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

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.