{Art Together} Looking Closely

{This post is part of the art together series. You can see all the posts in the series here.}

“’The teaching of drawing is the teaching of looking.’ A lot of people don’t look very hard.” –David Hockney.

Looking closely at a pussy willow, by V, age 11.

Looking closely at a pussy willow, by V, age 11.

Before we go any further, you need to promise me you’re not going to start comparing. Don’t compare your artwork to mine, your kids’ artwork to my kids’ artwork, or your work to your kids’ or your kids’ work to each other. Remember to start where you are. Also remember that I’ve been doing this with my kids for a while now. We’re all comfortable with the process. Brand new things often feel uncomfortable, so if you or your kids are feeling awkward, it’s okay to acknowledge that. Like anything else new, it’ll feel less awkward the more you do it.

Okay, then! Let’s get started. We’re going to start not by trying to draw but by trying to look closely, with a pen or pencil in our hand. Because I find natural objects so interesting to draw and because I am craving spring, I suggest finding a Growing Thing to serve as the focus of your observation. If you can head outside, wherever you happen to live, and find a dry patch of ground on which to sit, and it’s not so cold or windy as to be distracting, do that. If you have houseplants, pick one. I am death to houseplants, so I bought some tulips and pussy willows at the supermarket. We have so many collected natural treasures on our table that some of those found their way into the drawings as well.

As for art materials, we used sketchbooks, but loose drawing paper and even regular old printer paper will work just fine. I gathered a selection of sketching pencils and markers.  I love my Pitt DSC02670Artist Pens, but a fine-point black Sharpie is a good alternative, and it’s cheap and easy to find. (Also, I don’t share the Pitt pens with my youngest, since she still presses down too hard on the tips for my liking. She uses Sharpies.) If you don’t have sketching/drawing pencils, there’s nothing wrong with using a regular #2 pencil, but I suggest taping over the eraser. If you have it as an option, you’ll want to use it. You’ll get hung up on getting everything “perfect,” which will just interrupt the whole process of looking at what you are drawing. My kids decided they wanted to use colored pencils too, so we added those to our pile later.

Start out by looking at your drawing item together. What do you notice about it? Here are some of the observations my kids and I made as we drew:

8yo, drawing pussy willows: I’m shading the puffy things in to make them look furry. Do you notice these have a furry texture?


4yo, drawing a tulip: Is the green the flower too or just the yellow and red? [Answer: The green she was looking at was the leaf; the stem was green too.]

Me: The edge of this tulip looks like a clam shell the way it comes together in the middle.

11yo: This [the hardest pencil in the group] is horrible for shading. (For more information on soft/hard pencils, see this post; I’ve updated it with more pictures.)

Me, to 8yo, as he struggled to draw a junebug’s wing: Look at the shape of it; it’s not symmetrical. The bottom is a smoother line but the top goes up and then tapers down. Start with the overall shape and then fill in the details.


In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, author Betty Edwards explains that we have built up a shorthand of sorts—what a hand should look like, a flower, a tree, a house—and when we sit to draw, our brain supplies these symbols, and we end up drawing what we think we see rather than what is truly there. I remember my first drawing class that included a live model; the professor pointed out how the proportions of the human body are not at all what we think. For example, a hand is much larger than we usually draw it; in fact, a hand is extremely odd looking if you really investigate it.

4yo drawing a sand dollar; she counted the "petals" in order to draw it accurately.

4yo drawing a sand dollar; she counted the “petals” in order to draw it accurately.

I’ve come to think that the true value in drawing isn’t the image itself, it’s that a drawing practice teaches you to really look at something. Of course the ability to recreate what you see can be extremely useful. You can use this skill to make notes on a nature walk so you can compare what you see (a flower? a leaf? an insect?) to a field guide later on. You can use it to sketch out the idea in your head to help you get it across to someone else—or even to help you figure out exactly what you’re thinking. But the sketch on the paper is only a small part of what you’re doing. The first part of drawing is looking—looking closely.

If you feel yourself becoming discouraged by your perceived inability to draw, try to reframe it: You are learning to really see. And remember that as with anything else, if you practice, it will begin to get easier. You will learn to truly look closely. You will begin to see what is actually there rather than what you think is there, and that is a valuable skill to have in life whether you become an accomplished sketcher or not.

Further Resources:

Drawing Lab For Mixed Media Artists: 52 Creative Exercises to Make Drawing Fun: My kids and I (together and separately) have enjoyed many activities from this book; flip through and pick out something that interests you.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: Presents an approach to drawing designed to trick the brain to leave those preconceived notions behind.

Take it Further:

Blind Contour Drawing: This post at the Camp Creek Blog describes a method of drawing that involves only looking at the object, not at all at the paper.

Share Your Work:

I’ve created a Flickr group, where I’ve added more photos from our drawing session, and where you can share photos too, if you want to, or ask questions in the discussion section…whatever seems useful and helpful to you. If you have any questions please leave a comment or email me at amyhood AT amyhoodarts DOT com, and I will see you again in a week. Happy drawing!

