What Are The 5 Perceptual Skills For Drawing That Are Mandatory For Every Artist?
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
A structured overview of what to know about the basic skills of drawing. Look at this article as a theoretical basis for your drawing journey.
Have you been thinking about starting to draw for quite some time? Are you already drawing from time to time or even better on a regular basis, but still seem to fail over and over again? Do you experience trouble drawing objects from your surroundings? This is very likely to be a matter of wrongly perceiving different objects. Even the most basic things to draw are a lot more difficult without understanding the five following perception skills.
By following this article you will realize that Drawing basic things from your surroundings in your everyday life is basically very easy when you know how to see things as an artist. Many things in life do not work out immediately, but practice the advice you're going to learn now and you will soon recognize an immense difference in your drawing style. You will now learn the absolute basic drawing skills:
I. Perception of Edges
II. Perception of Spaces
III. Perception of Relationships
IV. Perception of Lights and Shadows
V. Perception of the Whole/Gestalt
Basically, perceiving your everyday surroundings divided into these five basics is one of the most important skills every artist in the world has to master sooner or later. Rather sooner than later.
Read through this article carefully and start observing your environment by closely paying attention to the five aspects, which I am going to explain to you right now.
I. Perception of Edges
In drawing, an edge is defined a bit differently from how you would normally describe an edge. In the world of drawing an edge is a shared boundary. I know, this sounds pretty abstract, but I'll clarify it for you. The left brain perceives objects in their logical structure, you see what parts an object contains, in what parts it can be divided.
With the right brain on the other hand, which is by the way responsible for all the creative tasks in your life, you can observe objects in a different way. Normally in everyday life, you're not paying attention to those things, so you have to train to see these so-called "shared boundaries".
In this picture, you can clearly see a hand with a palm and five fingers. Your left brain told you immediately. An artist would probably instantly activate the right brain and detect the contour lines. He looks at the object as if he was going to draw it, which is a good practice in your everyday life for you to improve your artworks if you're already drawing regularly.
He focuses on the lines and not the separated parts of the hand. He realizes that between some fingers, for example between the index finger and the middle finger there aren't two lines as between the little finger and the ring finger to separate them, but only one... a shared boundary.
II. Perception of Spaces
Moving on to the second perception skill every artist has to master. I personally found that one very difficult to learn, but it is essential when you're serious about learning how to draw and to be honest... actually pretty easy in the end if you pay attention closely.
For you as drawing beginners, I'd say it isn't mandatory, but I highly recommend at least reading it precisely to grow a better understanding of... well actually everything or every thing there is.
Space in art is one of the 7 Elements of Art and can be separated into a few different types of Space:
- Pictorial Space
- Negative Space
- Psychological Space
- Conceptual Space
- Perceptual Space
Pictorial Space and Negative Space is absolutely mandatory know-how for any kind of drawing or painting. Psychological to Perceptual Space is mostly essential for architecture and conceptual design. We'll go into Pictorial and Negative Space in this article:
Pictorial Space is the depth of an artwork (doesn't matter, if it's drawn or painted), that we detect/perceive as the distance between different objects, that lie behind one another when looking directly at it.
A few examples of Pictorial Space. I've found the image on this website:
Check it out.
Observe it carefully, but don't be disappointed, if you don't get, what this is supposed to tell you. Subsequent I'm going to explain every square.
1: The first picture shows two different-sized circles, that appear on the same layer concerning space. At least this is how anyone would normally comprehend the depth of this picture while looking at it. The creator of these frames obviously had a distinguished understanding of the first drawing in comparison to mine, so I guess this one is ambiguous just as numbers three and six.
2: Here you can see a picture very similar to the first one, but this time the upper right circle is covered in some kind of shadow, which lets it appear a bit more distant than the big circle because as an observer you might think, the smaller sphere is positioned behind the left circle, which is being illuminated from the bottom left corner's direction.
