Drawing and Observation

I used to believe that learning to draw generally made me a better observer.  I no longer believe this.

In a literal sense, learning to draw does improve visual observation, because it improves one’s ability to appreciate shape, style, value, intensity, hue, and other visual characteristics.  After sketching something in the field, especially from multiple angles, one gains an almost eidetic memory of it.  And learning to draw what is seen helps to break the tendency to stereotype.

However, I no longer believe (in my own case, at least) that this improvement transfers to anything other than visual observation.

I arrived at this conclusion about two weeks after starting guitar:  I was driving home from work one day when I realized that my musical taste had changed:  in the span of two weeks, I had gone from listening indiscriminately to whatever was on the local/satellite radio to listening almost exclusively to classical and bluegrass music on Pandora, which I previously couldn’t even tolerate!  Now, I can listen to almost anything and experience a much greater level of appreciation and understanding than before I started learning an instrument.

In hindsight, the reason is clear:  by attempting to play an instrument, by struggling to produce musical sounds, I began to appreciate what goes into creating music.  In some sense, I was going through the same struggles the musicians on the radio went through years or decades ago, and I suddenly understood.  Classical music, bluegrass, and other styles were no longer foreign but fascinating.  I finally had a useful frame of reference.

Learning to produce music is all about observing deeply, about paying attention, and about letting yourself experience its beauty.

The same experience is true of drawing, painting, medicine, mathematics, computer science, travel, parenthood (so my friends with kids say!), or other fields of endeavor.  It’s often impossible to genuinely appreciate something until you’ve thoughtfully “been there, done that.”  You begin to understand, and this improves your ability to observe.*

*Update 6/14/15: could this phenomenon be related to mirror neurons?

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2 thoughts on “Drawing and Observation

  1. I just stumbled upon your blog. I’m enjoying your reflections and entries. A lot of it I can relate to. I’m currently a pgy3 internal medicine resident at UT Houston. The past two years have passed with a self imposed creative embargo, but I’m just now opening up to my right brain again and keeping a journal of this reconnection. I just held a figure drawing workshop in our med school’s anatomy lab last week.

    I’ve had my doubts about drawing and its benefits beyond art. But I’ve concluded that it has, for me, made me a better observer. As the saying goes, the eye doesn’t see what the mind doesn’t know; a deep appreciation for visual elements (shape, intensity, form etc.) has lead me to savoring details about the verdancy of a salad (I otherwise wouldn’t want to eat), or the difference in candy coat out metallic paint on a car, or the rash that looks like a tiny space colony on a patient’s thigh. I definitely agree that the practice of drawing what you see is a powerful exercise in minimizing stereotyping. Yes these are all bonus points to visual observation, but I would argue that visual observation is the most important subset of being an observant individual. Take body language, for instance, and the greater weight it has in conveying information versus the word spoken.

    I’ll concede that being observant is something that takes time, practice, and mindfulness. I have a habit of seeing the things and people around me as subjects that I’m drawing or plan to draw.

    Interestingly, I also recently took up guitar, mostly teaching myself from YouTube. I definitely feel more connected to music and can appreciate genres that didn’t suit me before.

    1. Thanks for the incredibly thoughtful comment! Also, congrats on becoming actively creative and making it a social activity. Your artwork is very impressive!

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