Just Draw! Part 3: Outdoors

April 30, 2015


Above: One of my sketches in an A5 sketchbook using inks, pencils, watercolours and pens, 2010

Countryside and urban landscape are full of inspiration for the artist. Here in the UK, days are lengthening and weather is (sometimes) dry, so this is a great time to consider heading outdoors to draw.

A few practicalities

To get started, you really only need a sketchbook (or other drawing paper) and a pen or pencil. However, I suggest packing a few other bits and pieces to keep you comfortable during your drawing session:

  • A lightweight folding stool or chair so that you won’t be restricted to drawing from park benches, etc. if you prefer to draw while seated.
  • Layered clothing appropriate to the weather
  • Snacks and hot or cold drinks to keep you going
  • Rucksack to carry your stuff- you may choose to walk quite a distance between stopping to draw.
  • If you wish, a few printed images of inspiring drawings (or download them onto a mobile)
  • Tissues and/or wipes for clean-up
  • A portable easel is optional, but is particularly useful if drawing on a larger scale.  

You may also like to bring a variety of art materials.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Either a sketchbook or a drawing board plus bulldog clips and loose sheets of various papers
  • A few ballpoint, marker and/or nibbed pens
  • A few sticks of charcoal and chalk and a putty rubber (this works well with toned paper). Charcoal smudges, so bring greaseproof/parchment paper with which to protect your work on the way home if required. Also do remember wipes for clean-up.
  • A little watercolour pan set plus either a water-brush or a normal brush plus screw-top container of water
  • A pot of ink (brown is lovely) plus water for clean-up, and a dip pen plus one or more nibs. For ink and wash techniques, also bring a brush and one or more little containers in which you can dilute the ink. 
  • A graphite stick
  • Pencils (coloured or otherwise) plus a good sharpener and a bag or container for any pencil-sharpenings.

Possibilities for outdoor drawing are limitless. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

A broad landscape showing the lie of the land


Above: Vincent van Gogh drawing in pencil, reed pen and brown ink, c1888

Medium: Pen and ink on cartridge-type paper. A ballpoint, cartridge or marker pen are fine. For more characterful lines, try a nibbed dip pen or reed pen plus a bottle of ink. You’ll also need an HB or 2B pencil for a little light under-drawing.

Subject: Any landscape or cityscape in which your view is not obstructed by nearby trees or buildings.

Looking at the subject: Can you see the foreground, middle distance and far distance? Remember that, whether you choose to sit or stand while drawing, the horizon-line will be at you eye level. Can you see any part of the horizon, or do buildings or trees entirely obscure it? Is the ground flat, or does it slope one way or the other? Decide how much of the view you’d like to include in your drawing.

field of grass with a  round clipped shrub 1888 van gogh reed pen brown ink


van gogh drawing 3Above: Three drawings by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

The drawing: In this drawing, you’ll aim to convey a general sense of the “lie of the land” (US: “lay of the land”), i.e. its hilliness or flatness, and a sense of distance. Textures of surfaces can also be suggested.

Start with a few light pencil marks on your page to show where the important bits of the landscape are to be positioned in your drawing. These pencil marks can be erased or forgotten once you have drawn in pen over the top of them. I suggest marking a faint horizontal line across the page to show the level of the horizon. Also use your pencil to indicate where any buildings, hedges, paths are to go. Try to indicate with your pencil the position of slopes in the ground, if any are present.

Now tackle the drawing with pen. I suggest an approach similar to that used by Vincent van Gogh in many of his drawings. Work across the landscape, using whichever pen marks you choose (dots, sweeping strokes, etc.) to suggest the slope or direction of the land and the texture of the surface. Keep your pen marks lively. We are not trying to convey the effects of light here, so laborious cross-hatching or shading are not required.

Pen marks should tend to get smaller as they disappear into the distance in your picture. They may also converge into the distance, e.g. if suggesting rows of corn or edges of a path leading into the picture. This helps to give your picture a sense of distance.

Taking this idea further: You may wish to develop this idea by drawing in colour. Feel free to use the same linear style as described above, this time working in coloured inks, coloured pens or pencils. If you wish, you may choose colours to help emphasise a sense of distance (cool colours tend to recede, while warm ones come forward). Your colours may be based on those of the landscape itself, or you may opt for a more experimental approach, with colour providing a sense of emotion.


Above: David Hockney, pages from a Yorkshire Sketchbook, c.2004

Like David Hockney (see image above), you could add in blocks of painted colour if you wish. Several of Hockney’s landscape sketches have a similar “lie of the land” approach to those of van Gogh, with an emphasis on distance and topographical features of the landscape, plus touches of surface texture.

A tonal approach to trees


Above: Claude Lorrain “A group of trees on a riverbank” c1640-45, brown ink with underlying black chalk

When the evening light is fading, have a go at drawing the silhouetted shapes formed by trees. These could be very quick, fleeting sketches suggesting the general shape of the tree masses. Charcoal, graphite or brush with ink are all ideal for sketching simple trees, or you could block them in using pen or soft pencil.  Try doing several little sketches of different trees (or groups of trees) across a double-page spread of your sketchbook before the sun completely disappears.

Trees do of course form tonal shapes at any time of the day. Look at them with screwed-up eyes to emphasise this effect.

For a more finished drawing, as in Lorrain’s image of trees, above, look out for any more subtle variations in tone. As a whole, the trees and the ground that they stand on may be much darker than the sky behind. However, a closer look reveals some parts to be a deep, almost black shadow, while other parts are lighter in tone.

Odilon Redon Deux Arbres 1875

Above: Odilon Redon “Deux Arbres” 1875

Tone can have quite an emotional impact (for example, see the image by Redon, above). When you are exploring woodland, other countryside or urban areas, keep an eye out for those unexpected dark shadows or startling contrasts that make you look twice.

Trees with character

Each tree has its own unique structure depending not only on its species but also on its history, the prevailing wind and so on. They are just as worthwhile to draw as a human or animal figure though, of course, they will neither walk away nor charge you by the hour.

Drawing trees can be approached in a similar manner to life drawing. Just as when drawing the human figure, it helps to check proportions with care:

  • Check, for example, whether it is taller than it is wide.
  • At which point off the trunk do the lowest branches emerge – a half, a third  or a quarter of the way up?
  • Do the branches reach up almost vertically to the sky, do they stretch out horizontally, or do they branch off from the trunk at an angle?


Above: George Ernest Papendiek (1788-1835) “The Lebanon Cedar Tree in the Arboretum at Kew Gardens”

The general structure of the tree should be drawn out before considering adding small details. If attempting to draw the entire tree, do step back far enough so that you can see the entire structure without moving your head, even if this means working from the opposite end of the field.

A few ideas for drawing individual trees:

1) In graphite, pencil or pen. Using the whole double-page spread of your sketchbook, sketch the tree very rapidly using a continuous-line technique, i.e. do not lift your drawing tool off the paper form start to finish.  You should end up with a flowing image with an intuitive quality.

