Theory is a structured, organised approach, learning from someone more experienced who's laid it all out for us in a course, book or tutorial.
Observation is an organic, unpredictable approach, learning directly from the real world around us and gradually deriving principles from it.
Alone, they are both incomplete; trying to work with only one of them would be like trying to walk with one foot. Studying lays down a solid foundation, which remains abstract and limited until observation brings it to life with details and real-life application but observation needs that founding structure to make sense of itself. For instance, it is only if you know how muscles work that you'll understand why a contracted arm bulges the way it does and you can't draw what you don't understand. It is the combination of learned theory and observed reality that favors integration, or deep learning.
An esential ingredient of this integration is practice. We all know that we remember best what involves us personally. Reading a tutorial and observing our surroundings are the passive component of the learning experience, hardly involving at all. To anchor what our mind absorbs, we must involve ourselves actively, that is, put pencil to paper. We must practice what we learned in a book until the knowledge becomes second nature and is no longer something we need to recall. As for observation, we must put it down in a study. Every great master did such studies. They didn't pull their skills from thin air, but relied on studies, or models (or studies of models) as references.
A study is simply a collection of sketches from real life. There is no rule as to how complete or detailed they should be, but it is important to know what you're after to derive real benefits from it. If you need to draw a dragon, your study may be of reptiles, the shapes of their limbs, the texture of their skin, the way they move, and may also extend, for instance, to bat wings.
Studies will help you not only in learning to draw something you have a hard time with (such as folds), but also in introducing realistic variety into your work. Aspiring fantasy or graphic novel artists pay heed! Imagination is fed by observation. The conscious mind is little more than a supercomputers, powerful but incapable of creating anything from scratch. It create by combining elements stored in memory. The more elements you feed your mind, the more creative it (and you) can be. So if you want to draw people who don't all have the same haircut, design clothing and weapons for your characters, or not be at a loss for backgrounds all the time, you have to look, look and look, and allow the randomness of the world to surprise you (as opposed to confining yourself to a limited and compeltely predictable environment such as your household).
My role on dA has been mostly to give people theory to learn and understand (in the form of tutorials); now let me give you a method to learn from observation by doing studies. It's really an elaboration on the often-given advice "sketch from real life!" but it may be more helpful.
It's very simple, actually. Just go to a public space (a coffeeshop is an ideal place to start) and sketch, with the following in mind:
- Pick a focus, something specific you want to learn or need references for. I'll list some suggestions below. Don't sketch anything that's not related to your focus that's why I'm calling it a focus. Do not confuse with doodling: Sketching from life should never be random. Know what you're after or you'll get nothing out of it.
- Are you worried people will catch you staring? Good. That will force you to steal glimpses of your subjects. You will need to absorb more information in each glimpse and you wont be able to afford getting lost in details other than your focus. This is great training. Don't worry if at first it makes it difficult or the sketches don't come out right. That's what studies are for. Persevere and it will get easier. But for heaven's sake don't look self-conscious and guilty or try to hide. If you act like you're doing something wrong, people will think you are doing something wrong. Be casual. Often you can sketch someone while looking slightly to the side of them, so that if the person looks up they'll think you're staring into space (as long as you don't shift your gaze hurriedly). And if someone notices you and asks to look, don't be childish about it, just let them look. "I'm practicing" is all you need to say.
- For each focus chosen, do this regularly for a while. For instance every day, or every other day for a week or until you feel you've milked the topic.
- Resist the temptation of sketching from photos. They are flat, deceiving representations of a three-dimensional world. Always learn from the original. You can use photos as references once you are proficient enough to see the volume through the flat picture.
- Keep your studies! They are references you are compiling for yourself. Label and file them in an organiser for easy retrieval.
There's no limit to what you can come up with for this. Pick a general weakness of yours that needs strengthening, or something you need for a specific project. For instance, in my work I frequently need to draw random contemporary characters, but I never know what to do for hair and fashion, so I end up relying on a limited "vocabulary" for both. I remedied this by sitting in coffeeshops and sketching, with hairdos and clothing (including colour schemes) as my focus. I'm a quick sketcher so I can easily handle both (I take colour notes and add that with markers later), but they can be done separately.
Here are things you can easily observe and sketch in a coffeeshop:
- Hairdos good opportunity to also study hairlines, hair quality, the behaviour of dstrands of hair, etc.
- Fashion, including accessories and colours.
- Footwear make sure to sit somewhere with a clear view on the queue, or on the street.
- Facial features the shapes of lips, noses, eyes, the facial contour. There's no better way to realize just how varied they are.
- Shading how the light falls on facial features, folds etc.
- Signs of age or youth lines, facial proportions, clothing style and more... Once you start looking for them, you'll find more than expected.
- Folds don't forget to note the nature of the material, as they behave quite differently!
- Posture how people sit or stand, how they hold their hands while talking, etc. Different settings provide different stes of postures - for instance the beach is a good place to sketch reclining poses.
Other suggestions for other settings:
- In a park: tree shapes, leaf and flower shapes, how they are grouped, colour schemes...
- At a gym: that would take more guts than I have, but it's the perfect place to study muscles at work.
- At the beach: body types, reclining postures, diversity in body proportions (made easier by the absence of clothing).
- In the city: building types, windows, street details, stone/concrete hues, textures...
- At your little cousin's birthday party: children's faces and proportions, children fashion...
If you're lucky enough to have access to a botanical garden, zoo or history museum, do yourself a favour and make an occasional trip there with a sketchbook. Botanical gardens in particular often have a diversity of miniature ecosystems, and can give you a feel of the natural environment in different parts of the globe.
And so on. These are basic suggestions, but I hope they can give a clearer direction to beginners who don't know where to start, and new ideas to the rest. I find studies addictive: they're much like collecting something, except these items are free and abundant. I also find they make me increasingly interested in what's around me, and when I'm not sketching, I'm still looking and making mental notes.
I'll end on a final piece of advice: Never expect to be spoonfed. Don't, for instance, look for someone to show you how to draw "a big guy throwing a punch in manga style". Leave that to people who are looking no further than that particular drawing and don't care that they will be dependent forever on others showing them how to do it. Instead, learn about the muscles and joints involved, observe yourself in the mirror in the desired pose, and learn what defines the manga style. Make the synthesis (combining what you know with what you see, adapting the body type and the style) yourself. You may not reach the perfect result the first time around, but what you'll have learned in the trying is something earned, that you can consequently build on. Before you know it (well, it may take a few years) you'll be the one dispensing advice and wondering how the heck you know all this.
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