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Old 04-22-2012, 11:24 AM
bertling bertling is offline
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Drawing what you see vs. drawing what you know

I have not studied art formally (I've received guidance from other artists, but not from a scholarly setting) so maybe someone here could enlighten me on this topic. I've been told by different people how to approach something like, say, portrait drawing. From what I heard, there seems to be 2 conflicting schools of thought.

One school claims that drawing or painting is all about capturing the light. You should observe the subject in terms of basic flat shapes, the way light and shadows fall, and finally transfer it onto the canvas. When it comes to something like portraits, careful measurements of various distances must be made, in order to achieve likeness. The lady who was teaching this to me at the time made me do a lot of still life studies.

The other school claims drawing should not be copying. One should draw what he knows. They encouraged me to study a lot of anatomy (I found the process of memorizing bones and muscles a bit tedious ). When I draw, I should be observing the volumes and structure of the subject and trying to recreate those volumes and masses on paper. I can see this approach could be very useful for something like caricature, or concept art.

So my question is, are there names for these different ideas? Who came up with these ideas and which idea do most artists find more valuable to their work?

Last edited by bertling : 04-22-2012 at 11:34 AM.
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Old 04-22-2012, 01:51 PM
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birdhs birdhs is offline
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Re: Drawing what you see vs. drawing what you know

bertling, bertling, bertling....

both schools of thought are perfectly correct.
and there are artists who probably lean more toward one than the other.

there are those who ignore all the rules, never had any training and do strikingly original work.

do not believe there is only one right way to create art, but try all of them, some will feel comfortable, some horrible.

As an artist you will enjoy some mediums, some are difficult. try them all, how else will you know?

and never stop learning and ignore those who would put your style into a specific category, just find yourself and enjoy the journey

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Old 04-22-2012, 02:16 PM
bertling bertling is offline
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Re: Drawing what you see vs. drawing what you know

Greg I think you are right.

I do find both ways of thinking to be important for me. and yeah it's good to experiment with different mediums and ideas.
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Old 04-23-2012, 03:46 AM
Keith2 Keith2 is offline
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Re: Drawing what you see vs. drawing what you know

I don't think there are conflicting techniques of drawing, you just vary the approach according to your subject and your mood.

In the thirties there was a style of painting developed by painters in London - the Euston Road School - which was based on detailed and precise measurements of the subject. I can't find much about it on the internet, but information on one of the founders of the method, William Coldstream, is on this site:


If you draw what you know rather than what you see, the drawing or painting may not be very convincing. A few days ago I was painting an old art deco cinema with distincitve horizontal stripes and curved corners. I was at an acute angle to the facade, the light was poor, and I found I was making up the details rather than half closing my eyes and simplifying the shapes. The resulting painting wasn't that good - it was far too detailed.
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Old 04-26-2012, 04:28 PM
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treeshark treeshark is offline
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Re: Drawing what you see vs. drawing what you know

There are I would say different sorts of drawing for differing purposes. So a plein air impressionist might try to block out the past experience/learning and detail aspect to focus on the tonal shapes you perceive with eyes part closed. An archeological artist might concentrate on direct perception also, but accuracy and detail will be the order of the day. A surrealist might draw only what they remember and imagine coloured by dreams, though all of this content will have been input via perception at some point. A fully rounded artist should perhaps learn to draw in any and all of these manners and use them in whatever combination gets the work done best. So there is no "Vs" they are all valid in their own way. They are all however drawing what you know, there is no such thing as drawing what you see without the knowing part.
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Old 05-11-2012, 05:44 PM
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Re: Drawing what you see vs. drawing what you know

The knowing is required so you can draw/paint what you see. The two go together.
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Old 05-11-2012, 07:46 PM
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Re: Drawing what you see vs. drawing what you know

It seems to me that the anatomical studies type drawing was that done in the renascence and beyond, (artists were recidivist grave robbers, after doctors) the flat planes style was done later on-- 20th century? Impressionism? Either way, I think you need to do both to draw with competence. I wouldn't know the names of either outlook.
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Old 05-12-2012, 07:28 AM
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Horsa Horsa is offline
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Re: Drawing what you see vs. drawing what you know

I think it is Charles Reid who wrote a book titled "Paiting What You Want to See". A third approach to the two above.

I think the best artists probably use a blend of approaches, depending on their goals for a particular work.
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Old 05-13-2012, 10:46 PM
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Keith Russell Keith Russell is offline
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Re: Drawing what you see vs. drawing what you know

These are only two ways of working, and they are both "valid"; both can help a painter produce striking, beautiful work.

The question you need to ask [yourself] is, "will either of these methods get me where Ito be, as an artist?". If you think one of them is right for the kind of work you want to create, then learn that method to the best of your ability, (You can always change your mind if you decide that the results you're getting aren't really to your liking, after all! )

And, of course, there are many other ways to paint, too...
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