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The power of observational drawing

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

I truly believe that the free 'flow' that comes from creating in the moment is what we are all looking for. If it sounds a bit woo-woo Mystic Meg, that's because it is.

Observational drawing has changed not only the way I draw, but how I look at the world. For anyone who's a bit suspicious of going out to draw from life, bear with me. You might find you want to try it too.

A drawing in the park that I made in February 2021

Uncertain beginnings

About 7 years ago, I picked up a pen for the first time in a long time. I'm not exactly sure what casued me to stop (probably a topic for another blog!), but I found myself drawing for pleasure again. I bought some new sketchbooks and first of all did some drawings from my imagination. These didn't come nearly as easily as they had in the past, or at least, as much as they did when I was a child - before anyone told me that being good at art and drawing for fun was 'weird'. I didn't agree, but a small part of me must have believed it was true. I stopped drawing from my imagination when I was about 15, a time when there was quite a lot going on for me.

But Carys, this is a blog about drawing from life! I know, I know. I'm getting there.

When I got back into drawing from imagination my drawings felt very stiff. I pretty miffed. I was meant to be good at this. But regardless, I started to draw from life a bit too. I was working in a cafe at the time, a Summer holiday job while I was living in Dublin to study. I'd take my sketchbook with me on my lunchbreak and draw people.

A drawing from a lunchbreak in 2013

Drawing people was always what I was interested in. I was studying theatre at the time and I've always been fascinated by people and what makes them tick: different characters and stories. People was my comfort zone, and drawing them made me feel connected with the world and build memories of where I was, and the particular time I made the drawing.

I can remember, nearly 8 years later, drawing this woman (above) with the newspaper. I was sat in the Iveagh Gardens (now sadly gone) in South Dublin in the Summer, wearing my dirty work shirt and feeling really hot. I saw this woman and liked the shape and the mystery made by how she held the newspaper over her face.

What's that? A landscape?!

I was drawing more and more, not once a day, but much more regularly than before. But it was another 5 years before I drew landscapes for fun. This was an odd one, becasue I love nature and being outside is something that I really love. Somehow this didn't translate to looking at a landscape and thinking about drawing it. The fact it was a 'whole view' really overwhelmed me. I couldn't make out where to start, what the shapes were - not even mentioning colour and how to show that.

Lanscape drawing in my sketchbook, 2018

But one day, I drew a landscape. At the time I had a very small A6 sketchbook that I'd carry around in my pocket. It was small enough that the page didn't feel too daunting, and I used two pens - a black and a grey - to draw what I saw. And I enjoyed it. I worried less about drawing everything, and drew the parts that interested me.

This became quite addictive. Suddenly I could draw anywhere. At some point I didnt' have my black pen with me so I drew in other colours. I broke free from 'realistic' colours, often greys and browns, and drew in whatever colour I damn well pleased.

St Paul's in blue, 2018

Being in the present

Drawing became not only a way to record what was around me, but to connect with the present. I've already mentioned that drawing lets me lay down solid memories of a moment. Well, it also lets me be in the present moment while drawing. I have anxiety and drawing is a great way to get out of your head and focus on what's around you.

I was working in fancy receptions around London while going to auditions that never seemed to work out. I'd draw in my lunchbreak to escape, sitting in my suit in the cold. I was feeling a real grief at not being creative. But then suddenly, I was.

A girl I drew on my lunchbreak, 2018

I drew on the tube all the time, sometimes only having a couple of minutes to make a drawing. The fact that the tube shakes, sometimes a lot, really helped me loosen up and just draw without thinking too much. I have lots of the small A6 sketchbooks I talked about full of people on the tube. You can see more of them here.

tube drawing, 2019

It really cheered me up to make a drawing on my commute, even if that was the only 2 minutes of creativity I had in my day. It didn't matter what the drawing turned out like, and I was only drawing them for me. Yes, I shared some on Instagram but that wasn't really the point.

Growing confidence

It's not exactly rocket science, but the more I drew the more confident I became. The more the free flow of creating I'd felt as a child came back, and the more different subjects and views I felt I could tackle.

Colour became more instinctive and I felt able to draw what I could feel as well as what I could see. The heather in the drawing below wasn't really bright purple, and the grass wasn't quite that bright. But it felt like a huge rush of Summer on the way, seaside sunshine and happiness. So that's what I drew.

a drawing in Devon, 2019

It might sound counter-intuitive, but really looking at something to practice observation, and really feeling something to practice being present, building memories and communicating emotion through art, to me at least go hand in hand. I think Gaugin was onto something when he said:

"I shut my eyes in order to see" - Paul Gaugin

Just as much as other artists were right when they said that really looking is important. But are they talking about looking at what's there alone? I'm not so sure.

With this I think things started really clicking into place. I drew more and more, including more landscapes. Remember how much they used to scare me?

Limited views

Then in early 2020, lockdown came. That was it for going on trips and drawing faraway places like Italy, Wales, Devon, Ireland. In fact, the view at first was so limited that I drew my kitchen cupboards.

This was thanks to the wonderful Goodship Illustration (thanks Katie, Helen and Tania), who encourage drawing from life - however glamorous the subject! Their sketchbookers friend made my lockdown become more interesting, and I went on to join them at Friday Art Club and took the Fly Your Freak Flag course - all highly, highly recommended.

here's my kitchen sink in all its glory!

I'd already discovered #walktosee - a wonderful hashtag started by Helen Stephens for drawing from life. Now though, I was drawing my tiny flat as we were in the peak of lockdown and stay at home guidelines. It made me realise anew that it's ok to draw something that you might not even think is very interesting.

Rediscovering childhood wonder

And of course, then I realised that everything is interesting. I think that was the final piece of the puzzle. Suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw thing I wanted to draw. People in the supermarket, a weird packet on the street, a dog crossing the road - whatever. This is thanks to all the drawing I'd been doing over the past few years. My eyes were used to looking thinking 'what can I draw what can I draw'. And now I see things I want to draw everywhere.

The best way I can think of explaining this is that it feels a bit like being a child again. A child who sees things for the first time and says 'what's that' or 'why?'. As adults, we're so used to seeing everything around us that we don't really look at much at all. Normally just our phones, right? Well drawing teaches you to really look. And the more you look, the more amazing things you see.

I'm very lucky to live right next to a big park in South London. And as lockdown eased, this was my place to go and get some green and draw. I drew it all through 2020, in all seasons:

Summer in the park, 2020

I filled up an A4 sketchbook (bigger than I ever would have chosen) with park drawings. The one above was done in the heatwave we had.

Autumn 2020

And I saw it move through the seasons, to the Winter. Instead of resisting the change I was very aware of it, and welcomed it as it changed how the park looked - revealing new things each week as the colours and shapes changed.

Again, this really helped with my anxiety. I walk into the park until I see a view I fancy drawing, and I trust I'll make something - nevermind if it's not great. I just start and keep going. It calms me down and allows me to remember all the changes I saw over the year.

snow in Brockwell Park, 2021

I'm still doing this as often as I can, and I'm excited to see what more I can learn as I continue. If you're interested in making art, or even if you're not, there are so many benefits you'll gain from drawing from life.

Regardless of the result, you get to tap into the creative 'flow' of being in the moment. And I really do think this is something we all need more of in life. It lets you appreciate what's around you, feel what things are like as well as see them, and remember things.

I'll be sharing more about my sketchbook process on this blog. Hope it's inspired someone somewhere to try drawing from life too.

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