Observation: a key element in making your paintings and drawings better, 1 of 10

Leonardo da Vinci, Hands

I've been asked to expand on the points I made in my post about what I considered the essential elements in drawing and painting.   So, I'll take each point at a time and expand on what I mean, with examples.  This is 1 of 10.

Because I think globally, holistically, I find it difficult to separate them!   My brain is wired so that these elements totally interlock and depend upon each other.  I will attempt to talk about each separately - with occasional lapses and links because I can't help it!

1 Observation:  All the images shown here are the result of intense observation from life.

Unless your work is totally abstract, with no representational element at all, observation is crucial.  A different kind of observation is still needed even then.   Learn to look hard.  It's often necessary to take longer looking than actually drawing.

Each time I say drawing, please read painting-and-drawing, it becomes too much of mouthful to write it in full each time. 

Look at the beautiful sensitive, yet powerful work above by Leonardo.   The sensitive shading, chiaroscuro, fading off into those beautiful fluid lines that still define form, solidity and flow of muscles.  See here I want to start talking about marks .... but I'll resist.  And aren't the traditional descriptions of art techniques in Italian just lovely?  chiaroscuro, sfumato, pentimenti .......

Observation needn't result in such a traditional image.   It equally underlies the beautiful expressive drawings of Van Gogh,

Van Gogh

Van Gogh isn't only observing solid objects in the landscape.   He's trying to draw the wind, the wild movement of grasses and the tree, the swirling clouds and the feel of the day.  For this he has to work out the marks needed to express them - ooops marks again you see, solidly interwined with the observation, but I'll talk about them in  post number 4 in this series.


See how keenly Degas is observing the dancer, unhappy with the leg, he's redrawn it next to the figure.  The arms and head have been redrawn.   Don't be precious with drawings, be prepared to redraw, move things that are wrong, push it around until you are happy with it.

 I highly recommend almost any book by John Blockley, amazing observation but so freely worked (oh dear, marks again)   Look how those houses nestle into the mountain, almost a part of  it.

Goat Skull, Vivien Blackburn, watercolour and coloured pencil

In these drawings I was trying to show the form, catch the light, the hardness of bone and the more crumbling feel of the delicate internal structures.

As the shape was a difficult one, I constantly considered what was in line with what,horizontally and vertically.  I mentally compared measurements.  Were the proportions right?  how did the size of the eye socket compare with that dip of the cheek?  the height of the overall thing compared with the width?  if I took an imaginary line down from the point of a horn what was below ? etc. 

another view, in carbon pencil

Practice:  In these studies of a goat skull, I was drawng in a fairly traditional way, the drawings were purely about observation practice (and marks!) .  Complete in themselves they aren't information gathering for future paintings as some of my sketches are.

They were done in class as a demonstration, working between discussions with students about their own work, they drifted  by from time to time, to look as it progressed and ask questions.

My advice to anyone wanting to improve is to do things like this.  I found it complex, difficult and challenging.  Take time, observe closely, rather than dash off quick and shallow pieces in a rush to fill a sketchbook.   Working from life improves drawings fast, my students have proved it over and over again.  To improve: practice, practice, practice.

Working from 2D images, photographs or other peoples work makes it harder to produce a good result, doesn't exercise your observation in the same way, even though it may at first seem easier.   It takes experience to be able to imagine the 3 dimensionality and allow for the distortions in light and perspective of a photograph.

So, I wouldn't say don't work from photographs, but use with caution and understand their shortcomings.

On about week 3 or 4 of a new student starting a course with me, they come up to me to say 'I see so much more now, I notice all these colours in clouds, trees, the fields, grey pavements .... whatever'    and they have no idea that the other students all came out with the same comment in their time :>)    That's success - they are observing. :>)

Why are drawing/painting what you are?

This is important to consider from the beginning - is it to express the smoothness of skin and the articulation of joints like the Leonardo, the wind and weather in the landscape like Van Gogh, the textures, perspective and form  as I was trying with my goat skull or the movements and form of a dancer as with Degas?   mood can be important, a sense of melancholy, the excitement of the theatre, tranquillity  and more.  Knowing what aspects made it interesting to you helps you to focus on expressing these - how is for later posts on marks, colour etc.

Links you may find worth looking at

Turner's sketchbooks at the Tate Gallery

Durer, drawing of feet

Kurt Jackson, tree

Lowry  and an incredibly powerful self portrait

David Poxon realism and acute observation

The recent facsimile sketchbook (well worth buying) shows very Van Gogh like marks in many drawings - ooops those marks again

 Van Gogh, boots, article

Urban  sketchers - a blog of sketchers worldwide with some excellent work

Paul Lewin painting and drawing

So many more I could have included - take a look at the links in the sidebar to artists I admire and you'll see other great examples.

and consider the marks as you look ;>D   I'll talk about that in post 4 of this series


Lindsay said…
What a wonderful post. Thanks for taking the time to put together all this information...and of course I love your drawings.
vivien said…
Thanks Lindsay - your new project is developing in interesting ways. I'm enjoying following its progress :>)

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