Visual arts for engineering students: Seeing, not just looking

Female college student drawing floor plans

In my previous post, I suggested that “doing” a visual art, not just studying it, is likely to open up a new world of insight and accomplishment for you – like it did for me. As explained in that post, I took up freehand pencil drawing on a whim eight years ago initially envisioning no connection to my professional work. However, I began to see links between doing and enjoying visual arts and improving engineering education and, ultimately, engineering practice. Consider one benefit – seeing, not just looking.

A principle guiding drawing is to draw what we see contrasted with drawing something the way we think it should look. Artists first carefully examine the object or thing to be drawn and then, and only then, draw what they see. While each artist has his or her own style of converting what is seen to pencil strokes on paper, the process is driven by careful observation.Drawing of white and red lilies

For example, before taking pencil drawing lessons, if I were asked to draw a flower, boat, dog, or other object, I would start thinking mainly about what such an object should look like and try to draw it in that preconceived manner. Now, having benefited from doing art and as illustrated by my lilies drawing, I draw what I see, that is, composition, shapes, and values.

Artists see more than they did in their pre-artist days. When they look consciously at any object, even though they have no interest in drawing it, artists see more, especially shapes, shadows, and details, then they used to. Joan Nagle [1] stresses this kind of enhanced observation and thinking. She describes an incident when a little girl was asked how she approached drawing. Her answer: “First I have a think and then I put a line around it.”

Assume that, prior to my drawing studies, you put me in an essentially empty, mostly white room—white walls, ceiling, and floor—like that shown here. Then you asked me what I saw.

white room with three picture frames

I suspect I would have noted the three frames, the ceiling beams, and the wooden floor. Now, as an amateur artist, my observation would include seeing a wide spectrum of shades of white, that is, a range of values. This value spectrum would be prominent in my seeing the room. Why? Because drawing the room, or anything, in two dimensions on a sheet of paper so that it appears three-dimensional, requires applying pencil strokes that capture the value variations. I would have the preceding response even though you did not ask me to draw the room or any part of it.

Leonardo da Vinci exemplifies the seeing — not just looking — concept in that he was said to have had “quickness of vision.” This unusual ability is illustrated by his drawings of turbulence caused by water flowing around obstacles and his drawings of the movement of birds’ wings during flight. The accuracy of his drawings was substantiated in modern times by slow-motion cameras [2]. In a similar spirit, baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra [3] said “You can observe a lot by watching.”

Application to engineering

So, what has enhanced seeing and not just looking, derived from freehand drawing or other visual arts, got to do with engineering? Improved seeing, whether literally as described here or, by extension, figuratively, further enables you to more completely and accurately define an issue to be resolved, a problem to be solved, or an opportunity to be pursued. After all, “a problem well defined is half solved.” Engineering faculty and students are likely to gain valuable enhanced diagnostic vision as a result of participating in visual arts.


About the Author
Stuart Walesh, Ph.D., P.E.

Stuart Walesh, Ph.D., P.E.

Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., practicing as an independent consultant, provides management, engineering, and education/training services to private, public, academic, and volunteer sector organizations.  After earning a BS in Civil Engineering at Valparaiso University, Stu obtained a MSE at The Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a licensed professional engineer in Indiana and Wisconsin and a Diplomate of the American Academy of Water Resources Engineers.

Stu has over 40 years of engineering, education, and management experience in the government, academic, and private sectors and has worked as a project manager, department head, discipline manager, author, marketer, sole proprietor, professor, and dean of an engineering college. He is a member of ASCE, National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), and has chaired state and national committees and groups.  


  1. Nagle, J. G.  “Seven Habits of Effective Communicators,” Today’s Engineer, Summer, 1998.
  2. Wallace, R. The World of Leonardo 1452-1519. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1966.
  1.  Berra, Y. The Yogi Book. New York: Workman Publishing, 1998.