2) In pencil, charcoal or graphite, use a more careful, structural approach to drawing a tree. Work much more slowly (e.g. over a period of 40-60 minutes). Make multiple measurements using your outstretched arm to check the proportions of trunk, main branches and masses of foliage, and estimate angles of the main branches. Use the tip of your charcoal or graphite stick to draw edges in once you have worked out where they should go. As you build this drawing up, turn the charcoal or graphite on its side to block in regions of dark tone if you wish.

3) In any medium of your choice, draw from the tree using a mixture of careful measuring marks and more intuitive, flowing lines. A tree that is growing at an unusual angle is a good one to draw to start with. Leave about 30 minutes for this drawing as it is better left uncompleted than overworked. I suggest starting by making a few measurements and checking how your tree will fit onto your paper. Work into the drawing more boldly to emphasise the direction of the trunk and branches and perhaps to suggest movement if it is a windy day.

Delacroix study of an oak

 Above: Eugene Delacroix “Study of an Oak”, graphite on wove paper, 21 x 33.8cm, 1857



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Just Draw! Part 2: indoors

February 19, 2015

Following on from my recent discussion on returning to drawing, this article presents a variety of suggestions for drawing indoors.

Feel free to pick and choose from this selection of drawing ideas and to approach them in any order. These “exercises” are primarily designed to get people drawing again, but they also encourage us to look at the world afresh and to think.

1) Create a pleasing line drawing from the objects in front of you, Matisse-style


Above: Henri Matisse, “Still Life, Fruit and Pot”, 1940

 Medium: Pen on cartridge paper.

Subject: A group of objects, as you find them, in your home or studio. Rounded items, such as pots and fruit, are pleasant to include but not essential. Paint tubes and brushes as you find them on a table, items on a kitchen counter-top or shoes on a rack are a few other suggestions.

Also include the space around the object, which may include the wall behind, a section of floor and perhaps even your own hand (see Matisse’s drawing, above). You can (optionally) move the items around just a little before you start to draw, but do not spend ages setting up a traditional still-life arrangement.

Looking at the subject: Even if the objects do not immediately strike you as beautiful, perhaps their shapes have some pleasing properties. Look both at the objects themselves, and at the negative shapes between them. Are there adjacent areas of pattern (e.g. tiles, wood-grain, wallpaper) that you might like to include? A strong diagonal shape within the image can be helpful but not essential (e.g .the table edge in Matisse’s still life, above, and in Bob Dylan’s image, below). The spaces between the objects and the edge of your drawing are going to be key, so think in advance about how you’ll fit what you see onto your page. You may like to use a cardboard viewfinder to help find the most pleasing composition.

The drawing: You’ll be aiming at a rather decorative line drawing with an emphasis on shape and pattern. Do not worry about the technical “correctness” of your finished drawing. Accurate perspective and  measuring are not important here.

If you have used a viewfinder to help plan the composition, then start by checking that your drawing  will be in proportion to that viewfinder. You could either use an entire sheet of paper for your drawing, or draw out a rectangle to represent the edges of your image, and then work within that.

Feel free, if you wish, to make a few initial marks in pencil so that you know where your objects will sit within the picture, or perhaps to start with a faint pencil gesture drawing. Then proceed in pen. Keep your pen marks lively and confident. Ignore tone- just represent edges of objects and any patterns that you see. Make sure that your pen lines are not all clustered in one part of the drawing. If necessary omit details and patterns in certain areas of the image and emphasise them in others. A pleasing image will have a balance of lines and quiet spaces.

Optional: Taking this idea further


Above: Bob Dylan, “Still life with peaches”, 2007, mixed media on paper, 76x61cm

If you are yearning for colour, then consider adding some in to your drawing in a rather abstract way. Such a flat style of line drawing provides a good “excuse” for not aiming at photographic realism when adding colour.

Once you are happy with the balanced composition of your pen drawing then you have some options. You may choose to add colour directly to your drawing using marker pens, gouache, crayons, etc.

Alternatively, you could scan and print your uncoloured pen drawing onto artists’ paper, perhaps with some enlargement (a basic computer and printer set-up can be used). Colour is then added to the printed copies using any medium of your choice. If you print multiple copies, then you can try out all kinds of colour combinations and techniques while still retaining your original pen drawing.

For example, Bob Dylan included six differently-coloured versions of his “Still life with peaches” in his “Drawn Blank” series, my favourite of which is shown above. Others were coloured in earthy or warm brown-orange tones. The use of colour changes the emphasis within the composition, and also gives each image its own emotional “punch”.


2)  An intuitive approach to structural drawing


Above: Alberto Giacometti, “Man Walking”

Medium: Pencil on cartridge-type paper

Subject: Any room with some freestanding furniture on the floor. One or more chairs, and perhaps a standard lamp, an easel and/or general household mess are all great to include (don’t tidy up first!).

Looking at the subject: Find yourself somewhere to sit or stand  (you’ll need to settle in one place for the duration of this drawing) and take at least two minutes to look at the room in front of you.

  • Which objects are nearest to you?
  • Notice that the edges of some objects may seem to overlap the edges of others (simply because some objects are in front of others).
  • Notice that some objects appear to be lower down than others because they are nearer or further away from your eyes.
  • If the room is not cluttered, look out for sizeable areas of floor or wall in between the objects that act like blank “negative spaces”.
  • Try moving your head a little….Does this affect the spaces between the objects?

The drawing: In this exercise, you’ll aim to create a simple line drawing of the room, a bit like Giacometti’s studio drawings (one of which is shown above). The focus here is on spatial relationships, i.e. how the objects are positioned relative to one another. The search for structure is key, so guidelines and overlaid corrected lines can form part of the finished drawing.

Start drawing edges of the main objects using a gentle, “searching” type of pencil mark. Keep looking back at the subject for more clues. In your drawing, mark in where any two objects overlap one another.  Feel free to draw faint guidelines between the objects to help align them on the page as follows:

  1. Do any objects appear to your eyes to be lined up exactly, either one above the other, or lined up horizontally? If so, you may like to draw vertical or horizontal lines to help you position them appropriately within your drawing.
  2. Look out, as well, for diagonal relationships between objects. E.g. you may imagine a diagonal line running from the corner of a table to the top corner of a cupboard. You could draw this imagined diagonal line into your picture as a structural guide, to help establish the position of cupboard and table (click here for tips on estimating the slope of a diagonal line). If, in real life, the cupboard is behind the table, then you can imagine your diagonal line moving deeper into the picture plane as you draw it travelling from table to cupboard. Feel free to add in as many imagined diagonal lines between objects as you wish…perhaps ending up with a web of light lines suggesting space between near and far objects.

Another way to approach this kind of drawing:  Once you get the hang of the structural drawing approach, start to focus more on the negative shapes between the objects. What kinds of negative shapes do you see? Is there a pleasing balance of lines and negative shapes in your picture, as in Giacometti’s studio drawings, or is your entire image too “busy”? You may like to try out more drawings of the same room, perhaps from different viewpoints, with this in mind.


