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 13: Finding a Drawing after 27 Years

It happened when Lise Lindstrøm contacted me and told me I had drawn her little boy in the main teaching hospital in Copenhagen, Rigshospitalet in 1991. I’d given her a copy then, and she wondered whether I still had the original, because she wanted to buy it.

DSCN2498

Luckily I had kept all my baby drawings, right from when I started drawing in hospitals in 1983, archiving them by place and date,  and most had the name and birthday as well. I told her I would look and write back – his name was Christian born 14th January and this was written on the drawing.

DSCN2504The drawings are all in drawers in my studio. I pulled out the folder labeled  Rigshospitalet  01.91 – and found it. Lise came, and photographer Heather Gartside was there to record the moment when she received the drawing. Christoffer is now a grown man of 28.

DSCN2511

I do not have the possibility of contacting the parents – or the now grownup children themselves, but from time to time I hear from someone and it is fun to see whether can find a certain drawing. I wish I had a way of making contact with more – the early copies I gave them were very bad –  but there are few who find their way to me as Lise did.

DSCN2502

Lise Lindstrøm l.lindstroem@hotmail.com has given me permission to publish this story. To use the photographs please contact the photographer  ©Heather Gartside  heathergartside@gmail.com

We hope that the story of a drawing found after 27 years, along with the photographs,  can be published in Denmark and elsewhere to reach a wider audience.

If you are, or know of any families who have had a premature infant sketched by Heather Spears since 1983, and would like to receive the original drawing from the archives, then please contact Heather via the form below 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Special Care Nurseries: the end of drawing

 

Looking back on my life, I realize how extraordinarily lucky I have been. I came to what was to become the central theme of my artist’s lífe at exactly the right time, and I am leaving it at exactly the right time – when it, and I, are no longer available to one another.

These nurseries for critically ill and premature newborns were well established worldwide by the 1960s, and more and earlier premature babies, even some so young as to overlap late abortions, were being saved.

Prior to the 1980s the very idea of drawing there had not been considered. They were carefully closed to other than staff and  parents – and even then, parents had at first very limited access.

Coney Island incubator show

The history of the incubator is short: it was invented in 1860 and in Victorian times became a fairground attraction – people could pay to file past and see the babies behind windows. It it was a freak show, the way the Dionne Quints (almost exactly my generation) and other unusal human beings were exploited and exposed – and when this period was over, strict privacy set in.

From 1983 and for over 3 decades I have enjoyed an inexhaustible drawing subject, that has absorbed my attention through all my mature working life. I began at exactly the right time – I would not have had access before – and I finished at the right time too, when the subject is no longer available. Which coincides with my vision failing in old age. I could not have been luckier.

I lived on Bornholm in Denmark and made a living teaching drawing and doing small portraits, mostly of German tourist children. People started bringing babies for portraits and wanted to learn how. I applied to the hospital maternity ward for subjects to study but was turned down. Someone suggested a Neonatal Nursery, or NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), terms I had never heard of, but an enquiry to the one in Copenhagen’s Rigshospital was turned down too. That year I was in Vancouver for a longer stay and contacted  Childrens’ Hospital there – and was persistent. It took about 3 months to get to an interview with the Supervisor, who was very hostile, but after we met, and talked together about her concerns, she agreed – and later became completely supportive, so I returned on several subsequent visits. After my book Drawings from the Newborn was published, it was easier and I could  draw in hospitals worldwide.

changed photo-permission form

I also needed parental permission, and we worked out some changes on their photography permission form, a procedure that has worked till last year in all the hospitals where I have drawn. This was an ongoing  study project and I kept the drawings, making copies for the parents in return for permission to draw, keep, and exhibit the originals.

 

 

From my initiation to the NICU  I was hooked, and hooked forever. Imagine a drawing project that satisfied my every need as an artist, suddenly handed to me.

special care nursery, drawing at night

First and foremost, a new human subject. Drawing people has always been my specialty but I was bored – doing portraits for money was like being a prostitute and having to satisfy the customer, and I suddenly admitted how I hated it, and quit. I taught and still teach life drawing, but the adult models’ poses however inventive were boring, the forms and movements so familiar they were hard to pay attention to any more.

These babies had never been drawn before because they were not around to be drawn.

I had to start from scratch and I realized very soon how much we draw with our learning and expectations – by our immersion in the culture, by looking at other great drawings. The great artists did not have this subject. Learning to draw these babies took all my attention.

Second, light. There has been uninterrupted, bright light in NICUs till very lately. Staff depended on watching the babies till very lately;  machines and warning noises only gradually took over continuous physical supervision.

Third, I had no choices to make. I had to draw the babies I was allowed to, just as they happened to be. And I had no choice over the time I had. I just arrived and got to it; I need not even think. No energy wasted deciding what to draw or how long I had. Or whether to sit or stand – I had to stand. There were changes, interruptions – some permanent. I was happy within the freedom of these limitations.

