You wake up in the morning, you open your eyes, and you start to have experiences. These experiences may be very ordinary — your cat jumps on your chest on her way to her food bowl, you fry an egg — or you can learn something that cracks your entire world open.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — that the need to function and be sane in this world requires us to filter out almost all the sensory information we receive. We make our mental maps, we basically follow them, and this is how it should be.
The really way-out-of-the-ordinary we note and respond to, but the little bits of ambiguous evidence that could actually point to the fissures leading to the world to crack open…those are discarded along with most of the rest of the actually unimportant. This is what Virginia Woolf called “the cotton wool of daily life.”
In fact, daily life isn’t anything close to cotton wool, but if we saw everything that there is to see, we’d be off rocking in a corner or loading our pockets with stones lickety-damned-split.
Still, I think it’s better to be awake than asleep, better to see what’s there, better to know the world is ending if it has to do that.
One way to pierce the cotton wool, at least visually, is to learn to draw. This has been my project these past few months, and I have a long way to go.
Let me say now, there is nothing as humbling as learning to draw as an adult, realizing that my hand refuses to follow my eye. Some of that is just my brain making its new connections, and I can feel them forming slowly in my brain.
But I’ve also been struck by the deeper issue here. People who really know drawing have explained to me that being able to copy what you see is not really the issue. It’s about first see what’s actually there, specifically instead of generally. Not just summarizing: cat, chair, egg. But getting very specific about the black cat with the three legs and the heart condition, the chair that swivels, the brown egg.
And then it’s about interpreting what you see, understanding that drawing is putting marks on a surface to represent experience and more of an investigation of what you’re observing.
I copied this into my sketchbook the other day, from a book by Ron Bowen called Drawing Masterclass.
Our sense of the way we understand is that a kind of form shapes itself around our experience, in which all our observations make sense.
Drawing is the attempt to capture that form, and that context.