3) Draw your own unmade bed


Above: Eugene Delacroix “An unmade bed”, watercolour over graphite, 20.6×24.1cm

Medium: Whatever is to hand (pen or pencil, crayons or watercolour, etc.)

Subject: Your unmade bed, just as you find it. This is a great subject for the following reasons:

  • Your own bed is personal to you, the artist.
  • It will look different every morning depending on which position the bedding has happened to take.
  • Those random twists and folds in pillows, sheets and quilt are interesting and deserve a second look.
  • Bedroom lighting (from a lamp, or through half-opened curtains) emphasises interesting masses of tone or pools of light on your bedding.
  • This is a good excuse not to make your bed.

Drawing approach: In order to keep this drawing fresh and immediate, I strongly recommend setting yourself a time limit. This could be 10-30 minutes depending on your chosen medium. If there is something that you really want to include (e.g. a directional twist to the sheets, or a dramatic pool of shadow) then be sure to get this in within your time limit.

Include as much or as little of the bed as you wish (if observing it from within a small room, then it may be best to include just one section, as you will not be able to step back far enough to see the whole bed without moving your head).

Other personal subjects in the home or studio: If ever stuck for ideas for what to draw, remember that you need not leave your front door in order to find inspiration. Some of the best subjects are those that are most personal to us. These are often overlooked. Here are a few more examples:

  • Your shoes, just as you find them on the floor (perhaps refer to Van Gogh’s shoe paintings).
  • Your cup or glass once you’ve finished drinking from it. Notice where it is positioned, as this says something about the hand that has just left it. Do include the edges of any adjacent objects in your sketch.
  • Your coat or other clothing on a chair. This could be an energetic image like Cezanne’s watercolour, below. Alternatively, you could think more of the weight of the fabric hanging from the chair.


Above: Paul Cezanne “Coat on a chair”, 48x31cm, watercolour, 1892

 Draw a room, this time giving light more importance than objects.


 Above: Vincent Van Gogh “Interior with woman sewing”, c.1885

Medium: Pen on cartridge-type paper.

The subject: Any medium to large room of your house, or your studio. If drawing during daylight hours then make use of light through the window. If it is dark outside, then light from a directional lamp (e.g. a domestic table or floor lamp) will work better than that from a central ceiling light.

Looking at the subject: Do take at least a couple of minutes to look and think before you start to draw. In this drawing, you’ll be focusing both on the spaces between the objects in the room, and the effect of the light, so there is plenty to think about. Notice the following:

  • Where is your own eye level? That is, how high up are your eyes in relation to the rest of the room. I suggest starting by drawing a faint horizontal pencil line across your drawing paper to represent your eye level. Any object which is above your eyes in real life will then be drawn above that line, whereas any object that is below your eyes will be drawn below it.
  • Where is the light coming from? Note the position of any sources of light such as window(s), open doorway, lamp(s). Out of all of these, there may perhaps be one main light source. E.g. in Van Gogh’s “Interior with woman sewing”, the light is coming from the upper right side of the picture, with shadows falling to the left of the objects. There is light coming from the window next to the sewing woman, but the fall of the shadows suggests that there is another bright window or open doorway in the far right, not included in the picture.
  • Where are the main pools of light and shadow in the room? Screw up your eyes to simplify the tones that you see.
  • How much of the room do you want to include in your picture? Use a cardboard viewfinder (or frame the view with your fingers) to help choose a rectangular image from what you can see in front of you. Include some pleasing patches of both light and shade within your chosen composition.

The drawing: Start by laying the picture out with a few faint pencil lines before embarking on the pen drawing. Your pencil marks are just rough guides as to where key parts of the picture will go. Do not make a complete pencil drawing and then slavishly work over it in pen!

Look at the room with screwed-up eyes to check tonal values then, starting in a dark area of the room, start to use pen lines to build up the picture. Vertical and/or horizontal pen lines (as in the Van Gogh picture above) are useful for suggesting tone in the room that is not associated with any particular object. Use thicker or overlaid lines to create darker areas of tone. Leave the paper untouched to suggest pools of light.

Use your pen to add in furniture and a few architectural details but, when doing this, don’t add more pen lines than needed. Give the light and shade in the room more emphasis than the objects themselves. Some of the furniture’s edges may even seem to “disappear” within a pool of hatched shadow.

A view through a window, Matisse-style


Above: Henri Matisse, “Open window at Etratat”, 1920

Medium: Pen on cartridge-type paper.

The subject: An open or closed window in your house or studio, whatever you can see through that window, plus a view of some of the room’s interior This may just be objects on the window-sill or, as in Matisse’s drawing shown above, you could include space above, below and in front of the window.

Looking at the subject: When looking from the inside of a room at a window, we naturally focus either on the view through it, or on the window-frame plus surrounding walls, etc. For this exercise, the challenge is to look at the interior of the room, the window-frame and the view through the window all at once.

Do the objects outside the window have any relationship to what is inside? Whether you are looking out onto a street, a brick wall or a landscape, see if you can relate outdoor shapes and patterns to those seen indoors.

The drawing: As in the other Matisse-inspired drawing (no 1, above), again use pen lines to create patterns and object edges. Shapes, patterns, and their relationship to one another and to the edges of the drawing, are key to this style of work.

In making this drawing, see if you can make sense of your window image without adding any tonal shading whatsoever. If you do decide to add a little tone (and you may well do if there is bright light streaming through the window) then use it sparingly as Matisse did in “Open Window at Etratat”. Instead of resorting to shading techniques, try adjusting your line thickness or changing the density of your patterned marks to suggest tone.

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Just draw! Part 1: Getting back into drawing.

February 11, 2015



Still_Life_with_Peaches_Bob_Dylan_mixed_media_on_paperAbove: Bob Dylan, “Still life with peaches”, mixed media on paper, 2007

Getting back into drawing

At the best of times, drawing and creativity can seem wonderfully addictive. But there are inevitable periods in every artist’s life when the artwork just seems to stop happening for a while. Perhaps other aspects of life have become more demanding or compelling. This needn’t be a problem unless:

1) Having broken the “habit” of drawing, you start to lose confidence in your ability or in your materials.


2) You not only stop drawing, but you stop “looking”, i.e. observing and thinking.

In such cases, the thought of starting to draw again may seem pointless or perhaps even fill the artist with dread. As the ability to create art is tightly-bound to an artist’s sense of self, there tends to be a basic emotional need to continue. Worries about getting back into drawing (or other art-making) typically leave the artist feeling conflicted.

So…how can one best “get back into drawing”?

In this and the next few articles, I’ll offer some practical suggestions for returning to art-making and some relevant drawing exercises. This is a universal issue for artists, so do feel welcome to post comments at the end of the article if you have further suggestions to offer.

