Many beginning painters believe that to produce a good painting, all they need is mastery of technique.  However, it takes more than finely executed techniques to achieve an artistic result.  Artists need to OBSERVE CLOSELY what they intend to paint.  When you’re an artist, seeing isn’t simple.

Most of the time, we look at things with only part of our attention.  We see only what we expect to see.  We assign a verbal label to many images.  For instance, if what we are looking at is a “tree,” we may not look closely at what is really there.  We think we know what a tree looks like, because we’ve seen so many. This habit of not paying close attention saves time and keeps us moving along in our busy lives BUT prevents us from actually LOOKING at things.  In the everyday world, we quickly categorize in words and move on.

However, to paint or draw successfully, artists need to slow down so they can examine and study the shapes and values that make up an observed scene.  Artists try to avoid a verbal label for an object they may paint (such as as “tree,” “box,” “barn,” or “shoe”). Instead they train themselves to interpret what they see in a new, nonverbal way.  SEEING means focusing attention, looking at form – shapes, values, and colors – before beginning to paint.  Where is the light hitting the tree branches?  Can you see through the branches?  What is the overall shape of the tree?  Are branches straight, upturned, crooked, rough?  Is the tree lopsided or symmetrical?  Are the highlights a different color from the shadows?  What is the weather, and how does it affect the appearance of the vegetation?  By asking such questions and looking carefully, you can start to accurately paint what you SEE, NOT what you THINK you see.

“End Of The Day” Watercolor Painting.

Learning to draw helps you see, and being able to see will help you draw.  The perceptual skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those used when painting with a brush. In fact, artist Ian Roberts maintains that “The quickest way to improve your painting is to learn to draw.” Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together, without the distraction of color.  Further, drawing shapes and values helps you notice and decide what information you will need in order to actually paint your image. If you can’t see important shapes and values, you won’t be able to draw or paint well.

Many beginning artists avoid drawing altogether if they can, feeling that their drawing skills are not good.  (And they also may want to start painting right away, thinking that drawing is a distraction from the fun of painting.) However, you should not feel obliged to render precise drawings of what you wish to paint!  Do not let your concerns about drawing technique prevent you from trying to draw what is before you! 

One of the main purposes of drawing is to TRAIN yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to “see” like an artist and take note of important details.  By keeping your drawing SIMPLE, just getting something down relatively quickly, you can allow yourself to SEE.  Look for BASIC SHAPES, and notice how they are connected.  Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them.  More specifically, see the image as a whole; then concentrate on individual components.  That is, move from general information to the more specific. Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes, like frosting on a cake.

“Winter Is Coming” Watercolor Painting.

Concentrate; work slowly and intently.  Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce a finished image.  Ultimately, you should be able to perceive everything you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle.  Remember that shadows are shapes!  Reflections are shapes as well.  Backgrounds have shape and should act as frames for the subject of a painting.  Only when you can “see” in this way will you begin to be able to create the appearance of three-dimensional reality on your flat, two-dimensional paper.

Frederick Franck, artist and philosopher, says in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing:  “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle . . . .”  So do not hesitate to sketch and draw what you intend to paint.  (Or even make a small sketch daily, drawing everyday things or imaginary scenes that might be totally unrelated to anything you want to paint.) As you draw, you will notice important details and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills.  Drawing is not something you can or cannot do; it is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including painting).  What matters is not the quality of each finished drawing, but the continued practice of close observation.

“Flowing Forward” Watercolor Painting

Another benefit of drawing and sketching, in addition to developing necessary observational and perceptual skills, is that you will automatically begin to condense observed information into a more SIMPLIFIED FORMAT, and this ability will come through in your painting.  With a drawing you are more likely to end up with your focal point being prominent, because you concentrate mainly on that particular feature.  Your drawing will be simpler, easier on the eye of the viewer, as you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material.

Strive to “see” the world in terms of shape, pattern, color, line, and texture.  Having observed carefully, take your time, and use the information to record what you see as skillfully as you can.  As you go about your daily life, you may be surprised that you begin to see details that you never noticed before, that you look at the world around you differently. Mastering these skills will undoubtedly improve the quality of your painting.  Your personal viewpoint or individual perception of the world will become more and more apparent as you interpret what you “see” and choose what to record and include in your drawing or painting.

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