Blog 9: reading the smile, in photos and in drawings

I mean here by reading: recognizing an expression – a universal ability.

These are blog speculations about the illusion of the smile, the fixed smile, the difference between how we look at photos and at drawings. Up to now I had not thought about it so much; usually, if parents wanted me to draw after a widely grinning photo of their child, I would just say, “you realize the eyes are squinted” – and then they’d go for a more serious one.

In a smile, particularly, what is seen is fleeting and in motion – the “held” smile waiting for a photograph looks forced and wrong, the caught “flash” of a smile in a photograph works only because we have unconsciously trained ourselves to see it in glimpses.  Adults who have never seen photographs cannot read them, it takes training. During the last generations, we’ve learned to look at the camera’s “caught” expression in quick spurts. I am convinced that looking longer at such a photograph if it is to continue to work – I mean, to affect us – must still be interruptive. It could be measured (number of saccades, returns etc.). I haven’t read about it yet, but I can hope.

This was confirmed for me recently. I was asked to draw a beloved father for an obituary. I was sent several photos and told them I would sketch the one where he was lively and smiling. As we corresponded, one adult daughter wrote: “To me, this (photo) doesn’t look like him! He looks happy, but tired.”

I wrote back: “This is normal, don’t worry! If you stare steadily at a smiling photo, it will stop working and start to look ‘fixed‘ (or as you say, tired).  A smile is passing, and we see it in a glance. Somehow or other, after the invention of the camera, we have learned to look at smiling photos in short glances – and I suppose one can also see a smiling drawing this way, but it gets more muddled now – how we see is so fascinating. I guess a smiling drawing is one we might have on the wall but we would not gaze at it.”

In a persuasive experiment, subjects were photographed as they exchanged a neutral look for each of the 6 universal expressions – joy, sadness, surprise, anger, fear and disgust. Next, the features were blanked out. A third series was made from studying these: just blank ovals, with arrows showing only the direction of movement between features. Everyone is still able to recognize the expressions – try it.  It is the movement and direction of the expressive muscles that we read so impeccably.

Some photographs cannot be read at all, because the difference between the expression of pain and of joy must be seen in motion, or it is unreadable.

pain (injured man), joy (released hostage)

Drawings of big smiles made after photographs, with all the teeth minutely traced in, cannot work.  Everyone recognizes such a drawing – it looks obviously wrong, amateurish and uncomfortable. In reality, we see the flash only – never the details;  it passes too quickly for even the fastest artist to record, unless it is repeated.*( see note)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*note: But in fast drawing, repetition is the key: I can draw smiles and other changing expressions if I see them repeatedly, as here, with writers listening or conversing animatedly at festivals.

Drawing the smile – Blog 8

A mother ordered several drawings from photos taken in hospital of her stillborn son. The baby alone, with his four-year-old sister, her with the baby or with both children. She had chosen eight.

One she wanted was a “selfie” – the three of them lying close together in bed, with the baby in the centre. When I saw the photo, I was surprised:  it was too intimate and intense to hang on the wall, because of her expression. Here was the ultimate face of grief, of someone who has cried till no more tears are left. All the expressive muscles were neutral, as if erased. It is very seldom one sees this look, which is both beautiful and very private.

But she wanted it, and I made the drawing*.

with changes

THE FACE OF GRIEF

When I emailed her a copy for approval, her response was that she liked it very much, but – could I just draw her with a smile?

The mouth is the most difficult feature to draw; everyone can read the smallest of changes very closely and accurately. I was pretty much convinced that the change she wanted was beyond me – that any change of the mouth – widening it, altering the corners – would ruin the drawing. I wrote and told her I wasn’t sure I could do it, but that I would try it out on a copy, and send her that for approval or advice.

I printed a copy to work on. I knew already I would not touch the mouth. AlI I did was rub in 2 small shadows (indicating 2 faint depressions) one on each cheek, there were dimples appear on children’s faces when they smile or, on any face, a visible, passing shadow shifting upwards, caused by the contraction of the elevator muscles – the zygomaticus major  muscles where they insert into the skin. I also took a bit of chalk and covered a slight smudge under the left-hand corner of the lower lip.

face copy smile 2

CHANGED DRAWING

I dared not change the original drawing.

