Click here for the Blinder Drawing Game
Learning to Draw by learning the basic seeing and drawing skills needed to draw everything


an essay by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. 2003

For a related essay see: Motivating Non Drawers
See a page on teaching Shading
Art Ed Links  annotated  2008 UPDATE

author bio | contact author

edges  |  cross contour  |  size angle proportion perspective  |  shading  |  negative space  |
holistic gesture seeing and drawing | color | pattern texture

Once students learn these skills, they can draw anything that they can observe.  I recently ran across and old tape and enjoyed listening to a talk by Betty Edwards at Calvin College in the 1980's. Among other things, she lists some skills that are needed to be able to draw.  This list of observation skills is inspired by hearing her ideas about things that students need to learn to see in order to observe and draw better. Visual observation is believed to be in the domain of the right side of the brain. Intuitive and creative thinking are also believed to be in the domain of the right brain.  The left brain deals with the rational, the alphabet, numerals, and so on.  Left brain thinking is linear - one thing after another. The right brain processes everything at once. 1 
how to see edges
To draw well, students need to learn to see the edge or contour of things.  I teach this using 8 x 8 blinder cards on the top of the drawing hand. 

Right: Here third graders are doing an 
introductory warm-up by drawing some bent wire.
This is followed by viewing a live rabbit. 2

Below: With the blinder still on their pencils, they draw the rabbit's outline (see result below).  When it moves, they continue drawing.  They follow the movement.  The poor left brain gives up and goes home. This is right brain practice.  It is a fun activity and it builds knowledge and confidence about how to draw. 

Below: When the rabbit moves they are encouraged to keep drawing.

See the Blinder Drawing Game here
how to see cross contour
To draw well, students need to learn to see the cross-contours of things. Cross-contour is easier to see if there are lines that go across the form and help show the form, like horizontal stripes on a blouse.  The top of a water glass is easy to see as an oval, but the bottom is hard to see other than a straight line for some observers.  Before drawing, I ask them to study the relationship between the observed top and bottom, but I do not illustrate it with a drawing for them.  I ask them to practice with a finger in the air, etc. before putting lines down on paper.

Left: Here the model is wrapped in dayglow orange to create an easy way to see cross contour.  In this session students are instructed to draw only the ribbon. Black compressed charcoal is quick and expressive. This method makes observational figure drawing less frightening and easier. This method makes it impossible for the left brain to impose a standard saved "person image". Nobody reverts to a "stick person". The left brain bows out and the right brain gets a chance to get some practice and confidence.

how to see sizes - angles - proportions

To draw well, students need to learn to see size relationships, angle relationships, and the relationship of different negative space sizes.  We can teach this using sighting devices and techniques. 
Below: Students learn to measure and compare lengths, proportions, angles, and so on by sighting.  They hold a ruler or pencil at arms length while making comparison observations. These measurements are transferred to the paper.

A viewfinder is another useful sighting device to help see the angles and proportions of things being observed.  This category includes linear perspective which can be learned by making careful comparisons of sizes and angles.

By using two sticks (like chop sticks, pencils, or rulers) and holding one in line with a vertical corner and crossing it with another stick that lines up to a horizontal line, students can draw in perspective and learn to observe the principles of linear perspective. The sticks must be kept together in the observed position while placing them on the paper and transferring the observed angles to the paper.

Above: Catie Froese uses a ruler to make sightings to determine 
proportions of pottery by Marvin Bartel

Above: Suzi Arsenovic uses a ruler to make sightings of an aluminum table by sculptor John Mishler

how to see shading

To draw well, students need to learn to see highlights, shading, and cast shadows.  Directional light on still life objects that are painted all white and placed on white makes shadows and shading easier to see.  I require them to first find the lightest part and keep that area of paper white.  They then find darkest areas.  Then middle tones, etc.  I ask them to use a light pencil outline around the shape of the highlight.  Then students add ball-point hatching and cross-hatching for tone.  When finished they must erase the pencil to see the form without the outlines.  The watercolor painting below shows this.  If they include some negative space tone, the drawing will pop out without the artificial outlines.

Directional lighting makes shading easier to observe.  Negative space can be a contrasting tone to make it easier to see that form can show up without any outline after the outline is erased.

Student draws a pebble with pencil - shades it with ball-point - then erases the pencil.

how to see negative spaces - negative shapes

To draw well, students need to learn to see negative shapes and spaces.  I tell students that good objective seeing requires that we get over our prejudices.  Out left brain is prejudiced to be practical and ignore the negative spaces.  We learn to pay attention to things that might effect us and we ignore the empty space.  To teach about negative space, I ask them to draw only negative (background) areas.  Positive parts are sometimes added after the negative parts are all finished. A viewfinder is helpful to give definition by framing the space.

