There’s More to Drawing Than Meets the Eye

Much is written about the obvious connection between seeing and drawing. A lot of my time spent with students concerns training their sense of sight. Consistency in vision is an essential component in learning to draw. But what if there is another sense that is equally important in guiding you while drawing from observation?

According to the classic book The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed, even though we project what we see onto the retinas of our eyes, they do “not suffice to account for our knowledge of the solidity and shape of the objective world, were these senses not associated with another sense all important in ideas of form, the sense of touch.”

Above: A dynamic shading technique by youth sketcher, Scout, depicts realistic 3D form, as if to give us a sense of how her fingertips could have traversed the statue’s surfaces. Photo at top of page: A drawing pencil becomes an extension of Scout’s fingertips as she ‘feels’ her way around different surfaces of the face, placed to her right.

In fact, as infants, our sense of touch is already highly developed. “Our survival depends so much on this sense of touch, that it is of the first importance to us,” states Speed. If you have ever watched the clumsy little hands of a baby reaching for a shiny object beyond eye’s focus, you get Speed’s point.

“And when he has at last got hold of it, how eagerly he feels it all over, looking intently at it all the time; thus learning early to associate the “feel of an object” with its appearance. In this way by degrees he acquires those ideas of roughness and smoothness, hardness and softness, solidity, etc., which later on he will be able to distinguish by vision alone, and without touching the object.”

During Thursday’s Drawing Lab, Rachel sketched lines to measure proportions; then her sense of touch kicked in as she carefully drew contour edges around the sphere and fingers.

Drawing the smooth dimensional form of a hand holding a ball, as shown above, can be tricky. Your eyes guide you through the challenges of sketching lines that place the subject on the page and measure proportions. But they can have a difficult time seeing around the surface masses of objects. This is where your childhood sense of touch comes to the rescue.

We’ve all held an apple and felt the roundness of its mass in our hand. Dotty uses an extended grip and her sense of touch while sketching a bowl of apples.

By engaging your sense of touch, the drawing instrument becomes an extension of your fingers. You can “feel” your way across the surface of a ball or an apple—as if to “trace” around the edges of your subject with your fingertips. With practice you’ll be able to gain a sense of depth in your drawing, and even how the surfaces on the unseen side of your subject could be formed.

A variety of subjects—dinosaurs, lizards, whales, faces—for all levels of sketchers during Wednesday evening’s Drawing Lab. How much of our basic drawing comes from the sense of touch?
During what Harold Speed calls “a searching accuracy”, youth sketcher, Amma, combines vision and touch to hone in on sketching contour edges of a dinosaur.
Our amiable dinos are always ready to pose for you!
Foreshortening—when something is coming toward you—can be a challenge, especially when it is a long dinosaur. Amma found her touch while sketching an excellent curve that shows the dinosaur’s backbone coming toward us.

“Sight is therefore not a matter of the eye alone. A whole train of associations connected with the objective world is set going in the mind when rays of light strike the retina refracted from objects. And these associations vary enormously in quantity and value with different individuals,” wrote Harold Speed.

So, the next time you have an apple in your hand, spend a moment to feel it’s smooth, curved mass with your fingertips. Take a big juicy bite out of it and set it on a table in front of you. Then turn up your favorite music, and start drawing with all of your senses.

Some photos of students engaging all their senses as they drew various subjects last week…

Michelle has been captivated by the whales breaching along the Santa Cruz coast lately. After finishing accurate curves for the action lines, showing the movement of whale’s body and fins, she chooses a 2B pencil to create intricate patterns for textures of its skin.
Zak’s study shows a superb use of high contrast shadow surfaces to form the bust.
After several iterations, Becky gets into some accurate contour edge work and modeling (shading) of a woman’s face.
After returning from several weeks traveling abroad, Nicole engages multiple senses for a pastel study of a lily.
Casey went outside the studio Wednesday evening to sketch birch trees. He did a wonderful job of using contour lines to capture the slight bends in the trunks and direction the branches are growing. Emphasis of details in the foreground gives us a sense of atmospheric depth in his composition.
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Rob Court

Founder and drawing coach at the Scribbles Institute, Rob helps adults and kids learn basic drawing skills for work, school, and enjoyment. He is the author of a number of how-to-draw books.