On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Design & Art

Drawing on Reality

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.


2 thoughts on “Drawing on Reality

  1. Alison–

    A few lines above reminded me of this William Stafford poem:

    A Ritual To Read To Each Other

    If you don’t know the kind of person I am
    and I don’t know the kind of person you are
    a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
    and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

    For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
    a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
    sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
    storming out to play through the broken dyke.

    And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
    but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
    I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
    to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

    And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
    a remote important region in all who talk:
    though we could fool each other, we should consider–
    lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

    For it is important that awake people be awake,
    or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
    the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
    should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

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