One assignment has them looking at winter tree branches and only drawing the sky shapes between the branches.  They may not draw any of the overlapping crossing lines of the branches.  If any extra lines are included, they are asked to erase them.

Another assignment has a bunch of sunflowers in a vase places in front of a dark brown or black paper background.  Viewfinders are used by the students to frame compositions tightly limiting the amount of negative space showing.  Students are asked to use a soft lead drawing pencil to gesturally tone in the dark background first, then tone in the value of  the green leaves and stems (middle tones), and lastly define the tone and patterns of the centers of the sunflowers, leaving the yellow flower petals the color of the paper with nearly no tone and only a bit of outlining of the petals, paying special attention to some deformed or somewhat mutilated petals. Using pale yellow paper might lend itself to this drawing.  A Vincent van Gogh sunflower painting could be studied after students have finished this drawing.

By changing their habits of work students can learn how to acquire new skills.   Students learn how to learn to acquire observation skills because they now know how to practice on their own time.  For this reason I refrain from demonstrating these techniques for the class.  Instead, I assign preliminary practice routines.  I do not want them to feel that they need an expert artist to figure out how things look.  It is more important that they need to learn how to figure things out themselves.

how to see holistically & draw expressively

GESTURE drawing practice helps us learn to see and express more holistically and globally, but it is still very observational, even as it is highly emotional. While gesture drawing, we practice trying to see and capture everything at once. We avoid outlines all together, starting in the heart of the thing being observed and portray its overall essence as instantaneously as possible. The Gesture Drawing Dance section of Motivating Non-Drawing Students has more specific methods of teaching gesture drawing. Also see the Inside-Out Gesture section of Portrait and Figure Drawing. In my opinion, some the strongest drawings by artists like Kollwitz and Rembrandt use an inspired combination of gesture and contour. Of course, I would never show these to students prior to their practice. An inventive and creative mind is not nurtured by imitating experts. It is nurtured by playing, experimenting, discovering, and expressing its own observations and its own feelings--not those seen in another artist's picture. As a teacher, I am challenged by seeing the work of these great artists. I want to find ways for my students to practice and learn the kind of routines that rehearse these skills of direct immediate observation, of rich imagination, of memory, of feeling, and of expressive drawing skills. I use my imagination as an artist to experiment with ways for students to practice and so they can learn to see and express themselves more like artists do (from within based on what they observe, feel, think, imagine, and so on). 

how to see color

Although color is not always associated with drawing, it can lend itself to similar right brain practice.  Color also provides its own excitement and sensory motivation.  When learning observation, I ask students to observe specific color changes created by lighting and reflected light.  A red reflector card placed near a still life set up will create a different effect than a blue reflector card.  Colored filters and colored lights are also useful.  This category can include atmospheric perspective which can be observed if distant colored objects can be compared with similar colored close-up objects on location in a landscape setting. 
Watercolor Veggies Lesson
This one hour watercolor sketch was done by a student who has learned  to attend to the observation of the subject.  Plain white light was used to light this setup.

Before the lesson
The color sketch on the right is done after doing color experiments using similar watercolor paper and pan paints. 

In the preliminary preparation students experiment with color mixing without any visual guide.  They are asked to wet areas by brushing water on the paper while not looking at the paper.  During this part they are observing the negative shapes between the fingers of their opposite hand being held in front of their faces. 

This is a preliminary study on a small piece of watercolor paper.  Students are given specific verbal instructions about how to wet the paper while looking at their opposite hand being held in front of them.  Only the negative spaces are wet and only the negative spaces are colored in this picture.  The dry area are sometimes used for comparison, for drybrush, and so forth.

Next they place pure primaries on the wet areas near dry edges.  They then have to say what they discover as colors overlap.  By experimentation, they have to figure out how to produce every color including brown.

I never demonstrate this.  They must each do it individually from verbal instructions.

No color charts are shown.  Color charts are avoided because they are shortcuts (like answer sheets in math) that do not teach thinking, experimentation, and  "how to solve problems".  The best time to show the color chart is after they have finished their paintings.  At that point they can see the rationale for the colors on the chart.  If they were to use a chart as a guide, how would they learn to solve problems by experimenting?

A one-hour watercolor of a carrot, squash, 
potato, and onion by 
Suzi Arsenovic, college student

To make color mixing essential, I select food items in the produce department that are natural secondary colors.  There are many green, brown, purple, and orange veggies.  This food used after the lesson in my soups, stews, and salads.  Students who ask are allowed to select one piece to eat or to take home.  For the painting the vegetables for observation are arranged by the students themselves. They are encouraged to taste and smellThis provides rich multi sensory motivation. Plastic fake foods offer none of this.


