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Perception of the Whole or Gestalt – The Five Basic Skills of Drawing – Part 5

Earth as seen from the moon
Image courtesy of Suzan Marie

This is the fifth and last in a series of posts looking at the Five Basic Skills of Drawing.

We have covered the perception of EdgesSpacesRelationships, and Light & Shadow. Today we’ll bring them all together with the final skill – The Perception of the Whole or Gestalt.

The previous skills have focused on identifying and drawing different parts of an image, requiring us to focus on small sections at a time.

The perception of the whole or gestalt (gestalt means ‘unified whole’), requires us to take a step back and look at every part of the picture at the same time.

As a beginner artist, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in one small area of a drawing, and focus solely on that, before moving onto the next small area. When you finally take a broad look at the whole drawing, you will often find that although the individual parts may be quite accurate, it doesn’t quite work together as a whole.

This is why it’s very important to constantly step back from the detailed work of defining edges, spaces and shadows, and focus on the whole picture, making sure that all the individual elements of the drawing work together to create a coherent and harmonious image.

Keep the Whole in Mind at All Times

In part 2 of this series, I said that the best way to draw an eye is to not draw an eye, but draw everything except the eye and watch the eye magically appear.

That advice still stands, but at the same time as you’re focusing on not drawing an eye, and instead just drawing the edges and shapes that will eventually come together to form the eye, you also need to be aware of the entire drawing at once, and making sure that what you are drawing does in fact look like the eye you’re trying to draw.

That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s really just a case of regularly stepping back from your work to take in the overall image, and make sure that it’s progressing in the right direction.

Perception of the whole is really about learning to use the other four skills effectively while still keeping in mind the overall effect of the entire drawing.

Drawing in Broad Stages

The best advice I can give for practicing the perception of the whole, is to keep your whole drawing at roughly the same level of completeness throughout.

A common mistake that beginners make is to focus on a single area, say, the nose, and work on this part of the drawing until it is finished to a high level of detail before moving on to start the mouth.

This method can work, and I’ve seen some great drawings made this way, but I find it much more effective to build up the detail gradually over the whole drawing. First block in the main outline of the whole face (or whatever you’re drawing), then refine the shapes around the whole drawing, add some shadows to the whole drawing, and so on, so that the drawing progresses at the same rate in every area.

This way it’s much easier to keep the whole in mind, and make sure the different elements of your drawing work well together throughout.

As always, let me know in the comments below if you have any questions about the perception of the whole or gestalt, and I will do my best to help.

2 Comments on Perception of the Whole or Gestalt – The Five Basic Skills of Drawing – Part 5

  1. Emma says:

    Thanks for this Dan, I can really see how this would work, and how drawing edges and shapes, but at the same time keeping awareness of the whole drawing and observing how things are coming together (I think that’s what you’re saying, anyway!)

    This series of posts has convinced me that anyone can learn to draw well, and it is not just for people with a special talent, as I’ve always secretly believed! I do still think some people are born better at art than others, but I also can now see that if one applies the ‘rules’, anyone can create something.

  2. hkr says:

    Am a high-school art teacher and have been trying to simplify that book into something like this for a resource for my students for years. WELL DONE!!! So glad I came upon this resource!
    Thank you!!!

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