Lately, I have made drawing from life a regular part of my creative process. Drawing from life is great for developing drawing skills. It also lends itself beyond visual art into how we live and interact with the world. I will go into more detail on how and why I incorporate this into my schedule, but first I want to get into what drawing from life is.
Also known as observational drawing, drawing from life is exactly that—drawing what you see. This sounds straightforward, but it can be deceptively difficult.
First, it's important to realize looking and seeing are two different things. Over the course of the day, we are constantly looking at our surroundings—at home, when we're outside, when we're working, etc. This visual scanning keeps us safe. But it is all superficial; while we have an awareness of where things are, we do not observe them. If asked to describe our surroundings, we'd struggle to do so in any real detail.
Seeing, on the other hand, requires that we make observations. It means noticing the qualities of the objects, living things, and so on around us. It means being sensitive to the visual nature of the world. To draw from life, we need to visually experience our subject. When we do this, we allow the subject to enter our memory, which is key (a little more on this later).
So how do we get started doing observational drawings?
First, the practice begins when we give ourselves the time to sit down and observe our subject (which could be anything—an interesting object at home, a tree branch, a flower, a building, etc.). We need to spend time and let our eyes pass over the visual details. This way we become aware of how things are shaped, how light and shadows interact. It is these shapes, forms, details, and other subtleties that interest and inspire us.
Next, take a pencil or pen and some paper (or a tablet if you're working digitally) and draw what you see. Find the details that inspire you and try to capture those precisely. Work on being sensitive.
As an aside, it's easy, especially for those just starting out, to dwell on tools, to get bogged down on wondering what pens the pros use. But these things aren't important. The best advice I ever read was, as long as you're not fighting with your tools, use whatever you have on hand. So, if the ink isn't flowing from your pen, or the pencil lead is too hard to create the lines you want, get different tools that will work for you. More than anything, drawing from life is a time and space. It's a mental state. It is meditative. The tools aren't important in and of themselves.
So why bother drawing from life?
So much of drawing is about memory. A favorite quote of mine is from legendary film director Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, High and Low, etc.):
"It is the power of memory that gives rise to the power of imagination"
Observing the world around us and drawing what we see enables us to develop a visual vocabulary. Drawing from life allows our bodies to memorize how things look. That muscle memory then helps us draw things that are not immediately in front of us. Our visual vocabulary drives our imagination.
Take late artist Kim Kung Gi. His incredible visual vocabulary and ability to draw things from any perspective are the direct result of observing and drawing from life.
With every single drawing you do, you will improve. Your hand-eye coordination will improve. Each drawing you make from observing helps develop your skills. And even if you don't like how such a drawing turns out, that's fine—the process has helped you improve anyway.
Drawing from life also helps us unlearn. Many ideas we learn aren't helpful. Imagine what a tree looks like in your head. We're often taught that trees are simply straight trunks with comical puffy tops for leaves. But if you go outside and observe trees and see their forms, you will soon realize how wrong that idea is. Unlearning therefore helps us eliminate bad habits and bad tendencies.
And lastly, drawing from life—at least for me—helps recharge my creative battery. When we're creating art, we're constantly thinking and outputting. Our brains can feel like a dry sponge. Observational drawing lets us be passive while our muscle memory develops. It's a time to soak up new inspiration and new ideas. It's a chance to recharge.
At the beginning, I said this practice of drawing from life lends itself to how we live and interact with the world. Taking the time to slow down and observe can help us appreciate the beauty around us. Try it. Even when not drawing, learning to see will change how you appreciate the details around you.
Two new T-shirts based on observational drawings I completed in Spring 2023: