During the afternoon of my most recent workshop, while we were all heads-down working on the next light layer of color, one of my students said “You look at your reference every four seconds. I timed you.” I laughed, because I was unaware that anyone was watching me so closely and also because I was unaware of how frequently I check my reference.
It makes sense, though. When your goal is realism, close observation is key whether you’re working from a photo or from life. From one moment to the next, I’m figuratively “connecting the dots” that I’ve noticed in the details of color, line and form. I have observed beginners look for awhile at their reference and then draw without looking at it again for awhile, maybe even a couple of minutes, then wonder where they went astray. I think this is because we naturally believe we “know” what something looks like and work from that, rather than setting that belief aside to truly observe. Checking your reference every few seconds is a good habit to get into.
When I was learning to drive, the driving instructor hammered into us that we should check our mirrors every eight seconds. I still remember him repeating over and over “Mirror check….mirror check…mirror check.” Finally, one fellow student challenged him “Why? What’s behind us doesn’t matter.” He quickly responded “What’s behind you might be next to you in a moment.” There’s a certain parallel, here: driving well requires moment-to-moment observation and awareness to avoid unpleasant surprises, and so does drawing well.
Here’s an idea for how to get yourself to check your reference more often: there are timer apps that can be set to ping at regular intervals. Try setting it to ping every ten seconds (for starters) as you draw. Whenever it pings, take a quick look at the spot on your reference that you’re working from. Don’t just glance at it, see it.
Drawing is all about seeing, so keep seeing.