Draw What You See
Not What You Know
Draw what you see, not what you know. That was one of the first bits of advice given in more than just one of my art classes. Most beginners try to draw what they know, not what they see, although they think they’re drawing what they see. You can tell by watching them. Their eyes are mostly on their sketchpads rather than on the object they’re drawing.
When you draw what you see, your eyes spend about equal time looking at the object you’re drawing and your sketchpad. Your eyes should be darting back and forth, guiding your hand. Almost like tracing with your eyes.
People always hear me going on about drawing the basic shapes first and this is 100% true. This is the starting point. Consider the aluminum can. A relatively simple object, right? You’d be surprised how many beginners botch it. I bring up the can because that was the first exercise in my very first art class.
It seems simple enough. Draw the basic shape.
It’s not hard to see that it’s basically a cylinder.
Most students were able to draw a decent cylinder. But after that, things went awry. The students with little to no drawing experience rarely looked at the can at all. They were drawing what they thought they knew. And what they thought they knew lacked all of the finer details. Had they been paying attention to the can in front of them, they’d have noticed that the can tapers at the top and that there was a small lip at the top edge of the can. They’d have noticed that the bottom of the can is smaller than the body. The only thing they really looked up for was the tab.
“Draw what you see, not what you know,” he said when we were done.
He had let the class go through the whole exercise without saying those words to prove a point. And it applied to about 90% of the class. Aside from beginner artists, the class was a general education class and fulfilled the Arts & Humanities requirement (I think). So, there were students in there from every major. The error was understandable. “Had you been actually looking at the can, you would have seen those things,” he added.
The next time around, most of them were more conscious of it. Still, it does take some time to get used to it and make it a habit. Getting the basic shape down quickly without really looking at it is fine, though you’ll want to at least check if your perspective is correct. But as you start to refine your drawing, you should be paying close attention to the actual object in front of you and not what you think you know about it.