The Power of Observational Drawing

Posted on Updated on

How many times have we asked our students to draw (both in their Unit of Inquiry or during single subject time)? For example, as a part of their Tuning in, teacher asks students to draw objects in their surroundings that belong to “living things”; as a part of their formative or summative assessment, teacher asks students to draw their understanding about what friendship is; or students draw their observation in their science experiment, draw about their responsibility towards plants and  animals. In religion, teacher asks students to draw symbols to express their beliefs; In music, students draw and group the musical instruments, and so on.

Drawing leaves at different stages, looking at the concept of “Change”

The question is “how far have we supported our students when it comes to drawing?”. Is it only the responsibility of Visual Art Teachers to teach our students to draw? What does it have to do with observational drawing? On the other hand, how often do we hear somebody say “I don’t know how to draw” or “I am not good in drawing”?

Drawing is a skill that everybody can learn, just like how we learn to write and make our writing readable. Talking more specifically about observational drawing, it simply means to draw something “as it is”. Edwards (1999) says that “Ability to draw depends on the ability to see the way an artist sees, and this kind of seeing can marvelously enrich your life”. In PYP, we encourage students to draw something or an object based on their perspective, imagination, from what they see or memorise. For example when it comes to drawing people, we let the kids draw people from their perspective, not to tell or show them step by step how to draw people, and let their skill develop alongside their age.

Observational drawing is a great way to increase drawing skills. In observational drawing, we want students to see something without looking at it as an object that they know. For example, when they draw a bottle, we do not want them to think about a “bottle” but we want them to “see” it in a different way, paying attention to the lines and contour as it is (not the shape of bottle in their mind). Gertrude Stein asked French artist Henri Matisse whether, when eating tomato, he looked at it the way an artist would. Matisse replied: “No, when I am eating tomato I look at it the way anyone else would. But when I paint a tomato, then I see it differently” (Picasso, 1938). Therefore, “seeing” or “how do we see things” is what observational drawing is all about, and this is very important if we want to improve our drawing skills.

Other than that, by doing regular practice in observational drawing, we will become more “sensitive” when it comes to paying attention to details such as shapes, size, contour, proportion, and colors. It also improves hand eye coordination. The purpose of this article is to encourage homeroom teachers to do regular observational drawing in their classroom, or even set up a special centre in the classroom for observational drawing and prepare sketch book for students to record their drawings. This is an exercise that will not only benefit our students, but also for us, as teachers. We do encourage teachers to sit and do the activity together with the students.

In the early years, students can start with simple objects such as an egg or a ball. As they grow older they can have other objects such as: Fruits with different shapes, sizes and textures (banana, apple, mango, grapes, pineapple, etc.), stationery in the classroom, leaves with different shapes, colors, and textures (one of my favourite!), different types of flowers, toys, shells, even using their own body such as drawing the lines on their palm. Basically, everything can be used for observational drawing. Sometimes, it is good to give them objects that they cannot relate to anything, for example a piece of metal, bended wire, crumpled paper, etc.

1Different centres of observational drawing in Visual Art class.

There are different exercises in observational drawing. For example, draw an object without looking on the paper, draw an object without lifting the pencil, or upside-down drawing (print a picture and ask students to draw it upside-down). The idea goes back to seeing the object and drawing it as it is without thinking about what the object is, but paying attention to lines, distance between lines, how long should we draw the lines, the angles, direction of the lines, and so on.

Upside down drawing by Grade 5 student

So… going further.., are there other effects of observational drawing? Is it only to develop drawing skills? In her book, Edwards (1999) says that drawing opens the door to other goals. Learning to draw will help us see things differently, develop our ability to perceive things freshly in their totality, and see underlying patterns and possibilities. It will increase awareness of our mind, develop creative abilities, and enhance our confidence in decision- making and problem-solving. As she said, “The potential power of the creative, imaginative human brain seems almost limitless. Drawing may help you come to know this power and make it known to others”.

For some ideas on observational drawing:



Edwards, B. The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.


By Peggy Ratulangi (

PYP Coordinator & Visual Art Teacher, Sekolah Global Indo-Asia (Batam)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s