My two part volume on drawing

After posting thirty-seven of the chapters of my four books, I realise that I have missed out the “Introduction” to my two PART volume on drawing. In the edited extract from it below, some general remarks are followed by a brief focus on two issues of fundamental relevance to what follows. Also, as an extra bonus, I have added three images .




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A drawing by Auguste Rodin, one of two artists who set me on the way to scientific research


This volume differs in fundamental respects from earlier books on the same subjects. It offers new and practical guidance on drawing-from-observation. It does so whether the artist is seeking:

  • Greater accuracy.
  • More expressive power.
  • Ways of speeding up without losing control.

Its starting point is an analysis of widely used artistic practices and teaching methods. The next step is to explain not only why these have both proved to be of lasting value but also why, as they are currently taught, they have significant limitations.

A main source of evidence for the proposals elaborated in the following pages is research, done by myself and colleagues at the University of Stirling in Scotland, into how artists use their eyes when drawing or painting. This forced me to a number of conclusions that differ fundamentally from those provided by other authors, including those promoted by Betty Edwards in her extremely popular  book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”.

A similarity between Betty Edwards and myself is that both of us link our main explanations to contemporary science, with a special focus on neurophysiology. The difference is that the conclusions to which we come are radically different. While she relies heavily on a false theory of brain function, my arguments are are wider ranging, more up to date and demonstrably more relevant to drawing practice. As a result, I am able to offer a great deal of  new and reassuring information on human visual capacities, clarify the nature of the obstacles facing all who engage in drawing from observation and indicate effective ways of circumventing them.

During my 30 years teaching at the Painting School of Montmiral, I have had the opportunity of testing the research-based ideas on hundreds of students of all levels of attainment and a wide variety of aspirations. Although the outcome is clear and encouraging, a word of warning is appropriate. Both experience and theory make it clear that, while early progress will almost always be rapid, both for beginners and experienced artists, there is no escaping the fact that, as with all skills, the highest levels of attainment require a longer term commitment.

Experience and theory also show why early difficulties seem more daunting to some people than for others. Should this turn out to be your case, there is no need to be discouraged. No matter what your starting level, you can have confidence that, if you have the motivation to persevere, the new ways of looking and doing that I advocate will help you to far exceed your expectations.




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A drawing by Edgar Degas, the other of the two artist who set me on the way to scientific research.


My experience as a teacher makes clear that everyone has difficulties with the accurate depiction of the outlines of objects. My research at the University of Stirling helps us understand why. It also sets us on the way to achieving the combination of accuracy, speed and expressive power mentioned above.le of

As the  science upon which much of my teaching depends will be unfamiliar to readers, a few words on two key ideas are appropriate. These centre on the subjects of “the variability of appearances” and “recognition”.


A useful preparation for understanding the nature of  the problem with which variability confronts us, is the realisation that no two objects or parts of objects ever present the eyes with the same outline, even ones that are classified as the same object-type. Indeed, because appearances are altered by every change in viewing angle and/or viewing distance, even the same object (unless it is a sphere) will never be identical in shape unless viewed from exactly the same position. Each set of relationships, whether between different sections of contour or regions colour will always be unique.

This fundamental truth of visual perception brings us to an extremely important implication of this unvarying rule of variability and the consequent uniqueness of all perceived objects. It is that, since, by definition, recognition depends on seeing something as being the same on different occasions, the precise characteristics of the contours artists seek to represent can only have a supplementary role in the processes that enable it.  Accordingly recognition must regularly involve overlooking the details of shape in favour of more general information. As we shall see in the following pages, the extent of overlooking can be huge.