3: This time the smaller object is seen within the larger one, which immediately gives me the impression of the smaller circle being in front of the other one. When you see it from a different perspective you might as well see a ring at a first glance, which is the reason for this example to be seen ambiguously.
4: Now the smaller circle overlaps the bigger circle and if you've been paying close attention so far, you will notice, that in this basic drawing the two circles share a boundary. Through that "Edge" as it's called like I've previously explained, the smaller circle seems to be a tiny little bit closer to the observer. Almost as if it was touching the larger circle.
5: Similar to the previous picture, but in this frame, you can see the small ball almost fully shadowed except for one part, which indicates an immediate source of light placed directly in front of the smaller circle. On the larger sphere, a little shadow is implied, which leads us to expect both of the spheres to be located in a bigger area with a longer distance between them compared to the frame before.
6: Ambiguous connected to this picture means, the spheres can be seen directly next to each other, but the bigger one somehow managed to look like Pacman's father or another opportunity to understand this drawing, on the other hand, is to imagine the smaller circle to be in front of the bigger one and covering parts of it, which makes it look like some of Pacman's close relatives.
Negative Space can be interpreted as the empty gaps between the object, you're going to draw. This clearly depends on what direction you're looking at the respective object from. You won't have that struggle when you want to draw from another picture obviously.
But either way, this technique of observing things is going to make you draw using your right brain more increasingly, which is very important to getting the right propositions not by using tools but only by feeling. If you didn't already know you've probably just noticed that the right brain is momentarily thought to be responsible for creative tasks, such as drawing, painting, making music or understanding emotions.
Don't get confused by the negative connotation when reading "Negative Space". It is solely called like that to be able to be differentiated by the spectator from the so-called positive forms. Positive forms are the shapes of the object of your concern. Let's finally have a look at some examples:
At a first glance, you instantly see a black chair in front of a white background. Looking a bit longer will make you realize, that what you see is nothing more than the mere shape of a chair colored completely in black on a two-dimensional basis.
This black shape from a chair, which is the object of concern in this example (the object that is being focussed on/ that is being drawn) is, what you will wanna refer to as "positive form" from now on.
The white background, which you probably haven't been focussing on so far is the negative space I keep talking about all the time. Not only in this blog article right now but really every time I talk to someone about getting into drawing. In my opinion, paying attention to these negative spaces can make a huge difference in everyone's tries to draw something realistically.
When we're now reversing this drawing in a matter of colors, we can keep focussing on the black color and now force ourselves to truly only paying attention to all the black parts.
To make this a little easier for you I've quickly recolored the image in gimp (which actually wasn't as quick as I thought it would be).
By the way, you are very welcome to check out the website (click) I have this drawing of a chair from. They go way more into depth explaining negative space than I am in this article.
So, what I want to tell you with all this is, that actively looking at negative spaces in your everyday life can improve and accelerate your ability to detect those negative spaces when you're about to draw something and when you finally sit down, grab your pen and start drawing I definitely recommend you to draw the negative spaces first from time to time.
When you do, you'll be impressed by yourself at how much it accelerates your learning process. Learning to draw with the right brain simplifies drawing for a lot of people and it did for me as well. Just try it out as soon as you can and stop finding excuses concerning temporal bottlenecks, I've been there, too... You know exactly, that you're very well able to draw for about 30 minutes today.
Probably the most popular example of playing with positive forms and negative spaces is "Rubin's Vase":
https://mymodernmet.com/negative-space-definition/ (Blog where I found the image)
First of all, for me it looks like the vase in this artistic masterpiece has to be the positive form, but as you soon realize, there are many people who see something completely different at first. Two faces staring at each other.
In this image, you can switch up the terms "negative space" and "positive form" as you prefer to. Maybe for you, the vase is the negative space between the two faces and maybe it is exactly the other way around and the two faces shape the negative space around the vase, which then ultimately has to be the positive form then.
