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gene kelly shock

Seeing form and structure

I naturally took to sketching when I was little. I remember idly drawing things in my parents' kitchen when I was four and my father wandering past and suddenly exclaiming to my mother, "Come look at this! She's drawing a three-dimensional stove!" I think my early successes went to my head, because I didn't practice drawing regularly and I got lazy. I'd draw a thing or two every year and be satisfied with them, but I never considered them art. There was no composition: I'd just focus on one thing and, over the years, whatever the one thing was, it got progressively more detailed. It was no longer relaxing to draw: I had to get every tiny detail right in that one object. Pretty soon, I didn't really enjoy drawing anymore. I didn't want to start something new, because I knew I wouldn't get it perfectly right.

I took my first-ever art class last Monday, and we were told to draw the still-life in front of us. Eager to get started (and demonstrate how I was already good at this drawing thing), I mostly ignored the teacher when she started out by advising people to sketch big sight lines across the paper, marking off important points and distances. I went straight for the biggest item in the still-life and drew the heck out of it. It was detailed. It looked a lot like the real thing. I was proud of myself, because I could hear the teacher giving other students drawing advice that I was way past. Things like, "You can't see the top of the lamp from where you're sitting, so why are you drawing it? Forget what you know about lamps and just draw what you see." and "Fabric has lots of sharp edges, visually speaking. Just because you know fabric is a soft material doesn't mean you should draw the fabric with soft edges."

After a while she came over to me. "Those candlesticks are rather large, relative to that lamp," she observed, after complimenting my "outlines". I knew the candlesticks weren't quite the right size, but I'd drawn the heck out of them too, and they looked good by themselves. "The whole picture looks like it's sliding a little to the right," she said, gesturing at the impending avalanche. The leftmost candlestick was a bit sideways, but to be honest, it was a bit sideways in real life, though not quite as much as I'd drawn it. She asked if she could sit down and sketch on my pad, and then she proceeded to draw big ugly lines on a new page. I was horrified.

"You've got to start by sighting the major points and relative positions, to get your perspective right," she said, demonstrating what she meant by sketching a long horizontal line for the top of the lamp, another about halfway down, and another at its base. Then she drew some short vertical lines meant to represent the candlesticks. "Once you've got all the major parts of the composition roughly where they're supposed to be, then you start filling in details. I think you struggled with the whole composition because you focused on the details first."

"I understand what you mean about relative positions, but how can I have a clean-looking finished drawing if I've got these enormous ugly sketch lines drawn all over it?" I asked, slightly annoyed but trying to understand.

"Well, in a finished drawing these lines would likely be hidden by shading and such," she said, and then she hit me with a metaphorical 2x4. "But that's not what you should be worrying about right now," she said. "Right now, you just need to learn the basics of how to get your perspective right."


Someone I respect a great deal said something similar to me several years ago, when she was frustrated with how my technical writing tended to "feel like I was going down a laundry list, uninspired." That comment about my writing stung, but she was right. I struggled and struggled to improve, learning specific techniques like remembering to smoothly transition from the end of one paragraph to the beginning of the next, but my writing still never lit up the skies. It just got the job done. I was too wedded to getting all the details right, but had no good sense of the larger flow--or if I did have a sense of it, no idea how to convey it through words.

I learn best visually, and as I saw my drawing teacher sketching those big lines and saying the same words, something clicked. My old blind spot was rearing up again, but this time I really understood what I needed to do. I sat down at my pad again, some part of me still rebelling against drawing big, sloppy, ill-defined lines across the paper. So ugly! So imprecise! So far from the ideal I wanted to see! And yet, when I drew the still-life again (continually forcing myself not to get drawn into the details), the whole thing looked more accurate. I didn't like it as much as my detailed version, but I had to admit that the candlesticks were a better relative size and nothing was tipping over. Not perfect, but better. Not finished. Just bare outlines of ideas.

I tried a third time, sitting in a completely different spot to force myself to get a whole new perspective, and trying a pencil-sighting trick the teacher had mentioned, in addition to the big line sketching. I messed up the trick early on, but realized my mistake and corrected myself, and the third drawing was pretty darn good. Nothing amazing, but the relative sizes and positions were much better. Still an unfinished drawing, but much improved technique. Thus, two hours later, the teacher said it was clear that I'd taken drawing classes before, and I could proudly tell her that I hadn't.

I'm kind of amazed that I got this far without learning the basics of big sight lines, but again, I think it was because I always chose to focus on one object in isolation.

On to new frontiers! I'm off to sketch some pans and mugs and railings and whatever else catches my fancy tonight, just to practice. I'm going to force myself to draw bunches of things, and sketch half-finished sloppy things. Just to get some perspective.


Yes! How exciting!
I must admit, it's been a long long long long time since I last sketched anything. I'm too impatient.
Go you!

June 2017

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