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Observational Sketching – Why, What, Where & How

It’s 2 AM. You’re working on an illustration for an assignment due tomorrow in the morning. You’re trying to sketch out over and over the right pose for the person in your illustration, but you just can’t seem to nail down one you like. You search Google images frantically for the perfect photo for inspiration, but nothing comes up that seems to work for what you need. Then, finally, while you look at your reflection staring back at you in your blackened out computer screen that finally went to sleep while you stared blankly at it, you strike a pose like your character from your illustration. And it clicks – inspiration strikes – you open up your webcam, and snap a few photos of yourself in the position the person your illustration takes, and you set to work, feeling refreshed and invigorated.

So maybe this has happened to me before….and maybe something similar has happened to you too. Observational reference can be extremely important in creating convincing images, and who is a better subject to use as reference than yourself sometimes? But even more importantly, the more you draw from life the less and less you’ll need to refer to this 2 AM method of improvisation. Not to undermine the importance of solid reference material (that is your own, of course), but the more you draw people and objects from life, or from observation, shall we say, the bigger your visual vocabulary will be, and in turn, the less you will need to strictly refer to reference photos. Plus, not only that, it’s fun to draw from life.

When I first started drawing from life, people, places and things alike, I really struggled. I drew my lines over and over and over again because I was never satisfied with how one would look. My perspective was bad – but not in a good way. People looked nothing like the people I was drawing. My sense of proportion was wildly askew.

I have been drawing from life (we’ll say definitively as a regular practice) for about 6+ years now, and I am SO glad I started. Drawing from life has taken my art from high school quality work (literally – that’s the level of work I was at right before I started picking up drawing from life as a regular habit in college) to professional quality work that people give me money to make. I’m not trying to brag – honestly – I know I am far from the Queen of Drawing or any kind of title of the sorts, and I definitely have a long way to go in terms of my art career. I struggle every day still with being satisfied with my work.

But before I could even make the jump (it wasn’t really a jump, more like a six year journey) to where I am now, I had to do a lot of work. And before that, I had to understand why drawing from life was so important.

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Why It’s Important

I probably didn’t figure out why, or maybe how drawing from observation was so important until I was maybe a junior in college. I started carrying a sketchbook with me EVERYWHERE, and actually using it all the time. I saw a drastic change in my work, both for assignments for class and from each sketchbook to the next. Friends and teachers noticed it too, and commented on how I’d grown. I didn’t really see it myself at the time, and even now it is hard to look at my work and see how I’ve grown from, say, a year ago, but I can definitely now look back at my sketchbooks from my junior year of college and see how I’ve improved.

So, to neatly sum that up, drawing from observation helps you improve. It helps you make better art. It helps you develop your style, if subconsciously, which, in my opinion, is the best way to do that (but more on that later). Drawing from life helps you work quicker, more efficiently, become a better judge of proportion and perspective, and make smart decisions. It helps you learn to develop stronger compositions on the fly, and is spontaneous because of the nature of the usually moving or changing subject matter and lighting. Drawing from life is fundamental.

What You Need

Do you have a ballpoint pen on your desk? A piece of paper? Well, then you’re set!

No, seriously. That’s literally all you need. I’ve filled up whole sketchbooks before of mediocre quality paper with *just* ballpoint pen drawings. You don’t need fancy supplies to make great drawings from life. In fact, I would recommend, if you’re just starting out, to use the bare bones – two simple tools – drawing utensil and sketchbook. Pick your weapon of choice – be it a pen, pencil, marker, colored pencil, crayon, highlighter – I don’t care what it is, just something you like to draw with. Or, if you want to challenge yourself even more, choose a material you don’t like to draw with! And try to get used to drawing with that material. Then get ready to draw!

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Where To Do It

So where should you go to draw? Well, really, you don’t have to go anywhere at all. You could stay at home and draw your roommates, or your partner, or invite some friends over, or if you don’t live with anyone or feel like having company – sit in front of a mirror and draw yourself. Or set up a still life in your house.

Want to go out? Go to a coffee shop, a bookstore, a restaurant, the mall, a park, etc. Sit down somewhere and start drawing.

