Yesterday was the second session in my current 3-session Nature Sketching Workshop, and I must confess I am having fun with it. I think my favorite part is bringing home the importance of cognizant observation -- and the amazement (of my students) that mere looking is not the same as cognizant observation.
Here's what happens in the class: As part of the landscape sketching instruction, I include (and stress) sketching foreground items such as sticks, pinecones, shrubs, grasses, etc.
I show the students a sequoia cone, and go through the thinking-out-loud process of observing the cone: what is the shape (egg-shaped, with a flat end), how are the scales arranged (diagonal rows, at cross angles in a grid), what does the perimeter look like (very jagged, outlining the scales), and what does the end of each scale look like (a bumpy diamond, with a "kissy-lips" shape). They help select and create the verbal descriptions, and say them out loud.
Then, as an exercise, I ask the students to choose either a sequoia cone or a gnarly stick from my gnarly stick collection and draw it for about fifteen minutes. We don't describe the sticks out loud, as each one is different. As they draw, I go from student to student helping them get the shape right, applying shading, showing gnarliness and wood grain, etc. The results are generally good, and the students end up being reasonably pleased with the results (NOTE: artists are way too hard on themselves).
But then I remove the sticks or cones and I ask them to redraw their subject on a fresh page from memory, without reference to the stick or cone or the previous drawing.
Amazingly, the students sketching sticks they had just examined and drawn for fifteen minutes, often cannot remember the shape of the stick, where twigs protruded, which way the stick curved, or other major landmarks on the stick.
Students drawing a cone, however, can produce a creditable drawing, right down to the design on the ends of the scales. They have developed an internal "template" of a sequoia cone which they can use for later reference.
You'd think that the stick image would be deeply imprinted in one's brain after fifteen minutes of intense study, but I think there is something else going on here, and it has to do with our highly developed left brain, which uses words and symbols to operate.
Since we described the cone in highly descriptive words and related features to known shapes and symbols, then drawing the cone from memory is easily accomplished by applying those symbols and shapes to the paper.
The gnarly stick however, hasn't been "labeled," so it is difficult to remember its amorphous shape accurately. This also makes drawing the stick a challenging task since each line has to be drawn on its own merit instead of as part of, for instance, a "kissy-lips" shape.
The solution to the drawing problem of a loosely structured form like a gnarly stick is to keep up an internal (or if you're alone, an external) dialogue while drawing. For instance, to tell yourself that "this stick is an inch wide and six inches long" or "it is five times as long as it is wide," or "it's shaped like an open-mouthed whale." And to describe protruding twigs: "there are two twigs on top, three on the bottom, and the middle top one forks." Additionally, "twigs emerge at a 45 degree angle" and "the long crack extends from the first twig to the fourth, and has a triangular break in it." "Two knotholes, one is oval, the other is round and both look like volcanoes." Sometimes a negative shape (the shape around the subject) can be described instead: "the negative shape at the end of the stick resembles a dog's head." Descriptions like that.
If you have words to hang a scene on, it is easier to remember for later reference, and it is also far easier to draw it the first time than if you are simply trying to push your pencil in the direction a line seems to go in the scene.
Next time you draw, talk to yourself. You may find the conversation quite stimulating and educational ;o}
p.s. The Journal/Sketching workshop is proceeding quickly -- I'm on the journaling part now! And I'm into the Common Moorhen (used to be the Common Gallinule) page in the swamp book illustrations -- did you know that moorhen chicks have blue foreheads and lipstick red bills? And bright candy-pink skin showing through sparse black hairs on the top of the head? They're a hoot!