The Hemoclysmic Atrocitologist

I am presently listening to an audiobook, Steven Pinker's, The Better Angels of Our Nature. I hate audiobooks. I didn't expect to hate them, I started with The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt and things started well as the audio reader had perfect pronunciation of the Italian names. But I was lulled by a silver tongued Italian, soon I found that I couldn't remember anything that I had heard. Hearing a sentence spoken I can't see it sitting between my ears and so I can't savour the idea and breadth of the thought. Unless I am extremely quick to hit PAUSE, more and more words tumble out at me. Pinker's long and dense book is exactly the kind of book I love, that is, when it has pages and page numbers and actual words sitting together forming sentences.

Audiobooks also let you do something else instead of sitting your ass down crushed beneath an 800 page book, but this multitasking thing we are all doing more of is actually not something we humans are very good at.

I do love words but I live on pictures and these posts are as much about me drawing some conclusions as they are about just drawing.

Words are tricky, they lead us down twisting paths, bristling with half cooked intentions nestled in a sticky sauce of meaning. Words appear to say what they mean but they help us to hide and run ducking our heads behind tropes and shrubs.

Pictures are different. They are intentioned through design and colour to have an intrinsic meaning. Less slippery slope than words but not completely a picnic in the park. My aim in these posts is to explore the MAKING of pictures and the MEANING of pictures, as they can not be separated.

And this returns me to the audiobook, made with all the same words as a book but lacking the visual, tangible form that gives words meaning to me.

A Rabidly Changing Environment

It's time for the visual tweet, of the hand drawn variety. If we can get the world drawing just think how cool it would be to send visual messages that are truly personal.  Erik Kessels emailed me info about his latest installation at Foam(Photography Museum Amsterdam), he printed the amount of photographs uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours (1 million) and has loaded them into the museum space. His installation photo shows his daughter floating in a sea of images.

Photos and HD video are now becoming standard on phones and the growth of tablets will contribute to new ways of communicating. Drowning in hi-res pictures of every angle of our world, a simply drawn visual message might just be the most novel old idea ever. At least the rates of carpal tunnel syndrome would go down. 

1 + 1 = 1

Math is a lot like drawing. Both disciplines involve pattern recognition. Both have simple approaches that lead to breathtaking complexity and both are ill-served by a mind numbing emphasis on formulaic techniques.

Recently, I was following a thread about math education in the U.S. and the debate about how best to teach it and I found the following essay. (link)

Brooklyn math teacher Paul Lockhart in 2008 wrote ‘A Mathematician’s Lament’, an angry diatribe aimed at the system of mathematics education used in elementary and high schools.

“… if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child's natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn't possibly do as good a job as is currently being done — I simply wouldn't have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.”

He introduces his essay with a fictive ‘nightmare’ scenario involving music and then art as if they were taught as math is presently taught. He repeats the same story for music then art and I suspect his purpose is to link math to art and music as art ‘forms’. Lockhart believes math is ‘the purest of the arts’ and despite his passionate argument, the proof he provides is unconvincing and narrow.


I do agree with Lockhart’s opinions about math education, but I have my own lament to put forth about art education. This evening, my 12 year old son was working on a project that is forcing him to use a brush and paint, which he assured me he HATED. I watched as he scrabbled the brush in various directions to create a garbled mess of a line. He ranted at the brush and I encouraged him to keep going. Next, using it like his beloved ballpoint pen, he scraped it sideways creating a stuttered, broken line—definitely not what he wanted.


He HATES the brush because it isn’t a pen or a coloured pencil. If we take the colour mixing and paint viscosity out of the equation, we are left with the brush and the hand. The brush is a paint delivery device and one brush does not do it all. He actually started with a synthetic w/c brush and it was horrible, depositing the tempera paint in 2 gloppy ridges with a translucent middle. Switching to a flat bristle, the forked ends of the bristle acted as a trowel to load the line with paint—much better. Now the hand was more difficult. He draws with pens and pencils and uses a lot of pressure, which when you substitute a brush into this—no happiness ensues. So I showed him how to PULL the brush to help unload the paint in an even layer. But it is difficult to move the hand to keep the brush perpendicular to the line painted when you feel the familiar tug of the pen and the opposite movement of the hand.


Learning to use a brush is tough, but if we can learn to balance on 2 thin tires, gripping handlebars with white knuckles while pedaling like mad. Then maybe all we need is proof that this 'new thing' will actually take us somewhere.

The Brain Formula

 I have complained in an earlier post that visual language has been ill served by a primary and secondary school educational environment that values the literal and the literary. But where does one go to repair your visual self. Evidently into the waiting arms of an expert who can neatly sum up a series of exercises, steps, activities or techniques that will make you a whole brain thinker, a change agent or for FREE--measure your creativity.

The Left Brain/Right Brain fairytale as told by Betty Edwards in her book, Drawing on the Right side of the Brain, has cute talking hemispheres and pseudo-scientific jargon that misidentifies the problems of a failing educational system as an issue of our split brains. I suggest a reading of Norman Doidge's book, The Brain That Changes Itself--on the amazing neuroplasticity of our brains as an antidote.

Schools teach reading, writing, math, science and many teach music, but where is drawing--actually teaching it. I think it is a fundamental communication tool that could make school more relevant. We teach literary tropes and metaphor but we ignore the power of interpreting our world from perception to conception to realization. Now there's a sense of accomplishment a kid could build upon.



