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On Drawing
cap, captain miss america
teaberryblue

Rina posted a link to this article on Friday, and I have been thinking about it and about my own art experiences as they apply.

The article doesn’t really say anything new– in fact, it sounds an awful lot like the intro-to-drawing class that I took my sophomore year of college. But it made me think about it again.

I have a lot of friends who fall into the “I can’t draw!” category. I can even pinpoint about when it happened, age-wise, because it was sometime in middle school. I was always the kid who wanted to draw with my friends. But sometime around ten or eleven, that’s when the other kids didn’t want to draw, were embarrassed to show their drawings, especially if they felt the other artists in the group were the “better” ones.

When I was very young, around seven, I think, I wasn’t the best artist in the class. I was probably fair-to-middling. But I wanted to be a good artist. There were so many other things I wasn’t so good at but that I tried a couple of times and promptly ignored, because I didn’t see myself liking them enough to put a lot of effort into getting good. But I ached to be a good artist. And I started working at it, the only way a seven-year-old knows how, by copying images I saw elsewhere, until I understood how they were constructed. I copied comics and pictures from coloring books and picture books. I drew eyes and noses to look like the ones the little cartoon people in our CSMP workbooks. I copied the way my older neighbor drew hair, and then found my own way to draw hair, when I realized that you don’t have to draw every line of an object but that a basic shape will suffice.

And by middle school, I could draw. I was the kid who did the drawings on the front of various school publications and flyers and handbooks. I illustrated articles in the school newspaper. And I loved it. But the more I loved it, the more I excelled at it, the more the kids around me hated it. I remember in sixth or seventh grade, having an assignment where we had to draw our shoe in pencil, much like the illustration accompanying the article I linked to. I not only drew my shoe, but the shoes of two other girls in my class, because they simply couldn’t bear to do the assignment– not because the didn’t understand it, not because they didn’t know how, but because they were ashamed to have to hang up their own work. I don’t even think it was a question of a grade; we got graded in art based on participation, not quality of work. It was a question of having something nice to give to their parents.

Then I moved on to high school, and my art education ended abruptly. My high school had an art program, but due to state requirements and scheduling constraints, it was impossible to take both art and music. And I was in the band, and unwilling to drop band for the intro art class which mainly involved more craft-type projects than the kind of intensive art education I so craved.

I studied on my own, buying books of famous artwork and copying them, the secondhand version of setting up an easel in a museum to duplicate a masterwork. I copied illustrations in picture books, too, and frames of Disney movies and anime. I copied photographs.

But no one ever taught me how to draw from life, to look at a thing and render it on paper. I tried; God knows I tried, but no matter how many times people asked me to draw them, I did a much better job copying a photograph than I could ever do drawing them from life. My life-drawings looked distorted, features the wrong shape where I substituted in the semiotic language I knew for the shape I was not looking at as skillfully as I should have. I never got to take a drawing course; later, after I dropped band to continue in physics, I spoke to the art teacher about picking up art. I showed her my sketchbooks, filled to the gills with drawings that were quite good for someone with no formal education (and still look quite good to me in that context, even when I see them today), and she told me I would have to start n the intro art class, the one that was not all drawing. I was heartbroken– I was going to be a senior; I saw no point in taking that course. Maybe she thought I needed fundamentals, but I have a feeling that this was more a case of having a strict rule about prerequisites that was totally inflexible, even when a student was going to graduate without getting to take the class she desperately wanted to take.

I got to college, and couldn’t get into a drawing class my freshman year, so I started in basic drawing my sophmore year. It was one of the hardest, most challenging classes I had ever taken. At first, I hated my professor, didn’t understand the lessons he was trying to impart; thought he was teaching me the wrong things. All he wanted to do was teach us how to see things, not to do the things that I thought of as basics or fundamentals, like how to control a piece of charcoal. And he wouldn’t let me use the materials I was most comfortable with, like pencil. There was one girl, who had been taking art classes for years and years and years, whose assignments were always the ones he held up as the paragon of whatever lesson we were meant to have learned. I lamented to him, publicly, in front of the whole class, that I couldn’t draw what I was seeing because I didn’t know how to use the materials to get the effect I wanted to communicate. And that it was unfair to expect someone like me, with no training, to be able to use materials as adeptly as someone like her. I really thought the only difference was in how facile we each were with the materials.

And he spent an entire class teaching us how to hold our charcoal and how to erase and how to control it so that something was darker or lighter.

