Observational drawing: Musical instruments

Published by Lori Pickert on February 18, 2008 at 03:00 PM

When I'm teaching children how to do observational drawing, I talk a lot about "tricking our brain" — our brain that's in a big hurry, so it tells us "oh, we know how to draw a flower — it looks like this!"


Everyone who sees our drawing knows that it's a flower, but how much does it look like the flower that's really in front of us?


We talk about the differences. We look very closely at how the petals attach to the center of the flower. And the center — is it smooth? What is it made of? Sometimes we use a magnifying glass to look at all the parts. (Observational drawing is very easy to integrate with science activities.)

One of the ways to help children be successful at observational drawing is to give them things to draw that are less familiar — so their brains can't immediately throw out a quick symbolic drawing in response.


French horn, by D, age 7

Musical instruments make a perfect subject for observational drawing, because not only are they beautiful and filled with interesting details, but they are unusual enough that there's no correlating symbolic drawing stuck in our head. We have to look to draw, and that's the key to observational drawing.

Why is observational drawing important? Not just because it makes us better at drawing (which it does), but because it makes us wake up and see. It ignites the curiosity of children, and that interest can explode into a dozen different directions.

Just to give an idea of where one can go on this path, taking observational drawing as the starting point, take a look at some sculptures that were created from initial observational drawings of musical instruments. These sculptures/models were made as part of a long-term study of musical instruments that branched into studying the science of sound, the physiology of the human ear, classification systems, and much more.



Observational drawing is just the first step onto a path that leads to investigation, engagement, and expression in many different media.

Related stuff:

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Observational drawing with the young and/or reluctant: tips

Sharing our work: Observational drawings

Observational drawing: Where do we go from here

Art lesson: Blind-contour drawing

Sharing our work: Observational drawings

Published by Lori Pickert on February 16, 2008 at 07:00 PM

Some readers doing the art lessons at home have been kind enough to share their experiences and their photos — thank you!!

It is impossible to overstate how encouraging it is hearing back from people using the website. Thank you!

In addition, at Molly's suggestion, I started a flickr group: Camp Creek Art Lessons. If you are on flickr, come and join the group and share your photos!

If you would like to share your story/photos here on the blog, e-mail me or let me know in the comments!


by Jack, age 7



by Sam, age 11


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!



by Avery, age 7


It was magical! My daughter was resistant as she is not confident with her drawing skills, but she did a wonderful job. We started out with a small mug, then she progressed to drawing the laundry room door with all the details. Aidan had fun too, and when he was ready to start drawing from his imagination, I switched him to some plain paper. He ended up drawing little heart people and asked me how to write, "Once upon a time there was a boy named Aidan" - the longest sentence he has ever written! It was amazingly quiet while we were all busy drawing. I can't wait to do it again.





This is great. it is exactly what my girls 'live draw' class is on monday nights … 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!



by Mikayla, age 4


She put more detail into the drawing than I ever thought she would. We both noticed so many things … that we had not before. I drew along with her and she pointed out aspects … that I had not noticed. We then pointed out various other aspects for each other as we drew.

Thank you so much for sharing your stories!

Related stuff:

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Observational drawing with the young and/or reluctant: tips

Observational drawing: Musical instruments

Observational drawing: Where do we go from here

Art lesson: Blind-contour drawing

Art lesson: Blind contour drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on February 15, 2008 at 10:54 PM


Observational drawing is about drawing exactly what we see — not what our brain may be telling us to hurry up and draw. (Silly brain, always in a hurry.)

When I see you drawing and looking only at your paper, I know you're not doing observational drawing — to do that, you need to look up and look up and look up again. Then I know that you are looking at something and drawing it very particularly.

Blind contour drawing is a fun way to see how accurately we can draw when we observe something very carefully, by looking at it and not looking away.

At the beginning of this lesson, we talk about outlines. We are going to draw the outline of something, in one continuous line, without lifting our pencil from the paper.

We practice by picking out a few things in the room and outlining them in the air with our index finger. Trace the edge of the item all the way around with your finger. That is what we are going to do with a pencil now.

To do blind contour drawing, we can't let our eyes see what our hand is doing, so we make a blinder.

I used a small paper plate for each student, poking a hole for the pencil to go through. This worked very well. You can also use cardboard. (Be sure to poke a hole smaller than your pencil, so the pencil fits tightly.)


