Monday, 8 March 2010

Ways of Seeing: Learning to Draw

Drawing is now practised at PhD level as a form of non-verbal research as a way of understanding reality. This ties into the notion that drawing is a right-brained activity, which sits opposite the analytical left-brain activity of language.

I believe that drawing is an inherent characteristic within all human beings. The caves at Lascaux demonstrate that drawing happened as a natural response to human existence before language was developed. The ability to write also stems from the drawing function of the brain; therefore, I believe that we all have the ability to draw.

Learning to draw is about training the spatial activities of the right hand side of the brain so that we draw what we see, not the symbols the brain tells us we see. Children draw in terms of symbols; they draw a stylised version of a house or an animal from their memory because their brains tell them that they know what one looks like. Close observation of an object enables us to find the shapes of tone within the contours that enable an accurate rendering of what is in front of us.

However, once we have developed the skill of seeing we can decide to leave areas unfinished or open to add more interest so that the viewer does more work in the reading of the drawing. This is when we begin to notice the individual perception of the artist and the development of a personal style.

The Story of Agassiz
A student is eager to study with Agassiz and has travelled hundreds of miles in order to meet the man and asks if he might be taken on as a student. When he arrives he is not certain where to go and wanders around looking for someone to direct him. He eventually finds his way to Agassiz’s laboratory, but just as he arrives, he finds that Agassiz is leaving for some meetings.

The professor was cordial but regretted that it would be sometime before he could get back, perhaps more than two hours because he was having two meetings. He would be happy to talk with the young man on his return, if he wouldn’t mid waiting. Certainly not, the student replied, after all he had come so far already. Agassiz pointed to a fish on a platter in the laboratory. While I am gone, he said, spend your time drawing the fish.

Agassiz left and the young man began his drawing. He wanted to do a good job in order to impress the great man. After an hour his drawing was finished and it looked pretty good. He sat back to admire his own work. As he sat there, he looked at the drawing, and then at the fish, and then back at the drawing. He began seeing things that weren’t quite right. Quickly he began to correct his drawing. He wanted it to be finished when Agassiz returned, and it was nearly two hours since he left. When the corrections were done he sat down to wait and to again admire his work. Now it was much better. He looked at the drawing, and then at the fish, and back to the drawing. Again he noticed a few more things that weren’t the same. He began to erase again ad redraw.

Now he really had it! He had revised it twice, and it was obvious that the second revision had made a difference. He sat down again to admire his work, thankful that Agassiz had not yet returned. He looked at his drawing, quite proud of his work. He compared the fish again to the drawing. He congratulated himself because now it really was good. But as he kept looking he began again to see still more things that he missed He erased and redrew again. Again he sat down to wait, but every time that he thought that the drawing was finished, the same thing happened.

Many hours later Agassiz finally returned. He had been delayed, and he had forgotten about the student. He apologised for keeping him so long. The student told him how he had spent his time. Agassiz understood from this story that the young man had the ability to revise this first impression. The student had learned that the act of drawing had helped him to see, and that each seeing helped him to see further. On the strength of that story the young man was accepted by Agassiz and worked with him for many years.


Agassiz believed that drawing was an aid to observation. The story demonstrates both the difficulty of observation and the process through which each action helps us to see things that we hadn’t seen before. Learning to draw is about learning to see. Taking frequent breaks from drawing so that we can 'see' with 'fresh eyes' is important, when we are tired our ability to scan the object and drawing is impaired and mistakes in judgement are made.

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