Helpful Hints for Field Sketching

Part of the Biodiversity Counts Curriculum Collection.

Seeing and observing are two different things. When we look at something, we usually are seeing just to identify.

We might look at a person, a tree, or a building, and we may later recall the identity of the person we were looking at, or tell if a tree was in bloom or even if the building was made of brick or concrete. However, if asked whether the person had narrow-set eyes, or whether he or she held one shoulder lower than the other, or what exactly was the color of his or her hair—well, our ability to recall becomes less exact. Was the building or tree—or person!—taller than it was wide? How would you describe the color of the leaves? Were they yellow-green or blue-green?

You get the picture, don't you? Observation is a discipline, and drawing is, in a sense, a way of training ourselves to observe. Many people assume that they don't have talent, that they lack that ability to draw. They think that drawing skills are somehow magically bestowed on "artists" alone. As with many assumptions, this one is incorrect. Drawing is a skill that one can learn. As with many other skills, some people will exhibit more aptitude than others, but everyone can improve his or her abilities with some time and effort.

The kind of drawing we are discussing here is observational rendering—trying to capture on paper in two dimensions some aspect of what you are observing. The first thing to do is determine what aspect(s) of your subject you want to record. For example, do you want to know the relative height and width of your subject? Are you recording color? Do you want to show the volume of the subject? How much detail are you interested in? Some of these questions are answered by two factors: the medium you are using and the amount of time you want to spend on drawing. Obviously, if you are using a graphite pencil or charcoal on paper, you are not recording color. And if you intend to spend only a few minutes drawing, you will not be recording a lot of detail. 

Hint #1: Proportions

One of the most difficult aspects of drawing is perhaps the most easily resolved. When you draw you are usually creating an image that is smaller in size than the object you are rendering. You do not have to know the actual measurements, only the relative height and width. For example, if you are drawing a sleeping cat, you need to know how wide the animal is in relation to how tall it appears to you from your perspective. That is, from where you are observing the animal, you will see a particular and unique set of relationships between height and width. If you move to a new observing position, you will see a different set of relationships.

So how do you determine what those relationships are? Remember, you do not have to know the actual size of the object you are observing. What you must do is first establish one element. Let's start with the width of our sleeping cat. Simply mark off on your drawing how wide you want your cat to appear on the page. This can be accomplished by making two light marks to establish these outer boundaries. Next, you must establish a relationship between the tallest part of the sleeping cat (as you view it from your observing point) and your now established width. A simple way to accomplish this task is to hold your pencil or even a stick or any straight object at arm's length and sight down your arm to the subject. Turn the stick sideways and align one end with the right or left side of the object and move your thumb to mark the end of the other side on the length of the stick.

You now have created your own optical measurement from your viewing location. You can use this measurement to establish the relative sizes of anything you see from your particular and unique viewing position. For example, you can turn your stick vertically, while still holding it at arm's length (with your thumb still holding the mark), and compare the width of the cat with its height, as seen from your vantage point. You can now use that relative size to mark off the upper boundaries of the size of the cat on your page. you can use this method to establish all of the proportions of what you see on your drawings, such as the distance between the cat's eyes, or the size of the space between the sleeping cat and the rock on the ground next to it. And so on. You will find that with practice you can create very naturalistically proportioned drawings. 

Hint #2: Perspective

Things appear smaller the farther away from you they are. This phenomenon is called perspective. For example, if you look at a tree that is a few feet away from you and, using the method for establishing relative size from hint #1, compare the size of a tree as observed from a fixed viewing point to a similarly size tree that is farther away, you will see that it appears smaller. The actual relationship of size of distant objects and their placement on the page can be established the same way you drew the proportions of the cat. 

Hint #3: Volume

If you are trying to create a sense of volume or fullness of what you are drawing, you need to establish the source of light. Light falling across a form creates a sense of volume or fullness in a three-dimensional object. Volume is established by the relative lightness or darkness of areas of a volumetric surface as is viewed. For example, if you look at light falling on a tree trunk, one side probably will appear darker than the other. The side of the trunk that is in the direction of the light source will appear lighter, and the side of the trunk farther away from the source of light will appear darker. If you squint your eyes when looking at a subject, it helps to establish these relative values of lightness and darkness, because we are not confused by the details. And speaking of details, when you draw the rest of the tree, don't try to draw it a leaf at a time. Again squint your eyes and look at the volume created by the whole bunch of branches and leaves and draw that volume rather than each individual leaf. You can always add detail later if you want to or have the time. 

Hint #4: Simplify

As with drawing the leaves of tree, look for the general shapes. Start with the basic proportions and then add detail. If you start with the details first, you will have only a record or inventory of objects. You will not have a convincing drawing. 

Hint #5: Practice a lot.

Drawing is a discipline that can be learned. The more you do it, the better you get. Like playing ball or learning to play the piano, the more you practice, the better you get. 

Hint #6

This is the most important hint. Have fun. You will be surprised at how much "talent" you never knew you had.