Observational Sketching as an entry point to knowledge & creativity

Observational sketching in my classroom is designed to help students gather visual knowledge at the same time as they develop their own ideas and thinking.

Students do this by:

  • Beginning an art creating experience by going directly to the source to observe the subject in a sketch
  • Practicing using their own ideas while they sketch, primarily in the background of the composition and/or by making changes to the subject
  • Using and understanding the words: Observation, Memory & Imagination

Nine Key Components that I have put in place in the art room to help students be successful:

Key Component 1: Clear & explicit art expectations (“When Is My Drawing Done”) including what to do when students make a ‘mistake’ and suggestions for extending the drawing (“Stretch & Explore.”)

Is My Drawing Is Done?

  • Use three or more colors
  • Fill the paper
  • Show details
  • Show the background and what the subject is sitting on -or- if it is in the air, how it is in the air
  • If outside, show the time of day or night and the weather

What to Do if I Make a Mistake

  • First try to draw over it or turn it into something else.
  • Next, turn the paper over or get a new paper.
  • Never crumple the mistake—just set it aside.

How Can I Extend My Drawing?

  • Draw the subject far away
  • Draw the subject up close
  • Draw the same picture on smaller paper
  • Draw the same picture on larger paper
  • Draw it again in a different place
  • Draw it again with different weather or time of day
  • Combine two or more subjects in the same picture
  • Stack the subjects or draw them side-by-side
  • Add light, medium & dark shading
  • Add a light source & shadows

Key Component 2: 'Zen Frame of Mind' & Playful Approach to Drawing:

The teacher provides consistent reassurance & support about relaxing with the drawing, letting go of worrying about stray, awkward or “wrong” lines, shapes or colors. The specific instructions on what to do if you make a mistake help with student comfort.

  • Go with the drawing
  • Work with the lines & colors that happen
  • Some of the most interesting things that happen are sometimes those that were unexpected
  • Trust your hand, eyes & brain to work together without analyzing it—our bodies know how to move if we learn to go with it

Key Component 3: The subject of the observation is a prompt or starter: in other words, a place to begin the work (in some ways similar to a frame in Language Arts.)

The purpose of an art prompt in general is to help students start their drawing. Students may choose to draw all elements of the prompt, some of the elements or none. If a student has a better idea, they are welcome to include it in their drawing or start with their idea rather than the prompt.

During observational sketching, students are instructed to treat the subject as a prompt or as a place to start their drawing. Students must begin the sketch by observing the subject but may diverge from the subject after they have laid down some observational lines, shapes and/or colors

Students must follow the art expectations: “Is My Drawing Is Done?” For timed sketches, students must work the entire time but be prepared  that they might not have time to finish and that is OK. The primary goal is to work the entire time.

If students finish early they turn their paper over and draw on the back or get another piece of paper (I vary the instructions for what students are to draw if they have extra time—sometimes I ask students to draw whatever they want , other times I require them to draw another subject.)

Key Component 4: A Scaffold for Observational Sketching Sessions

Key Component 5: Tools & materials make a difference.

For most sketching sessions, students use crayons, colored pencil sticks, oil pastels or pencils. If we use pencils, I don’t give out erasers.

  • Crayons, colored pencil sticks & oil pastels provide students with opportunities to work with line & shape and the expressive qualities of color.
  • In ‘real life’ situations, artists may not have time for erasing
  • Crayons, colored pencil sticks & oil pastels have a broader tip so that students can draw more quickly & allow for a variety of expressive lines. Also can be turned on their side to quickly fill in large areas & to create lightly shaded areas.
  • For Level One & Level Two drawings, I hold off on the use of pencils—my observation is that students are used to using pencils in precise ways that may get in the way of 'flowing with' a drawing. I also use soft lead pencils that can be smeared and are easier to make soft, medium & dark lines and shadings.

Key Component 6: Observational sketches are like a rough draft; they are also like listing & describing in Language arts.

Key Component 7: Teacher talk is based on specific observations of student work and open-ended questions.

