Beyond Seeing: Differences Between Experts and Novices in Observational Drawing

Independent Undergraduate Thesis

Readers: Prof. Ken Livingston, Cognitive Science  and Prof. Hadley Bergstrom, Psychology & Neuroscience

ABSTRACT

 Photograph of the original still life

Photograph of the original still life

Observational drawing is a fundamental artistic technique where the artist seeks to most accurately replicate observations of something three-dimensional in life on a two- dimensional surface. Like any skill, observational drawing improves with deliberate practice, and thus, some artists can become experts at this technique. In order to explain what causes the disparity between artists and non-artists, past studies have often taken a bottom-up approach, testing whether artists have better perceptual abilities and trying to understand it on a neurological level. However, observational drawing is not simply perceptually based, but is also behavioral and action-oriented. Ultimately, it is a perception-action loop that involves many cognitive processes like consciousness and first person experience. The purpose of this study was to tap into a source not readily examined – the artist’s mind. Using a protocol analysis, 6 expert artists and 6 novice artists performed two tasks. The first was to describe a still life they were observing. The second was to draw the still life on a digital tablet. Participants were asked to verbalize their thoughts aloud during both tasks. Results show that participants, regardless of group, described the scene the same way, implying no perceptual difference between the expert and the novice. However, during the drawing portion, many cognitive differences between the artist and the non-artist were found, including differences in thought processes, decision-making, approaches to drawing, and actions taken. There was a significant difference in time taken to map the entire composition, meaning that while expert artists and novice artists took about the same amount of time to complete their drawing of the still life, the experts could more quickly represent all objects and their positions on the page. As a whole, this protocol analysis provides a phenomenological perspective on the mechanisms of observational drawing and suggests that the advantages of the expert are not solely the result of perception.

 Final drawings of Novices (left) and Experts (right). The bottom left drawing was found to be the most inaccurate, and the bottom right drawing the most accurate.

Final drawings of Novices (left) and Experts (right). The bottom left drawing was found to be the most inaccurate, and the bottom right drawing the most accurate.

HIGHLIGHTS

1. In order to explain what causes the disparity between artists and non-artists, past studies have often taken a bottom-up approach with the goal of learning whether artists “see” better than novices, by testing whether artists have better perceptual abilities and trying to understand it on a neurological level. However, observational drawing is not simply perceptually based, but is also behavioral and action-oriented. Thus, my study took a different angle. My number one priority was to keep the conditions of observational drawing as accurate as possible and not separate perception from action.  

2. By using a protocol analysis, I could hear from the participants themselves and later analyze their own words and thoughts. This qualitative information had previously been untapped and offered interesting information about the cognitive processes involved in the perception-action loop of observational drawing such as attention, decision-making, and first person experience.

3. Because I wanted to observe expertise of the technique it was important for me to eliminate expertise of material. Drawing on a tablet with a stylus was foreign to my participants and created a unique even playing field.  The drawing app I used, also recorded all the strokes on the tablet, providing quantitative data such as how long it took to complete drawings and the time it took to map out the entire composition.

TECHNICAL SKILLS UTILIZED

  • Theoretical research
  • Designing and executing an experiment
  • Submission to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for use of human participants
  • Research Methods - Protocol Analysis, Observation
  • Analysis of quantifiable data with SPSS for significance
  • Quantum Geographic Information system (QGIS)
Novice

Expert

RESULTS

  • There were no differences in how experts and novices described the still life, evident by mean word count and specific phrasings. Thus, when strictly observing, there was no indication that experts have a perceptual advantage over novices
  • In order to compare which drawings most realistically depicted the scene, each drawing was analyzed for accuracy using QGIS to calculate image difference. Notoriously, this system is used in Environmental Science to calculate changes to a geographical area. By using it for my experiment, I could compare participant drawings to a photograph of the still-life taken, providing a quantifiable measurement of accuracy.  Results of an independent samples T-test showed a significant difference of accuracy between experts. Experts, on average, produced lower mean image differences than novices, meaning their final drawings more closely resembled a photograph of the original still life.
  • Aspects of the drawing task were analyzed further to find possible differences between the groups in terms of approach to drawing or specific actions taken. Three features were measured:
  1. the time it took to map the entire composition
  2. the percentage of composition mapping out of total time
  3. how many times the participant switched objects during their drawing. 

Statistically significant results were found for all three features. Expert artists more quickly mapped the composition (indicated all objects from their still-life and their locations on the paper) than novices. Experts used far less of their total time to sketch out the composition. Experts also switched from drawing one object to another more times than novices during their total drawing time.

DICUSSION

The study implies that there are many components to the expertise of this artistic technique. Observational drawing is embodied. The artist utilizes information not only from sensory input, but memory of how to move the pencil, and conscious decision making of what to draw next or where to look, etc.  It shows that while embedded in the name "observational drawing", it is far more than just seeing.