National Directory of Instructors
Word for word that's what Carol wrote in an e-mail. Amazingly, she brings up a great point: so many people feel the same way - that they never go past drawing stick figures, and they're not even sure they do those well. Ph.D's, doctors, lawyers, writer's, journalists, engineers, people who operate at a very high level of critical thinking, who use language to record and tell others what they're doing, express the same frustration. (Even "artists" - especially sculptors, "conceptual" and abstract artists - you'd be amazed how many of them, admit with embarrassment and shame at their own lack of drawing skills!)
Why is this? "It's a gift" you say? That's sure what a lot of people who can draw want non-drawers to think. But it's not true. You can learn. Allow me this luxury: let me give you in a nutshell, whether you can draw or not, your artistic history.
Drawing develops in stages, but most of us froze in the "crisis years" around age 10 or 11, when out of the blue, popularity, self image, "looking good" became frighteningly important. And if you weren't good at something, or if doing something (like drawing) brought you criticism, if it got you noticed in the wrong way, more than likely you quit doing it, remember? To this day, for some people, that's a natural reaction to trying anything new. Before that crisis time, I guarantee you, you were drawing. So lets backtrack, way back to the diaper days.
This is still the stage where everything either went in your mouth or on the floor, at age 1-2 years or so. This was the same time (at about a year and a half) you started venturing out. One day you were given, or by accident you picked up a crayon, or a pencil and were fascinated that you could leave a mark. Your mark. You were so fascinated with your new powers that pretty soon everything became your personal drawing pad. You started to make marks on everything: the wall next to your crib, the kitchen table, the freshly painted living room wall (that one might of got you in a little extra trouble). You were the original graffiti artist.
(See Kyle Kasbohm's sample of early scribble, age 18 months; Kyle resides in Minnetonka, Mn.)
These early years were an extremely fascinating time in your life. You were, while scribbling, also learning to talk. Making little noises at first, then a few words, then all of a sudden, single words gave way to whole sentences. And if you weren't talking, you were scaring your parents while you prepared a short graduation speech. (And then they could sigh in relief; There's all sorts of stories of kids who said nothing until they were almost 2 - then started talking full steam ahead with full sentences.) You'd been immersed in a "language bath" until then, and now it was time to pour some back.
A "language bath"? If you were lucky, you were surrounded by loving parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins...all smothering you with words and attention. And a whole different part of your brain began to blossom: the dawn of what some have called "left brain dominance". Before this time, (age 2 or so) before you started using language, before you actually started speaking, you probably don't remember a whole lot. (back to top)
Why? Because you didn't have words and language to reference, to bookmark if you will, your memories. Everything was recorded as sounds, pictures, images and sensations. And they're off in a part of the brain, or a mode of brain, where the currency is other than language. (Which is why relearning to use the "associative brain" is so important as an adult - but that's a whole 'nother topic down the road...if you want to read more about either of these topics, I'll be adding books to the bookstore all the time so you can explore this.) (back to top)
For a short while there you were pretty content with just scribbling. But then the next stage of your drawing career emerged. During this same "language acquisition period", you started giving your penciled or crayola-crayoned marks some meaning: circles became eyes, or heads, or mouths; little lines or hoof-looking things became fingers, hands and feet. A little bit of the imaginary world in your head began to spill out. Rather than scribble with abandon like you did when you were 18 months, you began to draw with "intention" - that is you intended, you wanted your drawings to look like something. (See Charlie's "early man" sample, 11.3k)
What was happening? In learning language you were learning to "abstract", you were putting things into categories, you were making generalizations. "Hands" have little squiggly things called "fingers" sticking out of them, feet go on the end of this sausage-kind-of-thing called a "leg" and everybody, generally speaking had these things. In both words and in what you drew, you were collapsing whole categories of experience (like figuring out "what do all hands have in common?") into a word, or a drawn symbol... Just like the ancient Greek Aristotle. Aristotle was the "king of the categories" (the big wigs in the university call it "taxonomy": the science of categorizing every dang thing under the sun. Analytic philosophy. The first four letters of that word pretty much describes the psychology of these folks - no disrespect intended.) (see my brother Charlie's sample of "symbolic drawing") (Back to top)
Abstracting is a spin-off of our ability to reason.That's "Reason" as in "Rationality" with the big "R". And though we haven't talked about "Left and Right brain" functioning here yet, suffice it to say that reasoning and rationality, language and abstraction, among other skills are considered to be "Left Brain" or "L-Mode" functions. And things like drawing, spatial relations, music, intuition, among others is considered to be "Right-Brained" or an "R-Mode" function. (This is probably nothing real new to you. If it is you'll find an explanation at "Left Brain v. Right Brain" at this site)
If we didn't learn how to "abstract", that is if we couldn't make generalities about things that are "sort of " alike, (like "hands" or "dogs" or "trees"), if we had to look at everything as if it was a totally new creation in the history of the universe, (which everything actually is) we'd never get past point "A". We'd never stop being fascinated with the world around us, and we'd be walking around blissfully stupefied or entranced all the time. (Like the the apes in "2001, a Space Odyssey", when they discovered the "monolith" - that flat black, 9 foot tall rectangular "thing".) Which might sound like fun until we find out "first hand" that it would have been much nicer to learn what a saber-tooth tiger "sorta" looked like, (so we could avoid it) rather than discovering for the first and last time exactly what a saber-toothed tiger was like.
