I’ve been learning to draw lately. I’ve cracked open a dozen “How To Draw” books. Some teach realism, some teach perspective, some teach facial expression, and some teach composition. All of them say the same thing: to draw something accurately, you have to forget what it’s supposed to be. You have to forget that a leg is a leg in order to draw it well. Instead of drawing the long, hinged shape that you assume a leg must be, you have to draw a strange blobby shape to capture the gestalt of a foreshortened thigh. You have to forget names.
Instead of drawing wrists, you draw angles and curves and negative space. You have to forget that one part of the hand is a thumb and that another part is a knuckle or a crease of skin; instead you draw nameless weirdnesses: blobs and black crevices and white gleams and ugly crooked things. Up close, none of these alien, strange things make any sense. When you pull back and look at the whole, though, you realize that you’ve drawn something that looks right and real. That’s what happens when you remove the labels: you didn’t draw an icon representing five fingers and a wrist and a palm, you drew weird, nameless things and came away with something that worked.
They say that, when you’re a child, you learn to draw in symbols: overlapping squares and triangles for houses, ovals for eyes. They’re icons, not reflections; diagrams instead of mirrors. I say that we do the same when we learn how to relate to people. We learn stereotypes for people and forget about the strange blobs of which people are made.
We learn that black men will mug us.
We learn that kids in trench coats are there to sell us heroin.
We learn that soccer moms are competing with us.
We learn that people who garden are wise.
Those simple stereotypes are devoid of the strange blobs that make people real.
Learning how to draw teaches me that the world is made up of strange blobs. It’s the lighting that matters. Fragmented, glistening highlights and murky shadows equal realism, not a rote, remembered recitation of five fingers and a palm and a wrist. Things blend together weirdly in a way that defies the noun and the verb. And people, just like drawings, are strange blobs. The artists who read these books learn to examine objects and people and to faithfully record their strange blobs and to forget the names of the various parts in order to come up with something resonant. I can only think that someone who can examine another person and intentionally witness their strange blobs also comes up with something resonant.
We learn to draw in simple symbols as kids. We probably also learn how to think in simple stereotypes as kids. The artists who can see the strange blobs instead of their remembered symbols can work awesome things on paper. The people who can see other people as weird blobs instead of stereotypes can work awesome things in life.