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

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One response »

  1. Can you expand on this: …”she taught drawing the way that Khan teaches math and Aristotle thought we should teach everything.” by explaining what you mean? How would you define this particular “way”? (I mean this isn’t for credit, it’s just for me)

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