Art lesson: Observational drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on February 10, 2008 at 05:43 PM


Jack's observational drawing (age 6)


What Jack drew


Looking for our one-week e-class Observational Drawing for Families? It’s here!


Lesson: Observational Drawing


• Paper

• Pencil

• White eraser

• Pencil sharpener

What does it mean to observe? When you observe something, you look at it very closely. How can we be good observers? We can look at something very, very closely. We want to notice all the details.

Let's look at something together. [I frequently borrow a kid's shoe. A dirty, torn-up kid sneaker has lots of details!] Tell me everything you see. [Feel free to add your own details to keep the list growing.]

Sometimes we sit down to draw whatever we want — we call that “free drawing”. When you free draw, you can draw things however you want to draw them, whether they're true or not. You can make an animal with ten legs. You can make a man with huge hands that are bigger than a car. You can do whatever you want.

When we do observational drawing, we're going to practice seeing. We're going to practice looking at things very closely, and we're going to draw exactly what we see. We're going to add as much detail as we can.


Have children draw anything at hand. First lesson, the simpler the better — a pencil, a pencil sharpener, a pair of scissors. (The fewer details, the more accurate the final drawing will be, and the happier the artist will be.)

Have the child draw for, say, five minutes. If they say they are done, look at their drawing and the thing they are drawing. Ask them if they see any details they haven't drawn yet. If you see something, point it out. "Can you add this to your drawing?"


If the child finishes a simple drawing in a fairly short amount of time and still has interest and energy, have them draw something else. Quit before you wear them out. Praise their attention to detail, not the drawing itself. Try not to fall into the trap of saying "Great picture!" and instead say things like "I like how much detail you put in your drawing" or "You did a great job of drawing all those shoeslaces", etc.

Extension Ideas:

Draw your snack before you eat it. (Note pictures of Dominic drawing his pear. This is, of course, not his first sketching session!)

Draw each other. Take turns!

Draw a piece of furniture in the room.

Draw your foot. (As Leisa says, your foot is always with you.)

Take a walk outside and collect things to draw: a leaf, a pinecone, a feather.



We have done observational drawing with children age 3 through high school. Children who have barely turned three can create amazing drawings; try to fight your own prejudice about what you think your child can do. Wait and see what they can do. Let them show you.

This is a learned skill; don't worry about what is created in the first session. Ideally, sketch for 15 minutes every day. Sketch together! Pick something, set it between you (e.g., a tape dispenser, a vase, the TV remote) and draw together for 10 or 15 minutes. If not every day, then at least once a week, do an observational drawing.

Always plain, ordinary pencil. No colored pencil yet — save that for later! Plain pencil allows you to focus on details. No markers! No crayons! No pens! Plain, ordinary pencil.

No erasing! Encourage children to draw big — many children will draw teeny, tiny little drawings no bigger than a dime. Encourage them to draw large, and if they feel they made a mistake or they become unhappy with their sketch, encourage them to move to a different part of the paper and start drawing again rather than erase. Fill a page with sketches before you go to a new page.

With older children, or with children who have a lot of experience doing observational sketches, encourage drawing the same item from different perspectives. Draw your shoe from the side, then from the front, then the back. Draw your glasses folded up, then open then and turn them away from you. Etc.

For our art class, we will draw for at least 15 minutes at the beginning of each class, before doing other activities. Drawing is like anything else — the more you do it, the better you will get!

Preferably children will work in a sketchbook with a lot of pages — 70 or more — and in a size that is at least as big as a normal sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper. If you must work on loose paper, date and keep your sketches! Bind them together later in a three-ring binder or report cover.

No newsprint! This cheap, rough, sometimes yellow- or gray-tinged paper is the worst. Ban it from your art studio and your life. Regular copy paper is about three bucks a ream (500 sheets) and very nice for drawing.

Above all, don't say you cannot draw. The best way to cultivate your child's confidence is by being confident yourself. You can draw, even if you don't know it yet. Sit down and draw a tape dispenser with your kid. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Related stuff:

We now have a one-week e-class, Observational Drawing for Families. Check it out!

Benefits of observational drawing

Observational drawing with the young and/or reluctant: tips

Sharing our work: Observational drawings

Observational drawing: Musical instruments

Observational drawing: Where do we go from here?

Art lesson: Blind-contour drawing

Art lesson: Contour drawing


Comment by Lori Pickert on February 10, 2008 at 07:13 PM

Yes, yes, I know I said you needed an eraser, then I told you you're not allowed to erase. The eraser is for stray marks, not redoing, and when children are just beginning, they need to be banned from the eraser. Many children (and adults!) will spend all their time erasing and redoing, when what they really need to do is just move to another area on the page and start again. Keep moving forward!

Later, after you have many pages filled in in your sketchbook, then you can erase if you really need to. But too much erasing will always require intervention.

Comment by Deirdre on February 10, 2008 at 08:44 PM

Wonderful--thanks! I wouldn't have thought of sketching with my 3 yr old at all, but if I'm doing it with big brother, he's gonna wanna try anyway.

Love the portrait of Mom behind the computer!

