Observational drawing Aim to find at least 5 minutes each day to draw something from direct observation. Don’t worry if you think you can’t draw because the point is not the finished product but the process of observing something carefully and in detail (some tips to help with this at the end of this page.)
This activity is good for developing your observational skills, or to make a record of key features of an object or place, while the focussed attention is also a calming, meditative activity.
In my experience, the only way to be sure I’m looking carefully enough at something – particularly something with lots of detail – is to draw it. The vital importance of this is that there may be something new and unexpected there; unless I draw I won’t look carefully enough to see the unexpected.
Adelaide Carpenter, genetic scientist quoted in Phipps, B (2006) Lines of Enquiry: thinking through drawing, Cambridge: Kettles Yard.
Whether looking down a microscope, or studying geological features on a field trip, drawing (directly or from photographic images) pushes us to pay closer attention to what we see, to look for longer and to ask ‘What is this I am looking at? Why does it look like this? How else might it look? How does it relate and compare to what else I know?’
You could choose subjects relevant to your studies – for instance, nursing or physiotherapy students can make quick thumbnail sketches of people sitting down (on the train, or the seafront) to think about posture and body language. Students from other disciplines might focus on architectural details (window designs, door furniture), objects in a museum, rock formations on a geology field trip, or what they are seeing down a microscope.
Here are some more general suggestions for things to draw which don’t require too much effort to find. Make your own list in advance or there will also be some daily prompts on studentcentral throughout October:
- Your coffee cup or your breakfast
- An item from your desk or workspace
- A book
- An item taken at random from your bag
- Your other non-dominant hand
- Your shoe
- A flower
- A leaf
- An item of clothing
- A coat hanger
- The view from your window
You don’t need special materials for drawing, just a standard notebook and pen though it is worth treating yourself to some good quality paper and pencils eventually). You could also try the book My Year in Small Drawings: Notice, Draw, Appreciate by Matilda Tristram – with seasonal suggestions and pages divided up into small squares to encourage you to make quick observational sketches.
- If you can’t help worrying about what your drawing looks like, then then try ‘blind contour drawing’, where you look only at the subject and not at your own drawing.
If you find it hard not to look down, stick your pencil through a paper plate or piece of card, then hold the pencil below that so you can’t actually see the marks you are making). Concentrate on following the outline of your subject with your eyes, and mirroring that movement with your pencil without taking it off the paper.
- Alternatively, try drawing with your non-dominant hand –you know in advance that the result probably won’t be particularly ‘realistic’, so you can concentrate on the process of looking.
- Another common approach is to use a viewfinder (made by cutting out a rectangular ‘window’ in a piece of card) to frame what you are looking at and help concentrate on a small section at a time.
- In the same way, a squared grid overlaid on a source drawing or photograph will enable you to copy this more accurately and notice the fine details in each section.
- Other looking & drawing exercises offer you opportunities to sharpen perception of variations in tone, colour or texture.
- More suggestions for developing your drawing confidence at https://www.goshen.edu/art/ed/drawingskills.html
(First posted as part of the University of Brighton Big Draw October 2019)