What We Think About When We Draw

Woebegone Golden RetreiverA friend has just asked me, “when you want to improve your drawing, where do your thoughts go?” making me consider that a) I try not to think too much when I draw, as this could lead to writing and b) I really should think more about this and try to understand what drawing is, and how to improve a seemingly organic process.

I can clearly remember the moment I began trying to draw well. I was three years old and covering a sheet of paper with doodles of sheep. And suddenly I realized that there was more to drawing sheep than making clouds with legs…and that’s when the aspiration to drawing better began. I’m not sure, but I think there might have been a trip to a petting zoo just before the “aha” moment.

Touch Plays A Starring Role

Sketch from Rome
Which brings me to the subject of touch. One very strong connection in drawing for me is tactile. Have you considered that when you touch or pick something up, you create a three dimensional memory of it? And having the experience of holding an object gives you a clearer understanding of the shape, texture, and even the temperature of it, to where you can visualize it so much better when you are drawing it? When I was a kid I kept pet chickens and carried them around like cats, which formed the basis of bird drawing. I groomed horses and handled birds of prey. When you do that, you understand their shapes and volumes. Touch is to drawing like smell is to tasting.

Food and Wine in Florence
Here’s a simple experiment and exercise to improve your sense memory, and your drawing: choose a simple object to draw, one that you can touch or hold. Set it in front of you and draw it. Now, pick it up. Feel its weight, run your fingers over and around it, experience the surface texture, the diameter, any edges or details. Put it down, close your eyes and relive the experience of handling it. Open your eyes, look at the object, and draw it again. Do you understand your subject better now, and can you find the contours, edges and volume in a way that you couldn’t before?

4 thoughts on “What We Think About When We Draw

  1. Annie says:

    There you have it – in (, around, and over) a nutshell! What a thoughtful way you have of expressing the thinking-free state of drawing! I was always impressed with Nicolaides’ advice on contour drawing: “Do not begin until you are CONVINCED that your pencil is touching the model.” Not long after I became a mother, I visited a Chinese pottery exhibit and realized I suddenly loved three dimensional art in a new and gripping way, after carrying my little child around for months. Thanks for sharing your beautiful artwork and entertaining/profound blog!

  2. Mary says:

    interesting question to think about–do i think about anything when i draw? i think i draw to experience the moment of noticing, of experiencing, not thinking…and i love the previous comment–how lovely to experience 3-dimensional art differently as the result of holding your child! art is really more about experiencing and being open than knowing or even thinking, perhaps. when you’re drawing or painting or creating in any way, isn’t it more about the process, the doing than what happens in the end?

  3. Nach says:

    I’m with Annie: thanks for this nice blog.
    On the other hand I think about as any other manual activity: concentrate on what you are doing. But the distractions make the art too!

    There is a spanish philosopher (Santiago Gago) that maintains a theory called “deponencia ontonoética” which describes the artist’s rol as a medium. A superior entity/level (divinity/status) “uses” the artist to express. The artist is a communication chanel between 2 realities. I’m sure there are a lot of theories about your question. It has crumb.

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