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3 Handy Tips For Learning to See Like an Artist

See Like An Artist
Image courtesy of Duff Axsom

I recently asked what aspect of learning to draw and paint you struggle with the most, and one thing that was mentioned by several people was observation, or ‘learning how to see’ like an artist.

Learning to draw is less about mastering any specific tools or techniques, and more about learning to see accurately and draw exactly what you are seeing, without being distracted by the preconceived ideas we all have about what things look like (e.g. an eye is an almond shape, a face is an egg shape etc.)

Beginning artists often struggle to draw what they see, instead drawing what they think they see, which is in fact drawing what they already know.

Learning to draw what you see is mostly a matter of practice, but there are certain strategies you can use to make it a lot easier.

So here are my top 3 tips for learning to see like an artist:

1. Squint Your Eyes to Simplify

This is an invaluable tip that I learnt from Jason Seiler when I took his caricature class at Schoolism.

When you are starting to draw a fairly complex subject, it’s very easy to get distracted by fine details, which can be overwhelming.

By simply squinting your eyes as you look at the subject, you can eliminate a lot of the detail, making it much easier to see simple shapes and values.

Look at the following photo:

Squint Your Eyes to Simplify

A complex subject can be easily simplified by squinting your eyes slightly

Take a look at the woman’s top. In the image on the left, there are lots of folds in the material, creating lots of different subtle shadows and shapes.

But squint your eyes and most of that detail is removed (as shown on the right). You are left with large simple shapes and just two or three main values.

This will help you to block in the shapes and values accurately, and then you can get more detailed later if you need to.

2. Turn Your Subject Upside Down

We tend to have the most difficulty drawing what we see when we are drawing things we are very familiar with, like facial features, body parts etc.

Because we know we are drawing an eye, for example, instead of relying on what we are seeing, our brain takes over and starts saying “this is what an eye should look like”.

But if we turn the reference (and our drawing) upside down, the features appear much less familiar, and we essentially trick our brain into staying quiet so that we can get on with drawing what we see.

Upside Down

Turn your reference on its head to silence your noisy brain!

Obviously if you’re drawing from life, you can’t turn your model upside down, but even just turning your drawing around in 90 degree steps can help you see areas where your drawing isn’t quite accurate. You can tilt your head 90 degrees too, to get a fresh look at the model.

3. Draw Negative Spaces

This is a really great way to stop yourself from reverting back to drawing what you know rather than what you see.

Instead of drawing the things that we are familiar with, like eyes, noses, arms and legs, try drawing the spaces in between the things.

Let’s look at that first photo again:

Negative Spaces

Draw negative spaces to avoid drawing what you know

You might be tempted to try and draw the outline of the main forms, i.e. the arms, torso and legs (as shown on the left).

But this is where your brain pipes up and says “I’m drawing an arm, I know what arms look like, I’ll draw it like this.” Bad brain!

Whereas if you concentrate on drawing the abstract shapes created by the space between the forms (the negative spaces, as shown in green on the right), you don’t have any preconceived ideas about what those shapes should look like, so your brain will let you get on with drawing them as you see them.

Put it to the Test

If you practice these three tips whenever you draw, it will definitely help you to ‘see like an artist’, and your drawings should be more accurate and convincing as a result.

Let me know how you get on. I’d love to see some of your drawings so feel free to leave a link in the comments and I’ll take a look.

Please do let me know if you found these tips useful and would like to see more of this kind of thing. And let me know in the comments if you have any tips of your own on how to draw what you see.

11 Comments on 3 Handy Tips For Learning to See Like an Artist

  1. Emma says:

    That’s really helpful – I always try to draw what I think I see rather than what is actually there. I’m going to try this next time I go to life drawing ­čÖé

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Let me know if it helps. It can be a challenge to silence our language-based brain and let our eyes do the work.

  2. Bev says:

    Wow! I never even thought of drawing that way. I always wondered why artists screwed their eyes up – now I know. Perhaps I could draw after all.

  3. Mary Welsch says:

    Excellent tips, I often remove my glasses to blur things up a little. I enjoy working with linoleum and negative space is extra important when you have to remove so much of it.

  4. Chris says:

    Thanks for the helpful hints!!! And Mary, I love the idea of taking your glasses off! I can’t see much of anything without mine, but when I took them off to look at the picture of the girl…it worked! I didn’t need to squint!!! Thanks for that tip!!!

  5. RokstarBear0 says:

    I looovvee this!!!
    I’m an artist and this is just SO inspiring. Thank you so much, I really appreciate your blog.
    Now excuse me, I’ve just gotten a payload of ideas, so I think I’ll just get up and go scribble like a maniac ­čÖé

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