Friday, September 07, 2012

Brain training

A friend dropped by this afternoon while I was typing away and made me take a little break from work. I showed her a new drawing I'm working on, of my nice old suede boots. I showed her the basics of how the sight-size method is done, where to put your feet, how to hold the plumb line and plot points, make a contour line, how a cast shadow has usually got a bit of reflected light inside it, the difference between a cast shadow and a half-tone... basic stuff.

I lent her a book about it and she said she would come over some time in the mornings when I usually draw and I can get her started on a project of her own.

Something I realised when I was showing her a little bit of the stuff I've learned in the last couple of years, is that I have two distinct drawing styles. The Hilary Method, and the Andrea Method. The Hilary Method is a combination of my personal iconic system and a few of the little observational tricks I've picked up here and there to make things "more realistic". Cobbled together from books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and from Grandma's old instructions and the little bits of advice I've had from artist friends.

The Andrea Method, that is, the classical realist, sight-size method, is the one that actually produces something that looks like art. It is totally a matter of disciplined observation skills and produces a strange state of mind in which much of my verbal and interpretive mental skills are switched off. At least, that's what it does when I'm concentrating. It is also when my iconic system is turned off completely.

Everyone who has ever drawn anything, particularly as children, will have a personal iconic system. It's just a way we decided as children how to depict things we like to draw, like cats, horses, houses, trees, birds, cars and human faces. This iconic system often sticks with a person their whole lives, and is the reason they think they can't draw. When I draw a face now, if I'm not looking directly at a person's face, I will at least start with the standard human facial proportions, because I've studied them and can more or less approximate them from memory. Not very well, but more or less.

It might be a big handicap when you're learning how to draw, but the personal iconic system that most people have, and used for drawing in childhood, is actually an important function of human cognition. When infants see, they don't differentiate things that are far away, or coloured or in perspective. It is only as they go along that they learn to see objects being distinct from each other, or learn things like the difference between far and near.

Unfortunately, when you're learning to draw, these essential mental skills get in the way. We look at a chair we are asked to draw as an exercise, and think, "Well, a chair has four legs, a flat part to sit on and a back, so I'll draw those things." Then we get annoyed that the chair we have drawn doesn't look a thing like the chair we are looking at. We have actually not drawn a chair at all, but our personal mental icon of a chair. A symbol of a chair. Or even, if we want to be Platonic about it, a symbol of chairness. But certainly not the actual object in front of our eyes.

It is usually at this point that we decide that drawing realistically, with perspective and whatnot, must be some kind of magic trick reserved to those with the magic Harry Potter Drawing Gene which we don't have. And we give up and never draw again, and when asked will give the inevitable line, "Me? oh heaven's no, I can't draw a straight line." (Banned at this blog).

Anyway, I have found that my own personal iconic system is still firmly in there, making demands that I draw all four legs of the chair, no matter what my eyes can actually see. It's very insistent about things being drawn properly. The trouble is, my combination method does not produce anything like art.

There are days when I am out in the world (not that many lately, actually) and I am trying to draw something I'm seeing, and I'm distracted or in a hurry, and not paying attention. It is at this moment when my lifelong Hilary Drawing Method tends to take over, and I start drawing eyes and hands and noses of statues that are directly in front of me, in the way my child-brain insists they are supposed to be. The Andrea Method is still very new to me, and not very deeply ingrained in my brain. The old method will come out if I'm not paying attention, and it is at those moments that I think, "Dammit! I can't do this! I suck."

Of course, the most tempting reaction to these failures is to quit, thereby sparing oneself that pain of being either bad at something or having to work hard at it. I'm a grown woman, and most of the things I'm good at I've been good at for a very long time. It's been a long time since I've been in the position of wanting to learn something that I didn't know how to do, that was very difficult and required a lot of work to learn and a lot of practice. (I think typing was the last thing, which was 15 years ago now.)

It's funny, though, that you can really see when flipping through my sketchbooks which drawings and scribbles were done under the strict Andrea Method rubrics and which came from me.

Learning is interesting, isn't it? I think I'll find a documentary about it.



Colleen Hammond said...

I just started to learn to draw. As a mostly left brain person, it's "outside my comfort zone". BUT I AM LOVING IT. Checking out the book you linked...

MumbleBee said...

Ooh, I discovered this phenomenon when I took a drawing class. I've always struggled to explain it to others. I ended up being to render stuff not too badly (like, objects, not landscapes) by disciplining myself to actually look at what was in front of me, and give attention to nothing else.