Lastly, privacy. For me a great part of the joy I have in drawing is that it has been private, I have gotten into places I never would have experienced otherwise, come close to and witnessed human experience that is secret and fleeting, that takes close observation and sometimes was so difficult that my attention was all that was left;  in the words of Rilke, the work absorbed every feeling, everything personal “so there was no residue.” This is how it was in the 80s in Palestine when no press photographers or journalists were yet there, how it was on the pediatric cancer wards, in the refugee camps, on maternity wards where I drew childbirth, in the courts (where photography is still not allowed), backstage at great theatres, in a hospital morgue or at the death of a child.

And here too, as if on cue, my privacy is mow invaded too, as documentary filming and “reality shows” have moved in and taken over the most private areas of human experience.

My initiation to the NICU was – as it must be for suddenly affected parents – frightening and alien, not understood, crowded with machinery under bright light, busy with invasive procedures and unknown purpose. Like them, my first impression was of a cold, surgically sterile place; then came my surprise, my realization of the humanity, warmth and care of everyone who worked there.

drawing at night. NICU

I drew at night, when the ward was quietest, going in about 11PM and leaving at 3AM. Mostly biking over to Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, where I drew every night for many years. And in other hospitals in Europe, America, and the Middle East – wherever I could arrange for 2 or 3 weeks’ uninterrupted work. Staff everywhere were interested and supportive. In some hospitals, I slept on the ward when a staff bed was unused. I drew in the basement of the Panum Institute where, in a great vat, lay many tiny corpses.

studies, fetal facial development

I made clay models on the development of the foetal face, and drew them from many angles, because it worked better by far to learn emerging facial details than to “think backwards” from our common knowledge of fullborns and children. I knew, all the while, that what I had to get right was visual – nurses can tell at a glance a baby’s gestational age, almost to the day, and if they could see it, surely I could too – but the history of European art is a long tale of trial and error and learning from those who went before, specially as it has to do with the human face.

baby, Meteora, Greece, ca 13th C

 

 

We read how Cimabue’s paintings were carried through the streets in praise of their exactness, and how they seem to us now stilted and ‘Byzantine’, like this baby at Meteora, and how it took the greater artist Giotto to make that leap, from Cimabue’s shoulders, into the first realism.

For some  reason, babies lost out in this timeline. We have all remarked on the adult-looking babies in the Adoration paintings of the Renaissance. The infant Christ was also God and portrayed as magesterial rather than frail.

 

Here are some examples of babies drawn at night on the NICUs. Link to more.

Before ugly plastic took over, I was able to draw the beautiful cotton diapers, and I still mourn their passing.

premature incubator baby in a cloth diaper

Incubators, changed too  – when I began to draw them, they had beautiful linen windows with drawstring sleeves. Staff could access the babies – and,  rarely then – parents with strict permission could reach in and touch them.

incubator with drawstring sleeve

 

incubator procedure: blood work

incubator procedure: blood work

I drew many hundreds of studies of premature movement, so loose and graceful, different from any human movement that had been around to be observed and drawn before.

studies, premature arm and hand movement

 

studies, premature wrist and hand movement

 

studies, kicking  premature baby

 

at Karolinsk:, incubator studies 71 and 72, an active baby girl

Karolinska

 

premature baby alone and awake in an incubator

 

So I drew as long as I could. There would be changes, some long overdue.

With the NICUs, more and more premature babies lived, and it was accepted that some would be handicapped, and that some survived to be blind. Continuous exposure to bright light was a connection slow to be made – but it finally was: lights were dimmed on the wards and blankets laid across the incubators. If the baby was being held by its mother, she’d shade its eyes carefully with her hand, and eventually, the time came when to ask for ‘more light to draw by’ was met with reluctance and at best a slight turning up of a distant lamp. Meanwhile as if on cue, a bout of shingles 2 years ago had damaged my one eye, and my vision will never be whole again: all in all, it was time, it was necessary, to stop.

The incubator will be phased out, replaced more and more by warm, sterile rooms where the parents are happy to live in, touch, hold and care for their babies. Years ago they were lucky to be allowed visiting hours, and even, for a moment, to touch their baby through a carefully opened incubator door. Later they were thankful to be allowed to come in when they liked, and to sit with the baby, lines dangling, for longer periods skin to skin.

But the incubator is also called an “isolette”- and isolation is finally acknowledged to be far more dangerous than any risk of infection.

 

I still draw if I am called in by the midwives – if a baby is stillborn and they judge the parents could bear to make a decision and let me draw a picture for them. And in the chilly side room off Maternity, there is still light.

muffled door

 

 

 

 

Drawings from the Newborn, Poems and drawings of infants in crisis, 20 poems and 52 full-sized drawings, order from Heather Spears.