As I’ve grown older I’ve noticed a decline in my ability to draw. That is, my facility to draw lines that show the way things look is less than it used to be. I put this down to my increased interest in directly painting form, colour and tone rather than accurate delineation of edges. Fact is, I’ve been less interested in linear work. I’ve done fewer drawings and, unlike some of my actively journaling, sketching and thumb nailing contemporaries, I’m rusty.
I’ve often wondered if there are other factors in play as well. If you read Nicholas Humphrey’s remarkable thesis comparing cave drawings with those of a mute, autistic child by the name of Nadia, you begin to see that the ability to draw may be linked to the absence of well-developed language skills. Nadia, born in Nottingham, UK in 1967, has been the subject of much speculation. Drawing brilliantly at the age of four, her ability gradually diminished as she began to use words and language.
As we come to know more about our world, and develop terms to describe the objects and experiences therein, we begin, in our drawing, to draw our ideas of things rather than the physical nature of things themselves. In other words, our ability to see becomes clouded by what we know.
Anecdotally, I once met an artist who was unable to read and was very nearly mute. He happened to draw like a wizard. On the other hand we all know artists who are well read and verbal but who also draw well. By sidestepping language, they have taught themselves how. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards, gives various techniques a dedicated drawer can use to trick the knowing faculties rampant in our evolved cortexes. Other mind benders that may improve drawing include loud music, magic mushrooms and lobotomies. I may be wrong, but these days there doesn’t seem to be a big demand for lobotomies.
We can, however, take an excellent lesson from a surprising source. Wildlife artists such as Roger Tory Peterson, the creator of the Peterson Field Guides to Birds, taught himself to find, observe and draw the thousands of minor variations that distinguish different species. These differences became vital to wildlife nomenclature. Peterson’s drawing skill depended on circumventing words and investing in a pure form of unabashed “scientific” observation.
PS: “At the age of six years Nadia’s vocabulary consisted of ten, seldom used, one-word utterances. There were strong hints that this lack of language went along with a severe degree of literal mindedness. She saw things merely as they appeared.” (Nicholas Humphrey)
Esoterica: In the scientific mentality, things are explored merely to gain understanding. As an exercise, try drawing a subject that is unfamiliar to you. A crab, for example, is a creature that the average artist doesn’t have a lot of words to describe. Concentrate on the crab’s face. If you haven’t looked into a crab’s eyes before or know about its various facial parts, it’s my guess that you’ll do a pretty good drawing. In exploring unnamed lines, art is produced.
Simplicity of drawing
by Dianne Mize, Clarkesville, GA, USA
What’s so mysterious about drawing? It’s just a matter of switching off the labeling and expectations we’ve been embedded with and allowing your hand to follow what your eye sees without prejudice. It’s a bit presumptuous to assume that to draw well requires a deficiency elsewhere in one’s literacy. Leonardo had the knack of drawing, yet appears to have been quite literate.
Dislike of drawing
by Sally Martin
I dislike drawing apart from the sadly rare chances to join in a life drawing session. Occasionally I force myself to sketch but it feels alien and I don’t like my drawing style. Why should I sketch? My intuition, my instinct, my natural leaning leads me to go straight in with the paint. I don’t want to sketch and I don’t know whether this is something in myself to overcome or something in myself to embrace and accept.
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Drawing from the soul
by Avis Garrett-Baptist, Overland Park, KS, USA
As an Art Therapist, I have worked with this type of drawing for 30 years. My good friend, Elizabeth Layton, drew her feelings like you described. I wrote a book about her, Drawing and Coloring for your life. She did not skip any feelings, and drew from her soul. I love to see people do that in art therapy. It is the only truth we have. I love the research I, and many other art therapists, have done over the years. If we could just tap into this part of us and draw our soul feelings, the world would be a better place.
Magic Mushrooms in Victorian society
by Ron Ogle, Asheville, NC, USA
Courageous of you to write that magic mushrooms may improve drawing skills. The superb English draftsman Arthur Rackham would not have disagreed. Magic mushrooms were not unknown in Victorian society. Ingestion does indeed lead to the “mind unclouded by knowing” that you mention as an avenue to seeing. Note that Rackham’s caterpillar is a self-portrait.
