Why every photographer should learn to draw

I never intended to take up photography at all.  I came to it via an Access to Art & Design course that I took at my local college, because what I really wanted to do (I thought!) was paint and draw.

One of the first exercises on the course was to choose a partner and then each of us had to draw the other person in our sketchbook.  My drawing was the one you see on the left and if it hadn’t already been in my sketchbook, it would have found itself in the bin in short order.  It’s terrible!  My only consolation was that the drawing Kevin – my victim – did of me was probably even worse.

But…..it was only about two weeks later that I produced the self-portrait on the right.  It doesn’t look like me, but it does look like a real face, and it’s amazing what an improvement drawing all day for a couple of days a week has made.  In Kevin’s portrait there’s no shading, no real observation of what his face actually looked like – I didn’t draw what my eyes were seeing, I drew what I thought was there.

Naming stops us seeing

Frederick Franck, in his book The Zen of Seeing, says that the minute we label something we stop seeing it properly.  So I looked at Kevin and saw two eyes, a nose, a mouth, some hair, etc.  You can see I made some attempt to observe the shape of his face and that’s probably because you can’t pin a label on that so easily.  In contrast, when I did the self-portrait I was closely observing things like the folds round my eyes, the shape of my mouth, the way my hair curled, and so on.  I didn’t think ‘this is an eye’ while drawing my eye, I simply observed the shapes and the tones that were there without naming them.  And instead of ending up with Kevin’s flat, white face, I’ve seen where the shadows and highlights lie, drawn them in, and subsequently my face has volume and shape.

So what does this have to do with photography?

To be a good photographer you have to learn to look at the world differently, and learning to draw is a very good way of changing how you look at things.  You begin to notice patterns of light and shade, interesting little shapes, and the lines and curves that make up your subject.  Even something boring becomes interesting when you try to draw it.

For instance, maybe you think the view from your window is really dull.  And if you look at it and just see houses, cars, washing lines, and so on, it will be.  If you stop seeing it in terms of these things and start noticing the fabulously clashing colours of the clothes on the washing line, or the soft, golden light hitting just one window of the house opposite, or the curved lines that form the shapes of the cars, or how no two leaves on the tree in your garden are exactly the same shape, then a whole new world will open up to you.  Nothing will ever look dull and boring again once you learn how to really look at it, and you’ll be able to find a picture anywhere.

You don’t need to be good at drawing for this to work, although you will become good at it naturally when you start really ‘seeing’ the world.  It’s not the end result – the drawing – that’s important; it’s the process you go through to arrive at it.  It trains you to look carefully and closely at the world around you.  And if you do this then you can’t help but become a better photographer.

I hope I might have convinced you to give it a go.  Apart from anything else, it’s a lot of fun.

Books to help you learn to draw

I tend to avoid the kind of learn-to-draw book that teaches in a very technical way.  I’m not a very technical person and I find it off-putting and boring.  I like the kind that gets you enthused and inspired, or helps you use a more right-brained approach to drawing.  Here are some I can totally recommend:

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

This is a classic, and I never thought I could draw at all until I tried the exercises in this book.  I was astounded at the difference these made in just one day of drawing.  If you only buy one book, make it this one.

Keys to Drawing and Keys to Drawing with Imagination by Bert Dodson

These are FUN!  If you don’t feel inspired to pick up a pencil after reading one of these books, then you never will.

Start to Draw Your Life by Michael Nobbs

This is a charming – and free – downloadable ebook, written by a man who found drawing helped him deal with the death of his mother and a chronic illness.

There are loads more books out there but I’m not going to overload you.  I hope you’ll think about picking up a pencil and doing some drawing – I guarantee it will change the way you see things forever.