So without the help of reason and abstraction, we'd have been lunch for saber-tooth tigers. We'd also never be able to agree that poodles, German shepherds, and huskies are all "dogs". That "man" and "woman" mean different things (when we hear the word "man" or "woman" we all picture something somewhat different than even our spouse will picture - but we can still agree what they, the words, generally mean). And that goes for every word we use! If we couldn't abstract, we'd still be in the stone ages. So thank God for the ability to "abstract". And this abstracting thing we do with language, is exactly the same abstracting we do in drawing our own symbolic version of things out there in the world.
So out of your compiled memories of hands, and faces, and dogs and cats and cars and houses, you constructed a "symbol" system. A visual "dictionary" of what those objects looked like to you, of literally your world. And, as child psychologists have pointed out fascinatingly, your relation to it. During this stage of drawing, you may have drawn your entire family, and expressed graphically your position in the pecking order. If your older brother or sister terrorized you, you drew them as giants with big teeth, and long claws grabbing at you. Your drawings told a story.
At this stage you placed a yellow round sun in the corner, maybe with rays, a house in the middle, a door with a handle, you and your family in a row, all smiling. You had a sense of order about your drawings, a natural feel for composition. You were a Leonardo da Vinci, a Picasso, and a Hemingway all rolled into one. (See my brother Chaz's age 4 drawings.)
Then came the stage of "realism" at around age 10 or 11. At this age kids don't give a hoot about being "creative". Heck no, they want their pictures to be real; they want their pictures to look like what they're drawing! Boys want their planes to look like planes, blood and guts to look like blood and guts, bombers to look fierce, and girls want their bunny rabbits, babies and angels to look soft and cuddly, rainbows nice and round and colorful. Picture composition goes out the window. Kids know at his stage there's something wrong with the old symbols, and they'll work feverishly drawing picture after picture of the same thing until they get it right. (See Patrick McGrath's of Minnetonka, Minnesota realistic masterpieces, age 10)
When Popularity Became Important.
And another thing started to occur here: kids start to develop a pretty strong self image. If they didn't add up to match that self image, well you know what happens: kids give up anything that doesn't match that self image. they get self-critical. So this is another critical period: when kids start developing a self image, and popularity becomes important. And in the case of drawing, unless the child gets, or unless you got some encouragement, you didn't continue. And you probably got little encouragement unless you did it well. So you dropped it. Quit drawing. And more than likely, you never went back to it. (back to top)
Now I'm not a psychologist, and I don't even know if I got the order exactly right - but those are essentially the facts. If you can recall or find some of your own childhood drawings, you'll see, it's true. And it doesn't matter where you grew up: Asia, Africa, Atlanta or Alaska. The stages pretty much march along in order like that...
...Unless of course you could draw great football players, cars, and rockets, (if you were a guy), or you drew hearts, rabbits and rainbows, if you were a girl. (Of course, those aren't exclusive categories, just pretty general trends.)
Curious thing is happening. Just 5 years ago graphics arts department, Advertising companies, publishers all asked this question: Can you draw on the computer? Can you do computer art? If you couldn't, they passed you by. Guess what? At a recent "Open house" at UCLA's Graphic Arts department, the number one question asked by prospective employers: advertisers, publishers, graphics companies, was not "can you draw on a computer?", it's "Can you draw?". Period. If you can, you got a job. That's just one, economic reason people might learn how to draw. And people draw for all sorts of reasons: to make money, for relaxation and renewal, for fun, even as a form of therapy. (back to top)