A few practical tips on rekindling your old art addiction

If you’ve got “out of the habit” of making art, then just getting down to it again can seem daunting. It is worth pushing yourself through this stage:

  • Set aside a regular short time in which you’ll get on with drawing (or using any other chosen medium) in a business-like way. A session as short as 15 minutes per day will suffice if you are busy. A regular half-hour slot may feel more satisfying. Feel free to set a timer to separate your “drawing time” from the rest of the day.
  • During your chosen “drawing time”, be very clear with yourself about avoiding distractions such as internet, mindless housework, phone, etc.
  • Keep your chosen art materials ready for the next use. Pencil(s) should be left sharp, paper ready-clipped to a board or in a sketchbook. If using paints then aim to leave all equipment clean and ready for the next session. If you have space then do not replace paints and brushes in a drawer, but leave them ready to pick up and use again. If  using an easel then leave it set up and ready to go.

Regain the knack of really “looking” at the world:

  • It doesn’t matter how boring your surroundings initially appear to be. Click here for an article on looking and seeing. Play around with observing your surroundings in an abstract way, and combine this with taking a few photos if you wish.
  • In the words of Bayles & Orland in their highly recommended book, “Art and Fear”, start to “notice the things you notice”. Pay attention to your personal reactions (both to objects and ideas) as these are key to the art that you will go on and make.


Above: Starting to look at the world in an abstract way.

Using drawing both to build confidence and to spark ideas:

Drawing on paper (as opposed to painting, printing, sculpture, etc.) is well-suited to the returning artist who requires a versatile,  experimental approach. Pen, pencil or crayons are useful allies: portable, non-messy and adaptable, they are always ready to be picked up and used.

As ever, it is useful to turn to the great artists for inspiration. However, I never aim for a “perfect piece of work” comparable with a known masterpiece. Not only would such an approach inevitably lead to frustration but, in my opinion, a goal of complete perfection has little to do with the artistic thought process. On the other hand, borrowing certain ideas, practical methods and “ways of seeing” from other artists can be extremely useful in getting us back on track.

Giacometti The Studio

 Above: A studio drawing by Alberto Giacometti. Without being in any way overwhelmed by Giacometti’s achievement, we can use this drawing to get us looking at scale, at spatial relationships between objects, and busy versus quiet areas within a composition.


During the past few years, I’ve written down outlines for numerous drawing suggestions for my own use, each inspired by a famous artist’s sketch or drawing. Each drawing idea includes a suggestion for subject, medium and approach. Over and again, these lists of ideas have proved invaluable in getting me drawing again when I feel “stuck”, and are always a good starting-point for completely new artistic approaches.

Poor weather or a lack of inspiring subject need not stop us from drawing. In my next article, I shall share a range of drawing suggestions that can be started and completed indoors, within any home or studio.

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Composition dogs: part 3

November 06, 2014

Dogs and owners: Spaces between



Above: “Eli and David”, by Lucian Freud, 2005-6. A portrait of David Dawson (Freud’s assistant and friend) with his whippet.

I find “Eli and David” remarkable both as a powerful composition and for the way in which it demonstrates a key aspect of human-canine relationships. This man, painted with all his human flaws and concerns, comes under our close scrutiny, but the dog accepts and trusts him regardless. As in several of Freud’s canvases, the dog does not care about the figure’s semi-nakedness or awkward pose. Squashed together within the armchair, dog and owner appear to accept one another’s close presence without criticism or complaint.

Compositionally, this painting has a wonderful abstract quality. It is broken into major sections by the horizontal edges of chair back and dog’s back, with the black background forming a strong inverted “L” shape. The side of the chair forms a vertical barrier against which the dog’s head is squashed, adding a feel of dynamic tension to the whole image. Negative shapes between dog, chair and man echo one another pleasingly.


Above: Mary Cassatt “Little girl in a blue armchair”, 1878, oil on canvas

 Similarly, the girl sprawled in the chair in Cassatt’s image appears uninhibited in the presence of her canine companion. Both girl and dog are dwarfed in this room of outsize armchairs and this image could represent the strange childhood sensation of feeling out of place. Apparently unaware of the painter, the girl looks to the dog for companionship though, in this case, there is a quite a void of grey carpet between them. Painted as a rounded, enclosed, intensely dark oval, this terrier forms a strong enough shape to counterbalance the image.

Piero_di_Cosimo_A_Satyr_mourning_over_a Nymph_c1495_oil_on_poplar_65.4x184.2cm

Above: Piero di Cosimo “A Satyr mourning over a Nymph”, c1495, oil on poplar, 65.4 x 184.2cm

In contrast, the final image in this series is otherworldly. The fallen female figure is the nymph, Procris, who in Greek mythology was accidentally shot and killed by her husband, Cephalus. The presence of both satyr and dog is mysterious. A satyr was not present in the original story, and the identity of the dog is unclear.

Between them both, the satyr and foreground dog create a compositional arch above the dead nymph. Look at the curves of their backs clear against the sky. Though the husband (the only human in the story) seems to have disappeared, this arch suggests care, protection and fidelity. The satyr shows compassion and tenderness, but the dog gazes unflinchingly at the strange scene. As probably occurs over and again in real life, this dog has been a silent witness to some strange human drama.

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Composition dogs: part 2

October 12, 2014

A dog at the table: two pictures to compare

In this second part of my short series on dogs in composition, lets compare two paintings. Both painted in France in the 1860s, each of these pictures shows figures at a table, and each artist has included a single dog as a key part of the composition. But this is perhaps where the similarities end.


Above: Auguste Renoir “At the inn of Mother Anthony”, Marlotte, oil on canvas, 1866

Painted when he was a young man and not yet famous, Renoir’s “At the Inn of Mother Anthony” shows the artist in thoughtful discussion with fellow painters. The inn itself was a meeting-place for artists of the Barbizon school and for those who had travelled to the Fountainbleau forest to paint outdoors. Artists have painted murals on the walls, and even the maid is portrayed as if she were part of the group, listening to what is being said.

While the four main characters seem engrossed in their own conversation, the only face making any emotional connection with the viewer here is that of the dog. The animal’s appealing, frontal image  draws us into the picture. The curve of the dog’s head is echoed by curved shapes throughout the painting, and this keeps my interest, sending my eye up and around the picture, though ultimately giving no clue as to the content of the artists’ discussion. Looking at this image, I am left with a sense of discord, colluding with the dog under the table while the intellectuals talk above our heads. I wonder whether this was Renoir’s intention?



Above: Honoré Daumier “Lunch in the Country”, 1868, oil on board, 26x34cm

Two years later, Daumier’s “Lunch in the Country” made similar use of bold, black and white shapes. In this case, however, the collusion seems to be between the dog and its owner.

Despite the lovely setting of countryside villa with lunch and wine, the hungry creature rearing up above the smart white tablecloth here hints at simmering animal instincts. There is such a close connection between this dog and owner (the man on the left, dressed all in white) that, rather than putting his guests at ease, his focus is all on the animal.

With elongated, slightly curved features, this man’s expression combines both indulgence and potential malevolence. These facial features create distinctive shapes (his highlighted left cheek, and the space between eyebrow and eye) that are repeated in and around the dog (look, for example, at the space between the animal’s two front legs). The closely-comparable black and white paint handling within dog and owner further sets these figures apart from the two guests.