This example shows very well that negative space is never to be underestimated. It can even be a second positive form around or within the original positive form as you can clearly see in this artwork. By saying that I want to finish the second point "Perception of Spaces" and move on to the third one.
III. Perception of Relationships
Let's start slowly into this one by first of all clearing up the definition of the word relationship in this matter. Relationships of an object are the height, width and diameter of the different parts of the object. Additionally to that, relationships are the distances and angles between and within the inner parts of an object as well. Not the real ones when you're standing right in front of the object but the height, width, diameters, distances and angles as you see them from your point of view!
And again if you couldn't follow this definition or even if you could, we'll get into this topic in a more detailed way with a few examples. This time it is very important to me for you to really understand the problem here. The theory will be quite easy to understand for everyone I bet, but the difficult part is to put into action what you're going to learn now.
For perceiving relationships correctly I really want you to get into it as deeply as possible, not only by reading this part extremely concentrated but by taking action right away, because if you practice consistently it is very doable even though starting off might disappoint or even frustrate you. Keep going and you will be rewarded! You could just start drawing simultaneously to reading further on.
The perception of relationships can be divided into different parts again:
Sighting in drawing is all about recognizing and measuring objects correctly and with the right tools. You can make many mistakes by measuring the length and width of objects.
It is a skill indisputably essential for learning how to draw, a skill necessary to even understand the foundation of drawing.
Talking about tools, you will want to remember mainly one very important thing besides the fact that you can only use one tool of measurement for each drawing because if you changed that tool, you obviously couldn't be consistent with your length and width. I just wanted to get that off of my chest, although I know it is crystal clear.
The one thing you want to remember is to also keep the distance from your eye to your tool of measurement always the same. Let me use examples to make my point clearer for you here.
Let's say your tool of measurement is the simplest one you can get, your thumb. How are you now going to get a constant remaining distance from your eyes to your thumb? The easiest way is to use your armlength which apparently won't increase that much while you're drawing something.
This actually is as simple as it sounds. You straighten your arm forward and give a big thumbs up to whatever you're looking at, what you want to draw. Use the length and width of your thumb to capture and comprehend the dimensions of the object in front of you and always keep your arm straight to guarantee a consistent distance from your eyes to your measurement tool.
Of course, you can use any type of object as a tool to capture the dimensions of something. You could for example also use a ruler or simply the pencil you're probably already holding up. But what is it now, that is so difficult about this skill to get into anyone's head?
The problem is your mind. Your mind is telling you, what kind of attributes describes an object best when you see it, based on the fact that you have already seen different types of that object in different surroundings. Based on these individual contexts your mind has already detected a certain object in, it draws pretty realistic conclusions about the dimensions.
When you see a windmill, for example, a few miles away, your brain immediately tells you how big it approximately is, how wide and how long the sails are and so on. You image the windmill as if you were standing right next to it and what I want for your brain to understand is when you want to draw to not think about everything realistically, as contradictory as it sounds. You don't want to draw a windmill on a 150 meters (492 feet) long piece of paper, right?
Start seeing it as if you were staring at a picture. From your point of view, how does it look? How big is it compared to objects around it, compared to its surroundings, its environment? I just remembered a friend of mine, who is drawing for many years now saying to me and a few others, who were interested in learning how to draw at that time: "Start seeing proportions everywhere".
This is exactly what you'll want to implement more and more into your everyday life. Let us have a look at an actual windmill from the Netherlands, which appears to be the country with the most windmills in the whole world.
Picture yourself standing exactly, where the photographer stood taking that image. You know that you are pretty small compared to that building, but this is not, what you have to know for drawing it!
Let's do a short experiment, where you can practice measuring distances and proportions right away. Take any tool you want to and if it's a toothpick you're just playing around with right now, so be it. I'll just take my thumb for this second and hold it vertically, pointing upwards. Now stretch your arm holding that tool and close one eye.
Don't forget to keep your arm fully straightened to retain a constant distance from tool to eye. So, what are your results? I've identified the windmill to be one and a half "thumbnail heights" high and at the bottom one "thumbnail width" wide, for example.