  • Use a viewfinder to frame the composition tightly enough so that objects pass over the edges.
  • Require overlapping as they arrange their setups.
  • They may only use primary and neutral pigments.
  • Negative area must be painted first. 
  • Paint it wet on wet. 
  • Add detail as it dries.
  • No color may be used by itself.  Mix on paper by adding color on color on wet paper.
  • Combine colors to adjust the colors closer to observed color.
  • Encourage "painterly" effects rather than smooth even tone.
  • Begin light. 
  • Darken areas until a full tonal range is developed.
  • At the highlight areas on each object no paint may be used.
  • Pure paper tone highlights are required.  Shade the forms based on the lighting.
  • Tie the parts together by looking for ways to repeat small amounts of each color in other areas of color.
  • Darken the cast shadows.

Not all right brain practice needs to be strictly observation.  Eugene Stutzman, one of my students wrote and taught an exciting and creative lesson for first grade children, but it could work with any age. In this lesson the room is outfitted with large mirrors set around the room so the children see themselves.  The students were all wrapped in sheets of white fabric.  They are also set up with large brushes, 18 x 24 inch paper and tempera paints.  The room lights are turned off and theater lights with colored gels are orchestrated to music.  The children are then asked to paint their impressions of the experience without showing any people in their paintings.  I recall one six-year-old boy mumbling about it.  He said, "This is really stupid. This is really stupid."  His comment was not typical.  He looked around and and saw everybody else painting with abandon and great intensity.  He proceeded to make one of the best paintings - without any people in it. After this this lesson children enjoy a discussion of the  work of Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan or any of many abstract expressionists about whom it is often said, "Any kid could do that."

how to see patterns and textures

To draw well, students need to learn to observe patterns and textures. This can be practiced by drawing wood grain, ears of corn, close up views of fabrics, or a pile of nearly anything.  Repeat pattern and texture are often similar to each other, but pattern has larger units.  Texture ads richness to surfaces.  Pattern insists on being seen and can produce great eye movement in a composition by virtue of repetition.

How to establish a practice routine
Some teachers start nearly every class session with a ritual or practice drill of observation drawing.  Using these seven skills gives these drawing warm-ups variety.  If you can think of anything that should be added to this list of observation skills, please share them.  If you have any lessons that work well to teach one these skills, let me know what it is.  See Rituals in the Art Classroom

Learning by limiting
Lessons without limitations are not very effective.  Without limitations, students are prone to fall back on easy left brain habits and fail to practice new or difficult skills We naturally avoid the risk of doing the unknown unless a good teacher assures us that the new way can help us grow.  Well planned lesson limitations make it harder for the left brain to dominate while encouraging the right brian to practice. 

On the other hand, children who are encouraged and limited to follow patterns, color in other people's lines, do copy work, or assemble pre designed projects are learning skills that would be desirable in a society that needs lots of slaves.  Teaching from "how to draw it"  books and by assigning copywork and patterns can be done by clerks.  Anybody can handout handwork.  In a society that needs self-motivated decision makers, their students will grow up to suffer "learned helplessness".  Good lesson limitations require individual learning of new skills, compositional and content choice making, challenging thinking tasks, and prohibition of stereotyping and prejudices.  See this link for more ideas on making it harder for the left brain to prevent the education of the right brain.

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This page updated September 2008


1 - Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. 1979. J.P.Tharcher, Los Angeles. Many of the concepts explained on this page were described by Edwards. Subsequent work in brain imaging substantiates the right-left brain theory.

2 - The rabbit lesson shown was taught by Goshen College art students, Patty Brown, Marlea Hershberger, Crystal Kempher, and Tiffany Wyse. We appreciate the cooperation of teachers, administration and especially the students of St. John's Catholic School, Goshen, IN, for their cooperation.

All rights reserved.   2003 Marvin Bartel. You may link this page to your page. You may review it and/or include properly attributed short quotations in other publications.  Teachers may make one copy for their own use. Any other use requires permission. Photos may not be published without permission. When you request permission, please include the URL or Title of this page. CONTACT

Goshen College students are permitted to make a copy for their own use.


Has your child asked for help in learning to draw better?

Drawing to Learn DRAWING

by Marvin Bartel - 2010 - is Now Available

This is a book written for kids who can read who want some good ways to practice their drawing skills. Us older folks who still want to learn new stuff can also use this book. It is also great for artists who want some ideas on how to help children learn to draw better. If you are an artist, you could start a Drawing Camp or some after school art classes using the ideas in this book. Parents can use this book to plan a really cool and creative kids art party.  If you are an art teacher looking for some ideas to increase creative thinking and improve skill building, check out this book for ideas that you can adapt for your studio art class.

It is a low-cost online pdf downloadable book. You can read it on the computer or print it out.

See the order page for a
Table of Contents and more about this book