Monthly Archives: May 2012

Thursday 5/31: Revisions and My Slant on Things

I came in early to get a bit more extra work in today, and as soon as I came in, I confirmed what I had been trying not to let myself see on Wednesday: I’ve been drawing the chair tilted and entirely too wide. I knew that the day would come when I’d have to correct it. I think that the crick in my neck from sitting on planes for 10 hours on Tuesday may account for the tilt (though my loved ones reading this may assert that I’ve always seen things a bit crooked), but the proportions are just a problem arising from having trouble putting the 3D image I see into two dimensions.

Professor Ruby and I discussed my options for correcting the drawing at the beginning of class. I could make the drawing taller, make it narrower, or change both dimensions. Since my drawing was already about as tall as the page, the first option was out. We measured out a few parts of the chair, and determined that adjusting both dimensions somewhat was going to be my best bet. I set to work erasing and re-drawing. I finally got the proportions to a point where I liked them, but in the process I made the tilt somewhat worse. I was, at least, consistent in the way that I’d drawn the chair tilted—and I am so very tempted to agree with Professor Ruby that it gives the chair personality and this sort of consistent error is “why God invented Photoshop,” but correcting it has been an important learning experience for me.

In the past, I’ve discarded drawings and started over rather than correcting them. I’m starting to see why this is a bad approach. First off, being able to see the history of my drawing (as Professor Ruby puts it) helps me retain the things that were good, if imperfect, about earlier attempts. Yes, I could look at my old drawing when starting a fresh one, but it’s not the same. Making corrections can teach you more about a process than just doing the same thing repeatedly—I think the most important part of learning how to cook, for example, is learning how to fix a mistake. You can counterbalance too much spiciness in a dish by adding an acid in the same way that you can fix one proportion in a drawing by comparing it to another.

Also, the practice of making corrections in a drawing does put the emphasis on “perfection as a result of practice,” as Professor Ruby said. That phrase reminded me of this blog post by Cal Newport, who is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. Newport is a modern advocate of the sort of Aristotelian striving for self-improvement and moderated perfection that I mentioned in my first post. He uses the example of Steve Jobs’s obsession with the visual details on early Macs to illustrate the point that we can use perfectionism to focus on deliberately improving skills without driving ourselves crazy.

I think I’ve erased every line in this drawing three times, and I appreciate that the vine charcoal allows me to see the history of the drawing. (I’d washed my hands two minutes before the photo below. I eventually got my own gum eraser out of my bag, since I’d been hogging the one that the class had been sharing so much.) I’m lucky in that I’m looking at the chair head-on—the angles are very simple, at least. Though, I did wind up getting a yard stick out because I’d confused myself so thoroughly as to what a horizontal line looks like. I think it’s good that I’ll be getting a break from this project. It’s getting closer to looking like the actual chair, but I’ve still got a few revisions left in me.

I’m looking forward to seeing how much my drawing will evolve next week.

Wednesday 5/30: Units, Angles, Grids, and More Chairs

Today was focused on angles, measurements, and imposing a grid on an image. Systematizing drawing like this really works for my understanding—it’s just like graphing! I’m an economics geek. Staring at graphs until I understand them is most of what I do.

Professor Ruby showed us an interesting Powerpoint on composition before we began drawing today. I’d had some instruction in composition before this, but it had focused on ways to make a piece visually interesting in whatever way the teacher had wanted to highlight, and less on the basics of how to place the subject on the page so that it would fill the available space as well as possible. With all the trouble I had later with truly seeing the proportions of my subject, the reminder to confirm that I was measuring at the widest and tallest points of my subject from my perspective was very helpful.
A poster on composition in the studio
Professor Ruby pointed out that the third line you draw determines the scale of the entire drawing. Thinking geometrically, this seems obvious—you’re defining the length of a line segment at that point—but I’d never really thought about it before. I’ve often started fretting about the scale of a drawing much further into the process, but now I realize that I should start planning the scale of my drawings earlier.

We also began learning the string technique, which will get its own post. The string technique is basically a formalized way to use a string to measure units and angles in order to see and draw them more clearly. It’s similar to (and a little easier than) what I was trying to do by measuring with my fingers on my initial drawing. You hold an end of a string in each hand at arm’s length with elbows locked, and close one eye. You can then rotate the string to match the angles of your subject and compare them with what you’ve drawn. You can also pinch out a length of string that is the same length as a part of your subject, and compare it to other parts of your subject. If you can find parts that are equal (or multiples of each other’s size), it helps in maintaining the proportions of the subject in your drawing, even though your drawing is scaled. The string technique helped me to start thinking in terms of proportions, instead of absolute measurements.