When you would want to draw that windmill right now (which you could do right away or after reading the article), you would start by drawing a few structuring lines, that indicate the dimensions of the windmill. For example like that:
I know it looks ridiculously simple, but believe me when I say, this is always the way to go when you're starting a new drawing. Using these first points and barely visible lines as a basis for your next steps, you will see that all this fuzz you're making about drawing isn't actually that big of a deal.
As I mentioned at the beginning in the sub-headline, this article is supposed to be a theory only project, but I really want to encourage you to take action and by always providing you with at least some small exercises I hope I'm able to achieve this goal of mine. If you like these small exercises you are very welcome to join my mailing list (click), where I'll be sending you tips, tricks, small exercises, and my free three-day drawing tutorial completely for free.
Another option to learn more beginners drawing exercises is to check out another post on Mac H. - Creative, where I'm providing a structured overview of my Top 10 Beginner Exercises: https://www.mac-h-creative.com/post/first-exercises-for-beginners
Finally summing up "sighting", you have to remember mainly three things:
1. See your object through an imaginary camera. Don't let your brain tell you what's realistic and what isn't.
2. Use a tool of measurement to roughly understand the dimensions of the positive and negative spaces of your object.
3. Keep the distance from your eyes to your tool always steady. Use your stretched arm, for your arm won't grow a lot while drawing.
Perspective is important because once again your mind wants to tell you how an object looks like based on what types of that object you've seen before. Looking at a bike from another perspective than from a 90 degrees angle from the side. For example, we could look at a bicycle from behind but slightly from the right side as seen in this picture.
You always expect the wheel of a bicycle to be round because this is logically the only way that kind of object made sense driving around with. So when you're not paying attention to your perspective and if you're not starting to see your objects through that imaginary camera we've talked about earlier, you are most likely to draw the wheel a lot less oval than it actually is in that image.
So even though it might sound a bit insane but whatever you're looking at, your brain is automatically turning it for you and position it for your brain to make sense. If you want to counteract against that mental phenomenon and learn how to see clearer in terms of drawings you should try seeing only shapes.
In your mind, color the inside of the wheel in white and imagine the rest of the image to be black. I've colored the inside of the wheel white for you but this time using paint, not gimp. It didn't take as long as the other experiment.
Only looking closely at the white oval that has been the rear wheel before enables you to see more clearly. Don't worry if this still confuses you. It has been integrated into our brains for many years and turning that process off from one second to the next is only rarely possible.
Use the tip I've mentioned in the paragraph between the two bike pictures and imagine the rest of that picture to be black. The wheel is neither round nor oval as an egg but even slimmer. This is how you'd have to draw the rear wheel now. Basically, it isn't that difficult, right?
Foreshortening is another important part of perceiving proportion. I believe you're slowly getting tired of hearing it but I have to mention it yet another time: Your brain is responsible for this phenomenon as well, but I promise this part won't be that long, because if you understood the previous parts, this will be nothing.
Looking at our bike again from above, your brain is telling you that object to be of a certain length. Talking more precisely, you imagine the bike to be of a certain length, which is just by the way about 1.8 meters or 70 inches. In that picture, plainly looking at it, you can see that the bike is foreshortened and only maybe half as long as the bike would be when you're looking at it directly from one side.
The skill here is once again to train your brain not to adjust to the perspective change and analyze the dimensions as they are depicted in the image. As an exercise, you could be doing that using your favorite tool of measurement and compare it to other lengths in the picture.
For example, when I'm looking at it from my position with a completely straightened arm measuring the dimensions with my thumb I can analyze within a few seconds the bike to be two thumbnails wide. When the picture would have been taken with the camera as far away from the object as in this picture but this time it's taken directly from the side, it would have probably been three or four thumbnails in width.
