Learning to love Observational Drawing

I have to confess, observational drawing and I are not friends. If you struggle with drawing from observation like me, this post is for you.


When I started my MA, I knew that the first module was all about drawing from observation and I started out enthusiastically. I had always loved drawing and I wanted to become an illustrator, so naturally I thought that this module would be great fun. Unfortunately, for me it wasn’t. I had high expectations for myself and my class was full of very talented (and sometimes already professional) illustrators. It turned out that drawing from observation is quite hard (who would have thought) and that it was nothing at all like the drawing I did and knew. I picked a theme that was way too vague and broad and I got overwhelmed and a bit stuck. In class my peers shared skilfully and beautifully drawn sketchbook pages, tackling topics like mark making and perspective whilst also experimenting with different art materials. Comparing myself to my classmates, I felt so behind in my skills and I struggled. It wasn’t until the end of the module when I went to Shepreth Wildlife Park with my friends and started drawing the animals there that something clicked and fell into place. Surrounded by cute animals (the capybaras!) my overthinking and critical brain finally switched off. I was finally having fun and it showed in my drawings.


Shepreth Wildlife Park: Loosening up


Halfway through my final review presentation I burst into tears, I was sure I was going to fail the module. It turned out that I did much better than I expected and my wonderful teacher Viola Wang gave me encouraging and uplifting feedback on my sketchbooks.

Looking back, I can see the things that made it hard for me to enjoy observational drawing.

  1. I got overwhelmed. (What should I draw? With what material? How do I apply all the lessons like tone, perspective etc to all of my drawings?)

  2. I felt vulnerable, both whilst drawing from observation ( I was scared people would come up to me to see what I was doing) and afterwards (when my friends, peers and teachers would look through my sketchbooks) The fact that my sketchbook would be marked and therefore judged really tightened me up.

  3. I didn’t have a lot of patience for my practise. My friends could sit down somewhere and draw for hours (Yes you, Frances and Lilla) when I struggled to work for even 30 minutes. I couldn’t get into the same flow state as they did.

  4. High expectations. I hated making ‘bad drawings’ (that everyone would see).


Learning to love Observational Drawing

I want to learn to love drawing from observation. Not only is it (annoyingly so) a vital part of an illustrator’s creative practise by building up a visual library and solidifying drawings skills, it is also a way of documenting your process and in a way your daily life. Looking through my sketchbooks from the MA I am instantly back in Cambridge, drawing in Jesus Green with my friends. Even though I don’t like most of the drawings, I can see how I improved from the first sketchbook to the last. I decided to look through all of my sketchbooks to see what I liked and from this I found a couple of tips to trick the brain.


Working with two coloured pencils in Shepreth Wildlife Park


Tips for feeling overwhelmed

1. Limiting your choice of materials

Take only a pencil, a black marker or two coloured pencils of choice when going out to draw from observation. By starting out with the basics you can really focus on looking, without having to make a lot of decisions about what materials to use. What kind of variety can you achieve with one material? When you find that you miss certain materials, add them to your pencil case for next time. Start with a small sketchbook and go bigger once your confidence is up from practising.


2. Add a time limit This is a trick I learned from Helen Stephens. When working with a time limit you have to work as quickly as possible to get everything down on the paper. This tricks the brain out of overthinking and into action. From David Gentleman’s ‘London, You’re Beautiful: An Artists year’: ‘It’s good to do something quickly and not have the time to spoil it.


3. Observation and Intentional Curiosity

In the book ‘The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journalling’ John Muir Laws uses the follow prompts in his practice: “I notice,” I wonder,” and “It reminds me of” to focus his attention. He writes: ‘In any moment, it is possible to learn about your surroundings through observation. It is also easy to walk through the world caught up in your own thoughts and worries, looking without truly seeing. The difference between these two experiences is conscious, focused attention.’

This really struck a cord with me. I can easily get lost in my own thoughts while the day slips away, so making an effort to focus my attention and follow my curiosity will help me ground myself in the moment. Start drawing things that you love.


Portrait of my friend Lilla Turi, who is much prettier in real life!


Tips for feeling vulnerable

  1. If you, like me, feel vulnerable and a bit exposed when drawing outside of the cozy and safe walls of your studio, try this trick I learned from one of Emma Carlisle’s early Patreon posts: Big headphones, even though you're not listening to music. Wear sunglasses, a cap. This will give a vibe of ‘pls don’t approach me.’

  2. When someone does approach you, it’s usually for a friendly chat which can be fun. However sometimes strangers tend to hand out unsolicited advice. Ouch. ‘I’m not open for feedback at the moment, thank you’, should do the trick. Assertive and simple. Turning your back on them is also a subtle way of signalling you are done with the conversation. As Brené Brown says, don’t take shit from anyone who isn’t in the arena, meaning anyone who isn’t going out there taking risks and being brave. Don’t take advice to heart from someone whose opinion you don’t value.

