the creative eye: a How-to-Draw Manual

​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.

presents the new black and white version. a n affordable teaching manual
the new black and white edition

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.   

life drawing studio with work covering the walls
The life class

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.

testing the visual field
testing the visual field

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.

examples of student peripheral draiwngs
Peripheral drawings made by students

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.

The visual brain (digram)
The visual brain

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.

2 images: testing for depyth vision (stereoscopy)
test for sterioscopy no.1
test for sterioscopy no.2

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.

studio session with Heather Spears

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.

Heather Spears

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.)

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.