The following is an address to be given at the first session of a class at a school that as far as I know does not yet exist. Nor do I know who the students might be, or their circumstances. What I do know is that I’d like to be there, at the front of that room, confronting their eager or timid faces, with the prospect of a long series of sessions to follow, and more after that.
As with anyone else, it’s dangerous for me to tie my sense of self to a single occupation or type of activity. I’ve trained as a painter, worked as a designer in disparate fields, and I’ve become a writer. While these activities have, to a certain extent been sequential, serial points of focus; they are all aspects of me, parts of me that I have no wish to permanently renounce while I pursue others. If there’s anything I’m happy to renounce it’s my previous reluctance to pursue them all in whatever avenues present themselves.
In that light, listen to what I would say to this inaugural class on that inaugural day…
Drawing Distinctions, Learn to Draw, Learn to Think!
A hypothetical address to the first class…
We tend to think of drawing as what artists do, or as a means of self-expression. We cannot afford such a limited view of such an important activity any longer. When an artists draws, or a designer, when any of us doodles, or scratches out a map or a simple chart; we’re thinking. We are making decisions, we are positing assumptions, and making judgments.
In a world in which we need, more and more, to deal with enormity, to leave behind outmoded, linear thinking; we need to adopt habits and methods that promote seeing things whole, even as we deal with details; deal with the fine grain while not losing sight of the big picture. How is the part integrated into the whole, not statically, but within a living, breathing, dynamic engagement with our surroundings?
Drawing is an ideal medium for approaching, learning, and practicing these habits of mind, and of the body, developing a set of practices that can unlock our potential.
Drawing for the Rest of Us!
We all learn to read and write. We don’t just reserve these lessons for those who intend to be novelists, poets or journalists! Why do we admit such a narrow view on learning to draw? Why do we, even for ourselves, see this crude assumption that drawing is for artists, or for those interested in dabbling into their “feelings?” This is not to disparage any of these groups or activities, without the so-called professions into which these kinds of basic human talents and skills have been shoe-horned for so long, we might have lost the accumulated practice and wisdom of millennia within the short span of the last few centuries. We owe the profession of art much for this, but we need to bring such basic human practices as drawing, molding, sculpting, and return them to wider use.
Even as an aspiring artist, if one is true to those aspirations, true to all that this can mean, it has been essential to begin by putting aside notions of preciosity and talent while exploring the foundations of the practices of eye, hand and mind behind the universe of activities that fall under the simple term drawing. Even more so, and hopefully more easily, since we begin without the baggage of expectation of an aspirant intended for a great career; we need to put such vanity out-of-the-way right from the start. We are here to learn to draw, not show off. We’re here to celebrate humility in front of one of the greatest humblers there is, a blank sheet and a stick of charcoal!
Drawing, the Italian word disegno from which our word design descends, points at the direct connection between drawing and distinction. Not distinction as a call to empty cultural superiority, but distinction as the fundamental human act of choosing this instead of that. This sense is best captured in English when we say, “Drawing a distinction.” That is what we do when we draw. It relates back to that primordial act symbolized in Genesis, separating light from dark! We touch the surface with our stick and that’s what we do. We wipe with the back of our hand, a rag, an eraser; that’s what we’re doing, separating light from dark. Before moving on to the whole gamut of actions and their imports, this is our fundamental action when we draw.
This truth, if we allow ourselves to absorb it, and let it inform our actions, presents us with the underlying power of drawing. By taking the ephemeral mental processes of looking, deciding, acting, responding, and repeating this array over, and over, from first, this line of attack, then that one, from within the heat of a passionate engagement, then again from a cool place of detachment and hard-won outside views – what used to be called an “objective” view before we realized there was no such thing. – By letting us experience this full panoply of what it means to see, think and act; and placing the output of this range of present moments upon a surface, preserving the tracks of our actions and placing them where we can see them, learn from them, and potentially even communicate with them; this is the true miracle of drawing.
This is the purpose behind this program, the reason we are here in this project. This is a call for a sweeping change in how things are done, but one that only requires that we gather with a few surfaces, sticks of carbon, and an open attitude of mind. We can recapture what was long the case, beginning when humans first raised a stick and drew it across the sand, took a lump of colored earth and dragged it across a rock-face, or pulling a slender, blackened reed from out of a dead fire, ran it delicately across a skin. We can take joy, certainly, for that is one of our greatest treasures, but even when the output doesn’t “look like much,” even when we are struggling, and the tracks we leave are clotted, apparently confused; we can take ownership of this grand connection between our minds, our bodies and the reality that surrounds and infuses us. We can do so with confidence that although our means are meager, they are up to the task. The results are to be formed within each of us, will continue to inform and inspire how we live our lives despite what may happen to the artifacts we’ve produced to get there.