Give each student something to draw. Flowers with petals and leaves with irregular shapes (e.g., oak or maple leaves) work very well. You can also take a wire and bend it into a complex shape.


Emphasize that when we're done, our drawing will almost certainly not look like the thing we're drawing — when we get all the way around, our lines won't meet up. (If they do, we'll know you were peeking! Don't peek!) Our drawings are going to look funny, and that's okay, because this is a fun brain game.

Work in the middle of your page, because your pencil is going to wander around quite a bit.

Pick a spot on the thing you are drawing and, without looking at your hand or the page, follow the edge very carefully all the way around with your eyes, drawing as you go.

When you get to the end, take a look and see what you have!

You will probably find a funny-looking line, but compare what you drew to the edge of what you were drawing — there should be areas that are very good representations. See what your hand can do when you trick your brain?


Try it a few different times on different parts of your page (or turn to a new page if necessary). Each time try to go slowly, never lift your pencil, and follow the edge exactly. Which drawing is best?


After a few goes, remove your blinder and do a regular observational drawing. Is it easier this time?

Usually observational drawings improve after blind contour drawings. Blind contour drawing forces us to really, really observe that outline very closely, and when we draw it without the blinder we usually include that extra detail more faithfully. Also, it's always encouraging to see how well you can draw something, even if you have to trick your brain to do it!


Note the bands on the tips of the petals!

Tip for encouraging children to make better observational drawings:

If they seem to be hurrying and drawing whole areas too quickly, or if they are looking mostly at the page and not referring back often enough to the thing they are drawing, sit with them and ask them to draw one detail at a time as you point it out.

Today we drew gerbera daisies. When I isolated items for one student, I asked him to draw a single petal exactly as it looked. Then I pointed to the petal next to it. Soon he was doing a much more detailed drawing.


First attempt at observational drawing following contour drawing



Second attempt, petal detail

My final tip of the day: I asked a florist if they could give me any partly- or mostly-dead flowers for my drawing class, and they gave me a huge, gorgeous bouquet for just a couple of dollars! So our second lesson for today is — just ask. People are nice. :^D)

Related stuff:

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Observational drawing with young children: tips

Published by Lori Pickert on February 15, 2008 at 10:53 PM


I am moving this up to its own post from the comments, in case it is helpful to anyone else.

Heather wrote:

I need tips, yesterday I tried this with my 3 and almost 5 yr old and no one wanted to do it. They just wanted to draw their own thing which was fine with me. However I would love for them to try observational drawing out.

My response:

I have tips, tips of many kinds.

Talk about how sometimes we draw whatever we want (free draw) and use our imaginations, but this is a special kind of drawing where we are going to draw something in particular, together.

Rather than grab any old thing, choose something compelling for them to draw that you know will interest them and hold their attention. and remember - your goal at first should be ten minutes or so of drawing, not an hour!

In class, we do observational drawing first, and we do free drawing at the end of class. always make sure they have time to free draw, and they will enjoy free drawing with you as much as they enjoy doing observational drawing with you.

Make a big deal of giving them a special sketchbook to do observational drawing in - even if you just staple together a stack of copy paper with a cover. Make yourself one! Then make a routine of getting out your sketchbooks, revealing the thing you're going to draw (and after a few sessions, they can make suggestions), talking before drawing (discussing details), then draw together and continue discussing details as you draw.

After you finish (short times to start, longer as they become experts), pull out the loose paper and free draw - you can get out colored pencils or markers at this time, too.

Remember that small children can be so mesmerized by any new materials you bring out that they can't concentrate on the task at hand. If that's the case, give them time to draw whatever they want at the front, then start the activity.

No matter what, make sure that this is a pleasant experience! If they enjoy it, they will definitely want to do it again! Play soft music if you like, give them a lot of your undivided attention, sit down together at a clean table, have something interesting to look at and draw (a seashell, something from the yard, a toy, something from the kitchen, something from your desk...), and always give lots of encouraging positive feedback: "I like the way you are drawing so carefully." "You have really put a lot of detail into your drawing!" "Wow, I didn't even notice those little lines." etc. If you make this a really enjoyable experience for all of you, you will all want to do it again!

Thank you, Heather, for your great question. I hope this helps out anyone else who is working with a young and/or reluctant artist!

