Simple Art Tip #16: Draw What You See (Step 1)

 
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There are three steps to learning how to draw. Step 1 is where you learn to draw what you see, Step 2 is where you learn to draw what you know and Step 3 is where you learn to draw what you want to see

These steps shouldn’t be skipped over. In fact, it’s impossible to skip over them. If you try to skip over Step 1, for example, you will find yourself learning Step 1 in a sloppy way, as you attempt Step 2. You’ll only be holding yourself back and take twice as long trying to learn things at random. That’s why it is in your best interest to take these steps one at a time in order for you to learn at a good pace. 

To get a deeper understanding of the concepts I’ll be talking about and find lots of helpful drawing exercises, I highly recommend you read Bert Dodson’s Keys to Drawing.

Drawing what you see means exactly that. You need to learn to draw only what you see in front of you before you can move on to drawing anything else. You have to learn to ignore what your mind tells you you’re seeing and just see things as they are.

When you look at something, you know what it is and your mind categorizes it as a particular object. Your mind has a generic idea of what the thing looks like, so when you go to draw an apple, for example, you might end up with something like this:

 
 

Comparing the two, you can see one barely resembles the other.

When you’re just learning how to draw, your mind is constantly getting in the way. Your mind thinks it's being helpful by telling you how much your drawing does or doesn’t look like the object it knows you’re trying to draw. This isn’t helpful and it won’t get you very far. That’s why teaching your mind to stay out of it is the most important part of Step 1. 

 
 

When you try to draw a cup, for example, you mind find yourself wanting to draw something like the two examples above. When you look a real cup, you will notice its edges are never as straight as the generic drawings above. You will also find that objects in real life have width to them; they're never razor sharp as the drawings above imply. 

To learn to draw what you see, you need to teach yourself to focus on the shapes that make up an object, as if you were looking at a photograph. Try to see the contours of the object and understand the shapes within. 

Forget what the thing is. Focus on the shapes you are seeing. You’re not seeing a flower or petals or a stem. You’re seeing wide and short curves, sharp edges, areas that are long and narrow, a rounded rectangle that bends and stretches to the left, etc.

 
 

As you look at the shapes, try to describe them in your head. Shapes in real life are never exact geometric shapes. When you see a circle, you’re seeing it at an angle, so you’re actually seeing an oval. Try to really study the shapes you’re seeing and mimic them on paper. 

As you’re drawing, don’t worry about checking if your drawing looks like “a cup” or “an apple”. Forget about making it look like “the thing”. Forget about making it look pretty too. It’s not about making things look pretty. Like a printer, you need to focus on drawing exactly what you see. 

 Only worry about recreating the shapes themselves. As you draw, think, “does this curve match this other one or is it wider? Is this line really perfectly straight or does it tilt more to the right?”. 

Don’t worry about getting proportions or perspective right at this point. Those are things you “know” and you have no business worrying about those right now. Drawing what you know comes in Step 2. For now, only worry about learning to draw things as you see them. 

I suggest you start like this: 

  1. Sit in front of an object or objects you want to draw. 
     
  2. Start by loosely sketching the largest shape or contour of your setup. 
     
  3. Continue plotting in shapes from largest to smallest, checking sizes as they relate to one another (i.e. ask yourself, “is this shape larger than this one? Does it line up with this other one?” etc.)
     
  4. Once you have a general sketch of the placement of things, start refining the shapes, making bolder, permanent strokes with your pencil. 
     
  5. Do not try to make your drawing a perfect photographic replica of your setup. It will not happen and you will end up hating your drawing. Remember to focus only on replicating the shapes you see, as you see them. 

You might also like to reference:

SAT #7: Draw/Paint Self-Portraits

SAT #8: Draw From Life

Silencing your mind will be difficult at first, but do your best and keep trying. Don’t give up just because your drawing doesn’t look good. I promise you will improve as long as you keep trying. 

Once you realize what "drawing what you see" really means, and you're able to silence your mind while you draw, a whole new world will open up to you. Once you get that a-ha! moment, you'll be ready to move on to Step 2: drawing what you know.