Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Many people have asked me to post pictures of the drawings, but I don't really have anything much to show right now. I am not yet drawing. I'm doing exercises. I'm learning a new thing.

The point of drawing exercises is not to turn out a work of art. It is to train your eye and your brain to see differently. The manual skill involved is of very small importance, though I have found it difficult to learn to hold a pencil in the drawing way, instead of my automatic writing way. Andrea, the instructor at Atelier Canova, smiled at me, obviously amused when I exclaimed yesterday, "Oh! holding it this way actually makes it easier..." Then we both laughed.

The point of learning to draw is learning to see. To transcribe what your eye is actually seeing directly onto a sheet of paper. This is a great deal more difficult than it sounds. Your brain, the talking, symbolic part of your brain, is always trying to hurry things up. You are attempting to draw a face, let's say, and your brain says, "Ah, yes. A face. We know how to do that. Got it covered." A face is round, with eyes near the top, nose in the middle, ears on each side, and a mouth at the bottom.

An eye is a sort of almond shaped thing, with a circle inside and a black dot the middle for the pupil. Add some eyelashes, and there it is.

Put two of these next to each other, and you're half way done.

At this point, your Talking Brain looks at the finished product and says, "Well, that's dumb. It doesn't look nearly so good as the one we saw in the National Gallery that time. This whole art thing must not be for us. Best get on with what we already know so well: Words."

This is why it is of great importance to shut the Talking Brain up while you are learning to draw. The Drawing Brain is the quiet one, and tends to get bullied in your mental schoolyard. "What do you want to do all that drawing for anyway? You know you're never going to be any good at it. Aren't there better things you could be doing with our time? Surfing the net, for example..."

I like to think of the Will as the teacher that comes and sternly tells the Talking Bully to go away and stop being mean to the sensitive kid, and quietly encourages Drawing Brain to just carry on and pay it no mind. The Will is like that really nice teacher in school who told you that the mean kids were really jealous of you and who gave you books to read and encouraged your early writing. All the while I am marching off to my Monday drawing class, I've got the bully Talking Brain grumbling in the corner of my mind, "I don't know why we're bothering with this nonsense. We're no good at it. And besides, we already know what's important, how to write." But the Will just keeps on walking.

Talking Brain likes Symbols. It likes Abstractions, like words. It likes things that represent reality in a symbolic way, like the Eye Icon above. It knows all kinds of icons. When I was a kid, I learned a whole set of symbolic icons for the things I liked to draw. Ladies in puffy dresses always had a 1969 flip style hair-do, always wore a little three pointed crown, always had little points at the bottom of the bell shaped dress representing feet. Seagulls were always flying M's, etc. Children all draw this way, and most people never get past it. They figure that making drawings that look like the actual thing is some sort of magic trick that only Talented People can do. Some people got it and some people don't. By the time most people are in high school, Drawing Brain has been completely silenced.

But this is only, I think, because real art lessons are no longer taught in schools. When I got to high school, there was nothing of technique being taught in art class. We weren't quite at the stage of throwing paint-filled balloons at walls, but there was a clear hierarchy. The kids who could draw, who had Talent, were encouraged and taught, the rest of us were given some pencils and paper and told to go off by ourselves and "express" our feelings any old way we could manage. I was friends with the Art Kids, and had always wanted someone to teach me to draw. I was sure it was possible to learn it.

This instinct was probably give me by my grandmother who, though never really teaching me formally to draw, had always told me it was possible to learn and improve with practice. I watched her draw and paint, and throw pots on the wheel, and just knew that this was not magic, but simply a skill. But along with nearly everything else in education, this skill that required a fairly rigorous training, had been abandoned. No one was taught drawing as a matter of course by the 1970s, just as no one was being taught Latin.

In the academic style of training, students start out on a programme that is often denigrated as "rigid" and not conducive to creativity. At least those are the usual criticisms made by what I like to call the Nailing Chairs to Walls school of thought. If you think that art should be all about "expresing yourself," it makes sense to laud a Jackson Pollock as a genius. In fact, there are people who pay real money for art that could be duplicated in a kindergarten class by filling balloons with paint and letting the kids play batting practice in front of a wall of paper.

But if you have the courage to ignore the trendies, you can take drawing classes in the old fashioned way. This is because of a kind of renaissance of classical drawing and painting techniques that started in the mid-1980s. A small group of artists, mostly Americans, rejected the modernist trends. They were the ones pointing at the Jackson Pollock types and shouting that the Emperor had no clothes on. Like the Trads during the worst of the Polyester Dancing Girl period of Catholic liturgy, they simply refused to be told what to like, and to reject what had come Before. They clung to and re-constructed the classical Academic style of painting, put up with the ridicule and shunning of the trendy art world, and continued to say that Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Great Themes, coupled with highly trained technical ability, was what art was really about.

Without them being Catholic, they have come to the same conclusions from the art world that many of us in the Cathosphere have about the Modern World. They are indeed, the Art Trads. The Restoration-Not-Reformation art farts.

You can read all about it on the Art Renewal Center website that I have linked on the sidebar. I have been reading the essays over there and have found myself very much at home with the philosophy.

There is now quite a crowd of Academic Revivalists, even though in the general art world they are still rarities, and the community is small enough that everyone seems to know everyone else. These pioneers of the Great Before have taken the training and gone off to open ateliers all over, mostly in North America. Two very important ones were started in Florence and students of the Florence Academy have taken the training techniques and taught them. It is a genuine re-flowering of something great and good that came very close to extinction.

And grumpy as I have lately become about God, I have to say that the fact that I have found the one and only atelier of this tradition, plopped down only 2 years ago right here in Rome, has encouraged me to think more kindly of the Big Bearded Guy in the Sky than I have in some time.


John J said...

Excellent article.

I've actually been thinking quite a bit about some of these topics lately, as a moderately lengthy bit of fiction I finished recently has a character who is a painter, who has returned to techniques and styles of the old masters.

But this was all very well put. It makes me want to take up drawing - and add it to the other dozen hobbies that I try to foster despite the total absence of time in which to foster them.

Also, your drawings above are really quite exceptional. To be able to draw drapery with anything approaching realism is an extraordinary thing.

Zach said...


Now I must blame you for making my Drawing Brain wake up and say "hey, remember me!" and start grumbling a bit.

I had no idea there was such a thing.

My Drawing Brain has been nudging me lately anyhow about drafting -- I think I may be one of the last who was taught to do it with pencil and paper and T-square and such. Everything's all computers now. The old masters of the skill could draw as fast as the CAD-pushers can today -- I've seen it in action.

Great, one more thing for my "copious" free time...

(I know -- who ever said preserving and reviving Western Civilization was for wimps?)


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I find that when I am deeply into a drawing, I can't even hear anything else around me. If people talk to me, I find I can't understand what they have said and have to ask them to repeat themselves.

The same thing happens when I am concentrating on a sewing project. Though not, oddly, when I am knitting, which seems to be a merely automatic motion kind of thing requiring almost no thought.

It might be interesting to hook an artist up to a brain monitoring machine and see what happens to his brainwaves while he is in the Other World. I think it is quite a different state of awareness than the regular one. It is as if the waking, talking mind is dedicated to interpreting symbols, and the Drawing Brain can only see and accept actual things without interpretation.

All very interesting.

I was also taught basic drafting skills with the old fashioned tools. CAD came after I was done college. I'm glad. I was told my technical drawings were pretty good.

Anonymous said...

That's interesting, I find can't draw or sew around children, because I get horribly snappish, but I can knit just fine.

I tried to take a class at the classical atelier here in Seattle but I was too pregnant to make it up the stairs. :( - Karen