Small Wins Wednesday: Observational drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on February 26, 2014 at 09:21 AM

Carrie shared this photo of her daughter’s project notebook on Twitter: “Notebooks aren't just for grown-ups! Love my kid's #pbh book.”

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Every Wednesday we’re going to share a small win from the forum, Twitter, the Facebook page, or (with the writer’s permission) from the mail bag.


Family field trip to the dam for their National Engineering Week event. For the first time packed clipboards and paper for sketching, per Lori’s suggestions. To be honest, I thought they would just be something extra I had to lug around for five hours, but something utterly unexpected and utterly amazing happened. My son made five different sketches. Three of them were during the guided tour into the powerhouse where he had to sketch fast. I thought that would discourage him but it didn’t.

Later he said his favorite thing was the sketching, although he amended it to second favorite. First favorite was going partially inside a generator.

Bonus: In an attempt to model sketching, I sketched my own version of the powerhouse generators. The ranger who accompanied the tour said to me, “You’re BOTH artists!?” I looked at my *sketch* and had to chuckle. “Ya…ya…I guess we are.” — Kat, from the current Master Class forum


Why do we share small wins? Because we put on our attention on what we want to grow, and we want to leverage those small victories. We support each other, celebrate each other’s successes, and we do everything we can do make more of the good stuff!

Have you had a small win this week, whether it’s related to PBH or not? Please share in the comments!

Sharing our work

Published by Lori Pickert on March 27, 2008 at 08:46 PM



The marvelous Estea of Robot•Jumping•Rope shared these observational drawings her children did with the Camp Creek Art Lessons Flickr group. Fantastic!

Art lesson: Contour drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on March 1, 2008 at 01:26 PM


contour drawing by J, age 9

Last week we did some blind contour drawing, using a paper plate on our pencil so we couldn't see our paper — we kept our eye on the outline of what we were drawing and let our hand follow along.

We then followed up with a regular observational drawing. Our observational drawings are improving dramatically after just a few classes. The children are getting into the habit of looking for more detail before I ask them (nag them), "Do you see another detail you can add?" When they say "I'm done!", they really do have a mostly completed drawing to show me.

Blind contour drawing forces us to slow down and really look hard at the outline of what we're drawing; afterward, their observational drawings show how much attention they had given to the object they were drawing.

This week we tossed away the paper plates (metaphorically) and did some contour drawing.

Once again we started by talking about outlines. We drew backpacks during class, so I held up a backpack and had one of the students come up and trace and major lines with her finger while we all talked about it. Then we were ready to draw.



• Try to draw the outline of all the major parts of the backpack with one long line — no stopping and starting.

• It's okay to glance at the page to make sure your lines are going where they're supposed to go, but try to mostly keep looking at what you are drawing.

• This is not an observational drawing — don't stop and add details. Just keep going forward and outline the big/important elements.

• Your line needs to be strong and go straight ahead like a slow freight train — it's fine to draw over the lines that are already there.

• No coloring in or filling in — just do the outline.

• Draw big! Try to fill your whole paper.


Since this is the first time we were doing this type of drawing, I did some "that's great, but let's start again on this side of the paper and this time..." encouragement as I walked the room.

I always tell the kids that sketching is practicing and we will usually put more than one drawing on a page. If they have an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and they are making a drawing that is about the size of a pack of cards, I will encourage them to just draw it again in an empty part of the paper. If they are drawing a large object very small, then I will ask them to try to draw it larger.

In the same vein, when I emphasize that sketching is practicing, I don't say or imply "you're doing it wrong" — I say "great, now do it again and change this or that". When they are doing an observational drawing of a small object, I flip it over or around so they can draw it from a different perspective. If they tend to draw very lightly, I might ask them to do another one with big strong lines. Sketching, I tell them, is about trying a lot of different things.


J, age 9, contour drawing, first attempt



second attempt


E, age 7, contour drawing

Contour drawing, like blind contour drawing, is about drawing the outline of something as it really looks. Many of the children made a first attempt, then we talked about the results, then they made a second attempt. Most of them needed at least two tries to figure out trying to draw the whole thing in one line. We talked about using an etch-a-sketch — how you just go over another line or through the empty part to get to the next thing you are going to draw.


Left to right: first attempt at contour drawing, second attempt, final observational drawing, by E, age 6

After we finished our contour drawings, we did an observational drawing. You can see the children used the information they gathered during the contour drawing to improve their observational drawings.


observational drawing by Jack, age 8


Related stuff:

Art lesson: Blind Contour Drawing

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Observational drawing: Where do we go from here?

Published by Lori Pickert on February 20, 2008 at 02:19 PM


I could talk about that guitar for two hours.

I was going to post something about how we take the skills learned in observational drawing (seeing, describing, discussing, rendering) and then we branch out into the different media.

Something about how drawing then goes to sculpture and collage and painting and modeling and etc.

Then I looked at that guitar and thought about all the non-art places it took us, too.

I remember kids not just looking at instruments but tracing them with their fingers, playing a real rock-band drum set for the first time (!!), arguing passionately about whether a piano is a percussion instrument (because the hammer hits the string! percussion!) or a string instrument (because the strings make the music! string!). Making models of human ears out of clay. Learning about how things are classified — not just musical instruments, but animals, plant, birds, fish. Doing experiments on how sound travels.

Children who cannot yet read or write a single sentence can make extensive notes by drawing, notes that they can read back to you days or even weeks later, knowing exactly what they were thinking about when they first drew it. Children who cannot yet read or write a single sentence can look through stacks of books and mark interesting passages for an adult or older child to read to them later. "I'm sure this says something about the viola! Read it to me!" Pre-readers researching.

Observational drawing is the first step along a path of art and expression — collage, painting, print-making, sculpting, modeling, and so on. For those of us who homeschool, it can also be the first step in hands-on learning.


Batik, Saxophone Player, by Eli, age 8


Related stuff:

Comics project: Inquiry-Based Learning

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing

Observational drawing with the young and/or reluctant: tips

Sharing our work: Observational drawings

Observational drawing: Musical instruments

Art lesson: Blind-contour drawing


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

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