Take the Boredom Out of Observational Drawing

Let’s face it. Observational drawing can be downright boring for our students. The default setting many art teachers revert to when approaching observational drawing with is a traditional still life. A vase of flowers, a cube, a sphere, a box filled with a bunch of random objects from a thrift store from 1975. Woo Woo.


Put yourselves in your student’s shoes for a minute. If you were 15, or 9 years old what would you be interested to sit and look at for hours and observe carefully and draw? Chances are it isn’t the same objects that the masters got thrilled about 100+ years ago. Just saying. The times they are a changing.

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In the end, does it really matter WHAT your students are drawing, as long as the skills are taught, students are learning the concepts, and are engaged with the media? In short, I think the answer is no, it doesn’t! Sometimes we get stuck in our ways and taking a step back and thinking differently can make a huge impact on student attitudes and motivation. Plus, when students are engaged, classroom management also improves.

When conducting observational drawing with my 5th grade I found it was one of my HARDEST lessons to manage. Kids come squirmy really quickly and they were negative. So, I decided to change it up. I allowed them to draw an item of their choosing that was part of Pop Culture today. iPhones, Wii Controllers, Lipstick Tubes, Shoes, etc. Wow! The students were so excited. The lesson was a hit.

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Another perk? Meaningful drawing exercises can so easily be transferred to a printmaking project that everyone can be proud of.

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I encourage you to take an audit of your still life closet and freshen it up for your next big drawing project. See what kind of reactions you get from your students. Maybe even allow them all to contribute to the still life and personalize it. I bet the reactions will be positive.

How could you set up a still life for the 21st century?

What is the most successful thing you’ve allowed students to draw?

PS. See how you can use the Document Camera (Elmo) to change up observational drawing right here.




Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Kathleen

    A little iffy about what this is saying. Observational drawing is just that, drawing from life. There is no old and new. A tree isn’t old or new it is perfectly timeless and anyone who draws should draw it and know what they want to say about drawing it their way. Fruit and bowls are out, but personal electronics are in? Don’t get hung up about “old masters”. I’ve done sessions with kids when we really did like the old masters; no electricity, use candles, charcoal or chalk, one student is the arm or hand model and so on. The whole session becomes the learning experience but other than that, drawing from life should be about anything in their life and how to see it. Their style is their story. One carrot can be a whole drawing session; that orange, the lighting, the edge, the point of view, the size against something else…work that excitement and all the fundamentals of art and drawing will be absorbed. I’ve worked with youth and kids for over 20 years and I’ve done it on my own: creating after-school programs, through youth centers, museums, galleries, etc. I understand the attitude you write about. A whole circus could romp through the art project and some kids will still say, “Ugh, when are we going outside?”, or “…is this what we’re doing?”. I use physical stuff with them. They are the models to draw from: one kid is into wrestling then have him pose in wrestling poses and have kids draw him. Point out the motion, the “gesture” of his pose then have him switch into a fun, “I’m the bad guy wrestler!!” pose and hold that…hold it…can you do it? They usually laugh and try to stay still while we draw and look. Go with that flow. Anyway, I could go on but I have long enough. Thanks for the opportunity. You are art teachers but don’t try to fence in something that is wild; reinforce what they need to be looking for and working on but play and experiment. You are helping them identify and explore their own visual language and the visual language of others not teaching the specifics of an established written language.

    • Kathleen,
      I appreciate what you are saying here. I agree, there is a time and place for everything and variety is key. One of the most common issues I am hearing from art teachers is the idea of student engagement as it relates to classroom management and we know the ability to connect students to their interests helps with this. This article was simply a starting place to get teachers thinking differently to add variety, not necessarily overhaul, some of their practices. I also love your idea about ‘working like the masters’ using candles – I bet students loved that. It sounds like you are a very dedicated artist and teacher. Thank you!

      • artprojectgirl

        I too loved the idea of using candles! How fun to do that with our girls although you couldn’t do it in a school setting because of safety. I really don’t understand the issue with using any object at all, especially if the kids are interested in what they are drawing. I had many teachers make me draw my hands, spheres, cubes, etc in space and I definitely don’t think it made me a “better” drawer. The only thing that helped me improve was learning how to break 3D objects down into 2D shapes and an older gentleman who wasn’t even my teacher taught me that. He broke it down more simply then any teacher and how he worked with color to create shadow and highlight was equally straightforward and interesting. Then blind drawing after that built a better drawing foundation. I think drawing anything works as long as you practice and have a teacher you connect with.