But she wanted a smile.

When you do a commission you have to please the client. And it was, after all, only a drawing from a photo.

When I sent her the altered copy, she agreed that this was exactly what she wanted -“Now I am smiling.”

In the original, I also erased 2 tiny lines between the eyebrows, so light they do not show on the copy – these lines of anxiety (minute contractions of the corrugators) are invariably read by everyone – giveaways in any face that smiles and does not quite mean it.

I am more and more convinced that there is no such thing as “intuition” involved when we see and respond  to another person’s face – what we sense about the person is visual (and to lesser extents audible/olfactory).  If we are uncomfortable there is some masking, some disharmony in the facial muscles – and, even when we are not conscious of it, we are all experts at picking it up. Our brains are programmed and trained in this incredibly complex task. A large portion of the visual cortex – the fusiform gyrus – is devoted to recognition and to reading expression.

This work  taught me that it is not the features themselves we are reading, when we look into another human face. Giacometti said the eye has no expression: “The eye is always cold and remote. It is the surroundings that determine the expression of the eye.” And the mouth on its own is not the source of the smile .

(*With her permission I have included the images:  the drawing of the face before I changed it, and then the drawing with the smile.)

Drawing Bell Ringers

Blog 11 – Drawing bell-ringers

Thanks to Tegnerne’ (Graphic Artists’) Copyright Fund  I was able to take an exhibition to Oxford and spend 5 weeks there in August and September 2016. My birth- and neonatal drawings were hung in the gallery at the John Radcliffe Hospital. I also planned to draw there, but administrative haggling about permissions took time, so instead I started drawing bell ringers – something I had long wanted to do.

Thus I got to experience Oxford in a very special way. By climbing up into the beautiful bell towers I was entering a centuries-old tradition which still thrives in England. As a subject for drawing it was perfect for me – human figures in concentrated motion, fast, beautiful and very difficult to draw.

The bells are reached by narrow, almost vertical stairs or ladders, or  spiral stone steps with a rope to cling to. Up there is the belfry with its great, heavy bells, and the space is limited indeed. I stood in a corner or sat on a stone sill, careful to avoid the bell ropes which hung through holes in a half-loft to insulate the sound. Each bell has its own name and tone  – there can be 6 or even 11 – the sullen, latent ropes hung bound over in loose knots, and the ringers ecognized each one. Ready, they loosened the ropes and stood in a circle, each grasping a taut rope over their heads. The Master of the Peals under his certain bell called, ”Treble’s going – she’s gone!” and at the last word he pulled downward  with all his strength, everyone followed in order, and the loft was filled with an enormous and earsplitting – yet known and defined – clamor.  The ancient well-known melodies each have a name and difficulty.

I learned something of the special jargon or vocabulary of bell ringers, and gradually came to feel a powerful sense of the long, unbroken tradition these dedicated musicians share.

Afterwards we went to the pub, where I enjoyed their stories and their pride in being accomplished ringers.

To draw there? For me it was that first reach and grasp, the physical effort of pulling the great bell down to strike, that captured me – I wanted to learn this, to see it and draw it, while all was in movement around me.  The old bells are very heavy and it takes strength and concentration – and that was visible.

Through the nearly 100 drawings I managed to make, you can see how I had to look with all my attention – the first drawings show many repeated lines – in the last, made just before I had to go back to Denmark – have become more simple. I was just beginning to catch it.

At the start one can ask oneself, “How can you draw motion, effort, so it doesn’t just look like someone standing there holding a rope?”  I could go on about how the artist’s line, our divine tool, is the pefect intsrument to convey motion. But that is another story.

Dégas wrote: “Art is not invention, art is repetition.” And it’s true.

For this reason it is pretty hopeless to go out into the world to draw (favorite places are a park, a gallery, a train station or a café) where people move around in a boring way and you just have to hope that someone will sit or stand still. Only through repetition can one draw the human motion we love to capture  – this is how Dégas and the other great artists drew. To show students one out of hundreds of a master’s drawings and say “This is how you should draw” is cheating, and “gesture drawing” is a waste of time.

