@teLier: an experiment in learning to draw
I have always envied those who can draw and my work with computer graphics professionals gives me endless opportunities to admire their abilities and quietly think to myself: Gee, I’d love to be able to do that. Sometimes I am not so quiet about this envy and usually the artist will turn to me and say, “I can teach you how to draw!”
They say this with such confidence and certainty that I enquire further and we end up in a discussion about visual literacy and how people learn to draw. Most often these artists say they can draw because they knew someone who was really good at drawing and were shown how to do it. Of course, inevitably the discussion will turn to whether a person needs to be ‘gifted’ in order to draw well but, while all my artist friends agree that some people do seem to be inherently ‘talented’, these artists are equally insistent that drawing is still something that they learned to do, even if they themselves are acknowledged as being ‘talented’.
And so I ask myself, ‘Why then, if this is such an acquirable skill, am I so crap at drawing?’ Once upon a time this was simply a question, something I wondered about but did not feel compelled to confront. After all there are lots of things I’d love to be able to do and don’t because (like pretty much everyone else on the planet) I am over-committed 24/7. Then I had a child and I realized that in our increasingly image-based communications, visual literacy is on par with the ability to read and write yet, while I can ‘read’ images and I can create them with a camera, I don’t know how to ‘write’ them by drawing. And if I can’t do it, I can’t begin to teach it. And this makes me uneasy because I do not know how to teach my child what I consider to be a fundamentally essential ability that he will need to be effective as a communicator in a world where images are crucial to expression in virtually every field of endeavour.
Of course, as a writer I have the same kind of confidence and certainty about being able to teach my child how to read and write that all those artists have about teaching me how to draw. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that most adults in the global-urban believe this too (whether they are professional writers or not) but I suspect that a great many of them would be as lost as I am when it comes to drawing.
The reason for this, in my mind, is that for the last several decades, perhaps centuries, reading and writing have been very privileged skills. Everyone learns them and most educational institutions give their highest priority to developing competency in them.
When I went to school we spent hours, every day working on these skills. Whatever the subject, there was a text book to read, essays to write, exams to be taken by reading questions and writing answers, and so on. Sometimes these subjects would be supplemented by practical learning exercises such as chopping up dead things in biology class or finding pictures to support the reams of text that formed the basis of the assignment. Creating images, however, was pursued with much less rigour, if at all.
Art, in particular, was ‘special’ and optional; a treat once the real work of learning by reading and writing was out of the way. Crayons would be handed round, paper dished out and we would be told to ‘draw something’. Sometimes the assignment would be directed but only so far as, ‘draw a tree’ or ‘let’s make a mother’s day card’. In school anything I learned about line, form, perspective, position, colour, shape, etc came from reading or documentaries that told how the ‘talented/artists’ did these things. It certainly did not come from having a go at it and being given instructions on how to do it skillfully.
So I asked myself – and my many artist colleagues – how do you learn to draw? After many discussions about whether or not being able to draw was teachable or something one simply had to be ‘born to do’, I took the advice I was given by Nick Hore (a graduate of the College of Fine Arts, UNSW) and bought Betty Edwards’, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Almost every artist I know nods favourably at the mention of this book and one of the things I like about it is Betty’s zeal for the idea that competence in drawing is something anybody can acquire.
Clearly, the nature vs. nurture/talent vs. learned skill debate is HUGE and I know that this experiment does nothing of substance toward settling that debate. However, visual literacy is at the heart of Storybuilding. The CG artists I interview always talk about how the story drives the images but for creators of image-based communications, the image and the story are fundamentally intertwined. And so, for me to research, analyze and write about this relationship, I felt it was time I took up my crayons and confronted the task of learning how to draw and so the @teLier project was born.
Let me start by saying that there could be no fairer baseline for skill-lessness than me. I harbour no innate ‘gift’, ‘talent’ or other semi-mystical/DNA coded special ability in this area. I am aware that some people have an ease with drawing in the same way that some people are good at catching balls (not me, again!) or have lovely, natural singing voices (hmmn, yet another skill not dominant on my double helix). In fact, there are members of my family who have such talents (yes, Isobel, I am talking about YOU!) but they do not choose to pursue formal training or practise and I know that because they haven’t pushed this ‘talent’ by training and practise, it has not developed fully.
So the @teLier project documents my skill-lessness and what happens when I approach learning to draw with the same kind of structured training that might approximate the experience I had of learning to read and write.
Beginning on 01 August 2007, I am going to do one exercise set out by Betty Edwards, each week. I will do the weekly exercise five days a week and post them on this website and I invite comment, encouragement/mockery, advice and debate on my progress.
If nothing else comes of this, I am confident that my offerings will be an endless source of hilarity for some and a good laugh is a gift to the universe. Please enjoy!