Friday, September 16, 2016

Drawing: a powerful tool

I've recently been making an effort to carve out time in my schedule for a daily drawing. I don't have any rules about what the drawing is or how much time I spend on it, just that I get at least one done per day. Often I will bring my sketchbook with me to lunch or on the train, and occasionally I'll get curious looks or a comment from some passerby.

Almost every comment I get is some variant of "Wow, I could never do that."

Last year I attended a lecture/workshop that examined the intersection of architecture and comics, and part of the workshop was a sheet of comic panels to fill in. Some of the panels even had some unfinished linework to get people started. There were many who dove right in to the drawings, but at my table a few people refused to even pick up the pencil. Why?

What is so fearsome about drawing that some people won't even touch the tools?

Compare the approach to drawing with the approach to writing. Many people claim to have no aptitude for writing, to hate writing, or to have terrible handwriting. (Some claim all three.) But the attitude toward writing is less about innate talent (although innate talent is still part of the dialog) and more about skill and practice. "I didn't write enough in school, so I'm not very good at it." "I don't write for work, so I'm rusty." "My blog/facebook/twitter/tumblr/etc doesn't count; it's just for fun." With the ubiquity of cell phones and the internet came the ubiquity of writing - we text, email, chat, comment, tweet, and post content all the time without necessarily getting hung up on the quality of the message. In contrast, the common narrative about drawing seems to demand an innate talent. Skill doesn't really enter into the conversation unless the artist is a professional -  making or trying to make a living from their artwork.

Perhaps one contributing factor to this "I can't" attitude is the lack of drawing in a school curriculum. Art classes are generally a given in preschool and kindergarten and elementary school, but they start to drop off the required course list in middle and high school. In higher education art classes are only required for certain majors - you don't need to pass Life Drawing 102 to complete a business degree, for example. Sadly, all that fingerpainting at age five doesn't magically translate into a facility for visual expression as an adult.

What if drawing WERE part of the standard school curriculum?

An architecture degree requires drawing as part of the curriculum. (A degree program worth its salt, anyway!) Drawing, in this case, is not just the technical drawings of plans, sections, and elevations but also a tool to convey information. Sketchbooks to record observations and ideas are vital. Indeed, in my first year of architecture school we were required to make our own sketchbooks and then graded on our creations. (My cover was made from a KEEP OUT sign - good concept but the execution needed work.) We had Visual Communications - a required class that regularly assigned painting, sketching, drafting, and modeling tasks. VisCom excluded computer work entirely - it was all by hand.

One of my favorite assignments from VisCom was reading Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and drawing from a city's description in the book. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it - it's a series of short (often only a page or two) descriptions of different cities with highly evocative language. Perhaps the most interesting is the basic framework for all of these descriptions: the narrator is Marco Polo, describing Venice in its myriad faces to Kublai Khan. This is a favorite among architects and artists - a simple Google image search for "Invisible Cities" brings up many sketches.

This may seem rather old-fashioned in the face of today's photo-realistic renderings and BIM projects, but I believe that without the building blocks of hand sketching you can't really understand what makes renderings photo-realistic or what makes buildings stand up. And just like writing by hand stimulates different parts of the brain than typing, drawing with a tool in the hand seems to have a similar effect. When sketching a detail to solve a problem, I think about each line I draw and consider what those lines represent and how they need to interact with one another. If I need to quickly develop several different options for a floor plan layout, I'm pulling out my trace paper and fine-point Sharpies. I can explain a concept to someone else by drawing it for them, and the act of drawing - the sequence in which I draw the lines, the weight of the lines, the way the lines interact with one another - gives even more information about the idea than mere words.

The instantaneous nature of photography is another stumbling block to drawing. Why spend an hour drawing one view on your vacation when you can use a camera to capture so much more in the same amount of time? For me, drawing a building or a streetscape or a person forces me to notice those details that I would otherwise overlook. Sherlock Holmes' famous adage "You see, but you do not observe" is so true with quick snapshots. In the process of drawing a portion of the Great Hall in Chicago's Union Station, I discovered a whole swath of ornamentation that I had never noticed before.

The interesting thing about drawing is that often the quality is not all that important. You don't need to be a Leonardo da Vinci to make yourself understood. For example, a stick figure is an easily-understandable drawing that doesn't require much skill, but can give a clear and powerful message. Becoming an expert artist isn't necessary for most people to reap the benefits of drawing. I find drawing gets me into "the zone" or "flow" faster than nearly any other creative activity. This blog post at Wait But Why is a great explanation of what "flow" is (and why procrastination can be such a difficult thing to surmount). And notice the diagrams! They are crude and schematic and clearly and immediately make complex concepts understandable.

Wait But Why, on Procrastination and Flow

One of my favorite webcomics, Hyperbole and a Half, features artwork made in MS Paint, that most crude of computer tools. It's a wildly popular comic that is now in print, too.

That being said, getting better at drawing is like any other skill - it takes time and effort and consistent practice. As Lizzie Bennet observes in Pride and Prejudice:

"My fingers,'' said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I would not take the trouble of practising..."

You may notice this in particular on a webcomic that has been regularly updated for several years - the quality of the art improves over time. It's most apparent jumping from the first post to the latest post - the quality difference can be quite dramatic! Simply drawing regularly and consistently - that's practicing. A few of us are blessed with innate talent that can be further developed with practice - there isn't a surplus of Leonardo da Vincis running around - but there's no reason why most people can't draw well enough to play Pictionary, or sketch a diagram for a home improvement project, or whatever the task at hand.

I'm planning on filling my sketchbook, one day at a time. Sometimes the sketches are elaborate.

Sometimes they are cartoonish.

Sometimes they are carefully shaded.

But I'm not doing it for critique; I'm doing it because I enjoy the process and want to improve my skills. And I also appreciate the mindset I find myself in while I'm sketching, where the world falls away.

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