Rodin as an old man saw the first Cambodian dancers to visit Paris, and fell in love. He drew furiously, and was heartbroken when they went away. “I followed them to Marseilles. I would follow them to Africa – I  would follow them to the ends of the earth.”

This is what it was like for me to leave Oxford, the city with the golden towers. Drawing in the midst of all that movement and tumult, in full concentration, I realized I was completely happy. And that is rare.

I feel as if I have just begun.

Blog 6 – Round Drawings – an exercise from The Creative Eye

1. The day before

The Danes have a new way of entertaining their employees at get-togethers.
Today I am off to teach 40-45 people to draw the nude model in 1½ hours. They are staff at a discoteque and this is their annual Christmas party. It is to be a surprise – they have not been told what the “event” will be. The first time I called the boss, who is arranging it, he was hung over and wanted to put off the call, but I did nail him down the second time. He has agreed reluctantly to go along with my drawing exercise . I told him I could not teach people to draw a nude model in 1½ hours, any other way. He says there must be 2 models.

CH7 p168 2 round drawings, colour and black

CH7 p171 The round drawings

So we are going to do Round Drawings, going from one to the next and gradually developing the one pose from all angles , returning to our own drawing at the end to put in details. I’ll show them copies of drawings made this way in adult life drawing classes, where I have taught this exercise successfully many times.

As we are so many, we’ll need to form 2 circles. The boss said no, it is on an old stage and it has to be a horseshoe in front of the bar, with people at tables. We ended up agreeing on the horseshoe. The models will hold the same pose but it will be seen – and drawn – from every direction.
I have to persuade them to draw very little – just a short vertical mark – in the core of a tense, standing pose where the arms are away from the torso. I’ll will give them stumps of coloured chalk-pastel. After the first 5 drawings (they will move to the right) I‘ll let them extend their marks – into the head, through hips and thigh, shoulder and upper  arm. Always extending from the core.
I will draw too, show them everything.
The other time I did this – a similar event with 35 actors – I gave them too many dark chalks and the drawings got overloaded and heavy. But it worked well. Today, with over 40 drawing, I have chosen light, bright colours.

Chalk drawing in light bright colours CH7-Y1

Chalk drawings CH7-U1

It may be a terrible failure.
My son, also an art teacher, says “If they won’t listen to you, just leave.”

Maybe it should be like Musical Chairs and anyone who won’t comply (which usually means, draws too much) has to leave the game.
Why did the boss insist on 2 models? It may not matter. Now the female model tells me on the phone that she can’t lift her arms and is bringing a broomstick to lean on.

I am excited.

2 The day after

It was a disaster  – but everyone was happy so I was the only one who suffered. Got up there by train in the windy cold to a little street in Elsinore with the 2 sweet models and the stuff, and it was all dark and we could not get in. Finally the proprietor heard us and opened a gate and took us up a metal outside stair – it was indeed a discothèque – the one they all work at – and it just was dark, and pounding with music and happy shouts and laughter. There were my “students” all 43 of them, sitting around tables having eaten and still drinking steadily. Both the boss and my models tried to persuade me not to bother trying to teach them but I was stubborn and still hopeful. The boss would not have the tables cleared, as people would need their drinks, though he agreed to turn up the lights a bit and even turn down the background pounding. He had told me there was plenty of light, but “plenty” in a discothèque means just enough to navigate. Everyone was tanked and gleeful, rising off and on to ‘skål’ and shout. I laid out the materials and waited to be introduced but the boss explained that he had done so (it was impossible to hear him ) and just to go ahead.

The uproar was continuous. I did manage a few instructions before I realized it was not going to work. The models were cool, standing in a narrow space between the tables, and the kids respected them, anyway. Me they scarcely noticed past goodnaturedly putting up with my presence. Towards the end, half the people were wandering around and no one noticed the prize drawing I chose. Everyone was sweet tempered. They enjoyed marking up the painstakingly prepared blue paper with the bright coloured chalks.

