Trusting Your Eye: Lessons from Drawing Class

The other day, I was making a quick sketch of the maple tree outside of my window. Recently I’ve been sketching more. With pencil crayons in hand, I was getting the impression of this large tree down on paper. “Draw what you see, not what you know”, was the foundational lesson I learned in drawing class. This means to register the shapes, colours, and tonal values of the object(s) in space (a scene). The difficult thing is to do so without getting caught up in your thoughts, judgements and assumptions about the object(s) or scene.

A tree is a great example of this. Our thoughts, judgements, and assumptions about a tree might include: tall and relatively straight, rooted in the ground below, brown trunk, green leaves, maybe boring and interchangeable. We might draw a tree like this:

Simple symbols of trees

These are just a few examples of general, symbolic trees. They are surely useful for communicating the idea of a tree and they are even pretty cute. But if I want to record my impressions of one particular tree, how can I go about that?

First, I need to forget. I do the following exercise if I’m starting a drawing and often also when I need “fresh eyes” to look at a painting I’ve been working on a while. I close my eyes. I keep them closed for a little longer than is comfortable (20 seconds or so). If there is a blank, neutral wall in my environment, I look at that (this sometimes means stepping away from the terra-cotta walls of my Brussels studio space). After a little palette-cleanser, I look back to the scene I want to register.

Second, I really look. I see what is in front of me and I take my time registering. Slowly, I begin to notice general shapes, colour nuances, and tones (lights and darks).

Next, I ask myself: how will I frame the scene (what will be included and excluded), much like a photographer. This is a decision (or a series of decisions). I make a few marks to indicate the composition of the scene I want to record.*

Now that I have cleared my mind—at least for this sketching exercise—focused in on a scene, and started to take note of the general shapes and values that I see, it’s all about hand-eye teamwork. My eyes shift from scene to page, page to scene, sometimes rapidly.

A surprising thing about drawing is that I, and I believe many other artists, spend more time drawing with eyes off the page than on the page, at least during this kind of recording-type drawing or this impressionistic stage. It’s always possible to go back later and, with more intentional decision-making, add to and refine your work. But that isn’t necessary either.

During my sketching session the other day, I found that the marks I was making while my eyes were focused on the shapes and tones outside (the tree, though I’m not thinking “TREE”) were getting me a much more satisfying result than if I lingered too long on the page.

I noticed that what helped me to record my impression of this tree also came in the form of a sort of internal stream of consciousness. It went something like this:

“Dark green foreground, shaded darker value background, larger section… light green, hints of light yellow, less dense here, empty space, dark green cluster, empty space, rounded small area…”.

I am not thinking: “leaves, bark, branch…”. If I go down that path, which can happen, my drawing suffers. This means that I don’t feel that what is emerging on the page captures my experience of what I see. If or when I do start to label and get stuck in what a tree is suppose to look like, I go back to step one and refocus.

Not getting caught up in our thoughts, judgements, and assumptions is part of why many people find that artistic practices get them into a state of flow. I experience flow as a feeling of connection to the present moment and a “oneness” with the activity in which I am engaged. Time flies in the state of flow and at the same time, there is a feeling of joy and aliveness. Drawing and painting life lesson is to stop and look, to refrain from assumptions or old expectations. Here is my sketch from the other day!

Sketch of a Maple tree July 2021

Thanks for reading!

*I am using the language of registering and recording because this way of sketching is about getting an impression of what I am seeing. While this language may sound as if my goal is to create a photo-realistic image: a replica of what is out there on paper, my goal is rather to train my eye to notice more information that I can put down on paper. The results can be vastly different depending on the day! Moreover, the scene I see and the scene I end up with are independent of each other.

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