A Field Guide for Life Drawing

Tips for developing an observational sketchbook practice

Drawing from life is a way to document the world around you. Whether you are an artist, a writer, or simply a curious observer, drawing can be a method of tuning into your perceptions and generating elements for future creative work.

Stories are waiting for you everywhere. Whether it’s in the park, at the laundromat, or on the kitchen counter, it’s often a matter of simply paying attention.

Grab some drawing materials, set out to an interesting place — or begin where you are — and follow these tips to see what you can find.

Tools of the Trade

Getting started can sometimes be as simple as deciding what types of materials you will draw with. Will you use ink, watercolor, gouache, pencil, colored pencil, charcoal, acrylic paint, cut paper?

Consider limiting your options and think about the speed at which you need materials to move on location. You can always go back into drawings to add color or details later if you so choose.

What about your drawing surface? Are you drawing in a sketchbook or on loose paper? Think about how paper weight, size, color, and format will relate to the location or potentially inspire you.

Scout the Location

What are the predominant visual features of this place? Which characteristics feel unique and which are more general?

Who are the “characters” of this space? Other people? Yourself? Natural elements? Inanimate objects? From where can you realistically draw from? Will you move about?

Consider Your Senses

Beyond what you see, what can you hear or overhear? Which sounds are ambient background noises? Which others are distinct? How does the air feel? What about the weather?

Start Somewhere

You can’t draw everything. Deciding where to begin or feeling the pressure to draw the most ambitious or obvious characteristics of a place can be paralyzing. Like with exercise, let yourself warm-up and tune in. Consider starting with details or smaller moments; let one drawing dictate the next.


Drawing is inherently a time-based medium, and creating a sequence of images is especially so. Find markers of time in your environment: passing traffic, the breeze in the trees, birds flying by. These patterns and rhythms can help shape a story.

How long do you have to draw? Is your subject matter moving or fleeting? What kind of marks or drawing approach will succinctly capture it?


It will not be possible to capture everything in the moment. Think about what aspects or elements are most critical and prioritize these on-site. Make notes about details, patterns, color, or dialogue that can be added in later with more time.

Sometimes quick gesture drawings can be finished by memory. It’s also OK to abandon moments that can’t be captured completely.


You may choose to order drawings chronologically in a sketchbook or present them as vignettes on a spread. A single drawing is great, but a series can resonate differently.

Additionally, the original drawings are only one version of the work. Consider photographing or scanning the drawings to play with new formats and sequences. Changing the sequence can sometimes alter the experience of the story dramatically.


Every drawing is a self-portrait. In your drawing, you could be pictured (or not). You can be a documentarian, a naturalist, a poet, a people-watcher, a diarist, a historian, or a combination thereof.

Your observations (and even your narration) can support, expand, contradict, or juxtapose the content of your images, adding another layer.

Make It a Habit

Keep multiple sketchbooks. If you find it helpful, you can organize these by theme, location, or material/technique. Having different options will help prevent your practice from stagnating or any one sketchbook from seeming too precious.

Draw as often as possible. Not only will your technical skills become stronger, but you will develop a more critical eye for discerning potential stories and images.

Artwork by Corey Corcoran

Artist & illustrator. See more at coreycorcoran.com

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