What Makes an Onion an Onion?

Today’s drawing assignment was both interesting and thought-provoking. What I mean is that not only was the drawing exercise one I was excited to try, it was also one that sparked a lot of questions for me, not just about the drawing process itself, but about my approach to art studies.

The lesson involved knowing and seeing — two different approaches to drawing. A similar idea is that of “drawing what we see, not what we think we see.” Truly, we know there are a lot of differences between what we think we see and what is actually before our eyes, but for me, knowing and seeing went beyond that basic principle of art. It involved knowing and seeing the differences between symbolic drawing and actual drawing.

For a moment, let’s set onions aside and talk about apples, instead. If you were to ask me to draw an apple, I could do that easily enough. Heaven knows, I’ve drawn and painted a lot of apples — good apples, bad apples, red apples, green apples, fat apples, skinny apples — over the last six years. Yes, I can draw an apple. I actually have an entire file of apple photos on my computer, but even without looking at a photograph, I can draw an apple that looks like an apple.

It would probably closely resemble this illustration from Keys to Drawing.

When I looked at this apple, I noted that it is an apple, that it appears to have all the necessary parts of “apple-ness”. There’s a stem coming out from a slight depression. The shape is that of an apple, most likely a Delicious apple, judging from those little bumps on the bottom. The shading suggests a bit of light and dark, and there’s even a little highlight.

So, to my mind, this is a perfectly good apple.

But it is a good drawing of an apple? Well, yes, and no, and maybe. For some purposes, a simple drawing like this would be just fine. For other purposes… well, nobody would be entering a drawing like this into any competitions.

This, you see, is an example of a symbolic drawing, one done from memory, and one which clearly is what it says it is, but only at a symbolic level. That is to say, this is a perfect illustration of what we think an apple looks like.

I looked at another of the symbolic drawings included in the book, this one an apple core.

Again, to me, this looks like a perfectly good apple core. In fact, I went so far as to think to myself, “I’d be pleased if I could draw an apple core like that.” It is, however, not a drawing of an actual apple core. It’s merely a symbol of what we think an apple core is.

I realized then that this is the level I’m at with almost all of my graphite drawing. I am still drawing symbols, and while my symbolic representations are getting better, they’re still at that most basic level.

“But I don’t want to draw highly-realistic images,” I argued with myself. So, what then is it that I really want? When I say I want to improve my drawing, what is it I’m really hoping to achieve? I wrestled with that question for a good part of the morning. It was very much on my mind as I worked on completing my assignment for the day — which was not about apples, but about an onion.

Actually, the assignment in the book involved a green pepper. Usually I have green peppers around. This morning, not a pepper in the house. I considered drawing a tomato, but in the end I decided that a yellow onion might be a bit more interesting.

And so, sketchbook in hand, I sat down to draw — from memory. Easy enough, right? I like onions. I cook with onions all the time. I know what an onion looks like. At least, I thought I did.

An onion is basically a sphere, right? That was my starting point. I spent several minutes playing with the background just so I could avoid actually working on the onion itself. The assignment, by the way, was to draw the object close to life-size.

So, here is my onion from memory. Note that I’ve darkened this scanned image a bit. The drawing was done primarily with an HB pencil. It fills about half a page in my sketchbook.

I started with a sphere… and then really had no idea what to do with it. Yes, I know what an onion looks like. An onion looks like an onion. But how to describe that in graphite? I sat there looking at my paper, asking myself over and over, “What makes an onion an onion?”

Seriously, at that point I might as well have been drawing a tomato, an orange, or a round little apple. How was I supposed to take my sphere and turn it into an onion — all from memory?

I thought about it. Well, onions aren’t perfectly round really. Aren’t they a bit flatter on one end than the other? Oh, and don’t they have little root-like protuberances sticking out of one end? They have a thin, papery skin, too, but I had no real idea how to show that. I had to conclude that I really didn’t know onions as well as I thought. I did my best to draw something I could call an onion, and after ten minutes I decided it was as finished as I could make it.

The second half of the assignment, of course, was to draw an actual onion. I took one out and here’s where I got my first little jolt of “aha!” I wanted to place it in the same position as my symbolic onion. I couldn’t. It was off balance that way. So, my symbolic onion was completely inaccurate from the very start.  How about that! Obviously I didn’t really know enough about onions to trust myself in drawing one.

I got the onion situated, and I looked closely at it. I noted a lot of things that I’d missed in my “memory” drawing. Yes, I had a real onion. I could see all those little things that made it an onion. Now, that doesn’t mean that I produced an excellent drawing, but the results were slightly more accurate.

I think this definitely looks more like a real onion, don’t you? Even with my poor shading techniques, I got closer to drawing an actual onion and not merely a symbolic one.

But let me return again to my questions about realism, that question about what I really want for myself as I learn to draw better. I do not want hyper-realism. That’s definitely not my goal. But I do want to move beyond the simple, symbolic drawings, I’ve done in the past.

What that means, really, is that I want to become more observant. I want my drawings to more accurately represent the subjects, to include more specific details, to show that I know why an onion looks like an onion and not an orange, why a tomato shouldn’t look like an apple, and why grapes and cherries are two very different things.

Most importantly for me today, I think, was the realization of how content I’ve been to do simple, symbolic illustrations. There’s a time and a place for that sort of drawing. But I’m ready to move beyond it, ready to begin seeing more clearly and truly taking my drawing skills to a slightly more realistic level. Simply knowing the difference between symbolic drawing and actual drawing will bring a new level of awareness to all of my art, not just with graphite drawing, but with my landscape oil painting, as well.





  1. these are all great observations. I never would have thought that deeply, but of course now i will because you put that in my brain..thanks a lot…lol..jkjk…honestly, i do see how it all relates and could lead to much improvement. many times i have actually done this little exercise( sort of) and realized how little i actually know about my chosen subject. Two things i am terrible at in that way are deer and horses. I totally need to look at them visually or they wind up looking like dogs! imagine! haha!

    Liked by 1 person

I'd Love to Hear Your Thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s