So you want to get better at observational sketches?
Observational sketches and quick conceptual sketching is very important in the design process; it allows you to quickly draw ideas, concepts, site sections and views, allowing you to kick start your creative brain and get straight into the design process.
Despite its importance in the design process, it isn’t something that is usually formally taught at university – at least in my experience – as there is a greater emphasis on using CAD software. However, this limits your imagination to your ability to use the software which should never be the case from the beginning of the process.
I was fortunate enough to take a masterclass in observational drawing as part of my second year of undergraduate. Over the course of roughly two months, I learned how to observe and draw quickly, which helped me greatly during my final year project.
Since it greatly helped me, I’d like to share the wisdom of my tutor with other students in the hopes you learn these vital skills sooner than I did.
1 Practice Makes Progress
Now, I know you have probably heard this advice to death but hear me out. Observational sketches, especially quick observational sketches, is a skill, and as with every skill you need to practice and the more you practice the more progress you make. This was a rule created by a man called Matt D’Avella and you can check out his video on it here.
I recommend practising every day if possible to achieve the most progress but I know from experience that it may be easier said than. Sometimes life gets busy, especially in our line of work/study, sometimes a video game or hanging out with friends is just far more appealing. In this case, I recommend following the two-day rule.
What is the two day rule? I hear you ask.
The two-day rule is a productivity rule which states that if you have set yourself a goal to do something every day, you cannot skip it more than twice. This may be a helpful rule as it gives you some wiggle room for when life gets in the way and can be applied to any habit.
I also recommend setting a specific time of day to do your sketches. This could be first thing in the morning while drinking a cup of coffee, or during your lunch break at work or university, or maybe it could be something you do to relax before you go to bed.
2 Warm Up to Loosen Up
Just like athletes need to warm up before a run, you need to warm up before you draw!
When I first started the masterclass in observational drawing, I thought the idea of warming up before drawing was ridiculous and, I’m not going to lie to you, it certainly feels like it in the beginning. You may not feel like it makes much of a difference at all, but trust me, it really does.
So how do you warm up to draw? It is all about loosening up the muscles in your arm. This can be done by drawing squiggles, stars, parallel lines, shading, and many more that can be found online. The idea is to use your arm to draw rather than your wrist, to get you to feel more loose and free while you draw.
Ideally, this would be done on a large piece of paper of at least A3 or larger, and this doesn’t mean you need to buy an expensive large sketchbook or sheets of paper. Warming up could be done on an old newspaper, a spare or ripped sheet of layout, a roll of trace, a bunch of A4 sheets stuck together, an old unfolded cardboard box, or maybe over that one drawing that smudged or printed wrong (I know I have had many of those over my undergraduate). It doesn’t matter what you draw on and it doesn’t need to be pretty.
3 Begin Small and Fast
The trick with training your observational skills is to give yourself a time restriction, 30 seconds per drawing maximum, at least to begin with. This may seem stressful at first but trust me when I tell you it will be for your own good.
The idea is to stop you from getting too invested in getting all the details down with perfect precision. To get good at quick observational sketches, you need to be able to get the idea of whatever you are drawing across quickly. If you are drawing a table, it just needs to look like a table, you don’t need to show every detail on the table leg and every slight change in shading.
Because of this time restriction, I suggest you also start with something small. Start with one or two objects, set a timer and try to get across what it is within 30 seconds. Draw the same object three or four times before moving onto the next one. The more you draw it, the faster you learn to observe, meaning you can begin to try to add shading within that same 30 seconds. Try different shading techniques to see what works for you and what you like!
Then, when you feel like you’re ready, try doing some sketches in 5 minutes or under. The idea behind this exercise is not to be able to draw a fully shaded cathedral in 30 seconds, but to learn to observe quickly and not get too caught up on getting it perfect.
4 Draw Your Point of View
After you get more comfortable doing individual objects, it is time to start drawing scenes. You can start by walking around your house/flat and drawing the different views. Once again, at each scene, start with a small amount of time, maybe 30 or 40 seconds with a maximum of one minute.
If you live with other people, don’t feel pressured to draw them accurately, if at all, if they are in your view; the scene is the most important part.
This also gives you the opportunity of drawing in different positions. Do you find that you are more free and loose if you draw standing or sitting down, at a table or on your lap, against the wall or lying on your stomach?
Once again, you can attempt shading once you feel confident enough and you also benefit from doing one view multiple times. You can learn how to quickly draw a door, a sofa, a table and chairs very easily drawing them multiple times at different angles.
You may also want to attempt drawing outside in the garden or the street. If the weather is less than ideal, try drawing the view out of your bedroom window or while sitting in a cafe. You may find that you draw better in certain atmospheres and spaces, and it may allow you to draw more crowded spaces.
5 Have Fun
Yes, yes I know. Yet another piece of cheesy advice you see on every blog post ever. But the reason you see it so often is because it is true. If you aren’t having fun with what you are doing, you are far less likely to keep doing it.
Now what makes this kind of thing fun varies from person to person. I am one of these people that has always done hand drawing for fun so it wasn’t that difficult for me to commit to doing this myself for a masterclass I joined in my second year. However, I have compiled a small list of little things you can try to make it a little more entertaining. These can also be used for any other task.
Reward yourself! Give yourself little rewards for every day that you do some observational sketches. This can be for every day you do 10 minutes of observational drawing, you can eat your favourite snack, or play your favourite video game, or hang out with friends.
Make a wager! Find a friend, housemate, or partner that you trust and give them something that you don’t want to lose or something that you want to gain. You can give your friend £20 and say that if you complete your daily drawing that month, you get the money back, if not they get to keep it. This can be done with objects as well as money, the idea is the incentive.
Make it a game! See if you can try and find a way to turn this new habit into a game! Make game cards, a points system, characters and more! Really just have fun with it. There are also a couple of apps out there that turn your habits into a game, the most notable being an app called Habitica, where you gain experience, level up, and complete quests, all just by checking off habits and checklists. You can do all this with your friends too! Leading me to my next point…
Bring a friend! A lot of things are a lot more fun when you are doing them with someone else. Meet up with a uni friend or colleague for lunch and see how many things you can sketch in 30 minutes! Or maybe turn it into a healthy competition! For days away from the studio, set up a group chat or discord server. Maybe even share your observational sketches with the members of the :scale discord server!
Finally, challenge yourself! Some people, such as myself, are motivated by challenges. I don’t mean challenge yourself to draw an entire cathedral in under a minute straight away with all the details down to the reflection in the window. I mean little manageable challenges along the way. You’ve drawn the outline of a coffee mug? Great! Now see if you can shade it as well in the same timescale.
To Sum It All Up…
Following these steps will help you get better at both observational sketching and conceptual sketching! This skill will slowly become second nature, allowing you to sketch spaces as if you were in them with all the bells, whistles, tables, and chairs, from your imagination, and create some Instagram worthy sketches of existing spaces! Observational sketches are also great to include in your portfolio because they show a variety of skills without the pressure of them being technically correct.
All in all, the message behind this post is to practice a little every day, take small steps with little challenges, make it fun, and reward yourself for the little victories. It really is as simple as that. I promise you, if you stick to this habit, you will see a real change within the first couple of weeks, so imagine what will happen in a couple of months or even years.
Written by Zara Gravett