I am mad at myself that I forgot to photograph at the end. Afterwards as I was trying to find my bits of coloured chalk and stack the boards, some soaked with spilled wine, what lights there were went off and the music and strobes went on and I just wanted to get out. On the train back we three talked about various disasters in our trades of teaching and modelling.

blog 1blog2The next morning, Looking back at my pretentious plans and instructions, I can only sigh.  Two drawings that came back with me by mistake show the separation into objects that is the brain’s pleasure. In the first, one can see a very good attempt at the “core”, but the curls on the model’s head came next – to the brain they were important- so they were added to the drawing, away off on their own.

The line drawing shows how the brain wants us to draw well-known objects  – arm, leg, head, torso with its sub-objects, breast and bum – on their own, and even includes the broomstick, and they are joined together by the contour. It is really a good likeness of the chunky model.

blog3

The third drawing certainly moves through the legs up into the torso in a beautifully accurate way, though the looped arms. like 2 handles on a jug, have been seen for themselves.

If only I had collected them all! These drawings also have the enormous plus of being “thrown off” just for fun, without shyness or ambition.

PS for serious  information about this exercise, and how to draw the whole, flowing body without being snagged and sabotaged by known, named, salient objects, read  The Creative Eye, chapter 7.

 

 

Blog 5 On the Visual Field – about the peripheral exercises.

 

The Physical response

You’ve been  learning about the visual fileld and making some drawings of the edges of the field –Peripheral drawings. This last blog about the visual field is about that happens physically when you draw in this way

Some people end up feeling extremely tired,  others experience a kind of wooziness, even nausea. I feel heat at the outside edges of my eyes – the skin towards each temple. Photophobia – an adverse reaction to light – is noticed by many. In a room with neon lighting it’s specially difficult –– you are hyper-aware of reflections and glare. This may not be on the periphery, but it is a constant irritation. The plant begins to blur, or tremble – some people notice a white halo forming around it.

On the positive side, you may well become conscious of the immense depth, as well as the size, of the field – how far the cursor has to travel across and into a deep background to reach the peripheries. The room became like a huge, gray swimming pool – perhaps the way a very small child, if you sat her down at the door, would see it, and want to crawl out and explore it. If you’ve allowed yourself, you  can even go a step farther and draw the entire field in using this kind of seeing – you exerience what is called  ‘visual flooding’   and the results are wonderful.

CH2. p.44 student peripheral drawings

CH2.G1

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are student drawings.  Look too at these drawings by Rembrandt and Giacometti  – I am      convinced that they saw,  and drew, this way.

Giacometti space

Rembrandt sketch

 

 

 

This is because actual, physiological changes occur in your eyes when you use your peripheral vision. And when you get back into ordinary seeing mode, something else has happened that isn’t ordinary at all – there’s a very real intensification of depth vision or stereopsis.  For those who have depth vision and never, or hardly ever, use it, the aftermath of this exercise is a revelation. It is a new way of seeing the world.

Right after these exercises, get up and move around the room – or take a walk. You will find that everything stands out in space, as if furniture, people, trees were cut out of cardboard. This intensity of depth vision will last a while and gradually fade. 

The structure of the eye   CH2-F

The eye is a sphere. Light enters the pupil and strikes the retina, the layer of receptors at the back.

These cells, like the cells in the cortex  itself, are devoted to certain visual attributes and indifferent to others. At the back of the eye, the location of each cell is of prime importance – they form a kind of map of the visual field; it’s obvious that a cell would have to be in the direct path of light from a specific part of the field to be activated by it.

 

Rods and cones

The retinal cells are called rods and cones because of their shape, and have different functions. The cones are concentrated near the centre. Here the main focus of the light is concentrated. In normal vision, fully 80% of the visual brain busies itself with information from this area, which actually receives input from only 10% of the whole retina.

These 6 million cones are specialized for wavelengths that we see as colours – yellows nearest the centre, others spread across the retina and blues farthest out. The cones decrease in number the farther out they are located, and there are none at the peripheries.

The rods are much more numerous, numbering 120 million. The further from the centre, the more they gain the monopoly, and out towards the peripheries they take over completely.

What were you doing?

When you paid attention to the peripheries, you were activating the rods of your eyes. And if you felt physical discomfort in doing so, there were physical reasons.

