Drawing in order to see.

Drawing can teach us how to see.  John Ruskin’s work first introduced me to this idea years ago and  since then it’s become a mantra in all the drawing classes I’ve been to.  It’s been in my mind a lot lately, and led me to discover the Ruskin Teaching collection at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, online at http://is.gd/XRHATO

I’m intrigued by the way in which the act of sketching gradually unwraps the object in question. In the effort to draw something, more and more becomes visible. It was only through drawing the teasels  in the garden  that I came to appreciate the beautiful design of the leaves; like folded paper boats with the stem as a majestic mast, each catching little pools of water to entice  passing traffic to stop a while.

Sketching the squash that is taking over my garden fence similarly revealed another previously unrecognised design; the joints are like major road junctions with flowers, fruit and tendrils all emerging from the same area.squash These sorts of details don’t immediately strike me. I have to look ‘properly’, and that is what sketching involves.  But there is always more!  There is a step beyond, where I stop trying to faithfully reproducing every leaf or junction, but convey what I have understood with simplified marks.  First I have to see it, then draw it, then discover how it really looks and redraw until I have ‘got it’. Next I need to digest this knowledge and draw whatever it is simply, economically, authentically, symbolically.


There’s a similar process in writing, but I wouldn’t have framed it in this way without the sketching link. I’m thinking here about the various characters in my fiction writing. First I have to get to know them, and as I note down their story I find out more about their families, their relationships, their history, geography, and culture. I discover how they look, what clothes they like to wear, and how they speak. I’m creating a drawing and discovering all sorts of details that I didn’t know when I first began to write.

Then as they become life- like and substantial, I have to condense all this information into one or two phrases, or even words. Every time they enter the scene I can’t regurgitate all the information I have about them and expect to keep the story alive. Writing ‘The Wednesday Group’ largely rests on dialogue – it’s supposed to be a psychotherapy group, after all! That’s what we do – we sit in a circle and talk, hopefully to each other! Learning how each of the characters speaks and then capturing it in the writing is the key requirement here.

Perhaps as young children we can see more of the complexity. As we grow we have to learn to condense and simplify in order to create a manageable pathway through our experiences. We learn shortcuts and often lose the wonder in the process. There’s another article brewing here about short cuts in therapy, but that’s for later.  Right now it feels good to be back at the beginning stage, rediscovering what is in front of my eyes … if only I go and find my sketchbook!


2 thoughts on “Drawing in order to see.

  1. Chris Post author

    I don’t know very much about Ruskin, but I wonder if he was far more comfortable with relationships of form, tone and colour than he was with people?

  2. General Reader

    Thanks for reminding me about this idea of Ruskin’s. I think it’s a very simple but profound notion. I remember reading that when he taught at Oxford he was keen to encourage as many students as possible to attend his drawing classes, regardless of their ability. This was so they would at least get the gist of his message and appreciate the world around them more. Unfortunately it seems his classes weren’t that well attended!

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