We learn to draw the same way we learn to live, by example, by a give-and-take, both within ourselves and between us, looking to those who came before, while also quietly looking within to see how our natures respond, and what they tell us we require. This is learning stripped bare. This is learning that could be done in pantomime, although it can be fed by a fountain of words, read, spoken, written. It’s a learning that draws from all we know and recasts how we see and how we think and how we act. Look at it this way, then can you see why we need to take this back from the specialists?
We each begin where we find ourselves, and we are, in-the-end, the only arbiters of our ultimate progress. There is great freedom here, but as with any freedom that is fully embraced, there is great responsibility, although again it is directed towards ourselves. We do not look to impress. We do not look to collect, or to acquire. We look to learn and develop. Great things only come when people take on such tasks, accept such responsibilities and take seriously their desire to strive, while putting their interior rewards ahead of any outward trappings.
We will be cavalier with the physical output, but not contemptuous of it. We learn from what we’ve drawn, what the other has drawn, but beyond their ability to communicate something felt and thought and acted upon, the sheets themselves have no inherent value. They are also ephemeral. Newsprint and charcoal are cheap, they embody our humility, give us the opportunity to be profligate when we need to, but they fade and die easily like flowers once picked. They can be collected and pressed dry in a folder, but they will wither away no matter what we do. But in our minds, especially as we develop our abilities to see and retain what we see, they will live on, also in our hands, our arms, our bodies. The physical memories, the traces in our nerves and muscles and sinews of the actions we’ve taken to make them will stay with us. They will build up within us, and maybe some of us will find the need and the opportunity to work in more permanent mediums outside these walls.
We will begin with ourselves, a stick of charcoal and a sheet of paper. Later we will add props, things arrayed in space to be captured on a surface. Later we might move on to what’s been called, “Life Classes,” an apt term for facing a living body and attempting to capture something from its physical existence and wrestle it onto a sheet. While this might imply a progression, in the most meaningful sense it isn’t one. In the end, you are back where you started, you and a marker and a sheet of white. At every point along the way, there is a dynamic, a tension between what is added: complexity; and what is a given: the constant need to return to the basics, to practice, be mindful, and act as though for the first time.
You may have an inkling of what this implies, what is in store, but no preconception will prepare you for the power and wonder of the first time you make a leap and discover something new, something hard and intractable, but something true about yourself, about your situation, about the world. You will find in these moments great satisfaction, as well as a sense of strength, an ability that has grown in you that will call out for wider application. You will also, I hope if you are to really learn from any of this, learn a deep humility. This humility will come from your increasing awareness of both how difficult it is to wrestle with reality, and how little overt control you have over the outcome of your troubles. The slippery qualities of inspiration, the accidents that conspire to bring about your greatest achievements, achievements that you participate in, but can never own.
We’re forever striving after great things here, but forever caught up in the realities of imperfect attention, distraction, and the intractability of physical things. It’s just like life. It’s just like life too in that we choose to give it meaning beyond the mere physicality. It differs from life in two ways. It does not matter, outside of the meaning we give to it. This might be strictly true of life, but that truth is hidden behind layers of instinct and habit that present us with such levels of fear and dread at the mere contemplation of such a thing. It’s also different in that it is outside of us. In life we are trapped, it often seems, within our subjectivity, with few means to step outside, to learn from other views. Through our simple acts of decision, and the practices of drawing, we create an opportunity to work in a laboratory of life, where we can externalize what we choose to, what we are capable of discerning, of delineating, and then hold it in our hands, look at it, share it with others, and communicate our perceptions about it in ways that can be incredibly concrete, while remaining ineffable, retaining their mystery. These “either AND or’s” are the deepest potentials inherent in drawing. They provide the medium for the value within the practice, and they provide the medium for retaining and communicating these lessons to others.
While we hold these promises in front of us, we need to strip ourselves of much that we seem to hold dear. Along with that amour propre, that wish to be satisfied with ourselves, and to impress, that is tied up into our notions of ego, and pride; we will be stripping away assumptions, stripping away the very habit of resting comfortably within a cocoon of assumptions as we hide away from the realities around us. To be perfectly clear, one of the first and most basic assumptions we will be dispelling is that you “know how to see.” This will be followed in quick succession by the assumptions that you “know what you mean,” and that you “mean what you say – or in this case what you’ve drawn.”
Wrap all of that into the dissolution of your assumptions to know “Why, you do what you do,” and you’ll see that the so-called “practical” difficulties of learning to draw are really nothing!
Awe, wonder, fear, dread, confusion and moments of joyful transcendence! These are what we’ll be experiencing here as we proceed. And at this point, perhaps it’s time to begin to do just that!…
A collection of my larger charcoal drawings.