Related stuff:

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Sharing our work: Observational drawings

Observational drawing: Musical instruments

Observational drawing: Where do we go from here

Art lesson: Blind-contour drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on February 13, 2008 at 01:33 PM


Besides the obvious benefit of learning how to draw, what are some other benefits of observational drawing with children?

• Slowing down, taking our time

• Learning to really see

• Noticing details

• Realizing improvement comes with practice

This is why a sketchbook is essential! Keep sketches together!

• Becoming comfortable with mistakes

• Becoming confident in attempting something new


Tomorrow I'm going to talk a little bit about working with mixed age groups. We have always taught classes with children ranging in age over several years; if you are teaching siblings you are probably doing the same thing. How do you address everyone's needs and make sure no one gets bored? It's not as hard as you think.

See Art Lesson: Observational Drawing

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

Children Make Sculpture

Published by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2008 at 05:27 PM


I ordered this book after I saw Lena's copy.



“This book attempts to show children involved in making sculpture. Their work does not have to be good, finished or artistic. What matters is the activity itself and the knowledge gained by the child…”


This book was written in 1972. It is the work we did with children from 2000 to 2007, and it is the same message we tried to spread through our own work with children, workshops and conferences, and educational consulting.

It is not a new message. We are saying the same things that Elizabeth Leyh was saying in 1972; unfortunately they are still largely ignored. We were constantly having to explain to parents, education students, teachers, visiting administrators, etc., that what the children were doing was important and meaningful and a better use of their time than coloring in a mimeo book about apples or making a follow-the-directions craft.


Many of the books that sustained me during the running-a-private-school years were written decades earlier. Yet the vast majority of the work with children that we observed in both public and private schools didn't reveal one one-hundredth of what we knew children were capable of doing, making, experiencing, and expressing.

That's not to say we shouldn't keep trying. What I'm trying to say is, we must keep trying.


In the studio: Works in progress

Published by Lori Pickert on January 10, 2008 at 10:11 PM


Wonderful reader Jill asks:

How do you corral the projects?? Do you let them sit out for an indefinite amount of time? When do the projects get thrown away, if ever? I want to encourage creativity, but it bugs me to have all the "pieces" spread out all over the place if making something takes longer than 5 minutes.

As Jill has already discovered, the only thing more beautiful than a basket of garbage is a room full of pieces of garbage taped to other pieces of garbage.

Of course, your child knows that the macaroni box taped to four soup cans is a turtle (or a lunar rover, or a brontosaurus, or a fax machine), and maybe even you know that (if s/he told you), but to everyone else, well, it's a look, yes, but maybe not the look you were going for.

How do you corral the projects? In the classroom, we had shelf space for ongoing projects, and we interspersed shelves filled with beautifully displayed art supplies with shelves filled with garbage, i mean ongoing projects.

At home, I have ongoing projects on top of the bookshelves, scattered across the table, and on the floor. SIGH.


At school, we dealt with ongoing work by sticking a Post-It note on it recording what it was (according to the maker) and their plans for it ("I will paint it", "Add eyes and nose", "Add Steering Wheel", etc.). We would reference those notes when reminding the child of the work they had planned to do and also when asking them if they were finished yet.

At home, with my two students, I don't usually have to put a Post-It on anything, but I do write down in my notebook anything they have planned so I can remind them later and also so I can make sure I get whatever they need from me to finish their project.

(I could never keep track of anything if I didn't have a designated homeschool journal/notebook.)

Do you let them sit out for an indefinite amount of time? Yes. The amount of time I let them sit out is definitely indefinite.

Let's talk ideal situation. Ideally, you are writing down what they are doing along with their requests for additional materials ("I need green and brown paint for the turtle's shell", "I need another soup can for my rover", "I need something silver for the top", etc.), their plans (see above), and their questions ("What goes on top of the rover?", "What does a turtle's tail look like?", "I need to look at the seatbelt in our car"). You use that information to keep things rolling:

"You said you wanted to see what was on top of the rover. Let's look on the internet."

"The green and brown paint you asked for is in the art studio. WEAR A SMOCK."

"Do you want to go look at the seatbelt in the car today?"

and etc. So, things are moving along. A project is done when the child says it is done. However, if it hangs around, the child may decide they want to do something more to it, which is a very good thing. In the classroom, children will copy each other's creations, which is an excellent thing. Child #1 makes something, child #2 copies it and adds something interesting, then child #1 goes back and wants to add it to his as well. It's all about extending the work. If you have more than one child, and they are close enough in age, maybe you can enjoy the same effect.


