A Lesson in Observing: 5 Simple Tips

As an artist, I observe. I’ve found that it is an obsession of mine that keeps me learning. Learning how to recreate what ever it is that I just studied and make it believable to me and others. I did a lot of self portraits as a kid. I tried to recreate what a face looks like when it’s stretched in a yell. Or, observing what it is that consistently makes a person laughing, look like they are actually laughing. I couldn’t exactly go out and ask people that I knew to sit for hours while I studied their expressions. I discovered that the best tool for observing my expressions was to use a mirror.

I first came to Colorado Springs as a high school student on a scholarship for an art training with the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation. A group of other artists and myself went to the Garden of the Gods park to study the enormous rock formations. We attempted to paint the massive orange rocks as the light changed their shapes every 10 minutes. It was the first time I ever studied nature and tried to paint it at the same time – it was truly difficult. The challenge was to quickly observe the environment. Then to quickly (and believably) put what I observed onto the canvas. All while navigating the challenges and distractions of having the wind blow dirt in my paint, having my brushes fall out of my cup of water and roll down the terrain behind me.  At that time I was thinking about how I loved the beauty and inspiration of sitting in the middle of nature, but there has to be a better way to observe, learn and create.

The rock formations at Garden of the Gods park, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, create a unique challenge when painting outdoors.

“Observing the environment that surrounds us and recreating it as art, is a challenge.”

I still take time to study and recreate objects around me, however, there is an easier way to observe how lighting and shadows effects an object.

As cliche and simple as it sounds, an exercise that can strengthen our drawing skills and keep us sharp in order to learn other mediums is to study our own hand. Unlike studying nature and the challenges of the elements that surround us while we work, studying our hand is usually in a very controlled environment. Studying our hand is even less demanding than glancing up from your paper to look into a mirror and then back down at the paper, while attempting a self-portrait.

The close proximity between my hand and the paper allows me to stay on task as I examine how the light shapes the mass before me, and then back to the paper as I draw it.

Below is a a quick video that I put together to help encourage other artists to use our old faithful model while trying to improve their drawing skills…(Click on the image below to see the video)


#1: Find a position for your hand that is comfortable, one you can hold for 20-30 minutes.

#2: Sketch lightly as you find the overall shape of your hand and how your fingers curl from the point of view you are looking from.

#3 Measure and examine your hand as you sketch. Sometimes using the pencil itself as a ruler works in judging distance from one extremity from the other.

#4 Observe how the shadows and light shape your hand. High points obviously are highlighted and areas void of light are shaded. Use your finger to smudge the graphite, giving a smooth gradation if that is the effect that you are trying to achieve. Also, the darker you accent the shaded areas the more depth you will produce. An eraser like this, or a kneaded or even the eraser at the end of your pencil are great for taking away the shading and producing highlights.

#5 The lighting and shadows in your environment surrounding your hand can also be used to produce distance and give the illusion of depth and mass to you sketch study!

These are just a few observations that I wanted to share. When I take the time to draw from an actual object, I tend to learn something every time.

Try it today, keep studying, challenge yourself, have fun and don’t quit!

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