Ways of Seeing: Of drawing and inherent biases
I have been thinking a lot lately about why people draw. Partly it is because every year in June I teach a drawing workshop in my studio. People from far and near come to draw in my studio for all kinds of different reasons. “I want to learn how to draw — I mean really draw.” “Drawing scares me, but I have always imagined it being part of my life.” “Now that I am retired, I want to get back to drawing, which I haven’t done since I was a kid.” “When I travel, I’d like to be able to record what I am seeing.”
Humans have been drawing since earliest times.
The clay and charcoal drawings of animals, figures and hands on the rock walls of caves are thousands of years old. The drawings bend with the rocks; the cracks and holes in the walls become part of the closely felt animal forms.
Children draw with whatever makes a mark as soon as they are old enough to hold a pencil or crayon and make scribbles, with sticks in the sand or dirt, with crayons and pencils on paper.
Why do we draw? To communicate, to record, to describe, to explore, to question, to remember, to see. Drawing is a universal language. Perhaps it was our first.
When we look at other people’s drawings, we learn how they see, and what they are thinking about. Sometimes we can tell how they are feeling. Sometimes their drawings make us see something differently. Drawings can be a window into another person’s world.
How do we know what we are seeing?
Bias infects how we see things. We already know that bias, assumptions, and preconceived ideas affect how we see our fellow human beings, how we treat them, how we decide whether or not to let them into our circle. If there are five witnesses to a hold up in a grocery store, as happened a couple years ago to a friend, there will be five different stories, five completely different impressions, five different memories — all influenced by previous life experiences.
Likewise bias infects how and what we see when we draw.
When we have a preconceived idea of what we think something “looks like,” it’s hard to see what is actually in front of us. While all of us can draw the symbol of a pear, or a nose, or a flower from our imagination by the time we are 7 or 8, if I place a particular pear, a real person with a nose, a specific flower in front of you, at a particular time of day, in a specific light, will you be able to see the one in front of you? Or will you simply inscribe the preconceived picture (symbol) already in your mind’s eye?
As we were drawing in the studio last week, one of my students, a retired elementary school teacher and librarian exclaimed, “This is just like the story in ‘Seven Blind Mice’ by Ed Young!”
Based on an ancient Indian parable that appears in Buddhist and Jainist texts, the seven blind mice come across a large mysterious object in the garden. One by one they venture out to explore it by touch and come back with a report: “It’s a fan.” It’s a lance.” “It’s a rope.” “It’s a column.” “It’s a snake.” “It’s a cliff.” With six (subjective) points of view, based on six (limited) experiences, each feels strongly that they “know” what they have “seen.”
The seventh mouse goes to explore and comes back to explain that each of the mice is “right” since there are parts of the large object that are similar to what they have described, but each has missed the whole, which is an elephant. And the moral of the story is “Knowing in part may make a fine tale, but wisdom comes from the seeing the whole.”
When my students draw a chair that I have hung upside down on the wall, they make far more accurate renderings of the chair than when they draw the chair right side up. What they know about chairs — more particularly what they know about sitting in chairs — throws them off. To more truly sight it, they learn to draw not the chair, but rather the shapes of the spaces inside the arms and legs, the shape of the seat, the shapes of spaces outside the chair.
To find the thing you think you know, go outside it and inside it. All the shapes matter, including the shadows and the spaces between.
Our eyes can see things our busy word-filled brains cannot.
What’s most amazing to me is that when we settle in to make a drawing, and sit quietly communing with, honoring, respecting, and responding to what’s before us, it is forever etched inside our memory as well as on the drawing surface. When I pull out drawings I made forty years ago, I am instantly transported back to the time and place in which I made them.
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