I'll talk about Formatting and Anglereckoning within one part, for them being additional knowledge and not mandatorily required. Nevertheless do not underestimate the impact these following techniques can have on your artwork. Especially formatting can help you a lot with your first drawings.
For formatting, we'll again use the bike example from above. Formatting is only about analyzing the width and height of the object correctly so you can adjust your frame accordingly. If you want to solely draw the bicycle without any kind of fence or whatever surroundings there are also seen in the picture you take out your thumb and realize, the bike is approximately one unit wide and one unit high.
When you now use a piece of paper that has the format of a square, you can draw the bike on that without needing to pay attention to width and height because you've already taken care of that by adjusting your paper to these dimensions.
If you need more information on formatting I highly recommend checking out this website's article, which I've already been referring to a lot within "III. Perception of Relationships". They dive into that topic way more deeply and I think their content on that particular site is very valuable.
When it comes to Anglereckoning it's not getting any more difficult than with formatting. Use preferably a pen to hold in front of the object you want to draw and between your eye and the object. Line up the pencil with a line of which you want to analyze the angle to an adjacent line or to one of the borders of your format.
It's all about imagining that angle in your head and reproduce it on your own paper. Remember that you can detect angles between any existing lines within that object or image and the horizontal and vertical format borders.
IV. Perception of Lights and Shadows
Finally moving on to the next big topic this article deals with. Perceiving lights and shadows correctly often sounds easier than it actually is, like so many things in life. But again this will be no problem for you at all if you stay concentrated.
Let's take an egg as an example and have a look at the different parts of light and shadow. We'll clarify what the names of the different fragments are and what you have to pay attention to in particular.
The first thing you're going to notice is, that the egg gets lighted from the top right corner of the image.
Approximately half of the egg is colored in lighter grays and white and the lower left side is colored in darker shades of gray. (Check out this video, where I screenshotted this beautiful egg from and got much of the information in this fourth part of the article.)
The edge to which the light reaches the object directly and where the shadowed part begins is called a terminator. Roughly expressed the terminator separates the light zone from the dark one. When you manage to detect these first areas and the edge, you've already understood a big chunk of knowledge about the perception of lights and shadows.
Fundamentally there are two kinds of shadows, which are called form shadow and cast shadow. As you know you cast a shadow when you're outside or basically when there is a source of light anywhere around you that lightens up your surroundings, you cast a shadow. That's a way to memorize, that the shadow, the object that is being focussed on is casting on another object or on the ground, is called a cast shadow.
The darker part of the egg itself is called a form shadow. It is the area, which the source of light is not able to reach directly but only indirectly. When you look at the picture above once more, you can see that on the very bottom of the egg, it is slightly getting lighter. This is the light being reflected from the white ground the egg lays on and again projected on the object itself.
can be seen. It is a stripe that is darker than the rest of the form shadow and marks the edge, where the shadowed area begins. It
Normally (at least on most objects and in most of the situations), along the terminator, a so-called core shadow can be seen. It is a stripe that is darker than the rest of the form shadow and marks the edge, where the shadowed area begins. It is not similar to the terminator! It is located directly next to it in the shadow area.
Finalizing the shadow area part of this topic, we will clear up one last term, in order for you to have the complete vocabulary. When an object casts a shadow on a light subsoil the outer parts of the cast shadow are lighter and the closer you get to the object the darker the shadow. The darker area near the object and almost under the object is called occlusion shadow.
Continuing with the light area, we will start with the halftone that is located directly next to the terminator. If you've been paying attention so far, you know we have another part located directly next to the terminator. Other than the core shadow, the halftone can be seen in the lighter area of the object.
The halftone indicates the area of your object that isn't fully being brightened by the source of light because the light can only partly reach it directly in that sector. The closer you get to the source of light now, the object obviously gets lighter and the point that is closest to the light source is the brightest and is called center light.