Drawing skills enhance seeing
by Roberta Faulhaber, Paris, France
Truly astonishing are the drawing skills possessed by the scientists and engineers of the past, including of course the most well-known artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci. A search of scientific illustrators on Google provides some incredible images. Check out Linda Hall Library Illustration Exhibit. Another good example is Beatrix Potter, not only an author and illustrator but also a renowned botanist. Enrst Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature and J. H. Fabre‘s book of watercolors of mushrooms and fungi are both incredible examples of scientists who were also artists… Napoleon was famed for bringing along scientists and engineers who recorded their findings in drawings.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way the mind informs the senses in this kind of work, where the knowledge of the scientists gives them an ability to see things I would never notice…
Escape from realism
by Lynda Lehmann, NY, USA
My mind simply refuses to deal with realism! Call it escapism or the assertion of imagination over a stubbornly oppressive and depressing reality in which humankind all over the world suffers relentlessly. I always want the freedom to experience form and color for their own sake, which is the freedom that abstraction offers me. I would rather see “what isn’t” than see “what is.” I would rather create something that does not exist than pay homage to all the constraints of time, place, moment and specificity that realism dictates. Although when all is said and done, there is much in reality that is beautiful, for which we should be thankful. I am not denying the omnipresence of beauty in our world.
Composed lines speak to us
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I was just thinking about the composition in painting and how we sometimes invent the nonexistent lines, because we feel that they are supposed to be there. I am talking about aligning things in a landscape, putting lines on the water surface, grouping trees together to form a line etc. Those lines don’t exist in nature, however the composition gets strengthened by adding them. Are we trying to apply our innate language replacement in order to describe the scene? That language has much more impact than a literal painting without the compositional consideration. The literal in nature may or may not catch our attention since it seems common and not worthy. However, the beautiful “composed” scene, which follows the invented lines, talks to us.
Speak and draw at the same time?
by Gail Shepley
I haven’t noticed a decline in my drawing skills as I become older (knock on graphite), however I have noticed that I cannot speak coherently and draw at the same time. I have studied various books including Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, as these were useful tools for me for teaching art skills. I have noticed, though, that when I am teaching art and drawing an example, I cannot speak at the same time, at least not in a way that makes sense. I have to stop drawing or making marks and try to remember again what I am explaining in words. It’s sort of like juggling to switch gears from one focus to another, or, right brain to left brain thinking and as I tell my students, ultimately, we would like to be able to use both sides of the brain together?
Worldwide effects of art and science
by Nyla Witmore, Boulder, CO, USA
Relating to the subject of the brain and drawing, I can highly recommend two books by Dr. Leonard Shlain (who also happens to be a brain surgeon). His writing is elegant and compelling and the topics so relevant to artists. Physics and Art, shows striking similarities and correlations between the two. Art often prefigured major breakthroughs in science and physics. Name any major style or “ism” in art—and there is a corresponding physics breakthrough. Another, The Alphabet vs The Goddess, deals with what happened to right brain and linear thinking at the time of the invention of written language. It diminished right brain creativity dramatically. (The Western Alphabet in particular–but less so with the picture/symbol written languages.) Does this mean we should read less to be more creative? Or maybe we should take a class in writing Mandarin or Kanji?
Outcome of a lobotomy
by Steve Kobb, Houston, TX, USA
As it happens, my own cousin had a lobotomy in the 1950s. He was a bit rambunctious back then so, of course, the attending physician recommended that he be quieted down with the most “modern” treatment of the day: a pre-frontal wipe. Today, he lives alone in a small apartment, and rarely says more than a word or two to anyone including his own family, whom he sees often. Not that he’s mad at anyone (from what we can tell) he just doesn’t speak very much. The interesting thing, though, is that he paints like a fiend. His apartment is filled with pictures of every description. To be candid, most of his images do not have great aesthetic appeal (to my eyes, anyway), but his hard work is there for all to appreciate. The last time I saw his paintings, I noted which of them seemed to have a maternal theme. Sadly, his mother had a heart attack and died shortly after she saw what the doctors had done to her child.
Art and Alzheimer’s
by Carol Morris-Ward
After my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, my sisters and I were able to keep him in his home with a caretaker for about three years. When the time came that he was no longer able to live in his home, we found a wonderful care facility designed specifically for Alzheimer’s patients. As an artist, I was absolutely fascinated by the art work produced by the residents of the facility. Some of these people, who had never picked up a paintbrush in their life, produced extraordinary pieces of art. It seemed as if the more the intellectual mind diminished, the greater the visual mind expanded.