Rods are not happy in bright light. They do best with twilight or a dimly-lit room, so it’s no wonder you felt irritated by the light when you drew. The rods are most comfortable with ‘gloom’- twilight, moonlight, half-darkened interiors. Blues and greens, detected farther away from the centre, tend to become more intense in the dusk. Rods are also slower to respond to bright light, and can easily get overloaded – this explains your photophobia. Rods are also slowest to recover from a flood of brilliance – going out into bright light ‘bleaches’ the world of colour and tone for a short time, and has to be adjusted to. The reverse is true when you set off at night into the woods and have to wait for your eyes ‘to get used to the dark’. The rods pick up the mist of steady background luminance. They like being taken for a walk along the river at dusk, when everything is in shades of gray. Maybe you didn’t notice the lack of colour as you drew – you were using black and gray on white anyway – but if you think back, you might realize that no, you didn’t notice any colour out there. There was none .Check it out if you like.

 

Place a bright-coloured object (say a red shirt) at right angles to a mirror Stand back so the shirt is in the centre of your visual field and the mirror (with the shirt in it) is at the periphery. Check out the peripheral shirt.

 

Those who claim to be able to see auras have probably trained themselves to deactivate their focus, and if the long rods of their eyes are particularly well-adapted, perhaps genetically predisposed, the central shimmering created by the unfocused cones can be perceived as colours. This kind of seeing has a moral association – it cannot choose and judge so it is more likely to avoid being distorted by personal preconceptions.

Simone Weil equated attention with prayer (attender means to wait in French). She wrote that it is ‘a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go in search of it.’

What was going on?

By removing your attention from the focal point, you were de-activating the cones, denying them their customary top-dog position. You could not actively go in search of the periphery – that would have meant moving your eyes and would not work. So you set your heart upon it by paying attention – that special way of waiting upon truth.

When attention takes over, the chatter of the mind is stilled. Think back to your experience as you drew the peripheries, how the room became remarkably silent. You can also remember other experiences in your life, and in your art, when you have paid attention. The ability to step aside, to be empty, to disappear, is the essence of creativity.

In Castaneda’s Tales of Power the sorcerer told the apprentice to walk for hours in the chaparral, gazing before him with his peripheral vision, until the chatter in his mind was stilled.

When I read this, I wondered what would happen if one were to draw this way – the result was the peripheral drawiing exercises.

For more about vision, read  ‘The Creative Eye,’  the book these exercises are taken from.

 

 

Blog 4 – The Visual Field – drawing peripheries: exercise 3.

This blog is the third about drawing the visual field,  continues and wraps up the drawing part of it. There will be one more blog about what happens when we use our eyes in this way – the  physical response – how it works and what we can learn.

 

Prepare your paper and write ONLY PERIPHERIES, and begin the exercise by slowly moving into receptive, attentive mode. Don’t hurry to be drawing; wait till you are there, eyes calmly at rest on the plant (or model) at the centre, with your attention (like a cursor) moving to somewhere on the periphery to begin. Then, without shifting your gaze from the centre, indicate what you see out there – right at the brink of sight. Give yourself permission to be scared and tentative, to be empty. Never moving your gaze, draw all around the peripheries.

 

Do not explain

Many people equate draw with explain. You might find yourself wanting to explain, make understandable, what you see. If you know there is a window out there, or a person, or a lamp, your natural inclination is to explain it – square for the window, cabbage head for the person, line and blob-top for the lamp. Can you draw without interpreting? What you saw was perhaps a vague, dark blur. If you really saw a head, you weren’t far enough out – ask yourself, what is it possible to be aware of even farther out than that, beyond that head, at the edge of the roof, the place at the very brink of seeing, where everything disappears?

Try using the word indicate rather than the word draw. This may free you from explaining, recreating images from your store of memory or knowledge.

 Simone Weil spoke of ‘a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it.’ She said, ‘This way of looking is first of all attention. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself what it is looking at, just as it is, in all its truth.’

 

Look at the drawing

Only afterwards, look down at the paper. You are back in your ordinary, critical, choosy visual mode, and ought to be surprised at what you have made. The paper is nearly empty and at the edges, in a kind of circular arrangement, are these strange markings.

