Teaching observational drawing

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Winter Crow drawing in action!
Winter Crow drawing in action!

I’ve always been able to draw realistically. I find it natural and easy, in fact I find it strange that everyone can’t draw. So when I became a teacher I really had to work hard to get into my students heads. I can tell you with absolute certainty that you will only ever get at most twenty-five percent of your class drawing realistically to a very high level. Why? Because not everyone will put the effort and dedication in that they need to master it. They get despondent, lazy and give up.

So why bother teaching everyone to draw in this way then? Well, mankind could draw before it learned to write and this is still true of human babies. Writing is simply a series of shapes anyway, so if you can write your name you can draw. Drawing is a form of expression in the same way that music or dance is. It is an inherent part of being human. We draw to describe thoughts and feelings, we draw for pleasure, we draw for invention and we draw to show and depict our ideas. We don’t have to play a musical instrument to survive but how many people wish they could? 

What we have to teach when we teach drawing is that all we can ever do is our own representation of something. The trick of teaching drawing is to extend the belief in your students about what a successful piece of drawing looks like. If all you have shown them is brilliant realism then they will think that realism is the only way to be successful. But if you show them expressive drawing and a wider range of drawing styles they will realise that drawing comes in lots of different types, some messy, some neat, some small, some big etc. Then all you need to do is to link the styles you see in what your students are producing and match it to what you have shown them. You see by doing this you have increased the spectrum of successful outcomes.

Everyone writes in their own way and everyone draws in their own way. Never judge your drawings against anyone else’s, just compare them to your earlier drawings to see if you are improving. But above all else; drawing should be fun. Teaching people solely to draw shells, flowers, plants and things is BORING!!!! 

Young people want to draw things they are interested in and they should be encouraged to do so. However, all artists need to draw and sketch from observation to sharpen their eye and develop their skills. Even the master comic book illustrators regularly draw from observation to keep their skills sharp.

 Alan Lee, is one of my favourite artists. He drew the sets for Lord of the Rings movies and much of his work was done by sitting in the countryside drawing and painting what he saw, then adapting them into those wonderful paintings of his.

Lorna Evans a games designer from Ubisoft said recently; “We get loads of graduates coming to us with portfolios full of clever computing skills, coding and graphics, but what we need are people who can draw. The first thing we look for is observational drawing, we don’t need people to code, we need them to be able to imagine.


Now here is the shameless advertising bit 🙂

I have developed my own observational drawing programme after years and years of teaching drawing. I got tired of repeating the same lessons every year, saying the same things and seeing the same mistakes made with every new class. So I decided to put together a drawing programme of power points and videos to deliver all the basics of drawing shapes, measuring and shading without me having to do a thing. After many years of refining it it is finally finished. 

My How to Draw from Observation programme consists of four stages; Foundation stage for very unconfident artists, Beginner stage to learn important basics, Intermediate stage for developing ability and Advanced stage for creating independent artists. Each stage contains exercises, worksheets and videos. 

Assessing drawing is quite difficult but I developed a system based on DIRT methods (Dedicated Improvement Reflective Thinking) where you apply codes to the pupils work instead of writing the same comments over and over. Pupils are given time to read the comments then improve/correct their mistakes. I have also provided examples of drawing at each stage so that assessing drawing becomes so easy that a non-specialist can do it. In fact, the children can assess their own work!

Using the programme in class can be done in several ways:

  1. You may wish to keep control of the programme by selecting individual lessons to use in your classroom over a set period of time. It has been developed to teach drawing over a long educational timeline. I have used it from year 4 to year 6, and from year 7 to year 9 so there is plenty to keep you busy.
  2. Another way of using it is to complete the ‘What drawing level am I?’ sheet with each student to gauge where they should begin. Once this has been done each student can monitor his or her own drawing progress. You can simply allocate time each week for drawing and watch them progress, using the assessment tools to mark it.
  3. An exciting way of delivering the programme is to ‘flip the class’ where the lessons are given as homework, then the class use the skills they have learned at home in class.

Please keep in mind that many of these lessons are skills that can take a long time to master. Children do like to rush things don’t they? However being first finished is not the objective and the thing about teaching drawing is that you have to keep telling them over and over again to go back and work on it a little more. Don’t accept things if they aren’t done properly, but keep your criticisms light and friendly. Use a praise sandwich; praise the work, offer advice, end with praise.

Finally, learning to draw is difficult. I truly believe that anyone can improve their drawing skills with this programme, but it takes time and patience that many children won’t apply. The trick I use is to give the pupils opportunities to draw the things they love drawing. I always allow pupils to draw Marvel comic characters, trucks, cars, cartoons, Manga, horses and princesses so long as they are applying the techniques I have shown them such as measuring, shading etc. Children won’t want to learn if all they are drawing is plants and flowers! They will naturally compare their work to others and get disappointed if it isn’t turning out the way they hoped. This is why you need to encourage, support and praise them as much as you can. Show them how much better they have become and get them enjoying drawing by not being afraid of that artistic struggle!

Download this free presentation about many of the issues young people face when they try to learn to draw!

 Pre-drawing lesson

love drawing

You can buy a single drawing unit from my website as a download (£5.99), or the whole programme (£19.99). better still, why not get the online drawing programme then your students can teach themselves to draw at their own pace (£39.99).





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