Certainly for the nervous-looking man with the raised coffee cup, this lunch in the country appears to have been a fraught affair. Not only a painter but also a great caricaturist, Daumier was surely making some social comment here. According to  Lilian and Dieter Noack, Daumier started spending his summers in Valmondois in 1853 and a house was possibly purchased for him here in 1868 (the year of this painting) by the artist, Corot.


Above: Daumier’s house in Valmondois


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Composition dogs: part 1

October 10, 2014

Henrietta and Ollie by Tim Hall

Above: “Henrietta and Ollie” by Tim Hall (Click on the image for a closer view)

Dogs in pictures can be very engaging but, in the hands of an expert artist,  their use goes far beyond mere representation. In this and the next post, I’ll discuss complex images in which a dog plays a key role. Our canine companions can form all kinds of picture-worthy shapes, suggest directional movement and add focus and structure to a painting. But it is their complex emotional bond with us humans that makes them particularly valuable within picture compositions.

Dog shapes


Anyone who has leafed through a book of dog breeds will be familiar with the huge variations in canine shape due to conformation. Over the years, types of dog have been specifically bred not just for function but also for the visual impact of their appearance. Consider, for example, the “…graceful, aristocratic, dignified and elegant” Borzoi, or the “…broad, powerful and compact” Bulldog.



Above: David Hockney with a wall of his dog paintings. Image from his book, “Dog Days” (Thames & Hudson)

When including a dog in a painting, we must also remember that the posture of the animal chosen by the artist will completely alter the nature of its overall shape or silhouette. A browse through David Hockney’s sketches of his own Dachsunds, in each case painted from life, shows the postural variation that he observed. Some of Hockney’s rapid dog paintings are shown above. Considering dog images for a moment as flat, abstract shapes, you’ll see that almost all of these are curve-edged. The straight-backed dog sitting up on his haunches is an exception.

Which of these dogs (or pairs of dogs) has a simple, smoothly-curved outline, and which has a more intricate, playful, notched shape?

Do any of these dog shapes suggest movement to you, perhaps by making your eye flow across the picture? Does one or more of these images make your eye stop or pause on the page like a written punctuation mark?

Dog posed with a human sitter: could the dog offer clues to the sitter’s personality?


Above: Gustave Courbet “Self portrait with Black Dog”, 1842

People often speak light-heartedly of the similarity between a dog and its owner. Well, a recent study confirms that dog owners indeed tend to believe that their dog has the same personality traits as themselves. Furthermore, other people (or, at least, family members) tend to see a dog and its owner as being alike in personality. For more information about that study you may wish to follow this link.

So, perhaps the viewer can glean interesting information about a sitter from their dog.

To achieve this effect, the artist first needs to suggest a clear emotional bond between the person and the animal. In Courbet’s “Self portrait with Black Dog”, dog and owner are both portrayed as dark, rounded shapes against a bright background. Part of Courbet’s face is illuminated, but his hat, cloak and long, dark hair create a black figure mass similar to that of the nearly-silhouetted dog. The shapes and dark tone of dog and owner are so similar that the viewer cannot resist looking from one to the other and back again repeatedly, and Courbet’s dark-sleeved arm creates a link between the two figures.

This painting of Courbet was one of a series of self-portraits in which he portrayed himself in many guises and with different facial expressions. During this period, Courbet was striving to achieve artistic recognition but, out of many paintings, only this self-portrait was accepted by the judges for the Salon exhibition (in 1844). What impression does Courbet give of himself in this image? The lighting is arranged so that his eyes are mysteriously shaded, but he appears to be looking down his nose at those who are viewing or judging his work. Just like a modern-day selfie, this is the image-conscious pose of a young person who is trying to make their way forward in the world and probably tells us little about Courbet himself.

The face of the dog is perhaps more telling. His or her trusting, appealing expression is not turned to the owner but is directed straight at us, the viewers. Though all sentimentality is avoided by clever use of lighting, the inclusion of this dog at last suggests a sensitive and, ironically, more “human” side to Courbet’s nature during this difficult stage of his career.

A canine link within a clever composition

Henrietta and Ollie by Tim Hall

 Above: Pug detail from “Henrietta and Ollie” by Tim Hall. For a view of the whole painting, click here

On visiting the BP portrait exhibition in London this year, I very much enjoyed Tim Hall’s portrait of his wife, Henrietta. Standing in front of the painting, which I remember as virtually life-size, the dog at her feet struck me as incredibly well-observed.

These broad-chested dog breeds put a lot of weight through their front legs just as portrayed here and some individuals do tend to sit with their hindquarters swivelled to one side just like this (whether due to stiffness or habit). This posture is so convincing that, as a vet and pet physiotherapist myself, I feel like reaching out into the picture to help relieve his heavily-loaded left front leg.

How does Ollie the dog “help” this composition? A  few thoughts:

A vertical line drawn up through the dog’s main weight-support, his left front leg, overlies the main vertical prop of the easel. Follow this line further vertically upwards and your eye is directly led to an image of René Redzepi, here being painted by Henrietta. Although the painting is entitled “Henrietta and Ollie”, it gives prominence to all three figures.

There is a twist/rotation within Ollie’s body, so that the back legs are pointing in a different direction to the front legs. A similar angulation is seen over and again throughout the picture, subconsciously encouraging the viewer to keep looking around the image. An obvious example is the pair of red boots positioned at an angle to one another. Further pairs of objects echo this angulation. Consider the brushes splayed out in Henrietta’s hands, angles between paint tube and palette knife on the table top, or the prominent angle formed by the corner of that table top.

Though the painted artist (Henrietta) and her image of René Redzepi are gazing out in different directions, the weighty little dog forms a compositional link between them. He achieves this by physically leaning against her foot, while also forming a visual base of support for René’s portrait. Intelligently placed, the image of Ollie helps to bring the multiple elements of this picture together.


Turcsán, B., Range, F., Virányi, Z., Miklósi, Á., & Kubinyi, E. (2012). Birds of a feather flock together? Perceived personality matching in owner–dog dyads. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 140(3), 154-160.
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Shapes and emotion

May 06, 2014

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with

Above: Leonardo da Vinci “Lady with an Ermine”

Shapes are essential to the character of each artistic image. Have you ever glimpsed a painting from a great distance, and understood something of the emotion conveyed by the artist even before discerning the full content of the picture? Along with tone and colour contrast, clear shapes within the image can help to convey this “emotional punch”.

Our innate emotional “understanding” of 2D shapes is perhaps even more profound than symbolic meanings assigned to them in different cultures. I originally read about this idea in “The art of responsive drawing”, an excellent guide to drawing and composition by Nathan Goldstein, and do recommend getting hold of this book if you’d like further ideas on the subject.

When looking at an image (either a full picture, or just a shape on the page) we react to:

  • symmetry versus asymmetry
  • corners and points of shapes
  • curved versus angular shapes

Let’s look further at how artists have used various types of shape for emotional effect.


