Why learning to see will make you a better artist

Expectations vs Reality

One of the benefits of taking the time to really study from life is that it helps build your internal library if you want to draw a scene and you don't have the time to spend hours looking for photo reference or you don't have the skills to build an imaginary world using clay or 3D software. A common misconception when it comes to drawing is that many people draw cliches of an object instead of what they really see. The problem with this is that there is no authenticity in what you are drawing, which just leads to a repetition of what is out there.

Do's and Don'ts of drawing a tree, window, flower

As you can tell in the above examples, the cliches are a simple way of getting an idea or symbol out on paper and it may be easier just to do it that way so you can have a finished drawing, however it recycles the same designs over and over without a thorough understanding of why an object is built the way it is or why plants and animals have the anatomical form that they have. This causes your drawings to look generic, unconvincing, and uninteresting to a viewer who has probably seen thousands of trees shaped like lollipops or windows drawn as a square divided into four squares.There is no sense of form, they lack a full range of value, and seldom follow the rules of perspective.

In the case of a tree, it's not just a lump on a cylinder. There are all different kinds of trees. Is it an oak tree? willow tree? redwood sequoia? Each tree has their own characteristics depending on their species.

Oak tree

Oak tree photo attribution

Willow tree

Willow tree photo attribution

Palm tree

Palm tree photo attribution

This same concept can be applied to flowers. Each foliage has multiple layers that have more density in some areas than others. It's not uniform all 360 degrees. Same with petals. Petals have layers to them.

All windows aren't just a square with panes. You have to also take into consideration what kind of window it is. Is it a bay window? An accent window? A storm window? Each window is built differently based on their purpose. As artists and designers, it is up to us to analyze the features of our objects, understand what purpose it serves, and why they are built the way that they are in order to produce more convincing drawings.

Methods of practicing

Variation studies

A good way to practice drawing what you see is to choose a subject and draw many variations of this as you can find from real life, such as 30 windows, 30 trees, 30 cars, etc. This is a good weekly exercise to get you out of short-cutting your drawings with generic objects and adds another layer of depth to your work. This also builds up your internal library.

Blind contour

Another way to practice drawing what you see is through blind contour or semi-blind contours. Say for example, you have a mug in front of you. Now imagine that there is an ant walking along the edge of the mug. That ant will be your starting point for the piece. Trace your eye along that imaginary ant crawling along the surface of your mug as it moves along the contours of the object. Move your pencil as if you are touching the mug as you follow the ant with your pencil stroke. You may take a few glances at your paper for a semi-blind contour, however in the case of a blind contour, you do not look down on your paper until you are finished with the drawing.

Here are examples of a Blind Contour and a Semi-Blind Contour. The video was sped up for brevity, but I did take my time with the drawings in reality. It wasn't accounted for in the recording, but I did pause a few times to find my visual place on the object. It's ok to stop for a little bit if you get lost as long as the drawing tool stays at the same point on the paper. It's one continuous line.

Keep in mind that the blind contour is not about having a technically accurate drawing, it's not about about having clean lines or a nice rendering. It's about observing your object and putting it on paper without getting bogged down on what's on your paper.

Draw from Life

The easiest way to start drawing what you see and not what you think you are seeing is to draw from life. This means going outside the house to adventure to different places and taking note of your surroundings. I encourage doing these blind contour studies and variation studies from life because you have the advantage of looking at things at a 360 view, which also gives you a lot of choice in the composition and perspective you want to draw your studies at. Photos can be a good starting point if the weather isn't good outside, but the biggest downside is that the lighting, form, and color nuances are flattened significantly in photography, depending on what camera was used to shoot the photo. Photos can be a useful complement to your drawing studies, but it should not be the only means of studying from life.

Learn patience

Have you ever been out drawing from life and rushed the drawing just to get it over and done with? Maybe the foliage is too far away to see. Or maybe you have a deadline. It can be easy to shorthand a default rendition of what you are looking at instead of really paying attention to the fine details. In the case of trees, I may be tempted to just draw a stereotypical leaf and branch instead of really paying attention to the tree that is in front of me. Relying on generic shorthanding will limit the scope of objects that you are able to create.You may feel impatient at first and that's OK. It's important not to be too hard on yourself. Everybody starts somewhere, and it just takes time and practice. The more drawing you do, the more you'll be able to take the time with details.


Here's what we learned:

  • Real objects are not cliches. They have many variations.
  • Learning to see will help us become better artists
  • Variation studies and blind contours from life are good exercises for learning to see.
  • Be patient both in drawing and with yourself.

As with anything, getting better takes practice. Take a look at your calendar now. Do you see some slots where you can commit to practicing drawing from life for 20 minutes a day or every other day? Look for things that you like to draw. Every little bit helps. And come back in a few weeks and let me know how you did! I'd love to see your progress.