  3. Location. Start out with quiet places like the local park or woods or a cozy coffeeshop and work up your confidence to drawing in more crowded places. One of my favourite places to draw during the MA was on the first floor of the Costa Coffee overlooking over the market. They had comfy, high backed chairs there, making it the perfect spot to draw people visiting the market from above without being seen.

  4. Take a friend. Safety in numbers.


Market square in Cambridge, still not confident enough to draw people



Tips for working on your stamina / attention span

  1. Before going out, make a plan of what you want to draw/achieve. Some goals could be focus on light and tone, a colour or character study, texture and pattern or getting to know a material like gouache or pastels and having a good play. When you’ve achieved your goals tick them off and treat yourself to a nice coffee/tea/treat of choice.

  2. Ask yourself questions to make the drawing more intentional. What do I want to learn or figure out? What do I want to remember from this day/moment?

  3. What is the drawing for? From 'Sketchbook for the Artist' by Sarah Simblet: ‘We should not try to know how every finished picture will look, but it is important to be clear why we are making it. Decide before you start whether you are drawing to warm up, or to discover the best use of a new material, to conduct an experiment, make a calculation, illustrate a dream. Our drawings are investigations into the mechanisms of nature and of an idea.

  4. The best advice for my illustration practice came from the brilliant Pam Smy. She said to me “Draw things as you see them. Through your specific Maris glasses.” By this she meant don’t draw something the way you think it should look like, draw something as you see it. It’s not necessary to draw things exactly as the are, but by how you see them. You can leave things out of the composition that you’re not interested in, change the colours, make things bigger or smaller. It’s your drawing, focus on the elements that you are interested in most. Also from Sarah Simblet’s 'Skechbook for the Artist': ‘The observed world may be our subject, but it should be the experienced world we draw. There should never be a slavish obligation to represent things exactly as we collectively agree we see them. We all see differently.

Tips for dealing with ‘Bad Drawings’

  1. Thinking Drawings On the MA Alexis Deacon gave some great advice during one of his lectures. He described sketching as ‘thinking drawings’. Drawing in your sketchbook is like thinking with a pencil. This changed my perspective on my bad drawings and made me see the value of them.

  2. Don’t like your drawing? It’s okay to just flip the page and start again. Start out by making a thumbnail sketch on a post-it note to plan out your drawing.

  3. Don’t rip out your ‘Bad Drawings’ Although tempting (I’ve done it myself many times), bad drawings are a good way to track your process. Sometimes when going through old sketchbooks I find drawings that I initially didn’t like, but after some time I really love because they show me a mood or something difficult that I was working through.


Planning a drawing by making a thumbnail sketch on a Post-it note



A different approach: visual journalling

I loved seeing my old visual journals, the entries take me back to the specific time, place and mood that I was in, making those entries precious memories. By approaching my observational drawing sketchbooks as visual journals they become a cherished place where I document my interests, thoughts and my daily life. It also removes the question ‘what should I draw’. I know I don’t always enjoy making the entries, but future me loves that I make them.

Visual journalling is also a great exercise. When reading Martin Salisbury’s new book ‘Drawing for illustration’ I came across a quote from Edward Ardizzione; ‘To acquire a good visual memory and knowledge another practise is essential: the practise of really looking at things and trying to commit them to memory. In this context the keeping of an illustrated diary helps enormously. If every young student would jot down something of what happens to him or interest him each day and illustrate it with a small drawing done from memory, he would find the combination of words and drawing a most useful exercise.’

A page from my visual journal


I will be working hard on making observational drawing a solid part of my creative practise and I have set myself the challenge of going out at least once a week. My first stop will be the zoo in Rotterdam as I love drawing animals. From there on I will try and challenge myself each week and gradually move on to drawing people in busier places. If you want to follow my progress, I will post some drawings on my insta stories and in future blogposts here. If you want to join me with unlocking your sketchbook paralysis then please connect with me on Instagram!


You made it all the way to the end! Thanks for being here.

Let's get sketching.

X Maris


Some interesting links:

Helen Stephens and The Goodship Illustration

Viola Wang

Frances Ives's amazing sketchbooks and Patreon

Lilla Turi's epic sketchbooks

John Muir Laws The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journalling or on Scribd

Emma Carlisle's Patreon

David Gentleman

Pam Smy

Martin Salisbury’s new book Drawing for Illustration

Rebecca Green has written a fabulous blogpost on Visual journaling here

and on her Patreon here

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