Someone gave us a big roll of newsprint. It's still just sitting in a corner because none of us are motivated to use it...but do you think it could work for table covering or wrapping paper---or it is too flimsy for that too?

Thanks for the sharing the lesson. Hoping for more to come!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 10, 2008 at 09:57 PM

I'm going to dig out a folder of observational drawings by three-year-olds and share those soon.

a giant roll of newsprint is awesome to use as a temporary work surface and for *big* work - like tracing your entire body, or making a life-size drawing of a shark. i'm not a fan of it for drawing, but for making models and things like that, i'm sure you can find a lot of good uses. :^)

Comment by Jill on February 10, 2008 at 11:29 PM

Excellent! Thanks so much for this!

My older boys love to draw and do so a lot, but their inspiration is usually a picture. I love the idea of an object. I stink (I know you said not to say that) at drawing, but I think I will practice right alongside them so they can laugh at me...I mean, so I can learn with them.

I have a question about using erasers--how would you handle objections?? My oldest is Mr. Perfectionist and I can already hear him griping at me for suggesting this. Any ideas??

Comment by Nancy G. on February 11, 2008 at 12:06 AM

Thanks so much! I'll be trying this our with my grandaughter. I have a whole book on this topic that I haven't even cracked open, but you are inspiring me already. I have "Observation Drawing with Children" by Nancy Smith and also "Drawing with Children" by Mona Brookes. Have you read these? If so should I keep/use them?

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 11, 2008 at 12:15 AM

you can think it, jill, but don't say it out loud. no, don't even think it! you'd be surprised by how well you can draw if you give it a chance. i know i was! :^)

and yes, draw with them, not so they can laugh at you (lol) but because they will love it. if you are a gifted artist, your children won't be intimidated by your work, any more than they are intimidated by your cooking or your driving. and if you have never picked up a pencil, they can be quite encouraging. ;^)

it's hard to be a perfectionist. sigh. ;^) too much going backward prevents us from making enough progress forward. also, kids like to erase. it's messy and fun. unfortunately not only does it impede forward progress, it also can rip a paper to shreds, not to mention they often obscure or destroy a drawing that was actually quite good.

i will think this over, but in the meantime, try "because i said so". or "because that's the way *real* artists do it."

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 11, 2008 at 12:24 AM

hi nancy, unfortunately, i don't have either of those books, so i can't make a recommendation. i'll wait to hear what you think!

Comment by Eren on February 11, 2008 at 02:35 PM

I have been thinking about you all last week. We took a trip to the library to find some "how to draw" books. And Ian found this anime (or is it manga?, I dont even know the difference) drawing book that I thought was WAY too advanced for him. But he has been working with it for 6 days now. He loves it and I love that he can actually do it! Thanks for the encouragement to not put artistic boundries on our kiddos.

Maybe I can get a post up about it in the next few days.

Comment by Amy on February 11, 2008 at 03:04 PM

Wow! Your kids' drawings are amazing.I need to start this with my son. I used to draw well in high school, and I have barely picked up a pencil since then.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 11, 2008 at 03:24 PM

hi eren, and thank you :^) i don't know the difference between anime and manga either! i hope you do post about that - i know jack will love to read about it!

thank you, amy! i hope you do! the boys have been doing this sort of drawing for a long time, but even kids who have never drawn before can turn out amazing drawings very quickly. let me know if you and your son draw together! :^)

Comment by Nancy G. on February 11, 2008 at 08:25 PM

Since you homeschool, do you have any suggestions for incorporating music? You're so great with the art and science things, thought you might have a great suggestion.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 11, 2008 at 10:00 PM

nancy, i'm e-mailing you...

Comment by sj on February 12, 2008 at 02:03 AM

this is great. it is exactly what my girls 'live draw' class is on monday nights [though we skipped tonight for sunny evening play at the playground with friends], it is inspiring me to have them do some observation drawing with me tonight. i will enjoy taking the time to do it myself as well....haven't done that in a long time. thank you thank you!

Comment by Laura Swanson on February 12, 2008 at 03:18 AM


Thanks for sharing. Great tips!!


Comment by Stefani on February 12, 2008 at 04:41 AM

Oh. My. Gosh!

I love this post SO SO much! I'm so inspired! I think we're going to need to new sketchbooks!

Thanks lady, for being so completely freaking awesome.

And um, yes, I would SO love to see something of your lesson plans from your classes each week!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 13, 2008 at 12:49 AM

thank you, sj! i love to snuggle together and read, but i have to say, drawing together we usually end up talking quietly about different things. it's never loud and rowdy (as it so often is other times...), it's always quiet and we're all concentrating. but we talk in a different way than we do the rest of the time. (and i am envying you your sunny evening play! it is freezing here!)

thank you, laura!

hi stef :^) yay! new sketchbooks are always a big deal. nothing like drawing in a new one! and i am planning to share more! :^D

Comment by Nancy G. on February 13, 2008 at 06:11 AM

Lori, here's a post showing Mikayla's observational drawing:
This was only my fourth blog post and I'm just learning how to do this.