People often tend to confuse the center light for the highlight that is the shiny part on the object that actually appears the brightest for the spectator. The reason for that is the highlight being a reflection of the real source of light. The highlight depends on the viewer's location, whereas the center light always stays the same as long as the object doesn't move. Take a second to think about that.
Look at this egg now once again, without any lines or marks on it.
Do you realize how you are now able to completely differently perceive lights and shadows? You have to admit that you have never looked at objects that way. You are now almost capable of seeing as a real artist. Only one part is still missing in this article and that one is the shortest one.
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Both of them contain realistic drawing tutorials for beginners.
V. Perception of the Whole/Gestalt
As I've mentioned in the last paragraph at the end, the fifth and very last perception skill won't take as long to read as the other ones so far. BUT this is also the reason for you to be likely to need a few minutes to understand. Maybe more, maybe you'll need an hour or two and maybe even days of practice and learning until you really understand what the perception of the gestalt means exactly.
At least for me, it took a long time until I realized, what "gestalt" really is. To make it a little easier for you I want to explain the word gestalt to you. Luckily the word comes from the German language, which exists there in the exact same way and for I'm a German as well I could probably describe to you, what it means adequately.
(Just a little fun fact on the side: Gestalt isn't pronounced as you probably think it was if you're a native English speaker. The "st" in the word is a special case within our syntax rules. "St" is almost in every word pronounced as "sh-t". If you pronounced "Gesh-tult" using English rules, you would pronounce Gestalt like a German.)
Gestalt literally translated means either "non-identifiable figure" (when referring to a human being the word is negatively connoted. Don't ask me why) or it means "visible, identifiable appearance of something". Just for clarification, the second meaning is very similar to the word "shape" but does not exactly mean the same.
"Der Grundriss der Kirche hat die Gestalt eines Achtecks."
"The outline of the church is similar to the shape of an octagon."
The second meaning is very close to the meaning of gestalt in drawing, which we're finally going to clear up now. When you're looking at a photo, a drawing, a painting or even a website you perceive a certain fundamental structure, a certain effect it exerts. You are perceiving the whole of it.
Gestalt is the way an artwork is able to communicate with the viewer. It is the composition as a whole and what the spectator perceives by looking at the elements of the artwork complying with each other to create a unity, which is larger and more impactful than the sum of its parts.
Congratulations and thank you very much for reading this article to this point, where I'll quickly summarize the 5 basic skills you need as a drawing artist. At first, you can say that it all comes down to seeing objects in a different, new way, but let's go over these five basic perception skills one last time:
Number one is about recognizing edges, lines that are the border of two different parts of the object, a shared boundary.
Subsequent we dived into two kinds of spaces in drawings. The first one is called pictorial space, which defines the space perception between objects that are lying behind one another from the spectator's point of view. The second one is called negative space and learning this skill practically will jump-start your drawing journey or immensely improve your drawings. It is the space between the actual object, the crevices, and the gaps.
The third skill deal with detecting relationships correctly, which we've divided into 5 parts. These are called sighting, perspective, foreshortening, formatting, and anglereckoning.
Continuing, we've talked about perceiving light and shadow in the right way and what the differently lighted parts of an object are called, how to differentiate them.
Finalizing we went over the whole or gestalt of an image. We've learned where the word has its origin, what it means and what it means for an artist to perceive gestalt.
In one of the following articles, I'm going to teach you, how to actually learn to draw basics with exercises to teach easy sketching for beginners, now that you have heard about all the perception skills every artist always needs. If you still don't know, where to start, you will finally be ready for your beginner drawing practice by reading that article. As long as I'm writing that article, you may find a remedy in the following and last paragraph.
In my experience, the fastest way to practically learn drawing is the drawing technique called "Zentangle". I have created an online video series on that topic, that you can get completely for free here.
By entering your first name and your email address, you join my mailing list. There you will receive the promised course and after that, my emails are all about learning drawing for beginners and motivating you to take action. Everything for free, of course.
So let me ask you one last thing.
When will you start perceiving the world around you with an artist's pair of eyes?