You may see a few wispy lines at the top of the page – a stray strand of hair was hanging down over your forehead. Someone with a very weak left eye records only what the right eye saw, including the “wall” of one side of her nose. The whole top of someone else’s page is black – he has deep-set eyes and heavy brows, and hasn’t realized till now that he lives his life looking out of a cave. If you wear glasses, something of the rims is visible at or near the peripheries, and recorded. The base of the page might be a mess of rough curves – your moving hand and arm.

These markings may be so light and sparse they can hardly be seen. They may be vigorous and black. Whatever they are – if you have been able to draw with your attention on the peripheries while gazing at the centre of the field – you are probably looking at the most realistic drawing you ever made in your life.

 

 

Personal realism

peripheral drawing

Later we will be looking at the brain’s way of interfering with what we see, pushing in with recognition, stored knowledge, prejudice.  By drawing something you have never drawn before, you have been able to free yourself to some extent from the brain’s interference. That’s what I mean by making a realistic drawing.

 

 

realistic and personalEveryone’s drawings made this way are different. They are true to the vision of the artist who made them – representations of that artist’s visual field, no one else’s. They are also extraordinarily personal. How can something be realistic and personal at the same time? It can. Your vision is personal, as is your use of your tool – a special handwriting. These drawings are witnesses to the fact that the personal in art takes very good care of itself, and can be left to get on with it.

Poet Christopher Dewdney calls this mode of attention intelligence: ‘It is as if intelligence were independent of what we normally consider as intelligence, because it operates by stepping out of the way and letting that data arrange itself by its own apparent structure. The height of intelligence is the ability to disappear, to get out of the way.’

 

 Darks and lights, directions, movement

Make another drawing. Think of ways to indicate what you see at the edge of sight – to record what lies outside the range of what you think of as clarity. There is still a kind of clarity, a luminance, but what remains clear out there may be only a slight movement or bit of brightness or tone which, though it can be indicated, need not be made sense of.

If you are drawing with chalk or conté,  use a short piece and lay it on its side, to indicateng areas of darks and lights. Line can indicate direction (the bar of overhead light) and movement (your hand as you draw).

 

Suprathreshold Luminance

You are making a representation of the edge of nothing. The visual field is an area beyond which, in every direction, there is nothing. Why not just make all the edges black? But no one ever does this, because the nothing out there is not darkness. It is a background of shimmering light, the suprathreshold luminance. It is the property of vision, yet it seems to give the idea of immense space, what astronomers with the most powerful telescopes have detected out at the far reaches of the universe, a steady echo from the beginnings of time, beyond the most distant galaxies.

Make at least two more peripheral drawings.

Here are examples of what other students have drawn. I would be delighted to see, and post, your peripheral drawings.  I hope to find out how to do this.

student peripheral drawing

CH2-D2

The Visual Field 2: Continuing the exercise

This is the  3rd Blog  – drawing exercises found in my book The Creative Eye, and continues exercises about drawing the Visual Field.

Awareness of the Visual Shield

In the last exercise, you saw – and were aware of – the whole Visal Field. You found you were looking into a large amount of space with things in it, inside a kind of oval or sloppy circle. Beyond which, in every direction, there was nothing. 

Let your gaze rest

In this exercise, most people have trouble keeping their eyes (and the field) still. The field is your personal field and it won’t stay there like a mural on the wall while your eyes move around and focus on various parts of it. If your eyes move, the obedient field moves too. This is the first rule of the game: you have to let your gaze rest in one place.

Rest on what?

If you are in a life drawing class, it’s fun to have the model in the centre  of your visual field. After all, she is what you’re there to draw, so it’s natural to rest your eyes on her. At home, just choose something (so as not to keep referring to it as the object, I will call it the potted plant).

 Choose anything you like. It doesn’t matter what or even where it is – because as soon as you focus on it, it automatically locates itself in the middle of your visual field..

An adventure

This exercise is an adventure – using your eyes, physically, in a new way.

Whether you decide to draw or not isn’t the main issue. But the drawings, if you make them, will be beautiful and will be the witnesses to your having seen. The first exercise is the seeing.

Fix your gaze on the plant (or whatever you choose), and allow it to rest there. If you want, shut your eyes and then open them to rest on the plant.

