Observational Fatigue

There’s a slight chance — if you’ve been reading recent posts on this blog — you might be able to take a wild guess about what this drawing is supposed to be. A slight chance, yes, but it’s doubtful, so don’t feel bad if you can’t identify the object below.


Whatever it is, it’s not pretty. I’ll agree on that, but I’ll also say that making “something pretty” wasn’t my intention for this drawing. In fact, part of the drawing assignment was to make mistakes, to draw a lot of lines, to explore the contours “blindly” — without looking — and I did all of those things. For what it’s worth, I have lightened the drawing a bit to make it easier to see.

What this was… was hard. I took the assignment from an exercise in Keys to Drawing by Bert Dodson. The actual exercise involved drawing a “complex subject” such as a piece of machinery or a complicated device of some sort. The process suggested was to begin not with large shapes, but to find a small, detailed starting point and work from there. Another aspect of the assignment was to consider the effect of “observational fatigue”.

Let me write out the actual instructions here:

Mechanical Objects: Make a drawing of a complicated mechanical object — an egg beater, a sewing machine, a typewriter, or a non-electric rotary pencil sharpener. Use a pencil (2B or HB) and keep the point sharp. Employ “focusing” in your drawing. Select one or two main areas and develop them in detail, treating the remainder of the drawing as simple contours and shapes. Look at the subject more than at the drawing. Search out the major and secondary shapes. Try drawing blind at least three or four times as you work. Do not erase, but have two or more restatements in your drawing. Allow at least one-half hour. Work larger than life-size.

Obviously I didn’t follow these directions too closely. I did spend thirty minutes on this drawing — yes, I actually spent that much time on this — and I did the “restatements” and the “blind drawing”. I also erased a time or two even though that was against the rules. And, as it turned out, my drawing wasn’t much larger than life-size, so I missed the mark there, too.

So, again, what is this weird, unrecognizable object and why did I decide to draw it instead of some mechanical object? I decided to draw this while my husband and I were returning home Monday morning from a visit with his parents. Having completed my “Birch Tree” scene for my mother-in-law, I was happy to deliver it to her. She loved it, as I knew she would. While she and I were visiting inside the house, my husband and his father headed off to the pear tree. Yes, dear friends, what I drew was supposed to be a pear.

We have a huge sack of pears now, but this one particular pear my husband had in his hand when we left. He gave it to me, and I thought again of how much I’d like to paint a still life with pears. That’s something I’ve been planning since our last visit to my in-laws. Holding this pear in my hand, I began to observe it carefully. You know… the way an artist should observe a pear. I was fascinated by the blemishes on the skin, by the dark shapes surrounding the stem.

Talk about complexities! To me, this simple pear was as complicated as any mechanical object could possibly be, so I decided then and there to use it for my drawing subject. I thought drawing the shape of the pear would be reasonably easy. It was the exterior that would be challenging, and I was looking forward to it. I thought how I would “focus” on the stem and the indentation there — that would be my starting point.

Let me digress for a moment and explain Bert Dodson’s thoughts about “focusing”. It has to do with that other term I used earlier: observational fatigue. When we are drawing a difficult subject we need to study it carefully, to be as observant as possible. As we look at the object and try to recreate it on our paper, we can become fatigued. There are, in fact, definite signs we need to recognize, warnings that fatigue is setting in.

  • An awareness of time
  • Distractions around us
  • Digressions into drawing from knowledge rather than observation

Drawing can be a pleasurable experience. I love those “zen moments” where I become so engrossed in making marks that I forget all about time. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens. But even then, sooner or later, the zen goes away and thoughts of time come to mind. I might suddenly wonder if I’m going to be late starting dinner, or I might have another time-related thought. That, according to Dodson, is a sign that fatigue is setting in.

In a similar fashion, we can often tune out distractions when we begin drawing. Gradually though, they encroach. We hear the noise of children playing nearby. The sound of the television in another room catches our attention. We realize the room is growing warm, or maybe it’s a bit too cool. We notice little things like that. All distractions, and all signs of observational fatigue.

Or we might just find ourselves no longer looking closely and carefully drawing what we see. We might find that we’ve reverted to “symbolic” drawing, drawing what we think the object should look like instead of studying it through observation. Yep. Fatigue. Time to take a break.

So, to counteract the inevitable onset of observational fatigue — especially when working on a complex drawing — Dodson suggests starting with “focused points”. Find the most interesting parts of the subject, he advises. Spend time focusing your observation and your drawing on those areas.

As I sat down to draw this pear, the stem area was to be my focus. That’s where I began. Immediately a “time thought” stopped me. I hadn’t remembered to set my timer for 30 minutes. I wasn’t off to a good start, but I set the timer, took a deep breath, and began drawing. And for the next thirty minutes, I did my best to figure out how to accurately describe this “foreshortened” pear. As I compare the shape I drew with the actual shape of the pear, I can see differences. My pear is taller; the real pear is wider. Yet, I have to say also that even in the photograph, this pear at this angle is hard to recognize as a pear. So I’m trying to not be too critical of what I drew. It is hard to distinguish any real “pear shape” in this foreshortened position. I did find it fascinating to observe the pear, to study its appearance carefully in hopes of finding a way to represent it accurately.

I was surprised when the timer went off, alerting me to the fact that I’d spent thirty minutes on my drawing. I was so “focused” on what I was doing that I had, indeed, lost track of time. Still, I was disappointed that my pear did not look much like a real piece of fruit. At least I tried. I give myself credit for that.

This really was a good exercise on the principles of focusing, observation, and observational fatigue, as well as good practice on loosening up, making re-statements, following contours blindly, and doing as little erasing as possible. Maybe I didn’t complete the exercise quite the way Bert Dodson intended, but I think I benefited from what I did.


  1. I guessed correctly! I remember an art lesson at school where I drew a leaf for homework and I picked one with a big blemish on it because it was interesting – the art teacher didn’t agree and told me it wasn’t realistic (without actually seeing the leaf) 😦

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Not helpful at all – I don’t remember a single thing we were actually taught in that class, but I clearly remember having my art unfairly criticised (probably 13-14 years old at the time).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Sounds a bit like the “art teacher” we had back in high school. All she did was assign “projects” — with no real instruction. Most of them were only vaguely related to “art”. The one I remember best was making a soap sculpture. Soap sculptures? Really? Yeah. Absolutely no actual drawing and very little painting, usually along the lines of “Well, why don’t we all paint trees today?” With no further instruction given.


  2. I, too, cherish those Zen moments. We are so distracted by “life’ (as we should be) that when we allow ourselves to get into a project so much as to focus on nothing else, it’s like we’ve transported to another planet. I must confess I did not see “pear” there — maybe if you would have sketched it sideways instead of bottom on I might have caught on sooner. I myself saw a rock. So shows you what creativity ~I~ have this morning …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely hard to recognize the pear. Drawing it at that particular angle was really hard for me, and using graphite didn’t help! Even when I look at the actual photograph I took, it’s still hard to “see” pear in the picture, so I’m not being too hard on myself. It was definitely a great practice experience.

      Liked by 2 people

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