November 21, 2019 3 min read

Why is it that we find it so hard to capture the essence of what we see and put it down on paper? It’s because so often we interpret what we see before we sketch it. This brings me to that secret that I think could transform anyone’s ability to sketch. Put simply, draw what you see, not what you think is there.

How We Learn to Draw

The way we draw as children shows evidence of our developing brains and imagination. When we draw stick-men, for example, it can be seen that we know that people have a head, two arms, and two legs (in general). It becomes important to us to clearly draw all these parts. When we get older we develop by making the arms thicker and the face more realistic by turning the dots for
eyes into almond shapes, etc. Then we wonder why we can’t draw hands, it seems impossible to cram all those fingers into one place.
 
The problem is that we are interpreting what we see, probably to make sense of it. In reality when we look at objects we are really seeing areas of dark and light and all shades in between; we see different shapes and colours. Most of the time, while looking at a hand, for example, we don’t see all the fingers separately, some are partly or totally hidden behind others. How come an ordinary camera that uses film, and can't understand what it sees, still does such a good job?
Because it simply records what it sees!

Made in the Shade

Look at the accompanying sketch and you will see that it’s mostly a product of shading. This shading is done with a soft pencil, a 6B. You can see that the corner of Mr. Grant’s left eye merges with the skin around it; there is no attempt to separate them. The top edge of the eye is in thicker pencil, while the lower edge is thinner. The nose is defined by the shading on both sides; this is achieved by gentle parallel lines, again with a soft pencil. Forget about the separate features that make up a face, just capture the shaded areas - it’s a whole lot easier!

Ideas for Portraits

What if we want to sketch a family member? Well, we could try to find a black and white photo of them; this will make it easier for us to copy the shading. How about this for an idea? See if you can find a family movie that you can play on your TV. When you find that person in the pose you like, you can freeze the frame, zoom in, and turn off the color. The beauty of this is that they don’t have to hold a pose, and even more importantly when you are finished, you can present them with a gift that will be a total surprise. Just imagine, you could actually draw them in an action pose that would be impossible to hold! Only make sure that on your particular TV you can prolong a picture pause without damage.

When it comes to celebrities, you could look for images on the internet, as I did with Cary Grant, or try the movie trick just mentioned. Finally, just remember to observe and accept what you see.

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