Monday, 25 May 2015

Drawing and Seeing

 The question is not what you are looking at - but how you look and whether you see.
David Henry Thoreau

I've been thinking about useful blog posts for those starting out in botanical and natural history art. I've even revisited some old posts and added new material and yet again have come back to the importance of drawing and seeing. 
Drawing disciplines the eye and brain, it allows us to make judgements which the hand responds to in a coordinated way. The coordination of eye, hand and brain is essential for all artists if they are to produce accurate drawings. I have covered drawing in previous posts but feel it has to be the place to start.... why?....because observation and drawing go hand-in-hand and should never be separated or skipped over, if we can't see, how can we interpret with pencil or paint. 
A garden shell drawn in my sketchbook ( details of how this was drawn at the end of the post). Simple face seven on and profile views ( scale x 2.5). Hopefully you can see the basic measurements, from the outer margins and showing where profile view spirals line up with the face on spirals. If you measure you can't really go wrong with the outline and adding tone is about understanding the interaction of the object with light.

  Accurate drawing underpins all botanical and natural history based art. Failure to observe and interpret through line drawing probably results from a lack of understanding of a 3D form and an inability to see. The brain tries to trick us, often we draw what we think or know to be there rather than what we actually see but we need to create the link between the object and what is visible, which will enable us to convert the 3D object to a successful 2D drawing.  
Drawing is pretty important if you want to be scientifically accurate. Not that a disproportionate drawing can't be aesthetically pleasing - it can! however, it certainly won't be a botanical illustration, so it really is worth putting in the effort, but try not to be limited to pure botanical subject but work with a diverse range of material instead to keep your interest. Learning to draw won't necessarily come easily but the effort will pay off.
From line to tone, starting to work with simple perspective by drawing of a Camellia leaf. The skeleton outline is drawn first and tone added afterwards. Note: the original outline should not be visible in thr tonal study. 

A skeleton drawing, dealing with working out overlapping parts as thought they are transparent. 
Working out overlapping elements in a Camellia flower. Top shows the skeleton drawing and here moving on from line to adding tone. There are many things to consider when drawing but most subjects can be broken down into simple shapes and by measuring and looking for angles.

 Can we all draw?
I really do believe that most people can draw to a reasonable standard. At very least accurate line drawings can be achieved but first we have to learn to 'see'. Yes it's true that some individuals have a particular talent for drawing, it's something that comes naturally but even this 'natural talent' needs training, for others it is more difficult BUT is possible in all cases, it just requires work! 

John Ruskin, painted by John Everett Millais at Glenfinlas, Scotland 1853-54  copyright Wikimedia Commons 
Ruskin's Elelemts of Drawing is a good place to start.

Ruskin said ....if you wish to learn drawing that you may be able to set down clearly, and usefully, records of such things that cannot be described in words, either to assist your own memory of them, or to convey distinct ideas of them to other people: if you wish to obtain quicker perceptions of beauty of the natural world, and or to preserve something like a true image of beautiful things that pass wish to understand the minds of great painters, and be able to appreciate their work sincerely, seeing it for yourself, and loving it, not merely taking up the thoughts of other people about it; then 'I can' help you or, which is better, show you how to help your self.

Only onething you must understand, first of all, that these powers, which indeed are noble and desirable, cannot be got without work.
from Elements of Drawing

When do we start drawing and why do we stop?
Mark making is intuitive for very young children! I haven't met a young child yet that didn't want to draw and paint! Here's my grandson, aged 22 months getting stuck in with a bit of drawing and painting.

All young children want to draw....this happen as soon as they can hold a crayon

There are so many potential benefits in education with drawing, particularly for those with visual learning styles but sadly most children get locked into negative experiences and failure with drawing. Children should be permitted to draw regularly, yet many teachers reinforce the 'I can't draw'  idea even with young children, it becomes almost a 'feared' classroom activity and is quickly relegated as unimportant in comparison to other subjects. In recent years the specialist visiting teachers have diminished in numbers due to cutbacks, to the detriment of children and me it's short term thinking.  I believe that a child encouraged to draw will progress witrh numerous other skills.