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Figure 1: A diagram of the working principles of the analytic looking cycle


Most people feel that they experience “recognition” as a conscious activity. But they are wrong to do so. As illustrated in Figure 1 (the details of which will be explained in due course), this key process in sensory perception always takes place before conscious awareness is achieved. The reason is that the function of recognition is not to produce an image of an object, but rather to access the knowledge required for activating instructions as to how to react to it.
As the diagram illustrates, the the knowledge accessed is always in the form of action instructions. These may be concerned with guiding arm, leg or other body movement or they may direct the movements of eye, head or body that enable us to target aspects of appearances that require special attention. It is only at this analytic-looking stage that consciousness has a role in visual perception.
But how does the eye/brain know where to target attention? It may help when seeking an answer to this question to remember that analytic-looking skills, like all other skills, are developed for specific purposes. Some skills, such as the ones learnt when very young, create platforms for more advanced ones. Anybody who sets themselves to learn a totally new skill has no option but to start with existing skills. All of these will be a compound of basic skills learnt as an infant, such as those required for grasping objects or for guiding the direction of crawling, and more advanced ones that have been developed later, such as those required for washing up, for using a computer or for any kind of sport.
This being the case, it follows that, if we wish to acquire complex visually mediated skills, we will have to learn the action instructions necessary for guiding appropriate ways of looking. Accordingly, although people learning to draw for the first time might have had experiences relating to other tasks that have allowed them to develop skills that could contribute the acquisition of drawing skills, they will never be enough. No matter how near the fit, they can only be of limited use unless appropriate ways of building upon them are developed.
If advanced artists assume that all this has no relevance to them, they should think again. The handicap of being saddled with old knowledge when facing new situations does not only apply to learning skills in hitherto untried domains of activity. It also applies to developing any skill at all beyond its present stage, no matter how well honed that may be. When Edgar Degas, one of the most skilled drawers in history, asserted, “I must impress on myself that I know nothing at all, for it is the only way to make progress”, he was making the claim that, no matter what the subject matter, fresh ways of looking will always be required.  In view of the unvarying variability of appearances, there is no alternative but to agree with him.
A more familiar and general way of expressing the above conclusions is that learning a new visually mediated task requires leaving aside bad, old habits in favour of adopting good, new ones. This book provides comprehensive information concerning how this can be done in the domain of drawing from observation
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My son Thomas at a difficult moment in his life, a drawing that owed a great deal to my scientific research.

Below are links to chapters from my volumes on  drawing:



The chapters so far loaded:


The chapters so far loaded:



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Full contents lists

My books on drawing and painting

Why my books are needed?

Two quotations from students who have come on my courses at the Painting School of Montmiral indicate why there is a need for my books on drawing and painting. The first talks of, “a very different and vastly more interesting type of artistic education than I have met before” (Yolande Hart). The second goes into greater detail, explaining that, “This course, with its reference to proven research and with the patient explanations of its implications with respect to how the brain receives and interprets information provides a fundamentally sound approach commonly lacking in other courses and literature” (Iain McCowan).

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Ian McCowan presenting his drawing of the butcher’s shop to the butcher


Other comments on the uniqueness and efficacy of the methods I use in my teaching can be found on the “Comments” page of the Painting School website. Over 200 examples of student work can be found on the Student Work page

The limitations of existing books

At the end of a course, students often ask me to recommend books to read that will help them reinforce the new ideas to which they have been exposed. The explanation as to why I have found it difficult to give them a satisfactory answer is the same as the reason I seized an opportunity to do research at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Before arriving at this turning point in my life as an artist, an important part of my time had been devoted to teaching drawing and painting. Despite enjoying my work and although my approach was clearly appreciated by my students, I always felt that there must be some better ways of helping them. In my efforts to improve matters with respect to their drawing from observation, I tried out a variety of the practices recommended in books, including most of the ideas later to be popularised by Betty Edwards in “Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain”. I found that nearly all of these helped up to a point, sometimes spectacularly so, at least in the short term. The problem was that there were always important reasons for wanting to go beyond that point. I also used ideas coming from the Psychologists of Perception, that centred on their concept of “schemas” and the way these influenced both looking and doing strategies. Again, they helped to some extent, but left too many questions unanswered.

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