I believe that one of the greatest gifts that we have to offer our students is the power of observation.

As drawing teaches us, we must not only learn to look – but we must also learn to see.

A Visual Essay on Drawing and Learning

Created for EDUC 401

The First – Drawing 1

What do you think about when I say the word drawing?  In my experience both teaching and learning how to draw, this simple word invokes fear and self doubt almost immediately.  I am often confronted with staunch claims that “I can’t even draw a stick person” or “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.”  These statements are two of many that brought me to teaching.  Why is drawing such a scary thing?  Why does it provoke anxiety, cause people to shut down, and why is it seen as such an impossible task?

I believe that it has much to do with the ideas behind what it means to know, to see and to communicate.     For my exploration of the idea of knowing and what it means to know (interchangeably “to see”) I have used drawing as my tool.  I think that this is an important distinction, as it states that drawing is merely a means of communication – of what we know and see in the world around us.

My premise is simple.  Informed by my readings on knowing in the Engaging Minds text (sourced in my drawings as EM) and my corresponding readings on the nature of drawing and what it means to see (sourced as D.P. or by quoting individual speakers) – I attempted to draw conclusions while I drew my object.  Learning to draw is mostly about learning to see.  To notice.  With this in mind, I chose a pumpkin to draw.  It was interestingly shaped, static and a bright orange that captured my attention.  While I may have chosen it for those reasons at first, upon further reflection, I believe that I was also attempting to speak to the idea of knowing being embodied.  “Perception is a matter of imposing expectations on experience.” (EM, 22) I did not choose something inanimate or manufactured.  I chose something that was at one time vibrant and alive, is seasonally relevant and will also have a use beyond my sketches.  This was a choice, a narrowing of perception.

I completed a contour line drawing of the pumpkin, essentially capturing the pumpkin as I saw it.  “Drawing is the process of seeing made visible.” (DP, 18.)  While I certainly was able to convey that I was drawing a pumpkin, I wanted to play with the idea of “seeing” and “knowing.”  One of the reasons I believe people are so resistant to drawing is that they believe they “know” what something looks like, they simply cannot duplicate their knowing.  I would challenge this believe to represent seeing as opposed to knowing.  As John Berger said “To draw is to look, examining the structure of appearances – a drawing of a tree shows not a tree, but a tree being looked at.” (DP, pg)  Betty Goodwin also provides interesting perspective on the topic, saying simply that drawing is “an instant, personal declaration of what is important and what is not.” (DP, pg)  Why did I choose to represent the pumpkin in the way I did, and can that be changed?  Is my knowing and seeing of the pumpkin static or can it change?

The Blind Contour – Drawing 2

“It is often said that Leonardo drew so well because he knew about things; it is truer to say that he knew about things because he drew so well.” Kenneth Clarke (DP, pg)

A blind contour drawing is simply an exploration in eye-hand coordination.  I find this to be an incredible teaching tool in breaking down boundaries about drawing.  You have to draw without looking at your paper, focusing only on the object.  There is no choice but to engage in the act of seeing.  You learn, through practice (and a bit of humility) to “draw what you see, not what you know.” (DP, 22)  This idea of connecting the hand and the eye, seeing with communication rather than innate “knowing” starts to break down the barrier between drawing what it is supposed to look like and reflecting on what you see.  Teaching and learning are not about reproducing the world – they are about creating something new. (EM, 17) We cannot, as Arthur Schopenhauer states “mistake the limit of our vision for the limits of the world.” (DP, pg) Our knowing is situated in our histories, our curiosities and our perspectives.  In art school, I was once told to “pay attention to what you pay attention to” a challenging statement that has helped me to re-imagine my relationship to the world and how I go about knowing it.

The Opposite Hand Contour – Drawing 3

“The role of consciousness is not to control but to orient.” (EM, 34)

Most of us have a dominant hand that we use to visually describe our world – be it through writing, moving, or drawing.  We learn to rely on that hand to convey meaning.  By forcing myself to use my opposite (and unskilled by comparison) hand in my drawing of the pumpkin, I forced myself to abandon more of the rigidity surrounding what an object is “supposed” to look like.  In learning what this pumpkin actually looks like, I have to approach it from a new perspective.  I am required to step outside of where I am comfortable (skilled) and reflect on the world in a way that is less skilled and more intuitive.  It is a frustrating process at times, being unable to reflect what I “know” about what the pumpkin looks like, as opposed to how I see and communicate it.  “What we have to remember is that what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our means of questioning it.” Werner Heisenberg (DP, pg.) My drawing is decidedly looser and more abstract than my first contour drawing.  Does that make it any less reflective of what the pumpkin looks like?  I simplified areas because of the restrictions that using my non-dominant hand placed on me.  My language, in this case my line, and its limitations select what is and isn’t perceptible. (EM, 32.)

The Pumpkin – Drawing 4

“I have learnt that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start to draw an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is.” – Fredrick Franck (DP, pp)

In my final exploration of the pumpkin, I attempted to reflect on my experiences drawing without looking (but with mindfulness towards seeing) and using my opposite hand to describe visually what I was seeing.  Each of these exercises allowed me to render the familiar strange (EM, 28) and forced me to rethink, re-examine and re-see the pumpkin.  The resulting drawing has many of the same qualities of the previous three, but also embodies something greater.  The lines are more fluid, confident.  The pencils touch not quite as dark and decisive.  The organic quality of the pumpkin comes forth and the rigidity of my first drawing has evaporated.  The lines have a new spontaneity to them.  My “knowing” of this pumpkin has changed, and so too has my way of representing it.  Parts of me are visible in the drawing, the way that I like to use my pencil, my choice in object, my choice in perspective.  My knowing is embodied.  “Drawing is as much about the artist as it is about what is being drawn.” (DP, 20.)


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