Practice training your eye

Years ago I thought cutting good tight dovetails with hand tools was something beyond my reach. My first few efforts were pitiful. In bowling terms I threw a lot of gutter balls. But something told me that I could do this or at least get better. Good tools made a difference, but I’ll be honest.  What really turned the corner for me was just cutting a lot of dovetails by hand. Not sure when it happened but after about a  two dozen tries they started to look respectable, after fifty they looked good and the whole process became second nature. Maybe I’m a slow learner but that’s the way it often works for me.

I also used to think that an eye for design was sort of magical, something you were born with or bestowed on you because you had good mojo. Well I still believe that there are people born with exceptional talents and gifts. But  if you take the time to study about gifted creative people you often find that they really work at it. They take this raw talent and through effort make it better.

I now believe by my own experience through trial and error that anyone with some effort can improve their eye or design sense. There are concrete exercises you can do to improve your ability to design and visualize. One very simple thing anyone can do is to take up sketching. I’m not talking about becoming an artist. True confession here, my drawings suck. Sometimes I go to a museum and I sit down and sketch furniture on display. Security folks come up to check on me and walk away snickering because it looks like something a labrador retriever had drawn.  Doesn’t phase me. That’s because, somewhere after the 12th or 20th drawing I started seeing things a different way. Sketching helps me see more when I look at a design and often I pick up on sublte details that would normally escape my grasp.

Something unique happens when you sketch. My own thought is that it requires you to flip a couple of  switches marked “focus” in your brain that are normally on the off position. Whatever the reason, I keep a notebook with me and sketch when I have a free moment.

Manor house at Quail Hollow

Sometimes I sketch buildings while waiting for my wife while she’s shopping. I sketched this house the other day.

My aweful 10 minute sketch

I’ve been looking at it for years but never realized how many dormers and angles are in the roofline. Make this a part of your design training. It need not take you away from your workbench. You can grab a few minutes of sketching on a lunch break. That is, if you can put up with an occasional snickering hyena.

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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9 Responses to Practice training your eye

  1. tico vogt says:

    I appreciate your courage in submitting this sketch and take heart in your comments about sketching.

    Looking… that is really what it’s all about. In the early years of my woodworking and designing, mornings would begin by sitting down with a book on Nakashima, Maloof, Krenov, Peters, or some Treasury, and just gaze over and over at the forms, making notes and small sketches. Months later something else might appear in a piece I hadn’t noticed the first time through.

    Late in his career Art Carpenter made the remark “I’ve done my looking” which I took to mean he no longer went to museums or read books on art, but that was after having done quite a bit of it.

    Thanks for reminding us about the value of slow development and gradual improvement. We can always cultivate and celebrate the Beginner’s Mind.

  2. Adam King says:

    Great insight. This one little exercise is the key to fleshing out those inspirational designs, yet so many are frozen in fear of this task.

    They are intimidated by the process because they believe you have to be an artist to even keep a sketchbook! When all that is really required is the desire to move forward in design and in yur creative vision.

    Tage Frid always said, ““The best tool is the eye. Train the eye. The eye guides your hands to achieve the form. If the eye says it’s right, it is right.”

  3. Great advice. My sketching abilities are also “sketchy” but I agree that it helps you see things differently.

    Another fun thing that sounds odd but that is very helpful is to take a picture of a piece of furniture, turn it upside down, and sketch it upside down. What spins out of this process is training your eye to see the negative space as well as the positive space. Also, if all of your normal chair sketches look like they were done by a 2-year old, upside down sketching turns off the “chairs look like” switch and you concentrate on the lines and intersections.

    Cheers — Larry

  4. J. Leko says:

    The book “Drawing on the right side of the brain” (any edition) by Betty Edwards provides several helpful exercises like the upside-down sketching technique. It is written from a “can’t draw a straight line with a ruler” perspective and thus should be on-target for most adults. Mandatory reading for this topic.



  5. aaron says:

    interesting post and comments. it makes sense though, since the same holds true for music. a (the?) fundamental thing to train is your ear – and that takes time and practice. you can only create as much as you can hear.

    • walkerg says:


      Would it follow then that you can only create as much (in space) as you can see? If that’s true, it’s what lies at the foundation of training the eye.


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