1) Flowing, lyrical, sensuous shapes  

lyrical shapes

 These shapes tend to be:

  • Asymmetric
  • Curve-edged
  • Rather long
  • “Organic” rather than geometric shapes


Above: Botticelli “Venus and Mars”, 1487-8, 70.6 x 176.8cm

The bodies and drapery of the two main figures in Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars “provide good examples of long, flowing shapes. Even the male figure of Mars, god of war, is made to look lyrical and sensuous here. Note how rotation through his torso and neck allows the creation of asymmetry and curves.

Meanwhile, clever draping of fabric creates similar shapes associated with the figure of Venus, goddess of love. Look not only at the whole reclining form of Venus, but also at the sections of fabric about her waist and limbs. The atmosphere in the foreground here is of flowing sensuality, though the long, lyrical shapes do not extend to the four cheeky, mischievous little satyrs in this picture.

2) Solid, dependable shapes


 These shapes tend to be:

  • Symmetrical
  • Contain at least one straight edge
  • Geometric
  • “Blocky”

…but look at the examples in the box, above, and note that rules are sometimes broken! These shapes may also suggest strength and reliability.


Above: Edgar Degas “Hélène Rouart in her father’s study”, 1886-95, 161x120cm, oil on canvas

Hélène Rouart looks somewhat out of place in her father’s study in the image above. The strength of character of the study’s owner, wealthy collector Henri Rouart, is suggested by the shapes of his belongings. Look at the square-edged mirror, the painting on the wall, piles of papers and perhaps even the Egyptian mummy case. Set at an angle against the blocky structure of her father’s chair, the more lyrical forms of Hélène’s hands and figure contrast with the rest of the room. The young lady projects a sense of unease and seems constrained by the presence of her father even though he was abroad when this was painted.

3)Violent, harsh shapes full of nervous energy

violent, harsh shapes

These shapes tend to be:

Contain straight edges


Above: Pablo Picasso “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”,1907

In Picasso’s rather shocking image, above, the women appear confrontational and perhaps even menacing. Cubist rendering of the forms here creates jagged, irregular shapes that contribute to the potentially-violent atmosphere.

Jagged-edged, irregular shapes are frequently-seen in real life and in photographic snapshots: Think of gaps between tree branches, shadows and building edges seen at an angle. In creating an artwork, decide whether you wish to include, emphasise or suppress such shapes.

4) Gentle, rocking shapes

swaying, rocking shapes

These shapes tend to be:

  • Asymmetric
  • Curve-edged, especially with a convex lower edge
  • More often rounded than long


Above: Edgar Degas, “Portrait of Giovannina Bellelli”

Gently rounded shapes are easily formed by the play of light and shadow on young faces (see Degas’ portrait of a child, above) and, whatever the subject, they can suggest tenderness and empathy.

Further types of shape

Of course, not all shapes quite fit into these simple categories. Take a look, for example, at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” (reproduced at the top of this page), an image with an atmosphere of lyrical grace and poise and full of strongly-emphasised shapes.

Or consider the carefully-placed structures in Uccello’s beautiful but horrifying image of war, below. This painting is full of curved-edged horses but, where lances cross the picture at an angle, numerous unsettling, angular shapes are created.


Above: Paulo Uccello “The Battle of San Romano”




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Shapes in art

April 30, 2014




Mary Cassatt “The Long Gloves”, 1889

Whether we choose to produce figurative or abstract art, our drawings/paintings inevitably end up as a series of two-dimensional shapes on the page. Control shapes carefully, and this becomes exciting. Different shapes have the capacity to suggest specific emotions to the viewer, and even to hint at certain types of movement. Furthermore, a visual balance or echoing of shapes on the page can be intriguing.

Where are these shapes?



Above: Henri Matisse “The Sheaf” ,1953, paper cut-out

Abstract art, in some cases, is all about shape. Geometric or irregular “organic” shapes or forms may create the basis of the image (for example, see Matisse’s cut-out above)

But how can we achieve shapes in figurative art?

Seeing a whole object as one flat tone or silhouette is a quick way to achieve a clear shape: For a start, try viewing an object against a contrasting light or dark background. Backlit against a sunset, distant trees and buildings appear as simple shapes.

Indoors, try looking at backlit objects on your windowsill or look at people against the light for a similar effect:


Above: Helen Binyon (1904-1979) “The starry night”, wood engraving. The girl forms a silhouette against the starlit window. Meanwhile, objects within the dimly-lit room are reduced to semi-abstract shapes.


A patch of contrasting colour may also form a prominent shape within your image. This may be, for example, a patch of yellow light across a landscape. Or it could be a brightly-coloured object such as a red cup on a table.


Above: Claude Monet “Pathway in Monet’s garden at Giverny”, 1900, oils. Patches of bright sunlight form peachy-coloured shapes across the path between the dark, mauve-tinged shadows. Notice how the shapes of contrasting colour and tone repeat along the path and draw the viewer’s eye into the picture.


If you use a linear drawing technique, then you may find that your lines appear to enclose shapes . For example, see the strongly-outlined arms of Mary Cassatt’s “The Long Gloves” reproduced at the top of this article. Notice how these arms each form a boomerang-like shape, and how these shapes appear to echo one another.

By using shapes of shadow or high tone within your image, we can add interest to the composition while retaining the illusion of three-dimensional reality:


portrait-of-giovannina-bellelli-edgar-degasAbove: Edgar Degas “Portrait of Giovana Bellelli”, 1858-9, pencil. Look at the patch of light tone on the girl’s right cheek, shaped like an inverted comma. Shapes of light and dark tone throughout this image are round-edged and asymmetric, increasing the lyrical, tender effect of this portrait.


Intriguing “negative” shapes can also be seen between objects:


Above: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Messaline”, oil on canvas, 1900-1901, 92.5x68cm. The red background forms prominent shapes between the figures and is very much part of the picture.


In my next article, I’ll suggest ways in which different types of shape can be used to suggest emotion in your pictures…



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What can artists learn from scientists?

March 05, 2014


Images of the human head as recorded by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan)

Is it a good idea to use scientific ideas in your artwork?

Yes, perhaps, but watch out:

  • I’d recommend fully immersing yourself in a subject before commenting on it artistically. Reference to a misunderstood scientific concept risks embarrassment, so do read around the subject and, if possible, get to know some experts in the field.
  • Much that is published in the media as scientific “fact” is only applicable in certain contexts, or in some cases may even be flawed. Aim to speak to a variety of people in the know before coming up with your own opinion.


How about borrowing scientific imaging tools?

In opening up fresh opportunities for observation, scientific imaging can be inspirational to the artist. Microscopy, radiography (X-ray images), cineradiography (moving X-ray images), thermal imaging and slow-motion video analysis give us new insights into our world.

Some medical and scientific images are curiously ambiguous, being both beautiful in an abstract sense, and carrying specific meaning to those trained to understand them. For example, groups of cells seen through a microscope form striking patterns accentuated by first staining the sample on the microscope slide. Cross-sectional images of the body achieved by MRI or CT scanning often contain compelling shapes and can be curiously symmetrical.