Capturing first impression
by Catherine Taylor, Victoria, BC, Canada
It is amazing how what we know gets in the way of what we see. “I thought I saw purple before I realized it was pavement.” Well, it WAS purple, and it WAS pavement. I just was not prepared to accept the idea of purple pavement. Often my very first flash of colour recognition, before it has been processed by the rest of the information in my brain, is the right one. I sometimes will look away very quickly, and freeze frame that first impression, pleased with myself that I have outsmarted my own smartness, and perceived a colour as it actually is. I like to tell myself that truth is in the irregularity and the unexpected, and I try to look for both.
Life-drawing to understand the nude
by Anne Jarvis, Duncan, BC, Canada
As a visual artist, drawing from life is my greatest delight and greatest challenge. There is something direct and unforgiving about drawing, compared to painting where areas can be worked and re-worked. I am part of a wonderful, small, life-drawing group. We meet once a week and draw for 5 hours, sharing the cost of the model. We often joke it is our addiction, not unlike gambling – thinking “Maybe this one will be the winner,” but most often it is not! As we become more experienced, of course, the bar is raised, but it is the actual difficulty of portraying the nude from life that we are so passionate about. Anyone who aspires to paint the figure should put in countless hours drawing it, there is no better way to understand the body.
Life drawing to paint plein air
by Steve Randall, Sioux Falls, SD, USA
I’m a plein air painter, and I need my drawing skills — to quickly compose what I see as meaningful in a landscape before the light changes or fades. The quicker I get an accurate sketch — on paper or on canvas — the longer I get to paint the light. So I’ve started going to life drawing sessions at a local college and have found that my painting experience is greatly improved and more relaxed because of it. I suspect there are a lot of landscape artists doing the same, especially for urban landscapes where the human form is more present.
Life drawing to improve cartooning
by John Crowther, Los Angeles, CA, USA
You’re right that one must keep at drawing to maintain the skills (a bit like flying an airplane). I have found that a weekly life drawing workshop has greatly improved my cartooning skills, but conversely, and perhaps surprisingly, my cartooning has improved my life drawing ability.
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Respect skills of the masters
by Rick McClung, Atlanta, GA, USA
All worthwhile painting is built on a foundation of skillful drawing. Most representational artists, classicists, realists, etc., should agree detail alone can hurt as much as help a work. However, much of the work I see today looks half finished. I think the total absence of fine drawing skills being taught by some instructors has hurt many young painters. Henri Chase, and other realist teachers in the past, taught “economy of effort” in brushwork. This is important as far as not overworking a painting. It takes masterful drawing and painting skills to put a lot of detail in a work without hurting the overall look of a painting. Realists, today, should look again at the line work of the academic 18th-19th century artist that was rejected by the Impressionists and others and has been taught as unimportant by many today. Renoir had much to say about missing out on those skills, to a degree, by himself and his friends. He may have done well to listen to Degas a little more. A deep respect for the work of all past masters and the study of their work is the only way to take your work to as high a level as our short lives will permit.
Drawing ability spared after stroke
by Kathi Peters, Morrill, ME, USA
I have not replied before due to the fact that I experienced a left hemisphere stroke last August that left me with Aphasia, problems with my speech and language skills and mild right-sided paralysis. While in the hospital, unable to speak clearly, my first request was a pencil and paper. The nurses scrambled to find them thinking I wanted to write a note to tell them what my desires were but NO, I needed the pencil and paper to see for myself if I could still draw. I COULD!!! My brain was a mess as for speaking and I have problems writing but halleluiah I could still draw!!! I drew my hands, my feet happy that I could draw! That meant that even if I couldn’t talk, I still would have a life!
Back home now, my days consist of caring for our horses, and doing my artwork. I find that my drawing skills are right on, my color sense is more acute and I look at works done pre-stroke and see places that they could be improved on. While painting I am in a zone where my brain is comfortable. I am not aware that I can’t find words or don’t know how to spell them or pronounce them. I have made great progress and my doctors say it is probably due to my thinking as an artist. Artists think “out of the box.” Now I work at improving my language skills in my not-so-daily blog. It takes me forever to write!!!!
