How to Draw What You See (Practical Art Books)

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We now know that adult brains can also grow new neurons and foster new talents, but it can be to be slower and more difficult.

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As adults many of us have lost our love of learning for its own sake. Young children find these simple tasks to be new and fascinating.

Elizabeth Layton began to develop her drawing talent when she was 68 year old. Gesture drawing Gesture drawing is an opposite form of observation drawing. While blind contour drawing begins with edges and requires slow deliberate drawing, gesture drawing starts in the center and the drawing tool very rapidly fills coloring in the body of the object with no outline, but the drawing still tries to follow the form of what is being observed. Gesture drawing is fast, intuitive, and expressive.

This is the opposite of blind contour drawing outline observation that is very deliberate. Where blind contour drawing is slow, gesture drawing needs to be very very fast. Alternating sessions of gesture drawing with sessions of blind contour drawing will add greatly to the expressive quality of a child's work. Eventually, both styles can be combined to create some very effective, moving, expressive, and artistic outcomes. More gesture drawing details are described on this Portrait and Figure Drawing page in the section on Inside-Out Figure Gesture drawing.

Kathe Kollwitz combined outline, shading and gesture drawing very expressively in this self-portrait where her arm motion is expressed as gesture. Here she used pen and brush in her Mothers from in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to enhance expressiveness with gesture. Gesture drawing is good for drawing people, animals, and objects that are active and in motion, or for content that is charged with emotional quality. Models are posed as though they are in action, playing in sports, or doing something with emotional content.

It good to show joy, grief, dancing, sliding into first base, and so on. For all observation drawing, both contour drawing and gesture drawing, I want things to draw that are not part of the child's previously learned symbol set. A new observation requires more careful looking and should not allow for drawing a remembered shape or symbol that has been drawn many times before.

A new observation employs a different part of the brain than drawing something that has been memorized. It helps to select something interesting to the child. Children can be encouraged to find toys, pets, and things around the house and garden that they have not used for drawings before. If it looks too simple, turn it different or move to a different position to make it a little challenging to draw. Sometimes I turn a familiar thing upside down to make it new again.

We start with things that are not very complex, but also include a bit of uniqueness. As I write this I am having a snack. An apple with a bite removed is so much more interesting than a plain apple. You have to look at it to draw it. An apple that still has a leaf on the stem is more unique. However, if the leaf has a defect, it is even better. An apple that is not all the same color is better. A deformed apple from a neglected tree is wonderful to draw.

Some of the best subject matter comes from everyday common experiences such as the food we eat, our homes, our toys, our families, the neat stuff we collect, our friends, our games, our work, our animals, our neighborhoods, a trip to a zoo, a trip to a farmyard, and so on. A half eaten snack is evidence of life around it. Drawings do more than represent what is seen. They imply what is happening in a child's life.


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Drawing is a diary. Taste, touch, sound, and smell are all great multi sensory motivational enhancements. Eat some. Draw what is left. Eat what you drew. Creative work is not all practical or utilitarian. Arranging color in an abstract beautiful way is very enjoyable and expressive for children. Musicians also use the word "play" when they "perform" with an instrument. We like the words "play around" when we are exploring and making thumbnail sketches for an idea in drawing or when designing something. Some people also make word lists to get ideas. Children often use drawings to tell stories from memories.

With young children, I use lots of questions to get them to think of more memories related to the subject. If they are overly self-critical of their ability to do this, I tell them that I like to see their own special way of drawing things. As they get a bit older, I encourage the use of mirrors, models, and objects to work from to practice the parts of the compositions needed to tell or illustrate the stories. Artists often combine observation, imagination, and invention.

Transfer of drawing skills An important type of creativity is the ability to transfer what we have learned in one situation to an appropriate application in another situation. I do not expect what is learned in observation drawing to immediately and naturally transfer and be reflected while drawing from imagination and experiences.

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Teachers are frequently disappointed to see children who can do impressive observation studies revert to simplified stereotype representations when they do not have something there to observe. What is achieved in observation drawing takes time and practice to be remembered and called up from memory when there is nothing to observe.

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It is natural for children to revert to their old habits, not remembering that they have learned a new way to represent something. A sensitive adult can ask them, "Do you remember when you drew that while you were looking at it? Do you remember the shape of it? Do you remember how the lighting changed the way it looked? Transfer of learning from one kind of drawing observation to other kinds of drawing imagination and experience is often improved by questions that create an expectation of transfer.

Remembering new ways to represent while being imaginative and expressive may seem like a lot to ask, but many children are quite capable of multitasking when they enjoy learning, and if they are gently reminded of their own new skills. Developing habits of thinking that facilitate transfer of learning can be an important way to foster creative thinking. What better gift is there than to help a child learn that what is learned in one situation is often useful in many new and unexpected situations?

This is very likely another thinking talent that is developed by growing neurons for this purpose. A three-year-old was drawing a picture of herself. When she was working on the fingers I noticed that she was typical in that she made multiple fingers without any concern for how many she drew. I knew that she was learning to count. Like most children of her age, she had never associated counting with drawing. I asked her: "Do you like to count the fingers as you draw them? She reassuringly told herself, "Oh, that's okay.

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I thought she had a wonderful attitude. When she drew the other hand, she naturally counted and made five digits. This one simple question, asked in a neutral way, may have helped her transfer knowledge.

She started to make a connection between counting and drawing. Perhaps now her drawings from imagination could help her develop greater awareness of numbers and math--making her more talented at both of these things easier latter in school because of the new neurons that began to grow in her brain.

Even though the work of other artists may be very inspirational and very educational, I avoid showing the work of other artists as an introduction to doing artwork. I feel the suggestive power of the work may prevent them from doing as much of their own observing, thinking, imagining, remembering, etc. I feel it may lead them to feel their own work is not good enough to measure up.

I believe that we as a species are programmed by instinct to imitate. This is a powerful instinct in all children. It is a good instinct for many things, but it runs counter to creativity. Children also have other good instincts such as imagination and curiosity. In my opinion, we do not need to encourage more imitation, but we do need to nourish the instincts of imagination, curiosity, and the natural instincts to search for truth. To encourage children to learn innovation and original observation may be a challenge, but the life-long benefits are well worth the effort.

They will still learn many important things by imitation - but unless they are encouraged, many will not learn the joy, thinking habits, and rewards they get by learning the methods of thinking used in innovation. Art history shows the heights to which artists have aspired. It exemplifies high quality and it helps us learn about other cultures we can scarcely imagine. Art history reminds us of the many important purposes for art. I teach art history, museum visits, and so on after children have done similar work, or we do these activities completely independent of creative work.

By studying the other artist's work as an independent activity or after doing the media work we do not diminish the importance of their own experience as being foremost as content for their own art. During the viewing of art history exemplars, I use lots of open questions phrased to help children look for more things in the historic work.

How to Draw What You See

If I want them to do related work, they do their own related artwork first based on their own observations, experiences, or imaginations. This provides an immediate and relevant frame of reference for the other artist's work. Their own work makes them more interested in the work. They can identify with the minds of the artists better.