As artists, we often look for visual patterns and trends while also seeking meaning. Be inspired by a current art-science exhibition on this very subject: “Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight” , is on display at the British Library until 26 May 2014.



Above: Visualisation of ocean surface currents by NASA

“Scientific thinking” for artists: Some practical tips

Here follows a long list of suggestions. Different methods work for different artists, so just pick out anything that strikes you as useful.

Getting to grips with a practical problem

Freedom of expression and spontaneity are valued highly by many artists. Nevertheless, there are times in most artists’ lives when a lack of control of the medium hinders creativity. Established protocols for paint-mixing, etc., are no longer taught in many art schools, perhaps in order to leave students more potential for creative expression. How can an artist develop his or her own technical skill?

Trying things out (“trial and error”) can be very useful to the developing artist. If this seems like a frustrating business then go about it in systematic way and take the opportunity to record results. For example, keep a notepad by your easel and make a note of paint mix colours that work for you. Record what doesn’t work too. Learn from the example of the great creative chef Ferran Adrià, who is said to have rigorously recorded culinary creations that were successful but, just as importantly, recorded all unsuccessful food combinations.


Ferran Adrià_plating_diagram_ink_on_paper

 Above: Ferran Adrià plating diagram, ink on paper. This great creative chef draws potential culinary ideas but also has a great system of recording results of food experiments as written notes. He said, “I always have a pencil with me, to the point where it forms a part of me. I write a lot during the day”

If you really want to get to grips with a practical problem then test it rigorously. First decide what you are testing. So, for example, you might be testing the suitability of different types of paper for use with inks. In this example, a few specific types of ink mark would be made on each type of paper. Of course, brand of ink, style of brush-stroke or pen-mark and quantity of water added to the ink would all affect the finished result, so these must not vary. Label each variety of paper, and either store the results in a plastic wallet file for future reference, or make a clear written note of the outcome.

Scientists are trained to focus on just one problem at a time, but this skill is also useful to artists. Do you ever find yourself completely overwhelmed and unsure of where to start, perhaps when drawing or painting an unfamiliar subject? In some cases, this sense of helplessness (“I can’t draw that“) is simply due to attempting to solve too many problems at once. Each new artistic subject presents a whole set of challenges or conundrums. For example, drawing horses from life can feel overwhelming to those who have never tried it before. Equestrian drawing involves all kinds of challenges including unfamiliar proportions, foreshortening, tones, colours, movement and textures. A positive approach is to make a series of drawings, each focused on a single area of concern, e.g. one drawing to investigate tones, another looking closely at 3D structure, etc.

Some finished pictures do focus on just one aspect of their subject and this can, at times, make the work more interesting and compelling. If, on the other hand, you wish to perfect several aspects of your subject in a finished picture, then you will need to solve multiple problems. For example,  the colour of fur in sun and shadow is one “problem” while the way in which to make the animal look as if it is leaping is another. Before tackling your finished picture, investigate each problem individually by making preliminary studies, colour trials and perhaps also by observing the work of other artists.


Rosa Bonheur_horse_fair

Above: Rosa Bonheur “The Horse Fair” 1853-1855, oil on canvas. The creation of this complex image required great problem-solving skills: animal behaviours and movement, the effect of light and shade on each coat colour and the shapes within and between moving horses all needed to be understood. Rather than being overwhelmed by the task, Bonheur solved each problem in turn. She is known to have visited slaughterhouses to study anatomy, and to have observed horse fairs in action (she attended dressed as a man) where she made preparatory drawings.


 Building upon what others have discovered

Scientists refer clearly to the discoveries of others when presenting their work. Every respected scientific paper contains a list of such references.

In attempting to create original artwork, don’t be ashamed to study the work of other artists. Do learn from and build upon what others have already discovered: Look with curiosity at the work of great artists – how have they problem-solved? This process can eventually help direct you on your own original creative path.

Careful measuring

If you choose to use measuring techniques in drawing and painting, then they must be used carefully and correctly. Not everyone “gets on with” measuring – some artists focus more on replicating observed shapes (perhaps a more intuitive way of working). That is fine – use whichever technique works best for you.

Measuring (i.e. establishing proportions by holding a pencil in your outstretched arm and measuring off distances) can be incredibly useful but, as it side-steps intuition, this technique risks grave error if it is done badly. In the headlong rush to be creative, holding the pencil skew, having your arm bent, and rushing the measurement can all introduce mistakes. If you choose a measuring technique then have your chosen method clear in your mind, be consistent with it, and be prepared to question and repeat your own measurements.

Perhaps those who like to use measuring techniques are particularly adept at flitting between logical and intuitive way of thinking during their work.

An investigative approach

Fundamental to both art and science is the on-going desire to ask questions and solve problems. This is what keeps an artist’s work interesting. However, it can be tempting to take the easy path of   producing images that say the same thing over and again. This might appear to make sense commercially but, in the long run, is it art?

If you’re interested in something, then watch out for it wherever you go and in all conditions. Sketchbooks are useful here. E.g. shadows on human heads(where do they fall, how dark are they, what colour are they?)=> keep looking at people of all types and in different lighting conditions, and keep recording.


Above: Antoine Watteau was fascinated by the structure and character of human heads. He left numerous sheets of studies such as this and take trouble to seek out models of various ages and ethnic backgrounds in making such drawings

Do take note of interesting things and anomalies.

Be sure to stop, observe and think before and in-between drawing/painting.

Consider an investigative approach in which you try out different ways of looking at the subject and different options for image-making. Take the example of looking at a figure in a life drawing setting. Part of the model may look as if it is really bearing a lot of weight- what gives it that appearance? If this interests you then don’t be afraid to investigate: Look from different directions; ask the model to shift weight off that area and then load it again and observe carefully –change the lighting and look again– shadows, angles, shapes- what changes?


 Above: Federico Barocci study of arms and hands in charcoal and chalk. Here, Barocci used investigative drawing to discover how to portray a man’s arm holding a stick. Between drawings, he must have asked his model to move the arm and grasp the stick again in a slightly different way. Observation of real movement in context can be far more valuable than studying still photographs of posed models.  

Has this series of articles on art and science given you food for thought? Feel free to add your opinions by clicking here.


Current and upcoming exhibitions exploring art and science


“Discoveries: Art, Science and Imagination from the University of Cambridge Museums” runs at Two Temple Place, Cambridge, until 27 April

Christopher Benton-Art and Science : mixed media works by a clinical and research MRI radiographer.  At Hertford Theatre 6-29 March 2014

Courtyard Arts: Art and Science: Selected from submissions on the theme of art and science. Runs until 29 March 2014 at this Hertford gallery

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight” runs at the British Library until 26 May 2014

The Art.Science.Gallery in Austin, Texas: Microscopy-inspired work by Katey Berry Furgason is on view until March 23 2014. Watch out for future art-science fusion exhibitions at this specialist gallery.




