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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Seeing the World or Only the Insides of Our Own Heads?


Vase of purple asters
My six-week beginning drawing class is over, but I’m going to keep drawing. Drawing for me is diary and meditation and vacation and conversation, all rolled into one slow, low-key, low-tech activity. Paper and pencil. Or paper and pen. Enough light to see. That’s all it takes.

The drawing I did of my son during his visit I posted on Facebook as well as here on my blog. Reaction from many people (including my son) is often, “I can’t draw at all” or “I can’t even draw a straight line.” Honestly? I have trouble with straight lines myself, but that’s what rulers are for. The contours of most of the things I want to draw, it turns out, do not have straight edges.

What about you? Do you think you can’t draw?

Our instructor remarked the first evening of class that no one would expect to sit down at a piano and rip off a Beethoven sonata without advance study and practice, but people think they should be able to pick up a pencil and right away dash off a good drawing the first time around. Anyone can learn to draw, Elizabeth Abeel, our instructor, told us, but it is something to be learned, and it does take practice.

Classic book!
Abeel uses a lot of techniques from Betty Smith’s classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence, the book that convinced me long, long ago that I (or “even I,” as I thought then) could learn to draw with a teacher using these methods. Whether you take “left brain/right brain” terminology to be strict physiological description of brain anatomy or a metaphorical distinction between two different ways of interpreting the world, the big lesson in drawing is this:
"DRAW WHAT YOU SEE, NOT WHAT YOU KNOW."
Betsy said this to us over and over, and here’s an example of what it means: If someone is told, “Draw a flag,” most beginners will have recourse to their mental symbol set. That first flag drawing, therefore, will begin as a rectangle, with stripes, stars and whatever subsequently filled in. The drawings will look pretty much like this section of a page from an atlas, only without color and without the slight wave in the lines of these flags:

Flat flag symbols 
But how often do we see a flag stretched out flat? The lesson is to resist pulling out a mental symbol and, instead, to look at a real flag, hanging on a pole. Here are a couple of my efforts to draw a flag in front of me. The first is a hurried first-night sketch (I had read the book long ago and had spent time one winter and all last year drawing, so my first sketch wasn't quite as flat as is the usual with beginning students), the second our “final exam” on the last night of class.

Quick sketch, first night of class
Slow, careful study of artfully draped flag
Getting from the flat symbol to the complex rendering of reality is not instant. One of the first exercises we did was to draw “vase faces,” as our instructor and Betty Edwards call them. (This is in Chapter 4 of the Edwards book, the chapter titled “Crossing Over: Experiencing the Shift from Left to Right.”) First we drew a simple contour of a face seen from the side – forehead, indent for the eye, nose, open mouth, chin, neck. Then we drew lines extending out from the top and bottom of that curved line. Finally, we began the curved line again on the opposite side. The result is either two faces looking at each other or a single vase, depending on how you look it, but the point of the exercise is that one’s “left brain” (verbal, symbol-using, fact-obsessed) will be frustrated and give up, allowing the “right brain” (visual, intuitive, loving complexity) to take over. The “left brain” hates complexity, and the “right brain” loves complexity. You can see why it’s necessary to make that shift if you want to draw what you see and not what you know.

Another exercise was drawing upside-down, copying a drawing which we were also looking at upside-down. Again, the aim was to frustrate the left brain so that it would give up and get out of the way. Instead of the left brain being able to look at a hand and say, “I know what a hand looks like” and pull a clumsy, flat, iconic mitten out of its symbol set, the right brain was given time to concentrate on lines and relationships, without putting nametags on any of the parts. 

(Drawing, the mind bypasses names and symbols and reasons and arguments and causal chains and settles down in the moment. That’s what makes drawing such a meditative experience.) 

Another exercise was doing "pure contour" drawings. In my mind, I call them "blind" rather than "pure," because what you're doing in this kind of work is drawing an object -- say, your own hand -- while looking only at the object and never at your paper. Also, you put the pencil to the paper and don't lift it until you've finished the drawing. The idea is not to reproduce the object perfectly but to give your eye time to follow all the complicated ins and outs of the object's contour and have your hand translate its movement directly from that of your eye.

You can see all these exercises in the Betty Smith book, and in it you'll also find many examples of student work showing exciting and vast improvement in the course of a very few weeks.

A question I have – a hope I have – is whether/that what can be done for seeing can also be done for hearing. What would it take to quiet the chattering, knowing-everything voices in our heads and truly hear what other people are saying? For them to quiet their minds enough to hear us in return? For all of us to slow down and talk to, not past, each other?

Can we translate the lessons of meditation into everyday life?

6 comments:

BB-Idaho said...

I drew a lot in school, sketches
mostly. A college art professor
critiqued my drawing of flowers in a vase as too realistic, "looks like a photo,
that's not art". So formal training was discouraging. But,
I did cartoons in a company paper,
designs for company athletic team shirts, sketches for marketing
departments etc. The Engineering departments came to me for putting
their blueprints into a three
dimensional view. Much of that is done by computer these days.
Thankfully, as some of the art
request deadlines interfered with my lab research. So, from my
perspective, there seems to be
a natural ability involved; from
experience with Native Americans, they seem to have that ability to
a high degree, most of their youngsters are pretty fair artists. No idea why.

P. J. Grath said...

I am not claiming to be "making art." I just enjoy drawing. It's not a career change or some huge aspiration, only something I enjoy doing, something that gives me a new, calm perspective on life.

There have been students in art programs who have been told that their work is too realistic and therefore art. One woman I know who had the experience has made a hugely successful career for herself, despite those nay-saying university instructors. The art world, like the world at large, has room for many different ways of looking at life.

Yes, ability does vary, but most people have more ability than they realize.

BB-Idaho said...

I would agree. I've noticed that
the 'larger art' world has number of those from the performing arts that are interested in painting. Some people take it up in retirement, like Eisenhower
and Churchill. It is an innate human trait, going back to the
painted caves of Lascoux.
IMO, there is a range of ability
in art, much like in mathematics:
perhaps related to interest more than natural talent?

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for the interesting link, BB. I'm sure the range of reasons people turn to art is as varied as their talent and choices of subject or style. One thing that drives me absolutely nuts with philosophy of art theories is the insistence of each theorist to try to unify artistic endeavors under one goal. As if every artist had the same aim! Having known quite a few (and being married to one), I can't buy that notion, Analyzing art is bringing left-brain concerns to right-brain activity.

BB-Idaho said...

I'm not sure if the concept of
'perspective' is left-brain driven, or a creative way of looking at light and depth. It
can be a bit daunting.
What is your perspective on perspective ? :)

P. J. Grath said...

Wow, BB, that is such a good question! I'll have to give it some thought. Would be interested in what anyone else thinks....