Basic Drawing

Lesson Three: Draw What You See

Learning to draw what you see is one of the biggest challenges in developing drawing skills. Basically, you are teaching yourself to see things in two-dimensional form so you can easily translate it to a two-dimensional form (a sheet of paper.)

In our daily lives, we use our eyes for many purposes--for identifying objects (do I want to buy orange juice or apple juice?) For defining things--I like a country cottage style better than a raised ranch style in houses or for verifying our emotional responses--I think Marcia is a very pretty girl.

And for the purposes of drawing, you have to train yourself to see things in a different way. If you close one eye and handicap your perception of depth, you will begin to get an idea of how this works. Ultimately, an artist sees everything in a grid-like reference and equipped with this skill, proportion, perspective, placement in the visual field, light and shadow--all become identifiable and fairly easy to draw on a piece of paper.

Using the Pencil Gauge Method

Sit at a table and place an simple-shaped object (like a coffee mug) in front of you, placing it about three or four feet away. Now take a pencil and begin to use it as a grid-like reference of verticals and horizontals.

drawing, learn drawing, pencil gauge

You can use your pencil as a gauge for the height and scale of the objects. Hold your pencil vertically in front of you and squint, so that you can see that the point of the pencil comes just to the top of the object. Remember the position of your hand and arm holding the pencil. Now,you can measure the rest of the object by how much of the pencil it takes up for length. That is, if the tip of your pencil is at the top of the object, where on the pencil is the bottom of the object? Where the bottom of the object is near the bottom of the pencil, put you thumb and take note of how much of the pencil "takes up" the size of the object before you. This is your vertical reference for the object.

With your thumb still in place, measure the length from the tip of your pencil to your thumb--let's say it is two and one half inches. Now make a vertical line on a sheet of paper that is two and one half inches long. This line represents the vertical measurement of your object.

drawing, shading, learn drawing

Now hold your pencil horizontally. You've remembered the position of your hand and arm when you held the pencil vertically, so duplicate that position as accurately as you can. Squint again and place the pencil so that the tip is at one side of the object, then take note of where the other side of the object intersects with the pencil and slide you thumb there. Now, with your ruler, measure the distance from the pencil tip to where you placed your thumb. Let's say it is one and a quarter inches.

Now, on your piece of paper, draw a one and a quarter inch line that intersects your vertical line. This is your horizontal reference for the object in front of you. Now look carefully at the object and draw it in, using your vertical and horizontal references. This will be a fairly accurate representation of what you are really seeing in front of you.

Exercises for Drawing What You See

There is another great method (I call it the "grid method") for learning how to draw what you see. It actually was developed during the Rennaissance and was an important skill that endowed masters like DaVinci and Durer with the ability to depict accurately objects in space. Here is my video that demonstrates this method.

Do four or five still life drawings using the pencil gauge method or the grid method.

Choose four or five different, simple-shaped objects. Set them on a table and position yourself with your sketch book and drawing supplies in front of them.

If you want to, darken the room (if possible) and place a lamp or flashlight to the side of the objects to emphasize directional light and shadow on the objects. You will have to simplify these lights and shadows for your purposes of shading. Don't get to involved with all of the nuances of light and shadow. Keep your drawings simple!

Take note of diagonals and how they relate to your vertical or horizontal reference. See diagonals is not easy at first. Your brain, basically the left side, will want to see everything parallel or may even distort what you see by trying to re-define it. More about this left brain/right brain dialogue later!

Here are several videos I have created on shading still life objects. I think you will find them encouraging and helpful!

Draw and Shade A Bowl With Pencil

Pencil Shading A Still Life

With practice, applying pencil gauge and grid methods to each drawing, you will soon be able to imagine a grid on anything you are drawing and consequently, your drawings will be accurate and to scale. As an aid to developing your drawing/seeing skills, you can use the pencil gauge method to any and all objects you are drawing, whether they are a landscape, a still life, a portrait, figure drawing, or an interior.

Ready for Basic Drawing Lesson Four? Click here!

Real Feedback


Hi Lois, thought I would send you a quick note to tell you how much I appreciate your YouTube videos. I found you last December when I purchased a Breville smart oven. I'd never really used a toaster oven for anything other than toast and since finding you I've been cooking like crazy! My husband thinks that's wonderful.

Also I introduced my daughter to your art lessons and she is delighted, especially with the stencil one of the fishes! You encourage people of all skill levels to feel less intimidated by the thought of actually 'doing' a painting! Anyway, just saying thank you and to let you know how much we enjoy Charlie as well. Kindest regards,



Hey lois I am a emerging artist here in sc I haven't had the opportunity to go to formal art schools I have been drawing all my life as far back as I can remember. I saw your free art classes online and book marked them and when I have more supplies am going back.

I want to be taken seriously, I have started getting my art out there, and have started just recently showing, my art, and sold a total of three works for aprox300.00 a piece

I still don't feel like I am a good enough artists and I desire to learn always learning I am sending some samples of a small amount of sketches drawings, and paintings

I would love to get feed back from someone in the artworld I have been mistreated by some artist that wouldn't even look at my art

when they found out I had not took art classes.......I've always wanted to just havent had the opportunitys . thank you so much.

Elizabeth White


Hello Lois. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to learn hoy to draw and paint in diferentes styles and techniques. I just started and I've never had taken any classes til now with your tutorial. I really worldwide appreciate your comments about my still life exercise. I specially have problems with shading the table and painting the wood graining (as you can se in the picture) and also the table cloth. The melon sas difficult too, I feel something is missing there too . (Some things in the picture I didn't want them to apear in my painting) I'm starting to work with the landscape. As son as I have ir done I'll send you the picture. Best regards and thank you again.

Andrea Berkefeld (from México)

Notes On Drawing.....

A drawing instructor once told me, "Work a little, you'll draw a little better than anyone else. Work a lot and you will really begin to draw!"

And it was true. As I began to spend more time on my sketch book journal, my drawing in class improved. I began to practice drawing what I saw and wrestled with the voice in my head that kept telling me, "Hey, it's time for lunch! Let's take a break! You've been sweating over this thing for an hour. Give it a rest!" I learned to shut the dialogue off and taught myself to really see what I was drawing--so I could draw it. I learned pencil shading and expressive line with pen and ink. And you can, too. Knowing the skill is only a small part of learning to draw what you see...Spending the time to practice drawing and using the pencil gauge method will soon have its rewards. You will literally see, within weeks, your work vastly improve.

basic drawing, shading, drawing

My demo drawing of drapery. Here I emphasized seeing the folds of drapery as simple shapes and drawing them using basic lines and shading.

I often tell beginning drawing students that being objective and not getting involved with detail is important in learning the basics. The detail will come later, first master the skills and techniques!

Ultimately, drawing what you see is not drawing what everyone else sees as well. Although, if you draw a tree very accurately and everyone agrees that it is indeed a tree--even if you all can agree on the shape of the branches, the color of the leaves, the roughness of the bark, their interpretation of your drawing is different, No two people ever see the same thing because each brain, rich with original experiences and vision, is unique. And so the artist's work, in the end, is his/her own interpretation as well, whether the work is realistic or abstract.

Picasso once said, "In art we express our conception of what is not visible in nature."