Drawing What You See: The Art of Representational Drawing

drawing of building and plaza
Sunset Station, San Antonio, TX © 2011 Paul Heaston

Representational drawing is the art of drawing realistically; in other words, making your drawing resemble the real world as closely as possible.

One could easily write a whole book on representational drawing— in fact, thousands of books have been written. Whether you are drawing from a photograph, creating a drawing from a cast, from a model, or from life, this can be very challenging, but it doesn’t need to be. Here are some basic tips to help you make amazing representational drawings!

Representational drawing can be distilled into two important skills: seeing and mark-making. Reconciling what your eyes tell you with what your hand is able to communicate. For many, the biggest challenge is in the first skill– seeing.


I like to think of representational drawing as an open-book test. All of the visual information you need is right in front of you— you don’t need to recall anything from memory or think too much. It’s a deceptively simple concept. We are often so confident we know what something looks like that we draw to fit our idea of something, rather than trusting our eyes to tell us what we’re actually seeing. It’s important in representational drawing to train yourself to ignore what you think you know and focus on what is in front of you.

Here’s a fun exercise you can try at home. Try drawing a pineapple right now from memory. No googling, no going to the market to pick one up, don’t even finish reading the rest of this blog post. Try and make as complete a drawing as you can. Then, google an image of a pineapple, or go to the store and buy one and draw it from life. Compare what you drew from memory with what you drew from direct observation. You might notice that your memory is not as trustworthy as you think. (I tried it myself, but I’m not going to post it because you need to be a blank slate to do this exercise.)


Most of us begin drawing using line. Line is one of the simplest ways to describe something representationally.

Sketch of Nude Woman
© 2013 Paul Heaston

Using only line is without a doubt representational drawing. But if we look at the real world, we notice that line doesn’t really exist, at least in the abstract way we use it in drawing. Objects in space are really distinguished by differences in value.

As we’ve talked about in previous blog posts, value is one of the most important things to consider when drawing representationally. A drawing doesn’t need to be photorealistic to be representational, but it should effectively use value to show volume, or three-dimensional space. There are many kinds of mark-making you can use to create value, but the most common are tonal and hatching. The drawing of onions and a potato below is an example of tonal mark-making. I used the edge of a conte crayon and a paper stump to create soft, even tones.

Still Life with Garlic and Potato, Even Tones
© 1997 Paul Heaston

The example below uses hatching, or parallel line mark-making to demonstrate value.

Drawing of 409 Cleaner Using Hatching
© 2010 Paul Heaston

While each of these are very different forms of mark-making, both effectively use value to illustrate volume and space.

Developing the facility to have your hands represent what your eyes tell you is where the two skills of representational drawing come together. One of the most basic and valuable exercises to hone this skill is the blind contour drawing. To do this, find an object or person, and attempt to draw he/she/it with line, without looking at the paper. Instead, look only at your subject, and practice letting your hand follow the line your eye takes around it.

Two Abstract Drawings of Men

The end result might make no sense at all, although you may notice some rather nice passages in areas. But the final drawing is not important. The value of this exercise is the exercise itself. You are developing the relationship between your hand and your eye. Allowing the two to communicate is key to representational drawing. What do you plan to draw next?

You might also enjoy learning how to draw a head and realistic facial features.

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