Comment by Jill on February 13, 2008 at 12:51 PM

Okay, don't want to fill up your comments section with blabbing from me, but I did want to say thank you again for this idea. I guess it was too clean-cut and simple for me to have thought of it. (that's no cut on you, Lori).

We sat down together Sunday night and drew a pineapple. There was only a slight grimace from Mr. Perfectionist, and then I never heard another negative word about it. It actually was freeing, and as I think you mentioned already, it made us move forward instead of obsessing. After 15 minutes we each had a fully drawn pineapple--the first drawing in what I hope will be a book full of them. It's true what you said too, about the talking. There was quiet concentration and soft words. It was a beautiful experience.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 13, 2008 at 04:28 PM

nancy - hey, you have a blog! :^D fantastic! thanks so much for sharing her drawing and your experience! i am going to repost this up top later, so if anyone else wants to share their experiences, please send me your links!

jill, please fill up my comments section with blabbing. :^) blogging is so much more rewarding with comments!

thank you so much for your wonderful description of your experience - i'm so glad it was a good one for you guys! send me a picture, because i will repost your words up top on the blog later!

(and lol re: too clean-cut and simple!)

Comment by molly on February 15, 2008 at 10:13 PM

I'm SO in, Lori!!! I'm going to start printing out your posts, so we can work on some of them. Just last night Dan was reading an old Childcraft book (encyclopedia) to Emma and talking about this very thing.
I may even try it while the pasta boils tonight.

I'll join the flickr group and try to remember to post about this on monday.

I want to be CC'd on the email you sent to Nancy G. about music.
Oh, and are you still thinking of doing the camp creek club? no pressure, just curious...

happy weekend!

Comment by Elle on January 11, 2009 at 07:25 PM

This is fabulous! I have somehow lost my inner artist as I've grown up and this has inspired me to find her again... particularly as my 2 year old gets old enough to try this out. I am absolutely in love with your site.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 11, 2009 at 09:35 PM

elle, thank you so much!! and i’m glad you are going to get back in touch with your inner artist. :^)

Comment by qismet_99 on February 8, 2009 at 12:18 PM

OMG, is it true? a 6 years old named Jack drawing that? OMG, even I can't do the same thing like he did!

Comment by Barbara in NC on November 28, 2010 at 03:44 PM

Hi Lori,
I know this is a verrry old thread, but my kids (especially my oldest, 9) have gotten more interested in drawing so I thought we'd try some regular observational drawing. I talked with them about what would be involved, and my 9 y.o. totally balked (as in saying "well, I"m not doing it then!" and then stomping out of the room) at the prospect of no erasing. I managed to talk her down a little, enough so I think she'll give it a try--but I wondered if you had any new insights to share on this front!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 4, 2011 at 04:45 PM

barbara, a thousand apologies for being so tardy to respond to your comment. my grandmother passed away, and i took a long blog break. i hope you and your family had a wonderful holiday. xoxoxo

lol re: your 9yo walking out. i have gone through this with so many kids! i hope she did end up giving it a try. :) let me know what happened!

when i talk to kids about this (and they balk) (the perfectionists always balk), i simply explain that this is a different kind of drawing and that we are practicing observing and drawing what we see, and we're going to fill up a lot of pages full of sketches. if they don't like their line, they should draw another one where they wish it had gone rather than erasing. and i say, often, *this is what real artists do* .. and this is how they learn to draw and how they practice.

it helps to have a free draw period at the end of observational drawing so your child can go back to her preferred methods and produce what *she* wants to make, the way she wants to make it. we're not replacing her way, just introducing a new way.

let me know what happened! and i apologize again for disappearing on you! xo

Comment by Barbara in NC on January 4, 2011 at 04:52 PM

Hi Lori,
No apologies needed! Sorry to hear about your grandmother. I myself haven't touched my blog in about a year, and I am currently considering how and if to re-start. But it is always such a treat to find a new post from you--I loved your New Year post!

We did try observational drawing a couple of times, but it didn't really take. I totally tried the "this is what real artists do" but apparently I'm lacking in credibility. I think it's one of those times that I just needed to back off--she was feeling joyful and confident about drawing "her way" and was very resistant to my interference. Oh well. Lucky for us, a dear friend who is also an artist is offering some classes this winter and M. is going to take drawing from her.

Interestingly, my younger dd (6) was just asking about doing family drawing again. We may just try it again with no rules, just for the joy of it.

Happy New Year, and it's great to hear from you. You and your wisdom are a frequent touchstone for me in my homeschooling journey.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 5, 2011 at 03:48 PM

thank you, b.

and thank you re: my post. :^P see, i have to take my own advice and take baby steps back onto the path! :^)

lol re: lacking in credibility. it's always easier to teach children other than our own for that very reason! maybe your friend will have better luck. :)

it sounds like you did the right thing in backing off; you definitely don't want to drain the joy from drawing. maybe next time you can simply start doing it yourself. set a timer for 10 min and sit down to draw a tape dispenser or the syrup bottle. ;) and if they want to join you, fine. and if they want to draw observationally or not, fine. letting her choose can't hurt.

just for the joy of it -- the best reason of all! :)

happy new year and thank you so much for your kind words. they mean so much.


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