You See, But Do Not Observe

Article by Darren Rousar.


Do you see what I see? Up to a point, yes. But after that, probably not. And the reverse is also true. Beyond the obvious aspects of a scene, I do not see what you do. In fact, you (and I) see, but do not observe. That’s a problem for representational artists. Memory drawing helps to correct it.

Before going any further, take a look at the video below. Watch the whole thing. It’s less than two minutes long. There’s no spoiler forthcoming, so you’ll need to watch the video to understand the connection.


In one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ stories, Holmes chastises Watson for seeing but not observing. Presently, the terms seeing and observing are roughly understood as synonyms and at times are used interchangeably. Holmes would protest.

Seeing* is surface. It is receiving visual input, often with little to no conscious thought about it.

Observing is all about attention. You consciously observe, paying full attention to what you’re looking at. In the video above you were told what to look for and odds are only saw those things. Therefore, you likely missed observing important things.

I tend to refer to observing with the phrase active seeing.

Important Things

Now and then I’ll receive a comment from a student that’s similar to the following: “I’m wondering if memory drawing is as much about learning the important things to note when observing something as it is just remembering what something looks look.”

That’s a true statement if there ever was one.

In fact, when I wrote the Memory Drawing book, I purposefully subtitled it, Perceptual Training and Recall, in that order. Why? Because memory drawing not only relies on one’s ability to correctly perceive and observe, it helps train that ability.

Beyond Expectations

If you go back to that video you’ll understand that observing goes beyond what you expect to see. It’s observing what’s in front of you unencumbered by assumption and expectation. Memory drawing helps you do that through the process of training.

Do enough memory drawings and you’ll eventually realize that relying on some learned formula will only take you so far. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, a head does not really look like an egg, so your memory of someone’s appearance has to go beyond that cursory similarity.

Abstract, Again

I’ve previously written an article about using abstract shapes for memory drawing. If you’ve yet to read it, do so now.

The point was that using abstract shapes forces you to observe. And that’s a very good thing.

rubins-vaseFaces or vases?

Negative Shapes

Another help in learning to correctly observe is to seek out the negative shapes. Some use the term ground (as in figure and ground) instead.

Negative shapes are the visual shapes the objects make on the background. Whether memory drawing or not, looking for the negative shapes will help your visual accuracy.

Beyond memory drawing practice there are two additional resources I recommend to help you learn to observe better. One is a book titled The Invisible Gorilla. It’s by Professor Daniel Simons, the creator of that video you saw above, and his colleague Christopher Chabris. The other is the book The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker.

*Astute observers will have noticed that I frequently refer to “learning to see” over on the Sight-Size site. As much as it grates on the pedant in me, the term seeing in that context is common parlance. Delving into the distinctions there would therefore obscure the intent.

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