing isn’t just for artists! Anyone can benefit from learning how to draw realistically from life.

This type of drawing can also help improve your focus and concentration. It can be quite challenging to sit down and draw something accurately from life, especially if it’s something that doesn’t hold your interest.

But if you stick with it, you will find that your observational skills will improve and this will carry over into other areas of your life as well.

Why do we do observational drawings?

As mentioned earlier, we do observational drawings to improve our observational skills. This is a skill that can be used in many different areas of our lives.

By learning to see accurately and draw what we see, we can become better at observational tasks such as copying text from a book or from the internet, car repairs, cooking, and so on.

The more we practice observational drawing, the better we will become at not only it but at working out how everything around us looks and works.

What is the main difference between observational drawing and conceptual drawing?

The main difference between observational drawing and conceptual drawing is that observational drawing captures what is seen in front of us, while conceptual drawing is more about creating a picture based on an idea or a concept.

For observational drawings, it’s important to be able to see accurately and to have a good understanding of perspective. Often, observational drawings contain lots of detail and are realistic in nature. Conceptual drawings can be more abstract and may not have as much detail.

What are the 3 types of observational drawing?

There are 3 types of observational drawings which cover most of the types of drawings or paintings that an artist would want to do.

  • Landscapes
  • Still life
  • Life drawing

The great thing is once you get proficient at each, you can combine them to make large-scale drawings or paintings.

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