The Idler: Learning to See

My final semester as an undergraduate, I decided to experiment a little with my schedule. Being perhaps too bookish, I wanted to attend a course that embraced a more “hands-on” approach to learning. Looking through the schedule of classes for the semester, I settled upon a course in the Fine Arts Department entitled, “Fundamental Drawing.”

Doodling had long been a hobby of mine, and I decided that a class in drawing could not be much more difficult than my idle scribbles. I confess that part of the reason I sought out drawing was that I thought it to be an “easy” art to learn—not at all similar to, for example, learning to play a musical instrument. Endless hours of practice may be required in order to play the piano well, I thought, but how much practice could be required to draw a tree? I was to learn that drawing is not at all easy, but it was a lesson gladly taken.

Our first classes consisted of buying supplies and, for neophytes like myself, becoming accustomed to the rhythms of an art class. Art classes are different from any of the other classes normally found in college. The focus of the class is not the professor, as it is in most lectures; nor does it center on a discussion of the subject matter, as in a seminar. Drawing is between the subject and the artist (if I may so grace myself and the other beginners with that august title), with only a little guidance from the professor. In our class of 20, there were, in effect, 20 classes; each student saw the subject from a different angle, and so really had little connection with the other students.

Buying the supplies for the class was also a new experience for a college student accustomed to buying “critical editions” and bulky textbooks, although perhaps there is an echo here of grade school days, when every fall brought purchases of paste, pencils, and the other paraphernalia of the school year. I was introduced to many different types of pencils, char-coal, pads of all sizes, large erasers, and so on. Equipped with all the necessary materials to be the next Daumier or da Vinci, I strode into my first actual drawing class with all confidence.

Confidence that soon dissipated as I struggled, largely unsuccessfully, to create a recognizable figure of a pine cone on a sheet of newsprint. As the other students deftly shifted their eyes to their pad, then to the figure, and back again, forming the shape on the page, I frantically scribbled in an attempt to compensate for my lack of skill by having a larger amount of pencil marks on my page than my fellow students. What resulted was a largish mass, vaguely resembling the shape before me. I had tried to draw a pine cone, and failed.

That, my instructor explained, was my problem. I was trying to draw a pine cone, not the pine cone that was staring me in the face. I had to learn to draw what was actually there, instead of relying on any preconceived notions I had as to what a pine cone really looked like. To impress this lesson upon me and the others, we each had to stare at our assigned pine cone and draw another picture of it—without looking at our drawing. This is a technique called “blind contour.” The person drawing concentrates solely on the outlines of the shape in front of him and allows his hand to be moved by the contours of the object. I was not exactly adept at this technique either, but after some practice, I saw the point behind the exercise: I began to see shapes for what they were, instead of what I supposed them to be. I had to disregard the Platonic “Form” (as it were) of a pine cone that I had in my head, and instead apprehend the physical reality of my individual subject.

To see things as they really are—I would not have thought at first that philosophical reflection would involve itself with an introductory drawing class, but there it was. In practice, there were several techniques to which our instructor introduced us, in addition to “blind contour,” that

helped us to see the real object before us. Those techniques included shading in a silhouette of the object (a “positive shape”), and shading in everything on the page that was not the object (a “negative shape”). For all of these exercises, the goal was the same: to see truly what we were looking at, and to learn not to be distracted by our own ideas of what the object should look like.

As the class progressed and we advanced from pine cones to more difficult objects like chairs and bicycles, we were introduced to new principles, such as proportion and angle. We learned “tricks of the trade” on how to measure lengths and angles without any instrument but a pencil, and also began toying with perspective in order to represent three-dimensional figures on a two-dimensional plane. I learned that drawing takes an enormous amount of concentration and precision. (As one artist famously put it, “drawing is the probity of art.”) I also discovered a joy not found in idle doodling: my drawings began to represent real objects.

This instruction affected my behavior outside of class as well. I now saw everything as a possible subject: trees, the chapel on campus, people. Things I had seen a hundred times now came into sharp focus—I noticed angles, proportions, juxtapositions that I had previously taken for granted. I found myself imagining objects from different perspectives and angles, wondering how they could be replicated in a drawing. This approach is a shock for one accustomed to a more literary way of thinking, and it opened up a whole aspect of the world for me.

I had always been something of a philistine when it came to the fine arts; while I always “knew” what made a painting or a sculpture beautiful, I would have had a hard time explaining its qualities to someone else. That situation, thanks to my hands-on experience with the effort and precision that go into drawing, has changed for the better. Just as I am a better reader of books because I have some small experience in writing, I now have better understanding of other arts because of my introduction to drawing.

In his Path to Rome, Belloc says that, among other things, a man should be able to draw, and perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s writing and Churchill’s statesmanship were both improved by their amateur forays into painting. Knowledge of the plastic arts opens our minds to concrete form and gives us the ability to approach the things of life as real, in both an intellectual and a tactile sense. Learning to draw required the use of my intellect to follow the rules of drawing, so that out of my experience of the object before me, I might construct a reasonable replica of that object. The art of drawing, then, reflects a sound philosophy: uniting reason and experience in order to receive the truth of the world before us. Learning to draw is learning to see what is.


  • Gerald J. Russello

    Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

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