I’m taking a drawing class, and the teacher, in his introduction, talked about how children draw. He said that even if a child is looking at a shoe, what she will draw is her iconic idea of “shoe,” not the shoe sitting in front of her. We adults will be no different unless we work at it. He wanted to teach us how to see before he taught us how to draw: “Understanding drawing is like understanding your visual system.” Placing some shoes on the table, he asked us each to draw one. The results all looked like shoes, but none really looked like the shoes in front of us.
Our teacher is David Rosenthal, an Alaskan artist who grew up in Maine. He tried to go to art school in the 1970s, but he only lasted 2 semesters. His teachers said, “We don’t teach you to draw, we teach you to be creative.” But he wanted to learn technique. Finally, he taught himself, and now he’s a well-known landscape painter. His work hangs in galleries, homes and museums including the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
Next, David held up a pencil, saying something like, "Hold your pencil straight up and down on your paper and look at me. Now, when I move my pencil down, you move your pencil down. When I move my pencil to the right, you move your pencil to the right. Keep your eyes fixed on the pencil in my hand. Don’t look at your paper.” We watched intently, making random lines. We followed automatically, entranced. “You’re learning to see.”
A funny thing happened while we were drawing. The room got quiet; we were focused in a calm, meditative sort of way. I expected 15 minutes of drawing a paper bag to be interminable. But when David said “time’s up,” my thought was, “I haven’t even begun to see this bag.”
Finally, David asked us to really look at a shoe to see all of its lines and parts. We were to use the level of focus and concentration we developed in the blind contour exercise to draw what is actually there. Don’t sketch, don’t be “artistic.” Basically, we had to tell the truth, as well as we could, with our drawing. That was a bit of a revelation. I’ve drawn, or maybe just doodled, since I was a kid, but I don’t think I’ve ever tried to really see what I was drawing and represent it as well as my human hand can. Here’s the kicker: it was hard. Drawing accurately takes intense concentration and constant revision. It meant that I had to stop myself from putting a shoelace down lower because it was easier, or have a simpler insignia because it maybe looked better. It turned out that the most important part of drawing that shoe was getting the foundation, the proportions, right. If the outline was accurate, all the correct little pieces had places to go.
Drawing the simple shoe, despite my increased focus, I began to think about my writing. Am I scrutinizing my work as carefully as I am this shoe? Am I really seeing or listening to what I’m writing about to make sure I’ve captured, as well as a human can, the truth of what I see? David Rosenthal acknowledges that art is interpretation, saying, “When you see one of my paintings, you’re seeing the way people see [a landscape], not the way a camera sees it.” He won’t give up until his landscapes represent what he sees as closely as possible. That seems to be an important distinction—in writing and in drawing—we’re capturing the truth of what we see. This can’t be an empirical truth, since it’s subject to our interpretation. It’s part of the job, and part of the fun to arrive at a drawing or an essay that comes as close as possible to showing what our minds see.
I think about how hard it is to see things sometimes. When I was a kid, my Great Aunt Nancy, who had a great eye for detail in the natural world, could be walking along anywhere and spot a four-leaf clover. I never figured out how she did it. In her essay “Seeing,” Annie Dillard describes the folks who have an eye for particular minutiae as “experts” or “lovers.” As opposed to a herpologist who can spot a rare snake, Dillard says “I see what I expect.” She says, “I used to be able to see flying insects in the air,” alluding to the fact that children have a keener eye for small detail than adults. I think that seeing takes practice. When I go out mushroom hunting each season, on the first day, I find practically nothing. My eyes haven’t adjusted to seeing what I’m looking for. Then, I may spot one or two of the bright red Dermocybe mushroom I use for dying yarn. The next day, they will be everywhere. It takes practice. My eyes and my mind will have gained the narrow focus to find see what I want to see.
In nonfiction, of course, we write through our human lens, but we need to make sure we’re writing what we see and hear, not our preconceived notions of an event. In order to practice seeing in my writing, I’ve decided to extrapolate “blind contours” to a written exercise. I regularly take 10 minutes and describe, without looking at my paper, something that’s happening around me. I write words and phrases, not worrying if I have complete sentences. The result is scribbles, not for public consumption. I begin methodically, the same way we do in the blind contour exercise. I start at one corner of a room I’m describing and work my way across, then slowly up and down in rows making sure I don’t skip anything. I take the time to describe minutiae like the crinkle of a plastic bag on a table, or the way the light reflects off of a silver CD lying askew. I notice two things: one is that yes, as in the drawing exercise, I find my focus increased and my ability to “see” what’s there gets better as I practice the exercise.
Secondly, I notice that I have to work hard to stick to just “blindly” describing what I see. My mind moves to explain the familiar objects I see, and to interpret those that are unfamiliar for my unknown reader. Robert Root, in “The Art of Seeing,” a chapter of his book The Nonfictionist’s Guide, says that the meaning of what we see “changes with the eye of the beholder, particularly when the beholder sees with the eye of the participant or the eye of the spectator. The art of seeing depends upon perception, observation, close attention, but also upon the identity of the viewer.”
The more I practice my written “blind contours,” the more I feel I can see the tiny details in a scene or an object. The thinking involved in this exercise awakens my mind to all the contours, the subtle lines and the details of my subject.
NOTE: This piece was originally published in "Flashquake."
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