5 Tips to See & Draw Better (Part 1)

Image: Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, and Augustin de Saint-Aubin

Has this happened to you: You draw your subject with enthusiasm but then get discouraged when it doesn’t look right? Where’s the disconnect happening as the information travels from your eyes to your brain to your hands?

In this 2 Part article I want to give you 10 practical tips to help you see & draw better when working from life and aiming towards realism. Let’s jump right into these 5 tips…

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau

1.) Easel placement/Cone of Vision: No peeking around your paper; Set your easel up so that’s not necessary, where you can see your paper AND model at the same time. It’s helpful to have your easel at a slight angle so you’re not having to look over your drawing arm to view your subject. Example, I’m right handed so my easel is more towards my right and model more towards my left. If I’m drawing a full figure, I’m making sure I’m far away enough where the model is in my “cone of vision”, ie: my natural gaze. I’m not having to move my head up & down or make a lot of eye movement to view my whole subject (similar to why you don’t want front row at the movie theater).

2.) Your Pad Placement: Make sure your paper isn’t tilting away from you.  A common way distortion can happen is by sitting and drawing with your paper flat on a table; it seems fine and good until you make your paper vertical. Hello, fun-house mirror effect!

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” ― Winston S. Churchill

3.) Look at your subject: A silly tip to include? Hear me out! Living close to Mexico at different times in my life I’d often hear children yell out to their family “Mira, mira!” meaning “Look, look!”. But what the kids really mean is “I want your full attention”. Too often I see artists staring at their paper, making adjustments and paying little attention to the model in front of them. Especially at the beginning of a drawing, imagine your subject is saying “Mira, mira!”. A 60/40 rule is good; 60% of your time looking at the model, 40% at your work.

“A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.” – Michelangelo.

4.) Fight the Iconic, Archetypal: Our brains really grab the pencil out of our hands when we deal with the familiar! Your portrait model might have rounded lips with no peaks at the top. Instinctively though our minds may insert what they THINK lips look like (an iconic “cupid’s bow”, peaks and all), thus robbing your drawing of likeness.

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” ― Erasmus

5.) One eye: When I want to be precise with a drawing, you’ll see me close my left eye. I recommend this when working on a still life; it can be impractical when working with a live model.

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What an amazing gift it is to see! And as artists, we get to share this gift, our unique viewpoint. I hope these 5 tips help you to achieve your artistic vision with more ease.

“I opened 2 gifts this morning… they were my eyes.”

Which of these tips are you most excited to try? Let me know below. I love reading your comments!

Artist, DNY Instructor and Author
I love painting faces, flesh, and fabric. The more tactile I can make a painting feel, the more I’m satisfied with it! I feel blessed to make art every day and look forward to the next day to continue my projects. Traveling to teach workshops is also something I can’t believe I get to do.
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Kelly Foss Author
I love painting faces, flesh, and fabric. The more tactile I can make a painting feel, the more I’m satisfied with it! I feel blessed to make art every day and look forward to the next day to continue my projects. Traveling to teach workshops is also something I can’t believe I get to do.
11 Comments
  1. These tips are great! I knew some of them, but it’s nice to be reminded that it is the little adjustments that make the big difference!

  2. Hi Kelly :)! Very helpful 60/40 rule!!! I though I was doing too much looking at the models examining while other people jump to drawing right away. I thought I was doing something wrong. I am glad you listed this tip among other helpful too.
    There is this joke… one boy with violin in his hands got lost in Manhattan. He asked the passing by old man “Sir – would you please tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?
    The old man said: “Practice, practice, practice “ 🙂
    So, even though we might know something already it’s great to hear and read great tips. Waiting for the next 5 ones 🙂

  3. These are amazing tips!! Thank you for sharing from your years of experience! Can’t wait to see the next installment.

  4. amzing tips plus you’re teaching Spanish as well. Mira, Mira!! Love it!! Didn’t know that every time I’m aiming at the range with one eye closed, I’m also perfecting my drawing skills. Now I just need private lessons on a rainy day in Central Park.

  5. Your points 3 & 4…not what you think it should be but what it is… looking closely . I also find looking at my drawing in a mirror or a photo gives me a bit of distance and picks up problems.
    I can not come to your workshop at least the first week. I just wish I could!
    Ann Hartman

  6. My drawing from life improved when I gave up the idea that I know what I’m drawing. By that, I mean that I’d lose the model in front of me and rely on a memory of what I am looking at. That explanation is still a little confusing. Here’s another…. it’s like a meditation, drawing from life, and if for a moment I rely on a memory, losing the meditation, it shows in the drawing. There, that’s the best I can do.
    The other tip of closing one eye surprised me, as I’ve done that since I was a kid. I have no idea where I picked that up.

  7. Having used all 11 at one time or another I can see how my drawings are best those few times when I remember to apply all these tips in the course of the same drawing.

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