Art Idea #3 – Drawing is Language
Writing & Drawing
Two of the most powerful ways we have of communicating ideas are Writing and Drawing. Almost everybody writes: the global literacy rate for all people aged 15 and above is 86.3%. The global literacy rate for all males is 90.0% and the rate for all females is 82.7%.
Some of us write novels. Many of us never attempt anything that ambitious. But we still write everything from college essays to social media updates. If you’re very active on social media you might end up writing as many words in a year as a novel!
Not so many of us draw.
Yet, like writing, drawing is a basic communication tool that lets us share all kinds of information. Even a crude, stick-figure “storyboard” can let a director tell her crew where to put their very expensive camera and lights to film a scene with their even more expensive actors. A scribbled heart can let a young child tell a grandparent how much they love them, or let one partner tell another that they share the pain of a difficult situation, or the joy of a great one.
To not draw is to deprive ourselves of a basic and powerful form of human language.
Before karaoke, I think many of us were embarrassed to sing poorly. We knew that there were great singers in this world, and that we were absolutely not one of them. Some of us only sang in the shower. Some of us were afraid to do even that.
Karaoke is the joy of singing even when you suck at it.
Speaking of singing, there is a pretty unlikely duet called Perhaps Love by Placido Domingo and John Denver. Domingo is one of the greatest opera singers of our age. Denver was a country pop star. In the song Domingo is, as he always is, perfect. To you and me with ears accustomed to rock & pop, Denver might not sound that bad. To anyone with vocal training, you quickly notice that Denver isn’t even in the same league as Domingo.
The thing is, you could argue that Domingo’s performance, while technically perfect, is a little bit soulless. They are singing about love, aren’t they?
In fact, I think that all the places where Denver makes “mistakes”, where he might be out of key, that those human flaws in his performance are where his humanity comes through. Technically, he is not Domingo’s equal. Yet in terms of the emotional content of the song, it is Denver who expresses it most deeply.
Drawing is Understanding
In Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, aliens plant an image of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming in the minds of a select group of humans. These people become obsessed with images of Devil’s Tower. One character, played by Melinda Dillon makes endless paintings of it. Richard Dreyfuss’ character sculpts it. Late in the film they all go to Wyoming and Devil’s tower. The military guys don’t want the civilians around for the UFO encounter, so they gas them. Dreyfuss and Dillon escape the gas by hiding in a small cave that Dreyfuss shows her. Dillon’s character comments
I didn’t see this in my paintings.
To which Dreyfuss character replies
Next time, try sculpting it.
It’s a funny line, but also a reminder that different tools allow us to see and understand in different ways. When your accountant sends you a spreadsheet with written analysis, that writing might be mostly content. When you flirt with someone, the actual words you say are almost contentless, it’s all about body language.
Drawing Badly is still Drawing!
Like John Denver putting his small voice up against one of opera’s greatest, I encourage you to draw, even if you think you suck. In our class there are probably a few of us who love to draw and are quite good. Maybe a few more who are decent. And most likely, there are man of us who find looking at our attempts to draw so painful that we’d rather not even try.
As I noted above, storyboards are a powerful way to describe a film-video or any visual project. If you happen to be Steven Spielberg, then you can have a great artists draw them for you. But there are plenty of creative people who don’t have that kind of money. Your own stick figures can still help convey the relationships of actors, props, sets, cameras, and lights.
You might know that Francis Crick and James Watson won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. In many ways this was an achievement in visualization. It wasn’t only drawing, they had a basement lab where they made elaborate models to try to understand how DNA was structured, to understand “what it looked like.”
From how you want the diamonds set in your engagement ring to where you want to seat your CEO for the corporate event you’re organizing, simple drawings can help all of us communicate so many things.
Drinking & Drawing
IRL there’s an activity many people love called Drinking & Drawing. It usually involves life models that people draw from and alcohol. You don’t need the model or the alcohol! 🙂 But get your pencil and some paper and your favorite beverage and take some time to have fun with a pencil this week.
Let’s make 6 sketches, 2 each of
- A Drink
- A Tree
- A Person
Take whatever your drinking, whether it’s in a glass from home, a Starbucks cup, or anything else, and draw it. Take your time. Try to represent the volume of the cup. Show the foam or whatever is inside. Can you make your drawing feel like it feels to drink this drink?
One or both of your drawings should be of your cup.
If you have a paper cup or if you have a plastic cup and something like Sharpie markers, one of your drawings can also be on your cup.
I’m basing this summer on the idea that we’re all still following pandemic stay-at-home guidelines. Obviously many people have been going out more recently, but I’m not asking you to go out for Art 110. Hopefully there is a tree or a plant or some flowers or something organic at your place or in your place that you can draw.
Will you go for lots of detail in every leaf? Or will you try to express the feeling of motion as the branches sway in the breeze? Try to make a drawing that feels like something.
Person #1 should be a drawing of your own hand holding your drink. Mostly just fingers and cup. Try doing a Contour or Blind Contour drawing.
If you think about it, people who are great at dribbling basketballs probably spent hundreds or thousands of hours dribbling a basketball on their driveway as a kid. Today it seems easy. If you’ve never dribbled a basketball, it isn’t easy. What all those hours on the driveway did was to develop your hand-eye coordination.
We have the hand-eye coordination to pick up our drink because we’ve been doing that all our lives. But not everyone has been dribbling basketballs or drawing people. So even though your brain can see the basketball or the person, your hand can’t always sync up with what your brain wants to draw. So we dribble the ball a lot. Or we draw a bunch of contours.
Pro Tip: drawing is all about looking! Don’t glance at your subject for a few seconds and then put your head down and draw, draw, draw! Then you’re making a drawing of the cup or tree or person in your head, not the one in front of you! You should spend 50% of your time actually looking at the thing you are trying to draw. Slow down. Relax. Meditate on it. Look! Draw.
The idea with a Contour Drawing is to put your eye on, say the tip of your index finger, and then to put your pencil on your paper. Now slowly let your eye move along the edge of your finger, and slowly let your pencil try to make the same moves on your paper. A Blind Contour Drawing is the same thing, except you try really hard not to look at your paper till you’ve finished. This is a great way to develop hand-eye coordination!
Look in a mirror and draw yourself. Many of you might hate this one the most! At least you can know that I’m grading on effort, not on excellence. See what you can do with line. With shading. With cross-hatching. How can you represent the shapes, textures, and tones you see in your face?
- Post your 6 sketches
- Was it fun? Frustrating? Do you like to draw? Will you ever try again?
- Do you think if you practiced for 100 hours, or 1,000, that you would get a lot better?
- What is your major? Can you think of ways that simple sketching could be useful in your major?
- Is Drawing a Language? Can we say things with drawings that are hard to say with words?
- Name your Medium post: Week 3 – Art Activity – Drawing