Acrylic painting on paper by Pamela Ellis, Hatzic Island, BC, Canada
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Bruce Wood who wrote, “So, a word is worth a thousand pictures?”
And also Sergio Sandino of Jersey City, NJ, USA who wrote, “We, as artists, learn through what we make, and, over time, sift through the literal to get at the core of what makes the world around us.”
And also Rita Putatunda who wrote, “All artists start out by drawing. Making the analogy with the autistic Nadia as reflecting all artists is erroneous. Hers is a matter of a kind of impairment, as are the examples of deaf and mute people. They cannot be equivalent to artists in general.”
And also Greg Packard of Montrose, CO, USA who wrote, “The beautiful drawings and like paintings by Nicolai Fechin showed me the potential and love that can be found within a line and shade. The wonderful etchings by Zorn and Whistler, all call out beauty like doves in snow.”
And also Joan Menard of Sinks Grove, WV, USA who wrote, “My mother had a brain tumor that removed part of her brain. She never drew before the surgery but afterwards would pick up pencils and doodle.”
And also Annette Waterbeek who wrote, “One of my favorite drawing exercises is the one where somebody gives you a brown paper bag containing an object unknown to you and you have to put your hand in the bag and draw it from feel only.”
And also Vicki Easingwood of Duncan, BC, Canada who wrote, “I’ve been so absorbed in words (as a lawyer) these last two years, my drawing has gone right down the tubes … while at the same time, my 13 yr old daughter, a great linear drawer, just comes out with page after page of creative and inventive views of imaginary people and things. Maybe we should all seek a return to the time of life where responsibilities were fewer, our hopes and fears more ‘on our sleeves,’ and where our brains were not yet ‘hard-wired’?”
And also Lin Stepp who wrote, “Although there is an aspect of inherent giftedness involved, the key to drawing well is to, primarily, draw a lot. As a psychologist, I constantly see the data to support the ‘use it or lose it’ aspect in any area of development. Individuals with limited means of expression, may, in turn, draw extensively until their skills become highly developed.”
And also Mary Moquin of Sandwich, MA, USA who wrote, “I suggest that you are having an easier time staying in your right brain when painting, but drawing leaves your left brain complaining, ‘Why are you making me do this?’ ”
And also Paul Herman of Chiang Mai, Thailand who wrote, “A person who draws is a draughtsperson/man, not a drawer (that’s where you keep your socks!). I often enjoy your letters, thanks.”
And also Tony van Hasselt of East Boothbay, ME, USA who wrote, “It still amazes me that students get so overwhelmed by those half-forgotten rules of linear perspective that they simply can’t see to judge the angle of a roof line. Perhaps lobotomy WOULD do the trick. But in my case, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
And also Jane Brenner of Santa Rosa, CA, USA who wrote, “Drawing is not about edges, but about shape and forms on a page, the integration of figure and ground. The edges come last, if one is really organizing visual phenomena, truly seeing and sensing. Perhaps drawing from the inside out would be apt.”
And also Dave Wilson of White Rock, BC, Canada who wrote, “Apparently, Kurt Vonnegut, (recently departed), declared that a person should write what they were born to write, and to heck with anything else. Reason is not painting, and belongs in dialogue. Painting is autonomy, and belongs on walls. I don’t ‘understand first,’ and then proceed. I do what comes up, and render what is ‘right.’ I get out of the way, and let the thing be!”
And also Albert Seaman of Port Hope, ON, Canada who wrote, “Whenever we put down the brushes or pens for any length of time which I do far too often the brain needs to be kicked back into gear at re-start. We need to re-assemble all of the little tricks and techniques that have retreated into archived brain cells and get them back into working order. Once the show is back on the proverbial road, dormant skills will be re-activated.”
And also Janee Ward of Crosby, TX, USA who wrote, “I teach drawing to adults, most of whom haven’t drawn since childhood. I find that the biggest breakthroughs come when I ask people to draw the negative space in and around an object. I think the reason this helps is because perceiving kinesthetically is also a wordless right brain function.”
And also Sandra Merwin who wrote, “I view drawing like playing the scales in music. It is a way to warm up: a way to tune your instrument, a way to stay sharp in your art.”
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