One of the most important skills an artist can acquire is observation skills. The ability to see shapes, colours and tonal values can be developed by regular practice and will greatly aid the artist in the portrayal of his subject matter.
Of first importance are draftmanship skills. Without the ability to faithfully reproduce the shape of an object, it is likely that the finished artwork will look 'wrong' or even unrecognisable. Good draftmanship skills establish the foundation for success and optimise the potential and ease at which the subsequent stages are constructed.
One of the most common objections a novice will proclaim is that "I can't even draw a straight line." Fortunately, that skill is not essential to the creation of a masterpiece! However, there are techniques which will help the artist to create more uniform and realistic-looking shapes. The shape of a circle, for instance, is terribly difficult to draw correctly, unless guidelines are lightly drawn first to map the proportions accurately. By drawing a cross and marking equal distances from the centre to each of the four 'arms,' a more symmetrical circle is easier to sketch. Draw the circle lightly with an HB pencil, and reinforce the curves with a B or 2B when the correct shape has been established. Other shapes, such as cubes, elipses and cones, are just as easy to plot out by laying out the appropriate guidelines, first.
The composition of an entire picture can be mapped out in a similar fashion, particularly when the artist is using photographs as a source of reference. There are a variety of techniques which artists use, but a simple one is to draw two light lines from corner to corner on the paper. From here, it is a straightforward process to identify the location of the various elements of the subject matter and place them accurately in the composition. If more detail is required, a grid system can be constructed which will ensure an even greater degree of accuracy. One important point to remember is to use a harder pencil and a lighter, more easily erasable touch for grid lines and the initial sketching, unless you intend to trace your draft onto another surface to render the final drawing.
Life drawings entail a slightly different approach. Measuring distances and sizes, by holding a pencil at eye level and comparing lengths to the pencil length, is a common technique used to accurately establish form in the drafting stage. Even here, however, it is still useful to see the scene in front of you as a series of shapes. Tree canopies, for example, often have a circular shape while buildings are usually rectangular. Even the negative space between objects has a shape. In fact, the observation of these spaces and their accurate representation will greatly assist in the successful interpretation of a subject.
Children, with their innate curiosity of the world, seem to have the ability to see shapes more clearly, while adults often get distracted by the detail and their own prior knowledge. Because of their immaturity, the art of young children is generally simplistic and symbolic. A child's style normally takes on a more realistic appearance after the age of ten, when observational skills combine with more sophisticated technical skills to produce more lifelike forms. But, as we become accustomed to the world around us, our brain can begin to trick us into seeing what we expect to be there, instead of what our eyes are actually seeing. This familiarity can lead to technical errors, such as drawing the individual leaves of a tree which is much too far away for such detail to be remotely visible or drawing heavy lines to outline the lips when closer observation shows that it is the shadows around the lips which define their shape.
Techniques to improve observational skills include Betty Edwards' methods in her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. She recommends turning the paper upside down when copying. In this way, the brain is unable to recognise the subject in view and will, therefore, avoid substituting the actual details with its own expectations of them. Other techniques are detailed in the book which were used to successfully improve drawing skills within a short space of time.
Many artists, from the Old Masters to modern-day amateurs and professionals prefer to use mechanical devices to save time and errors in drafting their compositions. Optical aids, such as the early camera obscuras and modern projectors are, no doubt, a useful and valid part of the artist's technique but they should not replace the development of freeform drawing skills. Indeed, without these skills, the artist will be unable to produce a successful work of art, no matter how accurately the intial draft or sketch is completed.
Beginning artists are often advised to practise life drawing. Indeed, life drawing is a useful practice for any artist, no matter how accomplished they might be. Practise often and learn to observe what you see. If there is no one willing to pose for a drawing, then practise still life drawings, landscapes or nature studies. Whatever you draw, look for the shapes first. Tone and texture can follow. Start with graphite sketches and practice often. When you feel comfortable with moving on, experiment with colour. Look for the different effects that light has on the appearance of colour. Look for the existence of other colours observable within a major colour scheme (for instance, observe the different shades of white - rarely, is white purely white). But don't move on too quickly. Time spent building up your observation and draftmanship skills will be invaluable to your progress later on, and, if you progress too quickly now, you run the risk of starting each project with poor technique and limited opportunities for success.