Drawing What You Know Vs. What You See

Some people are really good at drawing from memory. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I did an experiment to see what it would look like if I drew something—in this case, a carrot—from memory, and then again with the carrot in front of me. As you can see, my first carrot is not very good. It does look pretty much like a carrot: it’s long, orange, and pointy. Some shading suggests its roundness and the shadow shows that the light is coming from the right. However, I definitely did not imagine or take into account the many intricacies of the carrot (which revealed themselves to me when I had one in front of me).


When I actually looked at the carrot, I could immediately see all the detail I had forgotten in my first sketch. In reality, I know that carrots aren’t always perfectly straight and free of imperfections. I did include that ugly greenish part at the end of my imagined one! But for some reason, my knowing these things didn’t translate into drawing them; I needed to see the object in front of me to make a more accurate reproduction. I was also able to achieve more realistic highlighting. Behold: the “real” carrot:


So the question is: when should you draw what you know instead of what you see? As a realist, I’m definitely an advocate for drawing from life. But sometimes that just isn’t possible. Or it isn’t the effect you are looking to create. You may not have a reference for what you want to draw, or be drawing a scene from your imagination. In certain circumstances, it might serve you well to draw the carrot that is recognizable, rather than the one that is perfectly true to life. In that case you are representing the carrot, which people are likely to recognize and believe. For some styles, such as illustration, the first carrot might be just what you’re looking for. And hey, some carrots really are that straight! Just saying…