Why are some people more skilled at drawing than others? What gives a person "a good eye" and the ability to transfer images onto paper?

NSCAD University's drawing laboratory is hoping to find the answers.

It is using computers, digital video-recording gear and eye-monitoring equipment to study students and faculty while they look at real-life objects and try to portray them on paper.

The lab began 10 years ago with a study that tracked the progress of students' drawing skills from novices to their progress after a few drawing classes. Those drawings were also compared to the drawings of NSCAD faculty members.

The goal was to determine why they advanced.

The lab used eye-recording equipment to see where and how often the novices and experts looked at objects they were drawing.

Looking longer

Initially, the experts looked at an object for a longer period of time than the students before they picked up a pencil to begin a drawing. They also looked more often at the object as they drew.

As the experiment went along, the drawings of the students improved with each class they took. They began to look longer and more often at the objects they were trying to portray. A connection between time spent studying the objects and the quality of the drawing emerged.

Matthew Reichertz, an associate professor at NSCAD, says he was intrigued by the idea of using science to understand art so he became one of the collaborators behind the drawing lab. 

"I wasn't one of those people who drew when I was young," says Reichertz.

"So I think I've always known that anyone could learn how to draw because I certainly couldn't draw when I started. And of course being a teacher, it's my job to try and figure out how to help people learn how to do these things. So that's the potential that I saw in the lab."

Better teaching

The lab is working on an experiment determine if artists can separate foveal vision and peripheral vision as they create. Foveal vision is responsible for central vision and discerning details, whereas peripheral vision picks up what is seen outside the central vision of the eye.

"You look around the room and everything seems solid to you — but that's really a construction of your brain. And what often happens when students and novices draw is, they really concentrate hard with their focused vision to the detriment of being able to perceive the whole that they're trying to represent," Reichertz says.

"So what we're trying to do is figure out if we can in some way separate out the foveal vision from the peripheral vision as you're drawing."

Ultimately, Reichertz is inspired by the potential the lab has for helping art instructors teach more effectively. 

"The teaching of drawing has not been studied very much...but there's a long history of teaching drawing and there are all these things that teachers tell students, and some of them work well and some don't. What we're trying to do is figure out what works and why," he said.