Another drawing by my grandson, aged 3. Already he is able to count and make some controlled lines and to draw recognisable figures with an element of proportion. Fine motor skills are still developing but the subject is recognisable and drawing fires the child's imagination.

 The consequence is that parents and teachers tend not to draw with children and it eventually becomes unachievable. Sadly I observed this frequently in the years I worked in education ......drawing becomes elusive and perceived to be within the domain of the few. It's not the failure of the teachers but a failure of our education system to recognise the importance of drawing in learning and teaching. 
Observing, counting, measuring, creative thinking and problem solving are just a few of the benefits of drawing which can be transferred across the curriculum. 

Drawing can be therapeutic too and this should never be undervalued as a benefit. It also allows us to explore objects and surfaces in a way where we look at them and appreciate them differently. Unfortunately most young people start to believe they can't draw before the age of 10, most leave school and never pick up a pencil again....hence the cycle of failure continues and the 'I can't draw'  mentality continues. 

 Is it in the genes or learned?

 I believe that it's probably a bit of both. I was fortunate, my mum used to draw and we always had art materials around the house. I was never discouraged or told that art wasn't a worthy subject, and, I had a very supportive art teacher.  My own children have always been surrounded by drawing and painting, so it's probably no accident that one of my children is studying fine art. This probably has some element of genetics but I believe that nurture is equally important. Below is a drawing of a face wipe, by my daughter, Polly.

Untitled, drawing of a face wipe, in graphite and chalk on pastel paper by my daughter Polly Sutherland who is currently studying fine art at Lancaster University.

So where to start?
Think about why you want to draw and what you want to achieve. Are you prepared to put in work?..... If you're not then it's probably not going to happen! Why not read through Ruskin's Elements of Drawing , it's available as a free on line resource from the Ashmolean.

Ashmolean web resource, Ruskin's Elelments of Drawing

Drawing and seeing, IMPORTANT! Draw from Life!
The way that we see differs when we draw on a regular basis. Its not the same as just looking at an object, it's a complex analysis of objects and their relationships. Research has shown that the eye scans the subject differently when we draw on a regular basis - it skips back and forth, across the  3D form looking for these relationships and this scanning translates to the hand when we draw. Studies have shown that novices take less time to make a mark, they often start at one end of a subject with little or no planning because they have not analysed the subject visually and their ability to scan the object is limited. Read this study fascinating study by Bryan Maycock if you don't believe this is true. It shows the differing eye and hand patterns in people who draw and those who don't.

Looking at the whole, measuring andidentifying angles, curves and relationships

 Learn to take time exploring the relationships within and between objects before starting. Look at the overall picture, measure and look for angles.  

If one concentrates too much on one particular section, there is a tendency to see and draw in a manner different from the rest of the subject, and one of the first things to learn in the development of observation is that your eye must be kept active. (Simpson, Drawing, Seeing and Observation, 1987, p. 20)

 I can't emphasise enough how important it is to draw from life! I'm not saying don't ever use photos and iPads etc. for reference but the results are likely to be flawed if you are over dependent of such devices neglect to learn the basics. It's pretty obvious when subjects are drawn from photographs....photographs lie and don't allow us to understand the form, resulting in a flat lifeless or photographic result. Your drawing skills will never improve if you always draw from photographs.
Here another old post on observational drawing  titled 'A Bit About Drawing 1' 

Materials are probably worth a mention.
The good thing about drawing is that you don't need very much at all!
I wrote a post before on 'which pencil', so won't repeat but  Faber Castell 9000 pencils are best for  botanical and natural object drawing.
Eraser putty and hard rubber- use as little as possible!
Decent paper - use of a sketchbook and draw in it regularly....preferably every day! Stillman & Birn Zeta series are great!

A magnifying glass, a handheld will do and it doesn't need to be too large ( 3inchs is sufficient), in fact avoid large magnifiers, the quality of lens decreases with size. Don't go any stronger than x 2.5, high magnification really strains the eyes and it's usually not so good quality! 