My drawing partway through classThis was the first day we spent formally drawing in the studio. This project is another chair, drawn with vine charcoal. It’s interesting to me how much a difference in materials and location affects how I draw and how I approach a project. Drawing my own chair with pencil (not even a nice pencil from an art store) on printer paper while sitting on my living room floor, it’s hard to take my work very seriously. As I mentioned in my first post, I felt a little silly devising my own methods of measurement in my initial drawings, but put me in a studio and hand me a piece of charcoal, and the string technique seems like the most natural thing in the world. I like taking these projects seriously—it’s  much more relaxing to stop judging myself and my abilities for a while. To me, it’s like the difference between going into an office dressed like all the other interns and dressing like a real employee. Yes, I own a disturbing number of bureaucracy-friendly suits for a 22 year-old, but it keeps the impostor syndrome at bay.

When I first started drawing, I spent a lot of time confirming that, yes, the seat of the chair is horizontal from where I’m standing, and yes, the sides are mostly vertical. It was interesting for me to realize that from where I’m standing, the chair looks very wide relative to the length of the back of the chair, for example. I know that length is greater than the width of the seat of the chair, and it’s tempting to make my drawing reflect that, but that’s not showing what I see.

I stayed for about half an hour after class, correcting, over-correcting, and re-correcting the chair legs and checking and re-checking proportions. It was completely fascinating.

Tuesday 5/29: Art People, Math People, and Expectations

My subject: a tall, top-heavy saplingWelcome to my process log for Art 160! I’m Christine Baker. I’m an Economics/Philosophy double major, and I’d probably need to finish a math major to figure out what my year technically is. If you’re one of my classmates and are trying to place me, I have chin-length brown hair and glasses, and I’m the one drawing the chair head-on.

My background with art and drawing isn’t great. I attended an elementary school with a good art program, and my middle school didn’t completely neglect arts funding, but my high school was weaker on visual arts. Regardless of the overall size and quality of the program, after about fourth grade there was definitely a sense that some people had artistic talent and some people didn’t, and if you weren’t already good there was no point in trying. I wasn’t an Art Person, though I badly envied them, and it would be best if I focused on things that I was “naturally” good at, like math and history.

I think you can tell from the scare quotes in that last paragraph that we’re headed for a revelation that anyone can (and should) learn to be better at almost anything.

There were three people that really got me thinking about the process of developing a skill.

A few years ago, I got really interested in Aristotle. All philosophy majors go through either a Plato phase or an Aristotle obsession early on; I’m no different. Aristotle’s ethical system is focused on the notion that one has a duty to develop one’s abilities and capacities in order to attain virtue and eventually eudaimonia (literally “being possessed of a good demon,” but it’s translated as either “happiness” or “thriving”). The field of eudaimonistic ethics suggests that by avoiding challenging situations that give you the ability to practice skills and virtues, you’re thwarting your ability to thrive as a human being. You might actually be making yourself a worse person.

Then there’s Salman Khan. His Khan Academy has done more to convince me that the human mind is infinitely capable of learning new skills than just about anything else. A couple of years ago, I started hearing about people learning math on his website, at what I thought were impossibly advanced ages for it—over 40, in some cases! I started to meet more and more people who’d thought they’d never learn math be genuinely excited that they understood numbers for the first time in their lives, and I began using it to help the students I tutor get math practice between sessions. I even started using it myself a bit so that I could understand the system, and I found that practicing fundamental skills deepened my understanding of more advanced concepts more than I could have imagined.

As someone who’d been diagnosed as a Math Person at a young age, I’d been indoctrinated in the notion that if you hadn’t become a Math Person by the time you started high school, there was no hope for you. Yes, to be fair, most mathematicians do their best work before the age of 25. However, some of them do some amazing and important work much later—and we’re talking about calculating tips here, not proving Fermat’s Last Theorem!

Not long ago, I started hearing some of the hype surrounding the release of the the new edition of Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I leafed through a copy of the old edition and realized that she taught drawing the way that Khan teaches math and Aristotle thought we should teach everything. I realized that I badly wanted to finally become an Art Person and that visual thinking was a skill that was sorely missing from my repertoire. I pre-ordered a copy of her book and signed up for this course.

My Squishy ArmchairSo, today I sat down with a pencil and drew my favorite chair. I was a little afraid—other people haven’t necessarily come on board with the notion that starting from where you are and deliberately practicing is a worthy activity, even if you’re a little bad at it. I was concerned that it would look like something a five year-old would draw. Still, I tried to let go of my fear and focused on the lines of the chair and the shadows that fell on it. I spent a lot of time closing one eye and using my fingers to try to see how parts of the chair related to each other, and I tried not to feel silly for acting so serious about it.

Honestly? I don’t think it’s half bad for someone who’s had as little formal art instruction as I have. The perspective is a bit off, I skipped drawing the pattern because I wanted to focus more on the overall shape, and I apparently didn’t give any thought to composition, but this does look a lot like my chair.

I also drew a tree using crayons. I’m less happy with it. I think I focused more on making it look like a pretty tree, and less on making it look like the tree in my courtyard. I do like the colors I used, though.

I’m excited to see where I can go from here.

A crayon drawing of the sapling from above