Observational drawing is a key part of learning to draw.

It may not seem terribly interesting to draw a basket of fruit to practice your drawing skills, however, developing your sense of attention to detail is an essential step in mastering the basics if art!

Realism in drawing involves a complex process, but this improves with practice.

Faithfully reproducing an object with a pencil and paper involves carefully examining its characteristics to produce a portrait or landscape which looks realistic.

Practicing realistic drawing exercises will give you a set of skills which are transferable to other types of drawing such as caricature and technical drawing.

The Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was awarded the UN Peace Medal in 1984 said:

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence

This applies to observational drawing, which is all about observing without judgement and drawing what is in front of us, without getting carried away with our own ideas.

This idea seems so simple; however, it may be more difficult than you think.

What is Observational Drawing?

A far cry from cartooning and comic strips, observational drawing is all about reproducing an object, landscape or person in the most realistic way possible.

It’s not a case of interpretation, imagination or creation. The art of observational and still life drawing is difficult and requires that the artist has a good grasp on drawing basics as well as a degree of artistic awareness.

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Patience is key when learning to draw real life
Perfecting your observational art skills will take time and patience ¦ source: Visualhunt - FraukeFiend

When we look at a high-quality realist drawing, we often talk about how it looks like a photograph.

If you want to attain this level of skill as an artist yourself, it is imperative that you work on your personal skills and learn to properly use your drawing tools.

The best realist pencil drawings and sketches demonstrate the artist’s sense of:

  • Perspective drawing
  • Proportion
  • Texture
  • Highlights and shadows
  • Detail

Training Your Eye

How do you draw a cat?

How do you draw a face?

What is still life drawing?

When creating an observational drawing, you should consider your hand to be an extension of your eyesight. You should only draw what you see and nothing more.

To achieve a realistic piece, the object or person you are free drawing should be placed in front of you so that you can look back and forth between the object and the paper with ease.

Before you begin drawing the first feature in your sketch, it is important that you take a moment to look at the object in its entirety before you start analysing individual details.

If you get stuck, there are plenty of online drawing tips and lessons to help you along the way! Alternatively find a tutor for lessons across the UK, from drawing courses London to sketching classes in Edinburgh.

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The Right Brain’s Role in Realistic Drawing

It is often said that when producing a realistic drawing, you should rely on your right brain. But what exactly is it? And how is it different to the left brain?

  • The left brain is in charge of logic. This is where critical analysis of real life takes place.
  • The right brain is in charge of creativity as well as humour and our perception of the world we live in.

Betty Edwards develops this theory in her book ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’.

So, what’s the good news? The ability to draw realistically and accurately is not something you’re born with – it’s something you can practice and develop by exercising the right brain.

Both halves of the brain work together to give you a perception of reality
The logical left brain vs. the artistic right brain ¦ source: Pixabay - ElisaRiva

At a first glance, you may think that the logical left brain might be of more use when it comes to observational drawing, but quite the opposite is true; the left brain has a tendency to distort perceived reality.

Let’s take children’s young brains as an example, as they are less developed than the adult brain and are lacking in their capacity for detailed observation.

If they’re given an object or scene to reproduce, children will tend away from drawing what they see, and choose to rely on what they already know. For instance, they may draw four wheels on a car, even if they can only see two, because they know that cars have four wheels.

And the same goes for the left brain!

The left brain has a lot of experience with real life and will, therefore, analyse visual perception rather than taking it as it is, producing an unfaithful picture which favours logic over reality.

In order to truly learn how to effectively produce a realistic drawing, you must force yourself to view things with a fresh pair of eyes, forgetting everything you’ve learnt so that it doesn’t inhibit your ability to take reality as you see it. The precision you achieve with life drawing will be very useful if you decide to go into the field of technical drawing.

When training your eye, you only need a few drawing materials: paper, a pencil, pen and ink, a paintbrush or oil pastel.

Following Step by Step Drawing Instructions

Observational freehand sketching happens in several steps.

