A sketch of a rooftop

7 observational drawing tips to improve your style

By BBC Maestro

Do you ever wonder how artists manage to capture such realistic likenesses? Observational drawing is a skill that can be learned with time and practice.

In this article, we’ll take you through some observational drawing tips and techniques that can help you master this essential skill.

What is observational drawing?

Observational drawing is exactly that: drawing what you see. This is harder than it sounds, because our unconscious thought processes often take over, and we draw what we think the subject looks like, rather than capturing specific details.

Being able to draw what you observe is an essential skill for an artist and one that requires practice. While you’re paying attention to the subject’s shape, form, texture and value (shade), you’re fine-tuning your technical abilities to capture these elements, as well as honing your observational skills.

Observational drawing techniques

If you’d like to practise your observational drawing techniques, we’ve gathered a few tips that can help you. You can practise by drawing people, and landscapes or attending a still-life drawing class. Pick a subject that interests you, as you’re going to be studying it very closely.

1. Draw from real life

If you can, draw from real life rather than from a photograph. This is harder – you’re replicating something 3D in 2D format – but you’ll be rewarded with a richer, more nuanced picture. Your drawing will better capture the form, texture, light and shade of the subject if it’s in front of you.

Portrait artist Jonathan Yeo acknowledges that it isn’t always possible to draw from real life. When a subject is unable to sit for him in person, he uses a selection of photographs that capture different expressions. For example, if you want to draw a building but can’t sit in front of it for an afternoon, photograph it from several angles. Take photos of the building from a distance and from close-up, giving you the greatest possible depth of information.

2. Draw what you see

Even when we think we’re drawing what’s in front of us, we’re rarely drawing purely from observation. Our brains are busy completing sections of the picture for us, based on memory and what we know. Observational drawing is a discipline that involves erasing our minds of anything we know about the subject, and capturing exactly what we see in front of us.

For example, you’re sketching the family dog. You feel like you know every hair on their body, and that you could pick them out from a pack of a hundred similar pooches from looks alone. Now look closely at the face. Do you know the angle of their eyebrows? How their whiskers sprout from the follicles? The way the light is reflected on the tip of their nose? Observational drawing is about training yourself to draw details like these accurately, without your memory butting in.

3. Use a grid

One way to train yourself to copy rather than to embellish is to use a grid. For this exercise, you will need to draw from a photograph rather than from real life. Overlay a grid above your reference image, then recreate the grid on your blank page. It’s then a case of simply copying the image, one square at a time. By breaking an image down into smaller sections, it’s much easier to capture the details accurately.

There’s an argument that using a grid technique removes the ‘soul’ from a drawing. While it does seem a rather clinical way of creating art compared with something like life drawing, it’s a great way to develop discipline. Treat it as an exercise rather than as a permanent way of working. (Additional top tip: draw the lines lightly in soft pencil).

4.  Linear perspective

If you’re drawing architecture, such as a building, a street scene or a townscape, you’ll need to learn how to use linear perspective. This technique uses a vanishing point (or points) for reference, and you might also hear this called “one-point perspective” or “two-point perspective”.

Start by drawing a horizon line, then place the vanishing point(s) along this. Multiple orthogonal lines, also known as vanishing lines, all lead to the vanishing point or points, giving the illusion of depth to your 2D drawing.

5. Keep the outlines light

What about outlines? A clear, well-defined outline emphasises the accuracy of the shape and form while highlighting the details, right? Not so, surprisingly. Look down at your hand. Does it have a clear line around it? Exactly: objects in real life don’t have lines drawn around them, and for this reason, the outlines in your observational drawing need to be super-light and unobtrusive. There are exceptions, such as architectural drawings and caricatures, but otherwise, avoid the temptation to darken the outlines.

Artist Jonathan Yeo explains that this is an error that artists often make when they’re first introduced to portraiture. It feels natural to outline the lips; however, as Jonathan points out, our lips aren’t actually clearly outlined unless we’re wearing heavy makeup. The important definition while drawing the mouth, according to Jonathan, is the space where our two lips meet. Otherwise, show the lips using shadows, softening and careful brush strokes.

The same is true for any observational drawing examples. Define edges using changes of colour, shade and value, which creates a beautifully realistic effect.

6. Decide on the details

How detailed should an observational drawing be? While you’re aiming to capture as accurate a depiction as you can, this doesn’t mean you have to draw every leaf on a tree. If you look at the image above, you’ll see that the artist has captured the distinctive architectural details of the Arc de Triomphe, they haven’t drawn every soldier and every horse on the friezes.

Artist Jonathan Yeo describes “the balance between suggestion and precision” as the difference between a good and a great portrait. How do you decide which details to include and which to leave out? It’s actually about common sense as much as anything else. Focus on the most significant aspects of the subject: if you’re drawing a portrait, concentrate on the facial features and capture the tones and shape of the hair rather than recreating each strand.

7. Keep the character

So far, we’ve been using words like “accurate” and “copying.” Do we run the risk of losing the character of our subject by focusing on precise reproduction? These observational drawing ideas are exercises to develop skills rather than to create perfect works of art. Learn how to look—really look—at your subject and capture details, form, and shade that you may never have noticed before.

However, part of the observational technique is to notice everything, such as your dog’s quirky eyebrows, the way your sitter’s lips curve upwards, and the peeling paint around a doorframe. These idiosyncrasies help to bring the drawing to life. When you become an accomplished observational artist, you’ll know how much weight to give individual details to maximise the drawing’s character.

You may not have found your own art style yet, and it could be that this accurate style of drawing isn’t for you. However, by practising observational techniques, you’ll learn how to look at any subject in a clear-sighted and objective way. This discipline is essential, even if you go on to become an abstract artist, because you’ll learn so much about elements like form, shape and value.

Do you want to know more about observational drawing in practice? In his fascinating BBC Maestro course, Portrait Painting, renowned artist Jonathan Yeo talks us through how he creates a likeness of his sitter. In the course, he describes in-depth how he captures character while creating an accurate likeness.

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