How To Start

There’s no wrong way to start drawing from life!  As long as you’ve figured out what drawing materials you want to use, picked a place and set up camp, then get to work!

Some goals you might want to keep in mind:

  • Limit yourself, time-wise:
    • Short term – set a timer for some fixed amount of time. If you are drawing people, perhaps set a timer for 1 minute per person. Once your timer goes off, stop drawing that person. Usually, if you are in an active place such as a mall, chances are, most people will have moved before that anyways. If you are trying to encompass a whole scene in your drawing, set a timer for five to ten minutes. Stop drawing as soon as your timer goes off.
    • Long term – watch the clock. Try to limit the amount of time you draw from life in one sitting to about an hour. Time can easily get away from you, and it’s important to take breaks, so you don’t get mentally exhausted. As fun as it may be to draw and draw and draw, there are other important responsibilities in life. As with many things in life, moderation is good. If the opposite is true for you – you are really frustrated drawing today, and you can’t seem to produce anything you are satisfied with, stick to your time limit. Don’t just give up after one “bad” drawing. Stick it out for that hour.
  • Think about composition: As easy as it is to just start putting pen to paper, doodle out a quick thumbnail of the scene you want to draw before you draw it. Or, if you are drawing a person, doodle a quick, tiny gesture to get down the feel of the motion of their pose. Try to think through and plan how you’re going to draw what’s in front of you. It may seem like a pain to do, but once you get in the habit of doing this before you start any drawing, the easier and more second-nature it will seem to make thumbnails for everything from observational drawings to finished illustrations.
  • Challenge yourself with your materials: As fun for you as it may be to shade everything in and delicately render everything in graphite pencil, it’s not always economically time smart to do so when drawing from observation, when people are moving and lighting is changing quickly, for instance. Challenge yourself to draw in a manner in which you don’t usually draw. Continuing with my example – you love detailed rendering – so try to draw using lines only, no shading. Or, you love to try to draw realistic faces and anatomy – so try to draw more graphically by capturing the gesture of a person with big, blocked-in shapes, and by exaggerating features. By challenging yourself to work in a way that is unfamiliar to you, you are in fact improving what you believe to be your personal “best” way of drawing by turning everything you know on it’s head. Which, at first, is scary, but ultimately, is really helpful in terms of growth.
  • Challenge yourself with subject matter: Not so good at drawing faces? Draw a whole page of them. And then another. And another. And give it time – but before you know it, your hatred for drawing something in particular will turn into a passion. I guarantee it.
  • Make it a habit: It may not seem to fit into your current daily schedule to draw for an hour a day, but imagine if you got up an extra hour early and enjoyed your morning cup of coffee every day or every other day in a coffee shop on your way to work, or at a bookstore around lunch time. If you’re freelancing, it’ll give you an excuse to get out of your house or studio. Making something a habit makes it easier to do, and making something easier to do makes it more enjoyable, and making something more enjoyable means you’ll do it more, and the more you do it the faster you’ll improve!
  • Show other people your work. In particular, other creative people: Getting feedback on your observational drawing can be really important. Try to really listen to everything people have to say as they flip through your sketchbook. Try to figure out what they do and don’t like, from a critical perspective. And if they don’t tell you so explicitly, ask. And find out what they think you could improve on. Take all advice and critique for what it’s worth, but do give some merit to thoughtful advice. Oh, and cut out that knee-jerk reaction to apologize for what you consider “bad” drawings! All of your work is a reflection of your journey, and you should embrace what you consider the bad pages just as much as you do the “good” ones – so you can learn from your mistakes. Which leads into my next point:
  • Be critical of your own work: We all have those drawings we can’t stand. It’s really normal. And sometimes hard to believe when the majority of the work we see posted to our inspirations’ social media accounts are the “good” drawings, but everybody has these pages or sketchbooks or even whole illustrations they don’t like. Honestly. So when you make a drawing you don’t like, stop before you rip it out and throw it away, or paint over the page, or even just simply turn the page and move on, and do this: try and come up with at least 3 reasons why you don’t like this drawing. Be honest with yourself. Then, try to come up with at least 3 ways you can improve those three things you didn’t like about that particular drawing. Then take your own advice.