        • Kathleen

          Thanks guys. Hope it didn’t sound too snarky. I do understand set-ups and room possibilities are all so different for everyone. An added note to the candles deal: I recently did a small session with about ten kids and I bought those Dollar Store battery candles for that very reason…five bucks got about 15 or 16 of those little ones and another dollar a larger one. They flicker and created a perfect atmosphere. I sent in each child to draw the one object in the “candle” light from any view point they wanted and then came back to the hall or other room. Afterwards you had different drawings from one object. The “Old Masters” time is full of ideas to play with…just the idea that those huge paintings were originally created for alters or churches under their current lighting, usually windows and candles, not current museum lighting is interesting to explore. How does a drawing change if you have to look up at it? How does creating a drawing under different circumstances change it? When does the edge become the line that creates the shape?

  • I always find that if I have “real” items the kids get excited. For example, when first graders study healthy bodies, I go to the grocery store and get real fruits and vegetables for them to draw. Or, I ask the gym teacher for some gym equipment to use for still life practice. I think that presenting observational drawing as something that real artists do all the time and showing historical and contemporary examples really helps to engage kids, no matter the subject matter!

    • Amanda,
      Your examples are all great ways to connect drawing to what kids are interested in and familiar with! This is also a great way to enhance those cross – curricular connections.

    • Staci

      Love your idea of using gym equipment!

  • stacy

    Hi, I dont think this is the right place to pose this question but I am a middle school art teacher and I am trying to teach a painting unit. How do you organize a painting class when there are 30 kids in the class and not much room? I have already worked with watercolor and want to do tempera paint. What kind of paper is best for this and how do you organize it?


    • Charmaine Boggs

      I have large middle school classes, too. I have six large tables and seat five students at each one. I use catering cups with lids that I get at the local Flower Factory store, but any small containers will do. I put one cup of each color on a plastic tray (ask parents for old cookie sheets, too), along with about 10 brushes in different sizes. Each table is responsible for their tray: refill paint cups, keep paint clean, close lids, wash brushes, etc. At the end of class, I give each set of brushes my “white glove test” before the table group can be dismissed. I have a box of non-latex gloves, courtesy of the school nurse, and put one on, swipe the brushes, and send the group back to the sink if necessary. For tempera, I buy 90# drawing paper. It curls a bit while drying, but when I take the work off the racks, I stack it and put a heavy box on top overnight to flatten the sheets. Hope this helps!

    • Amanda

      Hey Stacy,
      Personally, I can’t do those little cups…. The best thing I’ve found in 16 yrs. teaching middle school, is purchasing “biggie” tempera cake sets. Yes, it is an investment, but they last a very long time. I have every two students share a cake set. Each cake set contains black, white, red, blue, yellow, orange, green, and brown super concentrated tempera paint cakes. You can order extra “cakes” because the white is always the first to run out. (also offered are different colors and a flesh tone) Yes, the color selection is limited and there is no purple, but my students really get into mixing their own colors… perfect time to talk about color mixing and the color wheel.

      If you would like some more info., please email me… ayjayoh@aol.com

      Do you have a drying rack? How do you handle all of those paintings? That is my biggest challenge in a small art room.

  • Lisa

    I shop at the Dollar Tree a lot. I buy dinosaurs, bugs, animals, and all these other toys. I have a tub with all these items in it. It’s called my “Look and Draw” tub (my students can’t all read the word observational). I always do a lesson about observational drawing where students create their own little still life infront of them. But I also allow them to use the tub during their “free” time. They can choose one or two items to take back to their seat and draw. After they draw it with as much detail as possible, I have them create their own background if there’s time. They LOVE it. I have a few who choose to play instead of draw and those students get a chat from me, but most are great with it!

    • Lisa, Rosalie and Staci- All of your ideas are engaging and fun! I also like the organic shapes you are introducing. The iPods, etc were fun, but left a lot to be desired when it comes to interesting shapes and challenging drawing. Others will really benefit from your ideas. Thank you!

  • Rosalie

    For one of my favorite observational drawing lessons, I brought in my goldfish and created a still life with his bowl and other various objects. I projected in on my Promethean board with a document camera so everyone could see it. The kids absolutely loved it! They were all so engaged!

  • Staci Nofziger

    I had my fifth graders do observational drawing this year using apples – they were to draw the apple first, then take a bite… and after each bite they would draw it again, adding shading as well. It turned out very cool, and they loved to eat the apple! In another lesson they drew their shoes – many were afraid of this one, but then pleasantly surprised at how good they were at it!

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