Artists who work from observation have a basic desire to make something look "right", which means accurately capturing the true shapes and colors of our subject. However, we may also have other competing desires: The desire to complete an artwork quickly. The desire to be right. The desire to be seen as "good". The desire to ignore our own errors.
All of these desires are normal and natural, and at times they may have even been useful... but habits of distortion don't serve our artwork well. We are essentially telling ourselves that everything is right, when we know it isn't.
As we create, we make dozens of decisions every moment. Some of those decisions are conscious, and some are unconscious. The way to improve our skills for faithful representation is to increase our awareness. If we become aware of our decisions, we can choose to remove our unconscious distortions.
If we never become aware of our unconscious distortions, we can't grow as artists.
Some of our unconscious distortions are about shapes. We may stretch or squeeze what we see to make it fit. Sometimes we become so used to stretching and squeezing our shapes that we are not at all aware we are doing it. The only way to improve our perception of shape and proportion is to become aware of our choices as we work.
But how do we become aware of when we are stretching or squeezing our shapes?
The key to developing awareness starts with developing hyper-sensitivity to your own experience. As you draw and paint, you feel: You feel shape, you feel color, you feel value.
When we stretch or compress a shape, there is an accompanying uncomfortable feeling of pulling or pushing. We feel shapes as we draw them, so we feel a sense of discomfort when we distort. The discomfort is mild of course: It's not like your physical body is actually being pushed or pulled! But somewhere inside you, you feel the discomfort of a distortion, and it feels like a pull or push. You may even feel your body or head slightly lean in the direction of your distortion.
With practice, awareness increases. You may find that when you make just one or two marks that are untrue, you start to notice a friendly little "red flag" of distortion. "Whoops, I'm stretching this shape too wide!" Noticing this little red flag allows you to immediately self-correct. This is when the drawing or painting starts to flow.
Drawing well does not mean every mark is always accurate: It means you are able to notice and correct your inaccuracies, and with a gentle and friendly curiosity. Making a drawing error doesn't have to mean you are a "bad artist."
When you get used to seeking out your own errors, you find yourself feeling HAPPY when you discover one, because when you correct it, the drawing gets back on track and problems are solved. Drawing actually feels very fun and easy if continually adjusting and improving what you already drew is just part of the process, instead of being labeled as a "mistake".
How can you practice drawing accurate shapes?
Set a timer for 10 minutes, and draw a simple subject, like a single pear. Use lines only, no shading. Work slowly, don't try to complete the drawing within the time frame. Just observe yourself drawing, and ask yourself over and over: How does this feel? Is this shape correct? How can I correct it? When the timer goes off, ask yourself if you want to continue this drawing, or start a new one.
This is the essential practice I teach my students: I teach an exercise in my online course Intro to Classical Drawing, where we draw simple subjects for 20-60 minutes a day, every day, for 10 consecutive days. We use only line, and we draw relatively simple subjects, like pears. The only goal is to make the shapes as accurate as possible.
When we do this we notice right away how hard it is! And we begin to become aware of how often we distort, how often we stretch and squeeze to force a shape to fit previous decisions, how reluctant we feel to correct or start over, how much we want to be "right". We begin to feel how much our desire to be a "good artist" gets in the way of seeing honestly. And eventually, we start to let go of our competing desires. We start to see and draw with more honesty and accuracy.
And once we master this ability with shape, we can apply it to value and color, and all aspects of artmaking.
If you would like to try the 10-day drawing exercise, become an Online Atelier Member or purchase my online course Intro to Classical Drawing. The Intro course is also included free with my online Bargue Plate Drawing Course, and Cast Drawing Course.