And, very slowly, become aware of the field spreading out in all directions – right to the edges, the  peripheries. Explore them just as you did when your hands were out there appearing and disappearing. But this time don’t use your hands, use your attention. Your gaze is still resting on the plant. Your attention is on the peripheries, slowly moving around them till you have completed a whole circle.

 Try this until you are sure you can do it –  closing your eyes,  resting them, opening them – at rest, on the plant – and then, without shifting your gaze, becoming slowly aware of the whole field,, right out to the edges, or peripheries. How much, and how far out, can you be mindful of without moving your gaze from its resting-place?

Attention

It is actually possible  to look directly at one thing (potted plant) and pay attention to something else (periphery). This is called external fixation – your eyes are not directed there, yet your visual attention is.

The cursor

You aren’t ‘seeing’ any more than you ever did. Yet, without moving your eyes, you have allowed yourself to receive much more information.  You could compare the visual field to a computer screen:  while you look at the middle, the cursor of your attention can wander out to explore the edges.

Close your eyes

What is out there? At one point there is vision (something seen) and beyond it there is not. Is there a uniform blur and fadeout, or a sharpness, or a shimmering? Are some areas of the periphery different than others?

Again, go through the stages of this exercise. Remember that you are practicing a completely new way of seeing, and it may take several tries. The elementary rule is not to shift your gaze. If you do ‘lose it,’ close and reopen your eyes and begin again.  

 

OK,  let’s draw the peripheries.

Making drawings verifies this act of attention. The drawings declare: ‘This is what I have seen.’

You’ll need a few simple materials – a board, paper and some chalk or soft conté. Your field is large so the paper should be large too, at least A3 (9½ by 12 inches). Put it across your lap and a chair front of you. Across, because you have two eyes so your visual field is wider than it is high. Before you start, write on the top of the paper: ONLY PERIPHERIES.

Gaze exactly as before, but this time with the chalk ready in your hand. With eyes resting continually on the plant (and definitely not looking down at the page), draw only the peripheries.

drawingthe peripheries - exercise about the visual field.

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When you have followed the cursor of your attention all around the peripheries of your visual field, drawing as you go, then you can look down.  

It is fun to go into this exercise without any images to check out. This is your visual field, and only you know what you have seen.


Difficulties

Could you take this seriously? To draw peripheries only, not what you are looking at, doesn’t make sense. It is normal to be prejudiced in favour of your focal point, and only gradually, through two or three trials, to be able to redirect your attention outwards across the field.

More seriously, maybe you can’t quite believe you should keep your gaze at rest – you have to sneak a look at the sides of the room in order to get the details, reasoning that, if your head is fixed, your eyes are allowed to wander.

It’s hard too, at the start, not to be interested in your picture, and you may have kept breaking off your gaze to see what’s happening to the drawing. But this defeats the purpose of the experiment. Which is not the drawing per se, but the experience of a new way of looking at reality.

So-called “Blind drawing”

Drawing teachers have turned this kind of “blind drawing” – drawing with your eyes on what you’re looking at – into an exercise, but it has actually has been around for a long, long time. It is not extraordinary; it is the natural condition of attention. ‘What is this drawing? Rodin, as an old man, asked. ‘Not once…. did I shift my eyes from the model. Why? Because I wanted to be sure that nothing evaded my grasp.’

Drawing too much 

Maybe you drew too much. In spite of writing  ONLY PERIPHERIES you may have drawn a lot more Any whole object which you can name is not at the periphery. If you’ve done this right, your paper will be empty except at the edges.

Draw again and ask yourself, ‘What’s behind that? What’s farther out? What’s the very last bit of visual information I can see?’ This is where you should be drawing, away out at the very brink where everything disappears. 

The mystic Simone Weil spoke of attention as ‘suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty…as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains.’

Think about this beautiful description of what it’s like to be attentive – can your vision be like this?

If you take you time and draw seriously, you will start to notice and experience strange, new things. Keep your drawings. On the next bog you will see other peripheral drawings made in this way. You willl learn about the physical changes that occur in the eye when we draw like this – and  much, much more.