The two main ones are always the same:

  1. General contour of the object to be drawn using simple shapes
  2. Adding details

Realistic drawing is all about working within a frame whilst respecting the proportions of the object and your perspective as an artist.

For this reason, you must have made a final decision on what you want to draw before you begin drawing (objects should not be added in afterwards).

Once you have traced your first outline of the object, you need to check that you have conformed to the rules of perspective, proportion and orientation.

Working on Your Observational Skills

Once you’ve finished the first step and you are happy with your contour drawing, you can begin to focus on the details of the object.

Each individual element should be closely examined and compared with the other details that surround it.

This kind of work requires the artist to have a good knowledge of drawing techniques and different ways of achieving realistic art. Drawing from life will help you advance in other techniques as well. A good caricaturist needs to understand how the human body works so it still looks recongnisable when it is distorted.

If you would like to work on your ability to produce realistic work, you’ll need to practice working with different textures, and practicing your shading techniques to create depth within a picture as well as using negative space.

When learning to draw, even easy practical exercises will help you develop a good sense of observation.

Here are a few starting points:

  • Draw without looking at the paper: This works on the principle that your hand should be an extension of your eye. So, tape your drawing paper or sketchbook to the table and have a go at drawing something in front of you!
  • Invert your image: This technique helps to train the right brain. Choose an object, but reproduce it as if you’re seeing a mirror image. This helps you to disconnect your left brain from the drawing process and focus on what is in front of you.
  • Practice drawing complex details: This is how you overcome artist’s block in your projects. Instead of drawing an arm attached to a body, just draw the shoulder on its own.

Drawing What You Don’t See

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to contradict everything that has just been said, even if it seems a little paradoxical. In order to draw what you see, you’ll also need to draw what you don’t see, at least upon your first glance.

In observational drawing, looking at three dimensional objects requires a mastery of perspective, depth, proportion and line drawing.

This is why it is essential to bear in mind the things that are hidden behind your object to produce a drawing that is faithful to real life.

Let’s look at an example. You are tasked with drawing a person in front of a bookcase. If you focus on what you see, you’ll only draw one part of the furniture.

The risk is that if you don’t look at the bookcase in its entirety, its shelves may not be perfectly aligned, and the drawing will become less realistic.

Your ability to understand how surroundings change the appearance of an object is great for observational drawing
Take the wave pattern into account, even though it's 'not there' ¦ source: Pixabay - Dan_Park

Even though the final piece will only show the part of the bookcase you are able to see, its closeness to reality depends on your ability to use its hidden parts as a guide.

The same goes when drawing a human figure.

Is one part of their arm hidden? Then you’ll need to know how it is placed behind them to make the drawing realistic. In other words, the invisible structure influences the final appearance.

Mastering this aspect of drawing will help you advance in other drawing techniques as well - varying your techniques will always teach you something new.

What Can Observational Drawing Do For You on a Personal Level?

Observational drawing is a very interesting exercise, even for amateur artists. It gives you a means of developing certain skills, including:

  • Controlling your movement
  • Developing observational skills
  • Improving capacity for concentration
  • Relaxing

As a hobby, it can also be particularly useful in day-to-day life. Realistic drawing is at the heart of a number of professions, such as:

  • Science
  • Illustration and digital drawing
  • Design
  • Architecture
  • Portraiture
  • Photography
  • Caricature drawing
  • Satirical drawing
  • Technical drawing

The skills you gain through your drawing lessons are many and varied, and can be transferred to many areas.

They say practice makes perfect, and this is definitely true for drawing, and teaches you to take your time.

Before you become a master, you need to be patient and work on your skills. Observational drawing may seem incredibly difficult, but it will set you up for success when it comes to other areas such as cartooning and impressionism.

If you want to look at the art of drawing in detail, why not experiment with new techniques and tools?

Use graphite pencil, colored pencils, watercolor paints, drawing software, charcoal pencil… the list is endless! Through experimentation, you’ll be able to find your style and the materials which suit you best.

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