How I taught myself to teach drawing so I would NEVER have to look at a bad drawing again.
the creative eye has not till now been promoted as a How-to-Draw manual, or appeared on book shelves among the drawing books. Yet it is being taught in the UK with success, and the new exercises are appearing in classrooms. My years of intensive teaching are nearly over. It’s time to publish an affordable edition in black and white – and for it to stand on bookshelves about Drawing and How to Draw, to be in art school libraries as well as online, and available to art instructors and students everywhere.
This book emerged from the classroom, the drawing classes and workshops I have taught for so many years. It came out of frustration and selfishness, actually, not out of a desire to impart knowledge and skills. I grew up in a tradition of life drawing in Canada, studied at Emily Carr while I was at high school and university, was teaching already before we moved to Denmark. There we lived on Bornholm, an isolated island in the Baltic, and my classes were a way to make a living. Later, I taught internationally.
It was clear very early on that I did not enjoy much of the teaching. I drew with the students, we did the series of “gesture drawings” for the purpose of “warming up”. I performed my obligatory wandering around behind the students, giving mild criticisms and encouragement. I began to admit to myself I found it boring, incredibly boring to look at bad drawings, and almost impossible to criticize them .
Funny thing about a “bad” drawing is, it is never outrageously, interestingly bad, it is mediocre. It is instantly recognizable. The “errors “ that make it boring repeat themselves. Class after class, student after student, year after year. Even the errors are boring. Corrections do not stick.
I can’t remember now when I quit walking behind people, making helpful remarks. But I did. I asked them at some point to set up right against the walls so I couldn’t. It was often an improvised studio – a schoolroom rented out evenings and weekends, without much space – even with the model in the centre. Everyone back promptly after breaks, because the model posed on the dot. I let them draw freely then and I did not look at their drawings. My only advice was that they didn’t destroy them, did not waste energy crumpling them up – that energy was better spent inside the drawing itself. They were not pasted up on the walls. Gradually other work would cover those surfaces, good work to look at and enjoy.
This must have happened gradually. A kind of “method” – what I called “experiments” or “exercises” became the real work – and the really good drawings. At first I thought I was isolating various drawing problems and concentrating on them – too small extremities, for example. I did wonder why people “thought” hands were smaller than they actually were – I had a few theories – but it was many years later that I learned that the brain in this one case actually distorts our vision, prevents us from seeing our hands the size they are – and I learned why.
Something would catch my attention, something that had nothing to do with How To Draw, or about drawing at all. I remember reading a bit from Castaneda’s book about the Mexican shaman who instructed his apprentice to walk out in the chaparral , looking at things with his peripheral vision, till his mind became empty. “Say, that would make an interesting drawing exercise” – I would think, and then I would use my students as guinea pigs for another experiment in seeing, and drawing, what is really there. First experiencing, then recording on paper, the peripheries of the visual field is a true eye opener. They were drawing what is always visual to them but had ever been drawn before. What amazed me was how different, how personal each student’s drawing was, and how true and beautiful.
This led to a lot of work about and with line , where it was, what it was, why. And the still not quite understood miracle of stereoscopy – depth vision , at the very heart of drawing yet ignored in modern drawing manuals which teach you to draw flat.
My students loved this new stuff about the brain, loved to have answers to their difficulties, and answers that made sense of them as well. The visual brain did not evolve to help us to see with accuracy, but to function in the world. For example, being able to see our hands the correct size, as they move to and fro in the near space they “handle”, would mean that they kept changing their size, like everything else out there, according to the laws of perspective. Yet our hands alone do not: somehow the brain, through long evolution, has exempted them. In the classroom, we can experiment with all this, with space and depth, and understand more and more what mysteries we are up against.
And there is poetry, new words for an experience in seeing, that can be brought to the classroom to teach us another way to see and draw the world – and here and there are the words, and examples of the great artists themselves who struggled with the same difficulties and overcame them.
I like the two words “risk” and “choice.” And believe that here is where the difference between good drawings and bad ones lies. A bad drawing does try to pick up this and that from what you see, but usually does not risk much, and chooses instead to rely on the top-down brain’s easier, stored solutions, our usual choices of what we have deemed “salient” or important. My bêtes noires are the lines all mediocre drawing students put around the lips. If I can leave the planet having eliminated these, I will be more than satisfied! But learning why you want to do it, what the brain is telling you, is a great help – a great step towards making the right choice and seeing what is really there. The change is huge, mind boggling.
Calling the work “experiments” rather than drawings make it less likely that the student stays on the chattering-brain level. Paying attention has been shown to alter the brain. Most students have occasionally experienced it and understand what it is, to work with attention.
The book The Creative Eye is written for any reader interested in creativity, for anyone who wants to draw by themselves at home, in a room, even without a model. It is for anyone attending an unstructured life drawing class and following the exercises. It is structured for instructors and is already being taught with success in the UK. Therefore, it’s time for a low priced, black-and-white manual, found on bookshelves as well as online, in public libraries, in art colleges and everywhere the mysterious human act of drawing is found.
As always I feel indebted to you for writing this book. As a drawer and teacher it has had a profound impact on my arts practice. It has helped me see beyond the ordinary, the mundane, and given me the understanding and skills to be able to rise above the common mistakes we lapse into – you’d probably call it lazy seeing! I may not always succeed – it’s risky and challenging and I’m perhaps not always ready to take the risk needed for ‘good’ drawing – but the intention is always there.
I have been teaching your book, after thoroughly enjoying being present as you taught the course about 4 times in my Manchester Studio – and see time after time the impact your exercises have on my students who arrive thinking they will simply be taught to draw, yet leave deeply transformed after finding they have actually been taught to see and understand. And I can achieve this as a teacher without the need to continually criticise students drawings. This is the key to inspiring teaching as far as I’m concerned. I love the way the book lays out a well balanced coherent, well thought out, programme of exercises that leads students on a journey. I feel this offers so much more than many new drawing manuals that simply offer a number of exercises.
So interesting to hear your journey to being a teacher – thank you for sharing. Looking forward to getting my hands on the cheaper black + white version.
thanks Brian! as you know, I treasure your review. And am so proud you are teaching the exercises. I had fun writing this blog – about teaching drawing so that I enjoyed doing so – and it led me to read, study and think a lot about why we draw the way we do – and why we draw at all. Now with a clever publicist friend who loves to devise media events and shows – we are going to launch the book with an exbibition in March, and send press releases everywhere. Also to Manchester book stores and art stores and museums where they have a gift shop.
Heather, what I finally realized after a lesson with you was that I was learning, not exactly to draw, but to see, which comes before drawing. Thank you!
Yes Hallie, and yet we draw-ers *can all see very well, but we have to choose to; that is where attention comes in.
Hi Hallie, I did reply but it didn’t stick! That is profound – yet it is also true that we can see perfectly well but for various reasons we do not choose to pay attention to what we are seeing. We have to figure out why.