• Shawn Dell Joyce artist

Training your eyes...

Believe it or not, drawing and painting is all about being able to capture what you see, not what you think you see! That means trusting and training your eyes not overthinking and drawing what "should be there."

Skill building for artists means building your ability to discern subtle nuances of color and value. Being able to see into inky shadows and determine warm violets or cool blues, being able to see into bright sunlight and see brilliant yellow and cold white.

Most humans are way too busy in daily life to notice such minutia. As a matter of fact, most humans cannot discern values or color temperature without being trained.

Artists must train their eyes, or be trained by another artist to see things like crest shadows, reflected light, warm shadows and light, cool notes inside shadows, etc.

When you are taught to see these values and color temperature, it's as if a veil has been lifted from your eyes and you see things for the first time. Artist's have described this experience to me as "spiritual" and "enlightening." I think of it as "seeing the way an artist sees."

What's different is artists tend to break things down; see things objectively. Instead of looking at a pitcher with apples, we are looking at a large symmetrical form with spherical shapes of different sizes with a strong light source from the upper right.

This ability to simplify and analyze is how artists break down challenging subjects and capture the light and dark. There's no better way to start this training than through painting from direct observation through still life.

In a still life, the objects and light are static, not changing like en plein air. A still life is three dimensional subject where light bounces off each object and reflects on each object. Its a great way to train your eyes to see these patterns.


Here you can see the color of the orange reflected on the plate and the color of the plate reflected on the orange. Still life is a great way to start.

If you don't have access to an art class, or means right now, you can easily set up a still life at home. Simplicity is key, start off with something simple and build on it. Don't expect to be able to capture a complex still life the first time.

When I teach still life painting, I encourage artists to start off with quick thumbnail value sketches of the same still life from different angles. This helps you determine which angle is the most interesting composition and has the greatest play of light and dark. Try not to spend more than 5 mins on a sketch.


Here are 4 quick value sketches, each taking 5 mins or less. This is the same still life, just focusing in on different elements each time. I'm keeping it simple with only 3 or 4 elements at a time. Not trying to get everything into the same sketch, just focusing on what is important.


Here's the finished still life titles "Red" Pastel on Ampersand Pastelbord 12x16, you can see that I chose the 4th value sketch to use for the final painting. The other sketches could have been paintings but the composition wasn't as strong as the 4th sketch.

Here's another example.


In each sketch, you see the objects a different way. Same still life, just different views. In the first sketch, I liked the perspective on the bowl and how the objects led your eye around the page. In 2 the composition was more diagonal, in 3 the lighting and shapes are more extreme and 4 was an interesting perspective. Even though this sketch was not as finished or successful as the others, I chose it for the basis of the finished piece below:


"Guacamole" pastel on Ampersand Pastelbord, 12x16

So a take-away from this blog is to train your eyes on still life. The better you get at still life, the better you will be at future endeavors like plein air landscape, portraiture, or working from flat photos.

I have a still life class starting in June 1st that explores all the topics discussed in this blog. If you live in Florida, join me at Dunedin Fine Art Center on Mondays from 1-4pm (heat of the day all summer long!) or join in from your own home online (one camera trained on the still life, one on my demonstration) register through Beach Art Center.

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