Specific observations:

  • "I can see that you worked hard to cover the paper."
  • "I notice that you left some white paper showing."
  • "That yellow & red are right next to each other."
  • "Look at those wavy purple lines.”

And open-ended questions, such as:

  • "Tell me about your picture?"
  • "What are you going to do next?"
  • "I wonder if . . . ?"
  • "Might you consider . . . ?

Key Component 8: A Safe environment for sharing ideas is essential

Beginning artists benefit from sharing ideas with each other & are able to help each other grow much faster than I could as their solitary teacher brain in the room. The students always come up with a greater variety of creative ideas & techniques for using materials than I could ever come up with myself.

Key Component 9: Thoughtful selection of subjects to observe.

Subjects for observational sketching I have used in my art classes are:

  • silk flowers in vases
  • realistic fake fruits and vegetables
  • plastic insects
  • silk leaves and fresh fall leaves
  • realistic plastic and toy animals
  • photos from Google Images of local birds, California Missions, houses and famous world buildings

The objective is to get as close to the source as possible for the subjects students observe with the limitation that by and large the class is confined to the art room. Fake flowers and plastic insects are great because they are concrete and three-dimensional and closer to a ‘real life’ observation. They are also important for practice in looking at a three-dimensional object and translating it into a two-dimensional image. Second best are photographs. Choose photos with contrast and light, medium and dark shading with a similar pose or point of view. The photos attached are examples of images that meet these requirements. Choose several variations of the same subject in a similar pose—as in the birds—notice they are all birds but different kinds of birds shown with a side view. Or the missions & houses—all buildings but variations on similar kinds of buildings shown with a frontal view. This makes it easier to plan activities where students locate & identify characteristics, compare and contrast, order or categorize. It also gives students a common problem to solve—such as how to draw a believable bird that the viewer recognizes as a bird but is also unique and of it’s own kind. Also, if the subject is similar, students will be able to see many different solutions to the problem of how to draw the subject on classmates’ papers which gives them opportunities to learn from each other. 


**Note: students tend to draw the subject the same size as the photo they are observing—it takes practice to draw subjects larger or smaller. Consequently, if you want students to draw the subject to fit a specific size paper, give students a photo of the subject that is close to the papersize they will be drawing on. Extension: A great way to deepen students experience of observational sketching is to engage them in drawing sessions where they practice drawing the subject bigger and smaller or close up and far away.

Why include imagination & memory in observational sketching?

Isn't observation supposed to be objective? Record exactly what you see? Realistic?

Observational sketching pulled out by itself is about looking carefully and attentively to record what you see. However, the human brain is a marvelous thing--we can practice & develop multiple skills simultaneously. My experience has been that students are wonderfully capable at  simultaneously thinking about and including elements in their art work that are from observation, memory and/or imagination.

Benefits of inviting students to combine observation, memory & imagination in observational sketches.

  • An important component of 21st century skills is for students to practice creativity, to be innovators, to use their own ideas in combination with what they know; to be autonomous and flexible in a variety of situations . . . all this takes practice! To that end, I have found that observational sketching is a great place to begin to ask students to take what they see & combine it with their own thinking.
  • As an art teacher, I've observed that students are much more engaged & excited to draw if they have somewhere in the drawing where they can express themselves, be funny, make crazy, outlandish & wonderful connections, create a situation that has never been seen before.
  • I’ve also observed that giving students a starter, prompt or frame helps them to feel safe, get those first marks on the paper and their minds and hands moving . . . I ask students to begin the sketch with the observation but that they may diverge from the observation once they have laid down some observational lines, shapes or colors. Starting with the observation gets students drawing and once you start drawing often the thoughts start flowing and one thing leads to another.
  • Combining observations, memories and imagination in a sketch engages students in problem solving: students have to think about things like where am I going to put the subject I'm drawing? Is it outside, inside, on another planet, under the water? What is the weather & time of day? And how would my subject interact with this environment; what would the subject be doing?
  • Students engage with thinking about prior knowledge & experience: how am I going to draw a rainy sky from memory? What do I remember about the colors & shapes of clouds? What else do I remember seeing in the sky that I could add to my drawing?