August 5, 2008

Concentration or Automation: What do you think about when you draw?

Close-up of easel showing graphite drawing and scratchboard

A visitor to my booth last weekend asked a very interesting question: “When you draw, do you have to concentrate, or it is automatic for you?” I answered her then, but have continued to think about it since: Meta-thinking about thinking while drawing, I guess!

My answer to my visitor’s question:I concentrate, thinking harder at critical points, like sketching in all the features; not as hard during more repetitive tasks, like texturing and shading. But its not verbal thinking: “Now its time to draw the eyes: first draw a circle for the pupil, then the iris, now the eyelid…”

Rather, I think visually, following a line with my eyes while my hand tracks the same line on paper. I look for the shape of “empty space” between parts of a face. I compare the lightness and darkness of colors to match them with my shading pencil strokes. None of this happens with words, which often get in the way.

My thoughts since then:I easily get totally absorbed in doing art, to the point of not being aware someone is talking to me. Or that several hours has passed.When demonstrating drawing in front of a class, invariably my voice trails off partway through. It’s nearly impossible to maintain verbal communication while focusing [ahem] intently on producing art. Betty Edwards noted this phenomenon 25 years ago in her classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

I’ve had entire classes of elementary kids go totally silent 15 minutes into a art lesson while working intently on their art. I’ve never been a subscriber to the “noisy artroom” philosophy, for the very reason that it’s impossible to focus, but never found it necessary to enforce silence if students were motivated and engaged.

Yet I enjoy listening to audiobooks and podcasts while working on my art, just as I enjoy listening when I drive. But when it comes time to do something tricky, like parallel parking or driving through an unfamiliar city, I turn off the audio, so I can concentrate.

Similarly, if I’m several hours into a drawing and things are going well as I repetitively build up texture and shading, I can listen in on a conversation and even mumble a few words. But for a full-fledged conversation, I have to stop — I can’t pay close attention to someone talking and drawing at the same time. No wonder — what’s the most important thing we do to show someone we’re listening? Make eye contact! Can’t do that while drawing!What do you think about when drawing? Any chance of doing art on autopilot?

November 5, 2007

Drawing pets from life

I’m often asked “Do you actually draw pets from life?” by pet lovers who wonder what my secret must be to keeping a dog or cat still for the hours it takes to finish a portrait. The only magic I employ for long sittings is the magic of photography. It’s hard enough to get a pet to stay still long enough to take a photo, much less to do a portrait!

gesture sketch of poodle eating boneI do draw from life, but the detailed drawings drawings I’m known for are not the result (they take 8-10 hours to do)! When I draw from life, I try to capture the lively movement that would drive me crazy if my goal were a detailed portrait. In these sketches (called “gesture drawings” by the artists, for obvious reasons) I quickly try to follow the movement of the animal with the movement of my hand without letting my brain interfere too much. No erasing — I just leave the lines be to record the action. I love looking back at these sketches, since they trigger vivid movie-memories of the live action.

These two drawings of my Standard Poodle Rosie record her chewing a raw knuckle bone with great gusto right beside my desk chair.

gesture sketch of poodle eating boneI don’t expect anyone else to appreciate them (that’s not the point) and they usually stay snug in my sketchbook. I’m surprised that occasionally someone does respond to them, which made me decide to post some of my favorites here from time to time. If you don’t “get” them, ignore — it’s like trying to read someone else’s notes. If you do “get” them, enjoy!

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Random peek into my sketchbook