1. Let Go of What you Know
The first and most crucial principle of learning how to draw what you see is learning to perceive a subject without projecting our own ideas on it. Seeing clearly requires seeing something new, as if for the first time.
Here imagination momentarily takes a bake seat to reality. This involves releasing your mind from the process, where objects are not labeled and identified. Often, when we want to draw something, for instance, a tree, we label the form we see as a tree. Next, we defer to our minds and pull up all the information we think we know about trees. We remember trees we have seen, and sometimes this collected database on trees becomes a filter overlaying the thing itself. In other words, when we look at a tree, we simultaneously look at all the trees we have known.
Drawing from life requires an active form of seeing, where seeing becomes an investigation rather than an act of identification. When learning how to draw what you see, keep an open mind free from associations, and try to discover every new thing you can understand about your subject.
The act of seeing is an attempt to understand a subject on its deepest level, and the better we can understand our subject, the more accurately and effectively we can represent it.
2. Plan your Scale and Composition
Think about the format of your drawing surface, and feel out which space your primary subject will occupy on your canvas. Will it be centrally composed or off to one side?
Once you have planned out where your subject will be placed, consider how much of the drawing surface your subject will take up. How large should it be, will it be drawn in its entirety, or will part of the form continue outside of the drawing?
Make a rough plan, even if just a light marking or circle of where your primary and secondary subjects should be located in your drawing. And remember to keep the corners of your picture also in mind. Making these layout decisions before you start marks the beginning of your drawing taking actual form.
3. Identify your Horizon Line
Another key step when starting your life drawing is to figure out both in reality and correspondingly on your drawing surface, where your horizon line is located. If you can’t see the horizon line in the room or space you are in, imagine being able to see through those walls and out onto the horizon.
Next, think about how your line of sight compares to this horizon line. Is the horizon line at eye level, or is it above or below?
Finally, where does your subject stand in regards to this horizon line and to your line of vision? If you can see the top of its surface, you are viewing it from above. Use your eyes to follow the lines of the subject’s depth back onto the horizon. Where these imaginary lines intersect will identify your perspective point on the horizon.
5. Work from Abstraction to Detail
When learning how to draw what you see, your initial outlines may be rough, and that’s ok. Starting with a light gesture drawing, or a rough sketch in the form of scratches, sticks, circles, and square or cylindrical forms will allow you to see through your subject and lay out its internal structure.
When observing your subject, you want to understand it from the inside out. For instance, If you are drawing a person, try to observe the anatomical structure of the skeleton. How is your subject put together? Then slowly start to give your skeleton mass. How is its gravity centered and its weight distributed? Try in as few lines as possible to communicate this information in an instinctual but methodical way, working from the inside structure to the outside surface.
4. Identify Fixed Reference Points
This step involves the most technical finesse and mathematical analysis of form. Beyond your initial rough sketch, your primary reference point in a drawing should be the first thing you draw with intention. The dimensions of these first lines will set your scaling standard and act as a reference and unit of measurement.
One technique I personally use is to start my drawing with a fixed form that is unchanging in position, location, and size. I then use either the tip of my pencil or a string to measure the dimensions of this form’s height. I can then turn this unit of measurement sideways to measure the height against the width.
When making these measurements your arms should be maximally outstretched to guarantee that your measurement remains consistent.
As an example, try drawing a cup. Where would you start? If looking down at the cup you see its lip, you can use your pencil to measure the height. Specifically, determine from the highest point in the center of the rim to the lowest, how much pencil or string is needed. Now, take this chunk of pencil, or string, and count how many times this distance is needed to extend across the width of the lip.
When you have the measurement of the lip, you can compare this height, this unit of measurement, against the height of the entire cup.
In this example, as illustrated above, the size of the top of the lip from the bottom of the rim is measured. The height of the entire cup measures almost 6 of these units.
6. Focus your Gaze on your Subject, not your Paper or Canvas
Perfection doesn’t come out of the paper but out of your understanding of the visible components of your subject and their relationship to each other. If you catch yourself getting caught up in making your drawing look good, you may be missing some important details in your sketch.
Practicing how to draw what you see involves at least as much seeing as drawing. When you catch yourself staring more at your drawing than at your subject, your mind will tend to analyze the drawing in and against itself, and not against reality. If in doubt about the accuracy of your drawing, measure and remeasure again.
7. Be mindful of Negative Space
In addition to measuring your subject to accurately understand the dimensions of your subject, observing the negative space around your subject will clue you in on whether or not you are on the right path.
Have a look at this image below.
This typical optical illusion is a good illustration of positive and negative space. If your subjects are the two faces in profile, the black areas denote the positive space and the white area reveals the negative space. Negative space is the empty space between your subjects, and if you look closely and adjust your focus to the space in between and around your subject, you will see that even this empty space can begin to take form, as with the white vase.
When drawing from life, alternating your view between positive and negative spaces can help you determine if the relationship between the elements in your drawing are placed correctly in relation to each other.
8. Perspective, Perspective, Perspective
In addition to being mindful of your horizon line and line of vision, when drawing from life, translating a 3-dimensional view onto a 2-dimensional plane entails another challenge: The closer an object is to the viewer, the larger it will appear, and vice versa.
When translated onto your drawing surface, the difference in size between elements in your foreground and background can feel misleading. For instance, have a look at the forced perspective in the image below.
If you use the shoes as a reference, how many shoes length-wise are the legs and thighs? According to this unit of measurement, the man’s legs are the length of only two feet. If the man were standing up and facing the camera parallel to the film plane, the length of his legs compared to his feet would be much greater. Here, the discrepancy is a result of perspective and not of the object itself.
9. Don’t commit too Early
One of the best ways to improve when learning how to draw what you see is to apply the Socratic Method.
For Socrates, one of the best methods of reaching an understanding when confronted with a problem is to examine presuppositions and deduce new questions as a result. In the Socratic Method, uncovering an error is a good thing! It means that you have taken a large step closer to the truth.
A similar thing can be said about your drawing. Finding a mistake in proportion or perspective is an opportunity to further improve your work, and in typical Ancient Greek form, continue your strive towards excellence and absolute truth in your understanding and communication of your subject.
Keeping the drawing relatively loose in the beginning allows for easy and continual adjustments. Loose here means avoiding heavy-handed dark lines until you have measured and checked the accuracy of your life drawing. Instead, try to keep your lines light and use points of reference and measurement before committing to hard lines, and if a line must be erased, don’t hesitate to rub it away.
For more information on the art of the line, check out this article.
10. Be Patient and Enjoy the Process
Finally, the last tip in learning how to draw what you see is to be patient with yourself and with the process. Remember that your drawing is a documentation of your journey of understanding.
Welcome your mistakes as opportunities for growth and refrain from getting discouraged by the aesthetics of your drawing at first. Let your drawing mature with each investigative probing. Like a fine wine that ages with time, each revision and addition of visual information will compound together to give your subject its full effect. Salut!