“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended , directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large – this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone”
– Aldus Huxley
The Doors of Perception
The next day I was in Penzance and eagerly continued reading ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ which I had started the night before in a pub in Truro. Betty Edwards was promising me great things with regards drawing, principally that “Drawing is not really very difficult. Seeing is the problem…” and that she wasn’t going to teach me how to draw, but rather, how to see. I was ready for my first assignment which was to document my current level of drawing ability:
“A picture of someone – the head only”
As I was sat in a B&B, in front of a mirror, a quick self-portrait seemed to be the best option.
“Draw a picture of a person without looking at anyone”
“Draw a picture of your own hand”
“Draw a picture of a chair”
This is one of those wicker chairs with a thin cushion on top found only in B&Bs.
So, reference pieces done, I settled down to learn the secrets of seeing….
And then it’s the 9th February 2016 and I’m at a loose end in Truro one late afternoon, in that strange time in between arriving some where new and settling in to the groove and geography of the place. I’m wandering, as I usually do when I arrive in a strange town, up alley, down street. Stare in windows, map the town in my head, pick out likely places to eat and drink. Down one of those streets I found an Oxfam bookshop. I duck into the shop, half to warm up from the chill outside and half to browse the books and CDs and records that I know will be inside. I knew I’d hit gold when I found Dire Straits ‘On Every Street’, their last album, on CD, for just a couple of quid. Moving round the shop I also picked up a paperback of James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’. I’d heard it was a classic and looked forward to a good read. Although I did discover a couple of weeks later that it wasn’t an entirely accurate depiction of modern day Dublin life. Oh no, the streets may be the same, the cabs may now be self-powered rather than horse drawn and the tram may have returned to the city but sure as sure can be, nobody wears hats anymore!
I spent some time browsing the old 19th century and early 20th century books they had on display before finding myself at the Art section, and that pull, that tweak, that twinge was still there. I still wanted to draw. My eyes fell upon a pair of hardback books on the shelf – ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ by Betty Edwards. Intrigued I pulled one of the copies off the shelf and started leafing through, absolutely fascinating reading – she agreed with Oliver James. or I should say Oliver James agreed with her as this book was over 25 years old and was a revision of her 1979 original version. Anyone can draw. That was the claim laid down in this book and there were ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples to ‘prove’ it.
How could I not be persuaded by these examples? Those ‘before’ images were light years in advance of mine, and the ‘after’ images, some just a few days or weeks after the former had been drawn, seemed to me to be almost miraculous advancements. So I added this £2.49 book to my pile of charity shop bargains and headed to the pub.
Fast forward to December 2015 and I’m reading a book by Oliver James – ‘They F**k You Up / How To Survive Family Life’. James’s contention through this book is that many attributes and issues we have and suffer from in adult life are little to do with genetics (i.e. ‘nature’) but can be shown to be caused by the interaction (i.e. ‘nurture’) of our parents and carers in the critical first few months and years of our lives. He draws on a number of studies of twins to ‘prove’ that if many of the issues and attributes were genetic then both twins in an genetically identical pair of twins should show the same outcomes – which the studies disprove.
His contention is then that if government funding were diverted from the prison and justice system to build a family support system then many of the problems we face today could be alleviated by supporting families in this critical stage of development and thus prevent anti-social behaviours developing. Unfortunately current ‘right-wing’ thinking prescribes to the theory of Eugenics which is essentially poor people are poor because that’s the way they are – it’s in their genes, ditto for criminals and intelligence and art and music. You either have it or you don’t. There’s no room for real meritocracy in modern day Britain.
So the spark that fired for me was that art and music and intelligence are not genetic, or at least they may be a small part genetic, but are mostly learnt behaviours. Artists and musicians are not great because they are genetically gifted, they are great because they were and are obsessed with the thing they are great at and have therefore put in many thousands of hours practicing and developing and training in that thing at which they are great.
Take a look at this picture – the proportions of the head are wrong, the fingers too – now what if told you this is a Van Goch? He only started drawing and painting in the last ten years of his life and there are many examples such as this practice piece where he sometimes gets it wrong. So, if Van Goch can learn how to draw, why couldn’t I?
If only things were so simple – I found the drawing book again, grabbed some pencils and sat down to draw. First I tried to draw the nearest thing to hand – the cover illustration of ‘The Story of the Heart’ by Roger J Woolger.
Even if you’re not familiar with the book you can probably guess that the heart design pictured here bears no resemblance to the illustration I was attempting to copy. Ok, so let’s try again, let’s go wild with some colours.
A sailing ship – fail, a tree – fail, a bird – fail, a stylised tribal turtle – hmm, ok not bad. Defeated I resorted to colouring in random shapes to calm my mind and try and forget about the whole drawing thing again.
September 2015 – I’ve always been envious of those that could draw and paint and ‘do’ art and music. Feel the art and feel the music where I can ‘only’ appreciate it but never participate in it. I thought that was my lot, to stand apart and watch. I have always wanted and wished I could draw, never more so as my daughter becomes more and more proficient with still life and characters she imagines as she is heading towards high grades in her Art GCSE this year. The art supplies shop in town is one of her favourite places to browse and dream of different colour pens and different pencils and on one of the visits I sought her recommendation for a small sketch book and the right grade of pencil (HB) and a pencil sharpener although I know I have several of those tucked away in drawers and boxes around the house. And from that shop we headed to our favourite corner of the nearby pub and sat and drew. and then, as I drew and became more frustrated with my images lacking any relationship to reality I once again wished I had the ‘drawing gene’, the gift of the artist, the ability to render what I see to paper in a faithful reproduction.
The beer glass, as I later found out, wasn’t drawn by the eye but was a left brain symbol for a beer glass, an ellipse or two and some straight lines.
And then I drew the dog that was lying in front of me – I just copied what I saw line by line, or edge by edge to use the artistic term, and for whatever reason it just worked.
Emboldened by the sudden glimpse of what could be possible, I upped the ante and went for some dramatic figures.
The figures, ah, the human form totally eluded me.
The beer glass I could almost get away with, symbolic shapes almost in perspective. But the human form, from imagination, was just beyond me. I had drawn a 10 year old’s representation of the human form or was a younger representation than that? This was the age something or someone had persuaded my left brain that I couldn’t draw, couldn’t accurately represent 3D space in a drawing. In art. And so I had stopped, and this was a legacy of that time. A representation of what I wanted to draw but from the time I stopped drawing. Confirmation enough that I couldn’t draw. And so I stopped. Again.