When do the projects get thrown away, if ever? Basically, things hang around until I'm sure the child is good and completely done with them or until I am convinced they have been completely abandoned or because I am in a bad mood and want the room to be clean.

(Guaranteed, if you throw something away, the child will ask for it the next day.)

(Buy black garbage bags for cleaning the studio. There is nothing like the face of a child who just found his or her beloved art project in the trash.)

I want to encourage creativity, but it bugs me to have all the "pieces" spread out all over the place if making something takes longer than 5 minutes. Ah, I feel for you, Jill. Rome wasn't built in a day, however, and neither is a lunar rover made from a macaroni box. It all takes time, and you just have to figure out a way to lessen the effects of helping your child become incredibly intelligent, creative, and expressive.

paint-turtle.jpgDesignate one shelf for ongoing projects. Make room for two or three things per child and that's it. If they want to make something new, they have to finish their old thing first.

Work with them, however, and facilitate their work by paying attention to what they say they want to do and supporting them (by reminding them of their plans, by giving them requested materials) so they can reach their goal. I repeat, it is all about extending the work. The more often they work on one particular thing, the deeper and more layered the knowledge will be.

When they are finished, help celebrate what they have accomplished. Take pictures of it. Show it to people: family members, friends, delivery people. Make a big deal about it; show them how impressed you are. (Don't be fake about it, though. Be sincere.) Kids see what is important to you and they want to impress you. Your attention is a powerful motivator.

In the studio: Storing recyclables

Published by Lori Pickert on January 9, 2008 at 02:57 PM


Deidre is doing a series of posts about her top things of 2007, and last week she mentioned that she was feeling some guilt about something I'd written:

"I have a friend who saves every paper towel roll, etc., for her boys' craft closet, and when she told me that, I did feel a pang of guilt. Then I read Camp Creek Press's post about creating a kid-friendly studio and felt even more guilt . Of course I also read Peter Walsh's It's All Too Much last year, so I've found a compromise. I've given Aidan some space, where he can "collect" all the household found objects he wants for his creations---until the designated space is filled. Then you gotta use some before you add more. Because space is limited, even if buttons are not:-)"


This made me laugh, because don't I know exactly what you mean, Deirdre! Frankly, all organization in the studio is a study in compromise, but recyclables are the worst. You may remember this picture.

It is easy to make most art supplies look beautiful: a clay mug filled with colored pencils, paint jars lined up in the sunshine, a wooden bowl filled with buttons. Ah, lovely.

It is much harder to make a pile of recycling look good. Also, it takes up an enormous amount of space in a classroom, where you are trying to keep enough materials on hand for more than a dozen children at a time. We solved that problem by filling an entire closet with recyclables on shelves.

In your home studio, you can keep less on hand at any one time. Honestly, any time you feel you are getting low on materials, you just have to save for a few days before you have a good pile going again. Unfortunately, it doesn't take much time at all to accumulate this much packaging.

The cabinet pictured up above is a holding area in the kitchen; we throw everything in there first. Later, we sort it out and carry it to the studio, where we try (I emphasize try) to keep it corralled in a couple of attractive baskets that, nevertheless, then look like attractive baskets filled with garbage.


You can try to hide these materials inside cabinets, but out of sight, out of mind, and if your child can't see them s/he probably won't make anything with them. This may put a gleam in your eye, thinking about opening the cabinet doors only on rainy Sundays, but I have to stand tall and represent for the kids: better to keep things out and visible for frequent making.

You can try to nest materials; I know I do. In fact, I would say I excel at recycling tetris. I know exactly which brownie mix box fits into which macaroni box which then fits into the ... you get the idea. And small things like bottle tops and cupcake papers can be thrown into a very large clear plastic jar, the better to see what's available and keep things from spilling across the floor.

Kids digging enthusiastically for a robot foot or a bulldozer part, however, will probably not adequately recognize or appreciate the methodical way you packed the materials to fit in the least amount of space. And so it expands and contracts. If you crave organization (and don't we all crave it? even if we never achieve it?), this may make you slightly insane.

In conclusion, it's not easy to keep just the right amount of things on hand. Variety is good — a variety of materials to choose from and a variety of activities that are available every day. Old macaroni boxes and egg cartons aren't particularly attractive, but they can inspire beautiful work.