Updated: Jun 19
...and why would you want to?
Clue: It's all about observation and perception.
It’s not news that many renowned artists have been inspired and influenced by children’s art. Picasso famously said, ‘When I was the age of these children, I could draw like Raphael. It took me many years to learn how to draw like these children.’
I didn’t realise, though, how far back you can find serious thinkers and artists appreciating the honesty and immediacy of children’s work until I read this article, (https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/why-we-need-to-take-child-art-seriously) explaining the reasoning behind the third Royal Academy’s Young Artists Summer Show (London, 13th July - 8th August).
’If you dig even a little into the history of art, though, you will find a long line of artists who have admired and been inspired by the unique perspective of children and their work.
Let’s go back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when Romantics such as the painter Caspar David Friedrich and writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge promoted the idea that children could see the ‘truth of nature’ thanks to their ‘naive’ perspective on the world. In John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing (1857) he encouraged artists to maintain an “innocence of the eye”, a freshness of vision that he called the “condition of childhood”.’
And this brings me neatly to the point that I had it in mind to write about this week - observation and perception - continuing on the theme of Life Lessons from the Studio.
The thing that young children’s art has, above all, is engagement. But it is not engagement with ‘getting it right’ in the normally expected way. It is about being wholly involved in the task of putting down their experience of whatever it is that they are depicting. And that experience also includes whatever it is that they perceive as being most significant at that point in time.
Sadly something else usually kicks in at around 8 or 9 years old, when they become more aware of ‘shoulds' and ‘oughts,’ and start trying to do things the ‘proper’ way.
As Picasso realised, it takes a lot of undoing to break out of that kind of mindset, and I’m sure that part of his unlearning it came about from his interest in the art of other cultures, where artifice was subsidiary to integrity.
The original prompt for this blog was something that happened in the studio last week.
The painting that I have been working on for some weeks now has been giving me a lot of trouble. It feels as though the struggle I’ve been having is mirroring the old tree’s battle to survive over the centuries, the battles that her intertwining limbs and many textures bear witness to. I just didn’t seem to be able to ‘get it,’ and was getting myself ever more mired in difficulty. I should, at this point, make it clear that I was using a very schematic mono-print that I'd made of the tree as the basis of the painting. In the end, in utter frustration I decided to scroll through my photographs to find the original inspiration for the mono-print that I'd made and that was when I realised that I had missed a really significant nuance when I’d done the original drawing.
I had assumed that two of the branches that embrace the main trunk of the tree wrapped themselves around her independently. In reality, there are several points at which they are inextricably connected.
That simple observation - or, should I say, mis-observation - made all the difference. The whole balance of the composition suddenly changed as soon as I connected those two branches.
It’s things like this that make art wholly relevant to life in general. The difference between mediocre and excellent lies in the nuances and we only pick up on the nuances when we take the trouble to observe carefully and this is why I think that drawing is so crucial.
So at this point I’d like to introduce you to a little exercise that anyone can do, even if you don’t consider yourself to be an artist, and especially if you think you can’t draw. (If you have worked with me you will know about this, but I’m guessing it’s not something you’ve actually done in a while - even though I did suggest that you make it a daily practice!)
The exercise is called Pure Contour Drawing. You’ll find out how to do it in the box below. You’ll be surprised to learn that it is really more of an exercise in observation and mindfulness than a drawing technique, and your final drawing is very likely to bear very little resemblance to the thing that you are drawing. That is not what’s important. The experience of doing the exercise is what matters. I hope, too, that if you do do this you will be able to carry something of the experience over into your everyday life.
How to do Pure Contour Drawing - even if you're not an artist
Believe it or not, for this exercise you are going to be doing a drawing without looking at the paper that you are working on because your whole attention is going to be directed at the subject of your drawing.
You are going to be able to drop all expectations of yourself when you do this, because you can be sure, from the outset, that your drawing is highly unlikely to look accurate.
So why, I hear you ask, should you do this? Isn’t representation the whole point of drawing? Well, yes and no, but that is a discussion for another day. The thing that I would like to impress on you today is that a good drawing has all the marks of careful observation. Think of a caricaturist, for instance. The drawing is not accurate, but the artist has observed something about the features of the person that are what make that individual unique - the particular shape of the nose, for instance, or the angle of the eyes.
Drawing without looking at the paper is an excellent way of honing your observation skills. This is how to do it.
You will need to set aside at least 30 minutes when you will not be interrupted or disturbed. Make sure to turn of your phone or leave it in another room so that you won’t be distracted by anything coming in. The materials you will need are simple - paper or sketchbook, pencil and some tape if you are working on a sheet of paper.
If you are right-handed you are going place your sketchbook or paper to the right of you on your work table. If you are left-handed, put it on the left. If you are working on a sheet of paper, tape it to the table so that it won’t move while you are working.
Now you are going to place your other hand on the other side of the table, in a place that is going to make it impossible for you to look at the paper while you are looking at the hand. Find an interesting pose for that hand, and make sure it is one that you are going to be able to hold for about half an hour.
You are going to aim at drawing uninterruptedly for half an hour…!
Once you have everything in position, look at your hand and decide where you want to start with the drawing. Now set the tip of your pencil at a suitable place on the paper that will make it possible for you to work without going off the paper.
So, now you are all set. Good. Turn your head towards your hand and start drawing the contours of your hand. Work VERY SLOWLY, and pay careful attention to every tiny change of direction, every little dip or rise of the skin or flesh. Move your pencil slowly, allowing it to match the slow movement of your eyes as they pick up every subtle nuance of the shape of your hand, Carry on working like this until you have drawn the whole hand.
AT NO POINT DURING THIS PROCESS SHOULD YOU LOOK AT THE PAPER UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED THE DRAWING.
This is an exercise that requires a lot of concentration and it is quite likely that you will not be able to work at it for the full half hour to begin with. At the end of each session, make a note on the drawing of how long you have spent on it. Be patient with yourself and keep repeating the exercise to build up your stamina. You do not have to draw your hand each time. I have done this exercise with all kinds of objects - pine cones, dried rose flowers, gnarled pieces of wood - but do choose things that have interesting and fairly complex contours that will challenge your observational skills.
Keep all your drawings. You may not think much of them today, but when you look back at them with fresh eyes after a few weeks or months, you will perceive them in quite a different way.
The next stage in honing your drawing and observational skills will be learning how to do a Modified Contour Drawing.
Oh, and one last word before I go. I have finally opened a shop on my website. At the moment there is only a small selection of my works on display there, but over the next few weeks I will be adding more. You can check it out here: https://www.marylynnestadler.com/shop
I hope you will enjoy a visit.