Drawing from observation is, in my opinion, the best way to teach drawing. Obviously it is not the only way, but I think that it is the best way for to develop drawing skills. Drawing from memory and drawing from imagination are also to be encouraged. I don’t think that copying should be encouraged. Copying may be O.K. later on when a degree of skill and selectivity is learned, but not to be encouraged early on. In copying part of the problem has been solved for you. The three dimensional subject has already been turned into two dimensions. I know that artists from the Photorealist School and some others use photographs as part of their initial ideas, but these artists have been through the learning process, they can draw from life if they need to, they know how to use the photograph, they know how to be selective.
Some art teachers have difficulty themselves in drawing from observation, and therefore have difficulty in helping their pupils. I do not understand why art schools stopped the emphasis on drawing. It wouldn’t happen in other subjects. “Sorry, I can’t help you with your essay, I never learned to read and write properly.”
Like all skills, the ability to draw comes from practice. Practice makes perfect, but we are not after the perfect piece of work. Pupils are always after the perfect results but they should be encouraged to not always complete a drawing. Often we have learned as much as we are going to learn early on in the drawing and the rest of the drawing is just repeat work. Of course some work should be taken to a conclusion as this can build up confidence. I explain that it is normal to make mistakes, and if we aren’t making them we aren’t learning. Much like a golfer practicing his swing and not making his putt until he gets his swing right. Or like a musician practicing scales, ironing out the mistakes before the performance. I don’t explain at this stage that it never gets easier, that the more you learn the deeper more you want to push into the unknown.
I never do demonstrations on a pupils paper. If I can’t explain the problem I do a drawing on another piece of paper, but this is after asking the pupil to possibly go up to the still life and follow the contours with his hands, and then possibly doing an air drawing, explaining negative shapes, anything that I think that is relevant to that drawing. I don’t want the pupil to copy my example. Pupils do copy, just for fun, and this should not be discouraged, but I always emphasise the importance of working observationally from the actual object.
Rather than giving demonstrations, before the pupil start the drawing I like to talk about the subject. Help the pupil to observe by asking questions, “Is it longer than it is wide?” “Where do curves start and straight lines start?” Extend your arm and compare width and height. “Where do parts meet, or overlap?” If you ask the right questions the pupil knows where to start and how to proceed. They know the problems that they have to solve. I think that we often get poor drawings from our pupils because they don’t know the problem they have to solve because we haven’t asked the right questions. A maths teacher wouldn’t give a few numbers to their pupils and expect them to solve the problem. They would tell them what the problem was. Art, after all is about solving visual problems