Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Drawing 101: How to Fall in Love with a Chair

One of the best things about the teaching profession is that it regularly confronts you with your own stupidity and ignorance. Which, as any proactive self-help aficionado will tell you, is just another opportunity for growth.

I sidestep a lot of that growth by being the art teacher in a world where art is seen as a second-tier discipline, and no one expects the art teacher to know or say much of anything. Nonetheless, confronted every day by a captive audience used to bad puns and staunch authoritarianism, I find myself inspired more often than is wise to open my mouth and let all my weird, outsider presuppositions leak out.

As a result, I inevitably end up saying stupid things, things that today's whip-smart youth are not always willing to overlook. I get called on my stupidity and then - sometimes - I grow.

Yesterday's revelation was more general in nature, however. I was standing there blathering on about the basic principles of drawing, when it suddenly occurred to me that I've been going about the whole thing the wrong way. Oh sure, over the past three years of teaching I have taught a lot of lovely, artsy-fartsy things, but I am afraid I have to admit to one great big, glaring stupidity: my art class has been missing its soul.

Let me 'splain.
No, there is too much - let me sum up:
It all comes back to drawing.

Observational drawing is the foundation of all visual art forms. It is the skeleton around which are wrapped painting and photography, sculpture, design and film-making. But drawing is not, as some would imagine, a superpower. It is not only for special people, nor is it the sole province of those with well-coordinated fingers. In fact, drawing has very little to do with fingers at all, and everything to do with the mind. It is about seeing.

Georgia O'Keefe once said that "in a way, nobody ever sees a flower really, it is so small, we haven't time - and to see takes time." The job of the visual artist, then, is to take the time to see things. And believe it or not, this is not as easy - nor as inevitable - as you might think.

The world we live in is astonishingly, endlessly complex, and for most of us, sight is the primary sense by which we perceive that complexity. It is so complex, in fact, that our minds must find shortcuts, shortcuts that have been described with the word "symbol" (which is itself a symbol for the concept, "symbol"). But while symbols are useful tools that can help us cope with the infinite complexity of our universe, they can only ever be generalizations. They are tools and touch-points - never the "thing itself."

Allow me to illustrate... with an illustration. If you were my student and I were to sit you down and demand that you draw an eye, you might draw something like this:

This is not because you don't know what an eye looks like. Rather, it is because you have never really looked very closely at an eye with the intent to understand it. Your mind therefore takes the easy way out, and provides you with a vastly simplified symbol to stand in for the information it can't be bothered to provide.

The fact is, your mind is capable of making incredibly sophisticated distinctions between the most minute eye-variations, and of using that information intuitively, subconsciously compiling it with all the other information available from a face so that you are in no danger whatsoever of making what seems (to me) to be the fairly easy mistake of confusing my face with that of, say, Brad Pitt (who, compared to any crustacean or herbaceous plant, is pretty much my doppelganger).

You do all this subconsciously, and in our very pragmatic, industrially-minded culture, the subconscious is where most real seeing stays.

The problems start to arise when we begin to actually believe in our symbols, to believe that they are not symbols at all, but "the things in themselves." In doing this, we turn the entire world into an elaborate set of objects: controllable, man-made things that can be used and manipulated however we please.

Take you, for example. To me, you are a "reader," and although on some level I know that you are as irreducibly complex as I am, for the purposes of our interaction today, it is much easier for me to think of you as a simplified concept, and to lump you with all my other readers.

This is okay, I suppose, because if I were to expend my energy trying to get to know each and every one of you, it would take every moment of the rest of my life and not only would I never have time to write anything, I would also still ultimately fail, because (and here is the awesome part) you are not static. You change. As do I.

What drawing does is it attempts, by really looking and seeing, to fight back against the ugly things - like dehumanization, racism and selfishness - that are the inevitable by-products of the objectification process.

But just as we objectify people and things in order to avoid having to deal with them in all their complexity, so does the opposite action have the opposite effect. If, by drawing it, you can take the time to slow down enough to really see a flower, an eye, or a chair, then what you are doing is expressing love for them. You are saying, in a sense, that they are worth the time you must expend to in your effort to see them.

In doing this, you fall in love. You set yourself aside and - in dying to yourself - begin to come alive to the wonder that is the world around you.

Sure, you can approach drawing as but another mechanical skill to be taught and learned and sure, it will help you if you do. The human brain does best when it does not view the entire world as objects, and as your mind becomes more holistically engaged, your capacity to creatively meet the demands of a fast-changing world will no doubt increase. You were not designed, after all, to live life with an artificially bifurcated mind.

But in the (misquoted) words of a dude I like very much,

"If you draw with the mastery of gods;
if you become a profound copying machine, capable of seeing and recording the tiniest details on your way to an advanced degree in the applied science of picture-making;
if you use your skills to get money, a hot spouse, and smokin' cars;
if you do all manner of artistic awesomeness, but have not learned how to love... well, then, what's the point? Everything you will have done will have been useless, and you'll be little more than a forgettable bit of pop-culture drivel."

My epiphany yesterday was not a sudden realization of the importance of love. Nor was it the discovery of my own love of drawing, and visual arts as a whole. Rather, it was the realization that I am not here just to teach a few kids how to see better so that they can draw better, impress their friends, win contests, and make me look good as a teacher.

Rather, I am here to teach them to see better so that they can learn how to love better. If, because they have been in my class, they learn how to take the time to see and love a flower, then perhaps they can also learn to love a tree or a forest. And perhaps the next time they are tempted to profile, simplify and objectify some other person, they will instead pause, see, and fall in love.


  1. You have explained the love of observational drawing better than I have heard it in a long time. Wish I could come draw with your class.

  2. Bring on the wonder!!

  3. Very cool description, thanks.

  4. "All you need is love, da, dedahdedah, all you need is love,..." From one of the former fabfour songs, in case ya didn't know.

  5. You should read "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman.

  6. I came across your blog while doing a search looking for a Japanese quote on mastery and art--it is so funny just last week I was saying to my students, "To really draw something, you must first fall in love with it. You have to see past what's there, to what's inside, just like you do when you fall in love." They all looked at me like I was nuts, for suggesting they fall in love with a seed-pod. It's good to know I'm not the only one who thinks like this. Thanks.

  7. Oh yeah, Bianca... lots of us crazies out there :)


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