Get to know your basic tools 
Play or experiment with the pencils in your sketchbook. find the difference using the pencil at different angles and when sharpened differently.
Practice -  continuous flowing lines and shapes and outlines
Master the basic shading techniques, hatching, cross hatching, stippling and continuous tone
Get to know the pencil grades by making graded tonal strips

Creating a tonal strip, the difference between progressively softer grades of pencil should be clear to see, if, the correct pressure is applied

Subjects, start simple 
Start with profiles and face- on views as line drawing
Choose simple subjects that wont die or move! shells, acorns and small fruits or seed-pods are perfect.

Learn to measure, use you pencil and thumb or a transparent ruler marked with mm.  You don't need to invest in proportional dividers just yet, unless you have lots of money to spare!There is no need to spend large amounts of money!

Shell Study Example

A shell make great starter subjects.  They have a simple outline and pattern and great form which catches the light.
Garden snail shell, with light is coming from the right hand side
After carefully observing your subject, start by measuring. The outer height and width the centre with horizontal and vertical lines. Mark out the position, height and width of each spiral. You can do this straight into the sketchbook. If it's for a final drawing you may trace and transfer - being careful not to apply pressure so that the paper is indented. I draw straight into the book, tracing is an alternative option if you are not confident and can minimise rough working lines which need to be erased. Be careful to ensure the tracing is accurate.

Transferring an outline of using Saral paper as an alternative to drawing directly on the paper.
Once the outline drawing is complete,  erase any working or correctionss. If using a hard rubber be sure to brush away any rubber debris with a large soft brush,  it catches in the graphite and causes black flecks.

 You can now start to add tone. This is what gives a 2D drawing a 3 dimensional look. Study the light source carefully. Look for the highlights and shadows and the mid tones in between. Make sure that your subject is lit well so that it's clear which side the light source is coming from
Start with the hardest grade of pencil, 2H and work from light to dark, working in the using increasingly softer grades. Here I have used the ribs of the shell for the direction of the shading.


Heres a short hand held video, of the sketch made using an iPhone ( hence the camera movement,sorry). It shows the laying down on the first shading using  2H - HB pencils. I start by using the natural lines of the shell ridges. This is gradually built up to create a fairly dense covering of graphite. 

As the layers of softer pencil are added the depth of tone increases. Only the brightest highlights should allow the white of the paper to show through. It often works well to finish off with a harder grade to smooth the graphite, using a H or 2H is a good option.
 Finally I begin to add different views of the shell, side views and the rear of the shell using the same method of measuring. This approach will record all of the basic information needed to make and accurate record of the shell.

Adding different views of of the shell


  1. Dianne, this is marvelous. I learned so much from it. Thank you for doing this and sharing.

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    2. Thank you! pleased to hear you found it helpful

  2. A great post Dianne :) I also recommend Betty Edwards' "Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain" for both beginners and more experienced artists.

    1. Thank you Hedera, yes I have that book, very good indeed

  3. Hi Dianne,
    I whole-heartedly agree with the importance of keeping children engaged in drawing. As parents, we're told about the importance of kids always having access to books, and I'm also applying this principle to drawing materials :) I have three young children and am doing my best to make drawing a natural part of their life and encouraging them just to keep trying (as they would with any new skill). I'm actually taking the plunge and going back to art lessons myself so we can all be on a drawing journey together.
    Thanks also for putting so much effort into your posts - they're wonderfully and generously informative and I appreciate the obvious time it must take to write them. Katrina

    1. Sounds like you are doing the right thing Katrina!

  4. Hei Dianne, this is a really good blog and you have touched on so many points that are always coming up. I thoroughly agree that unless you get your preliminary drawing right, the rest of the picture is not going to be good. I always focus on this aspect too and spend a lot of time showing how to get the line drawing right. I will be referring people to this blog. Thank you, gaynor

  5. Hi Dianne, I so agree with each of your points, and lovely drawings!

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    2. Thank you Lesley....oops I deleted my own reply!

  6. Wonderful post Dianne. Always amazes me that the wider usefulness of drawing is underestimated in the school curriculum, as is music. Both have effects beyond what would be expected. Such a shame too, that the pleasures of drawing are denied to so many children and adults, simply because it isn't seen as valuable in childhood.