I must have been fourteen. School was closed for summer vacation and the pink thunder lilies in our garden at home had just flowered after the first showers. My mother brought one flower inside, placed it in a glass vase with a little water and asked me to draw and paint it. After initially protesting that it was too difficult for me to draw something “real”, especially transparent glass and water, I grew irritated that my mother could throw such a huge challenge upon me. With a sweet firmness that can only come from a mother, she convinced me to try. I made an earnest attempt but it looked messy and awful to me. I threw my brush, fussed and cried. This kind of drawing was no fun. I felt defeated, not uplifted. My mother sat me down and explained that I needed to keep drawing everyday to get better at it and must not expect immediate results. But this never-ending everyday seemed daunting and pointless to my fourteen year old mind.
Most art institutions insist on rigorous practice of drawing from life everyday, much to the dislike of students who would rather spend their time experiencing the new found freedom of college-life, fashion, friends, movies and so on. Anything that remotely resembles the mundane routine of homework, submissions and accountability seems school-ish, and is detested.
Image: Untitled (Feet) by Andy Warhol, 1958, Ballpoint pen on paper
There could be another reason for the resistance to draw from observation, especially when it hasn’t been a part of a child’s learning practice. Drawing make us feel vulnerable, even deceived because of our inability to recreate what we see, with likeness. Children are willing and enthusiastic about drawing from observations without any inhibitions till the time they are around nine or ten. As they approach their teens, they notice the difference when what they draw doesn’t look much like what they see. The unrealistic desire for creating a perfect picture combined with impatience to develop skills and appreciation of the process, discourages them from drawing.
There is something captivating about an image emerging as we draw. We spend more time looking at the drawing rather than the thing we are meant to observe. It is useful to spend time observing before we begin our mark-making. This method of drawing creates an intimate and specific understanding about a subject, based on evidence rather than our generic knowledge about it. For example, we all might be familiar with the chair we sit on everyday and we may draw it from a generic perspective but we may not have paid attention to the proportion of the thickness of its legs to the thickness of its seat.
Life drawing from observation not only enables us to recreate the world as we see it, but also questions our perception of its specific experiences. It demands examining ratios, proportions, spatial dynamics as well as the relationships between different entities. Anything that is visible around us can become a subject to be studied and drawing can provide indicators to assess our observations.
The practice of drawing keeps reminding us that our observations have flaws, that what we think we know may not be accurate or even true. Drawing teaches us— the more we observe and draw, the more room we discover for self-critique and learning. We get used to the discomfort of being unclear, and less insistent on singular viewpoints.
In this age of automatic responses, nuanced personal perspectives are getting drowned out by the cacophony of programmed voices. This breeds a far more dangerous vulnerability to deception than if we would muster the courage to draw what we really see.
(The writer is an artist and currently a fellow at the Azim Premji Foundation working in Yadgir, Karnataka. Views expressed in the article are personal.)
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