15 thoughts on “{Art Together} Looking Closely

  1. mamascout

    i love this. yes! we are all about looking closely – which seems to be harder to do in our culture.

    i will share this! thanks!

  2. Michelle

    You were speaking directly to me in that first part, right? 😉

    The last few times we sketched, I made a point of slowing my 9yo down and asking questions before we set pencil to paper. It definitely helped to make sure we were both really seeing the details.

    I just requested the drawing from the right side book and the wkbk from the library. I don’t think we used the drawing lab either. Maybe just the art lab one. Can’t remember.

    Have I mentioned I love this series? Xoxo

  3. patricia

    My youngest and I sketch together at times, but we’ve never made an ongoing practice of it. Your series makes me want to! What’s particularly interesting to me as a writer is that such close looking for sketching is bound to help with descriptive writing. I’m intrigued with the idea of trying a drawing/descriptive writing exploration with kids. Thanks Amy!

    1. amy

      Thanks for sharing that idea in the comments too, Patricia, for everyone to see. Yes, the descriptive powers of close observation filter through to everything. I hope you post about it, if you try to combine this sort of drawing with a writing exercise. I’d love to read about that.

  4. loripickert

    great post — this is why observational drawing is such an important part of project-based homeschooling — because it’s about looking closely and noticing details, from which arise questions … and then you’re off on an authentic investigation. 🙂

    pinned to my authentic art board on pinterest!

    1. amy

      And because my 4yo is so used to this process, when she sits to draw something for her project work, such as the coyote not too long ago, she is already looking closely. It all loops back.

  5. Corinne

    Thanks for sharing this with us!!!!!!! Its really fantastic the way you explained this, looking up closely….It makes the process so much more interesting and enjoyable…. I’m loving it!!!!!

  6. An Everyday Story

    Drawing what you really see, it is difficult, isn’t it? Particularly like you said, our brains have images of what things look like and we draw from that. I am finding that Jack is becoming quite observant now and I know that observational drawing has a lot to do with it. Plus, really looking is so very fascinating. We found a dead dragonfly and his wings were just magnificent. Drawing and looking in that kind of detail is really quite fun, even for this mama who is an abysmal drawer 🙂

    1. amy

      I think kids are natural close observers–at least mine always were, it comes part and parcel with why it takes a toddler twenty minutes to walk from the front door to the car. 🙂 But making space for that kind of observation–that’s one of the gifts we get from young children. If we can hold onto that and help them hold onto that…it’s akin to inviting delight in.

  7. Corinne

    My daughter and I drew together! We were meant to look closely (it was a shell of a dead snail that laetitia picked up form the yard). Unfortunately she looked at mine and gave up on trying. She was frustrated, wanted me to draw for her (i didn;t but kept on encouraging her….) but it didn’t seem to work. What can I do about that? I felt helpless and did not know what to say….

    1. amy

      Hi Corinne,
      Do you mind sharing how old your daughter is? In the meantime here are some suggestions that *might* be helpful to you, and if not, please come back for more discussion!
      * Could you try forgetting about the drawing part for now and just talking about what you both notice about the shell, or whatever object you’re looking at? Perhaps use a magnifying glass or loupe to get a really close-up view. Try drawing that magnified view instead. The result tends to be more abstract, and that might feel less frustrating.
      * Jen wrote about her experience with her (I believe) 3yo daughter here: http://www.ihappyree.blogspot.com/2013/03/art-together-looking-closely.html
      If Laetitia is about the same age, perhaps that would be useful to you?
      * Here is another take on observational drawing, a post at the Camp Creek Blog: http://project-based-homeschooling.com/camp-creek-blog/art-lesson-observational-drawing
      * Another post on the same blog: http://project-based-homeschooling.com/camp-creek-blog/mentoring-perfectionist-child, this one talks about perfectionism.

      I know some people discourage drawing alongside children for exactly this reason, but unfailingly, one of my children will see a detail or add something to their drawing that I wouldn’t have thought of. Truly, none of us are “experts,” we’re all on equal footing. By working together we have come to appreciate each other’s styles and strengths and we all grow in that way…but as I said, we’ve been doing this for a while and it wasn’t always easy. I remind them I’ve had lots more practice drawing. Just like you are a better reader than someone who is just beginning to read–more practice with a skill produces better results, but it’s the practice that does it; having had less practice doesn’t make someone “worse” at something. Perhaps that perspective would help your daughter?

      You could continue trying to draw daily, even for 5 minutes, on your own, where your daughter can see you and is welcome to draw her own picture, or not. I think it’s also useful to talk about my own process and the parts I might be having trouble working out–not in a defeated way but in a problem-solving way.

      I’m so glad you left your question and I hope this helps but if not, please let me know…


      1. Corinne

        Dear Amy,

        Thank you sooooooo much for your help! My Laetitia is almost 6 years old (she’ll be 6 in about 2 weeks!). I’ll surely try all of the above and see what works best!!! Thank you so much again!!!!! 🙂

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