3 Ways to Improve Your Observational Skills

The best piece of art related advice I have ever gotten was "always use a photo reference."

When I was given the advice, I do not think I truly understood the power behind those words. The first few art classes I took I heard over and over about looking at your reference. I would look at it, but I know I didn't really "see" it.

What I mean by that is that there are several things I know in my mind how a face looks - of course I look at them every day. I know enough information that I could draw a face. Simple enough - there are two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and some hair.

Ta da, look at that a face.

Yes, my memory served me well in creating an accurate portrayal of a face. Or did it? There are things that I missed because I decided to not use a reference. I missed the tear duct, the shine on the forehead, and I completely forgot to put a shadow under her nose. So why are those details so important? Because they are necessary to add realism to my drawing. I have learned to always have reference photos around when I am working on a project. Usually, I have several references to help me really see the subject and pick out the details that I think are necessary to add to my project. Here is the thing, looking at a photo is not the same as "seeing" the photo. You must develop observational skills to really see the details that matter.

For example, when looking at a face, we all know that your nose will cast a shadow on your face. We see faces all the time, but do you notice the cast shadow? I bet the thing you remember is the color of their eyes or maybe how cute their hair cut is. I am sure the cast shadow of their nose never registered as a thought for you. Part of this is because our brains are constantly removing un-useful information so we can focus on things that matter to us like eyes and smiles, etc. It is fine when we are just talking to people but if we were to recreate their face in a portrait that detail of a missing cast shadow would make your art look odd.

Learning to really "see" a reference requires observational skills. When I look back at a few old reference photos today I see more now than I did when I first used it. It takes time to develop your observational skills so you can see the details that will help bring your project alive.

Here are a few tricks I have learned to help me to get better at observing.

  • Turn the photo into grey scale

  • Turn the photo upside down

  • Put my project next to the reference to identify the differences

Turning my photo reference into a grey scale photo eliminates all the color information that can be distracting and deceiving. Sometimes I am so excited about a particular color it is hard for me to see the details in the object. Does that make me a "coloring nerd" since I can get super excited to use a particular color... hmmm, well probably but eh I wear the title proudly LOL. Using a grey scale photo makes it is easy for me to see how dark I need to get in certain areas in my project or it allows me to see where it is the lightest. There have been several times where the image surprises me on how dark I really need to get in certain areas.

It is kind of funny but when you turn a photo upside down it really allows you to see specific shapes instead of what you know you are looking at. When I look at a face right side up, I can see the eyes clearly and the nose etc., but when I flip it upside down you see everything in a different perspective. That’s when you notice the shadows in the corners of the eyes and the glint of highlight on the bottom lip or even that cast shadow from the nose. Shapes pop out easier when you stop looking your photo as it is and just force yourself to focus on the details. I may be dating myself here, but I remember my high school typing class, my teacher telling us to proof our work by reading it backwards. You can find misspelled words so much easier and faster by starting with the last word of the paragraph and going backwards to the top of the paragraph. This forces you to stop reading what you think you see and but see the words on the page. I think of flipping my reference upside down does the exact same thing, it helps you see what is actually there.

This last tip has been the most effective thing that has taught me to truly observe my photo references. About halfway through my project I will take a picture of my project with my phone and then use a photo app to put my project photo right next to the reference photo. Then I play a game of "what's different" with myself. I start at the top and work my way down looking back and forth between the two pictures. When I notice that something looks different, maybe the eyebrows I drew weren’t dark enough, I would say something like, "oh wow these eyebrows are thicker than I originally thought" or “look at the minor color changes, I need to add color here,” etc. I cannot tell you how many times I have said to myself, “Oh I didn't notice that” or “whoa how did I miss that?” I am sure if you add this game to your coloring process you will improve your observational skills in no time.

To be a great observer takes lots of practice to force your brain to see all the details in what you see. I hope these three tricks can help you too as it has done wonders for me as I continue to build this skill.

What's happening in the Corner . . .

With the holiday season rapidly approaching, we are surrounded by more and more shiny things. So, do you want to learn how to add shine to the objects you color. Join us all month as we learn what and how to make something shine.

If you are reading this after we moved on to the next technique, you can find the Work-at-Your-Own-Pace Practice for Shiny Things here.

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