Tips on observational drawing

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Drawing is a basic way of communicating, developing, investigating, and researching ideas. Observational drawing is a central component for most high school and introductory art courses. While there are many different drawing styles, including non-representational drawing which can play an important role in student portfolios, it is also beneficial to exhibit realistic and competent observational drawing skills. The following tips can help students improve the realism of their observational drawings.

art student


1. Look at what you are drawing


A fundamental error art students can make is failing to look at what they are drawing. Most students attempt to draw things the way they think they should appear rather than how they actually look. The only way to record detail, proportion, and shape correctly is to carefully study the source of information. Human imagination and memory do not suffice here.


2. Draw from real objects as much as possible


Observational drawing typically implies drawing from life. Any art teacher will agree that drawing from objects directly in front of you is highly beneficial. In doing so, you have access to different angles, rich textures, changing light conditions, and other visual information – all of which contribute to the overall interest of your art piece.


3. Don’t trace


Tracing seems like the easiest way to create a drawing. Throughout history some painters have been known to trace photographs to create works, but as an art student this will not demonstrate an ability to replicate form and likeness. Tracing from photographs and simply applying color is not acceptable. Not only does this practice involve limited skills, it also teaches you less and risks leaving a poor first impression on the portfolio review committee.


4. Understand perspective


Objects appear smaller as they move further away and bigger the closer they are. The replication of this change of scale on paper using vanishing points is known as perspective. When drawing from life make sure to check your perspective is accurate. It is surprising how big a difference a slight shift can make. An effective way to check for accuracy is to hold your drawing up to a mirror.


5. Use guidelines and grids


A common mistake amongst art students is beginning a drawing with the small details. For example, drawing first an eye on a face and then gradually adding the rest of the image usually results in a drawing with incorrect proportions or one that doesn’t fit the page. To avoid this, get in the habit of mapping out the basic forms prior to adding details or by using guidelines to ensure that proportions are accurate.


6. Keep outlines light


Real objects do not have dark lines running around their edges. Instead your drawing’s edges should be defined by a change in color or tone. If you are doing a cartoon or line drawing, outlines may be darkened but observational drawing should look as real as possible.


7. Omit or include detail as necessary


When drawing a person, it is not necessary to depict every strand of hair. Carefully select what is omitted and included in the piece.

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