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What can scientists learn from artists?

January 26, 2014

In comparing approaches to art and science, I notice that certain shared skills tend to be better taught to artists while others are addressed more clearly in science lessons. Let’s look, today, at aspects of the artistic approach that some scientists may find helpful. My intention here is not to be unfairly critical, but to trigger positive discussion.

If you are an artist, then do read on because these ideas may set you thinking.

If you are a scientist, then you may or may not find this list helpful. Perhaps you are already using these techniques, see no practical place for them, or disagree with some of my assumptions? On the other hand, if you feel lacking in direction or otherwise “stuck”, then this article could perhaps be useful to you. Please read on and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments box at the end.



 Above: A page from the notebooks of Charles Darwin, 1837-8

Observing and recording all that is interesting

The ability to observe and consider everything around you…looking, listening (and smelling, tasting, or whatever is appropriate), is key to scientific enquiry. While techniques of methodical observation are taught in science classes, a delight in a general awareness of our surroundings is , in my experience, encouraged more in art than science departments.

Art students are sent out with sketchbooks and encouraged to make observations, drawings and notes. The same approach with portable blank book and pen could be just as practical for the curious scientist. As with an artist’s sketchbook:

  • you can take the book anywhere, from airport to park
  • anything can be included, whether words, numbers or simple sketches (even if you feel that you “can’t draw”, it is fine to record visual or conceptual ideas using directional lines and simple shapes).
  • an ideas book can be used to record what you see and what you think
  • many of the ideas will probably come to nothing, while the occasional page  may contain seeds of a new line of enquiry. Keep old completed books even if they seem to be full of hopeless scribble as, in years to come, you may look back through them with greater insight.



Above: Leonardo da Vinci. Notebook studies of both a seated figure and of turbulent flow. Note the association of flowing robes and turbulence images. The continuous format of a notebook or sketchbook encourages a sequence of interesting ideas. It is of course also possible to create an imaginative ideas book without being a master draughtsman.


Being ready to seek inspiration from anywhere

Young artists are encouraged to seek something interesting from the most mundane situations. They might be expected to look afresh at a single piece of drapery, the surface of a puddle or the corner of a room and then create an original image.

Should scientists take, at times, a similar approach?

The great physicist, Richard Feynman, said:

“I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough”.


 Above: Eugene Delacroix “A corner of the studio” 1830, oil on canvas



 Learning from your own emotional responses

Good art teachers remind students to be aware of their own emotional response to each object or situation. On the other hand, scientists are expected to be highly-objective in recording what they see and emotional involvement is therefore often discouraged.

Of course, objectivity is essential at certain times, e.g. when recording sets of values. However, there are occasions when an emotional response can help to direct you to initial observations that are surprising, and hence to those that may warrant further investigation.

For example, in studying canine movement recently, I came across this video of a galloping greyhound:


I set about looking at the video to record objective data for an assignment (limb step sequence, etc.)

However, the first thing that struck me about this was the rather alarming, even frightening appearance of the running dog. I asked myself what could be giving this dog such a “scary” look when running – he appears perfectly benign at the end of the video when resting on the grass. I concluded that the alarming appearance resulted from the dog’s dramatic up/down head movements with mouth gaping, teeth exposed and whites of eyes becoming visible at each head rise. (Indeed, if I cover his head, he no longer looks scary to me). What was initially an emotional response to the video could send me along several fresh lines of enquiry….”Why does the greyhound move his head up and down more than the cheetah?”; ” Is the mouth opening passively as he raises the head, or is this a sharp intake of breath” (“is breathing coordinated with running and, if so, how?”) “The downward roll of the eyes appears to be part of a set of known reflexes caused by changing neck position but I’d not noticed it before in a galloping animal…is eye movement always so extreme in running dogs…and other species?” And even, changing the subject somewhat, “do most people tend to see flashing whites of eyes as menacing?”

Don’t worry…I did also remember to record the objective data as originally planned.


A positive use of subjective language


When making sets of observations, scientists need to work systematically and objectively and record measurements in standard units.

However, additional subjective observation  can provide a wealth of extra information, and having a meaningful descriptive vocabulary at your fingertips can be useful. For example, you may observe something as “lurching”, “bulging”, “swinging” or “sagging”, or hear it go “crunch”, “slosh” or “pop”. These are all unscientific words, but each may have a specific meaning to you. Use of such words can help both in understanding what is happening in a general sense, communicating with others (especially lay-people) and in directing future objective analysis.



Above: “Head of a Black Cockatoo” engraved by T.W.Wood. From The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace

The naturalist and explorer, A.R.Wallace, came to original conclusions about natural selection from his observations. His diaries and notes include much colourful description backed up with objective data. An example of his subjective writing describes the bird pictured above:

“This cockatoo is the first I have seen, and is a great prize. It has a rather small and weak body, long weak legs, large wings, and an enormously developed head, ornamented with a magnificent crest, and armed with a sharp-pointed hoofed bill of immense size and strength…”

The cockatoo’s remarkably strong head and beak and surprising plumage turn out to be specific evolutionary adaptations. Wallace’s subjective approach was key to his understanding of relationships between species and their environment. Of course, he recorded numerous measurements and other objective data along the way.


An artist’s approach to combining subjective and objective description:



Above: A sketch for the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. This image includes clear rendering of muscles of the limbs and trunk. However, this drawing is primarily about the process of “reaching out forward”, and its gestural quality tells us more about the body than we can glean from dry anatomy texts.



Use of analogies and metaphors

Some phenomena are so strange or unexpected that it is difficult to understand their implications without relating them to what we already know well.

Analogies are used by good science teachers (click here for an online resource on teaching with analogies). A beautiful example enables us to “get our heads around” the massive scale of our solar system. Astronomical figures initially seem meaningless, but a model using familiar objects helps us to understand and engage with the huge distances. In the Thousand-Yard Model, familiar objects represent each planet, so the Earth is a peppercorn, Jupiter a chestnut, etc. The Sun is a bowling ball. These objects are taken outside and placed at specific distances from one another to represent their relative spacing in the solar system. The resulting model solar system is a thousand yards across and is quite awe-inspiring. Full instructions on pacing out the Thousand Yard Model are provided by Guy Ottewell and can be accessed by clicking here.

But are there other areas of science where analogies are under-used? Imaginative comparison is key to the visual arts and of course to poetry. But does an emphasis on objective reasoning leave some scientists without these useful tools?




The confidence to pursue whatever fascinates you



Above: The structure of a ribosome, an essential component of all living cells.



While artists are often encouraged to follow their interests and passions, young scientists perhaps more easily find themselves following lines of enquiry dictated by perceived need, available funding or, at a school level, by a specific syllabus. Is this a cause for concern?

When asked by the Observer, “What words of advice would you give to a teenager who wants to pursue a career in science?“, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who shared the 2009 Nobel prize for chemistry for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome said,

“Find out what really fascinates you and follow that. Almost anything in nature, if you follow it, you will find a scientific problem.”



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