This teacher wouldn’t let me copy from a photograph, and wouldn’t let me use my imagination. One class, he set up this huge, towering sculpture of cardboard boxes, and challenged us all to “draw what you see.” I was still of the basic, naive belief that when someone says “draw what you see,” they mean “draw what you imagine when you look at this.” A Rorschach test, of sorts. I never in a million years imagined he meant it literally.

It was a hard year, in that class. At the end of the semester, I transferred into another class, claiming scheduling grief when in reality I thought that he simply didn’t understand what I was trying to get out of the class. I felt like a failure in his class, when there were so many students who literally had not drawn before they’d taken it who got better critiques than I did, no matter how hard I worked. So I switched.

And when I switched, something happened. I’m not sure what, exactly, but with my new teacher, I started to grasp the things my first teacher had been trying to teach me. I started to realize that he had been right.

Within a few weeks, my second teacher had to stop teaching due to the cancer that would eventually take her life. My teacher from my first class stepped in to teach this one. And suddenly, I understood everything he said. I could follow his instructions. And I could see the world the way he had been trying to teach me to see all along. I understood the importance of the tools he was trying to give me. And suddenly, when he would choose pieces to show to the entire class as examples of how the assignment was to be done properly, my work was included as often as the work of the students who had been taking formal art lessons for years and years.

It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Literally and figuratively. And though I may still never understand how to draw in perspective, or how foreshortening is supposed to work, or any of those basic things that are supposed to make a person a good artist, that was the year I learned how to see.

Mirrored from Antagonia.net.


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I contend that art is 90% seeing and 10% movement of medium. Whether it's something envisioned entirely in your head, drawn from life or a combination of the two, being able to see it and make visual decisions about it are the most important things. Contour drawings are exercises that most really dread and yet it gets your eye and your hand working together and it's an important circuit to establish. I use contour drawing at times on some of my work, little places where connections need to be as close to real as possible.

Really cool story, Tea. Thanks for sharing it.

I need to start doing more drawing exercises that force me to look at things more. I always draw so much better when I am in a life drawing class or something like that. And then my drawing suffers when I'm not. It doesn't matter whether it's a drawing of something I can actually look at.

As Kamenkyote wrote, art IS truly about seeing and learning how to look at things. I was able to take art a couple times when I was young (and I miss it) and I was always amazed at how (for me) much better drawing while looking at something was than drawing from imagination.

Perception is so important.

I find that if I draw while looking at something enough, it improves my ability to draw from imagination tenfold. It's amazing.

I was always "good at art." But as I went through middle school, it became a choice between band and art. Having always had music lessons, music won. Besides, the art teacher assigned us the project to "draw something" on the first day and that one directive was so apparently lame that I lost all faith in her. Then in high school, the question of how I would support myself became the more important question. And everyone knows that you can't support yourself as an artist. Besides, I also always loved science and that seemed far more cool. Ironically, if I were to follow my mother's example, I would draw while being supported by my husband. But somehow, that never seemed to be a viable option.

Eventually I became a scientist and then, even more eventually, a science teacher.

I do draw some awesome illustrations on the white board, though.

As much as it's frustrating to think about the things we all gave up on as kids, or weren't encouraged to do, or were made to feel guilty about doing, I think the end of your comment is also really telling because we just don't value drawing as a skill that plays an important role in a non-artistic life. And I think we need to. When people can express themselves artistically, even if they are not in a career or lifestyle that requires it, it can enrich their life in so many ways and make them better at their career or lifestyle.

I always loved the teachers in non-art subjects who would draw on the board, even if they weren't the best at drawing.

I've been there many times before. It's immensely frustrating when you have a teacher who won't teach the fundamentals because they don't understand that's what you need, just as much as you don't understand what they're talking about. I'm glad you spoke up and have kept at your art. :) I love your comics!

I don't think that's the lesson I learned.

I didn't need to learn how to hold a piece of charcoal, and that was what he was trying to show me. That facility with materials does not make you learn to see any better; learning to see makes you learn how to see better. And I think that his choice to teach us those things that I was laboring under the mistaken impression were necessary to create art came from the fact that he knew I wouldn't understand why he had chosen not to teach us those things until he did. To realize that being able to draw a precise line doesn't make you able to see any better means knowing how to draw that precise line; it's not that it was important for me to learn to draw the precise line in order to become a better artist.

I love this. You make me want to get out my "drawing for dummies" book and try again without all my old "cants" "shoulds" and "shouldnts" in the back of my head. Thank you!

I loved reading this.

Also, when you talk about how the teacher challenged you to "draw what you see," it totally reminded me of the BSC Super Special where Claudia takes an art class in NYC and has a similar issue.

Just saying. <3

Hahahaha I never got that far in the series.

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