A Recovering Realist

Filmmaker Errol Morris is the author of 'Believing is Seeing'. His book was reviewed by Kathryn Schulz in the NYTimes recently and this led me to an interview on YouTube-‘Recovering Reality’ from the Columbia Journalism Review.

 The book, 'Believing is Seeing', focuses on truth and photography and it is apt that the best unintended review of the book is Morris talking about history, journalism and photography in the YouTube interview above.  He is very interested in the question of what we see and don’t see in a photograph.

 Errol Morris directed the documentaries, A Thin Blue Line and Fog of War. 

 When I draw a person using powdered charcoal embedded in clay on the surface of a paper, no one is fooled into believing that they are seeing reality. Isn’t the whole point of the exercise to offer an interpretation? If we ignore for the time being a photographic approach to a drawing and just get to the point of an actual photograph—we discover some interesting differences between my drawing and the photograph.

A photograph is a thing—an object or piece of the ‘real’ and an image as well. It serves up a delicious double serving of visual sensation and recognition.  The drawing demands an effort of inquiry and knowledge that excludes the simple and straightforward. 

But what about truth? The photograph is by its very nature further from truth than drawing because the photograph appears true. A drawing is always an interpretation of its subject, but a photograph can be an actual subject or a constructed interpretation of the subject—we can never be sure.

Here are a couple of people I drew attempting to stand in a space I constructed for them on the paper.

Back Story

 Drawing from the model is always perfectly flawed. Real people move and breathe and carry all sorts of baggage. I found out later that each of these models made their living from dance--but very different genres.

Toil Tales

Moving some materials in my studio today, I came across a portfolio stuffed with a variety of figure drawings. Looking at them now--some done years ago, I remember that each of the drawings was done for a reason, or I suspect that these particular drawings escaped the culling of numerous studio moves because they weren't examples of just the repetitive toil of figure drawing--they actually had something to say.

The 2 above are both Italian girls, one in studio and the other a finished piece inspired by a quick sketchbook drawing. There is something about Florence that brings out the cross hatch in you (especially if you sit indoors slavishly drawing freckles), don't miss the cobbled streets alive with the ink slashes and swirls of ragazzi e ragazze.

Drawing is active experimentation, creative problem solving and risk taking that should be running kicking and screaming from convention, technique and mastery. The problem with figure drawing is that conventions, technique and mastery become the ONE answer to a question that isn't even done being asked.


Lies My Brain Told Me

Scientific American Mind magazine's July/August issue has an article by Valerie Ross that looks at the problem of untelling a lie. It seems our brain is hard-wired for 'first impressions' and information that we later discover is false still lingers and can affect our judgement.

This holds true for drawing as well. There is an online epidemic of methods, techniques and How To's for making terrible art. Follow the steps, watch the online tutorial and at the end you have pictures that look like they were made by 'Slap Chops'. 

My first impression/introduction to life drawing was through a course that used a book called 'The Natural Way to Draw'. I read a recent review of Kimon Nicolaides, 'The Natural Way to Draw'--too wordy and over emphasizes gestural drawing. Well it was written in the late 1930's so I suspect words were important then. Too much gesture! How the hell can you have too much gesture? I would suggest that his simple approach to observing from life, contour drawing, gesture and tone is more relevant than the 272 million search results in Google for 'How to Draw'.

That's not to say that Nicolaides had all the answers-I just think his approach is one of the least harmful, as he said,"The job of the to teach students, not how to draw, but how to learn to draw." He was one of those frustrating folk who likes questions better than answers. We all crave certainty, even if it is a lie.

The Wolf that Cried Boy

Go see the film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a Werner Herzog documentary featuring 32,000 year old cave drawings, or this We can only guess why ancient peoples climbed into the depths of caves and marked the walls with powerful drawings of animals, birds and insects. They left behind their handprints as well, which from our vantage point we might guess 'signature' or authorship?

Being dragged into this cave by Herzog was a welcome respite from sitting in front of (or beside and under) a computer screen, as much of my work life is now connected to the computer. These writhing and detailed drawings reminded me of how much we need to contact and connect to our world through our physical bodies to inform our ideas and our expression. My ears are still ringing with all of the online clatter about brands, social marketing, crowd sourcing, triggers, influencers and my ultimate favourite--'determining your FASCINATION score.'

What if all this online howling doesn't lead to us being 'fascinating'? What do we do then? The cave artists had the answer a couple of years back. Connect to your world with meaning and reach out and touch the solid wall of the 'real' with your entire hand and not just the 2 fingers you use to swipe or wipe with.


The Pinocchio in the Room



Drawing people is where drawing begins. It makes sense that the first drawings we make of other people look like us. We draw what we know or at least let's say we draw what we are accustomed to.

So a good drawing should look like the person or thing you are drawing? Hmmm. Too early to open that can of worms. I'll start with what drawing isn't. It isn't what we are accustomed to, it isn't floating in a specimen jar or frozen in marble.

Drawing is alive, no strings attached.

Every Bone Broken



Grade school is bad for your health- your creative health. K-12 education breaks every creative bone in your body. Most North Americans at 17 years old have had 12 years of following a paved road that measures the distance travelled by how fast and how far. We're using the wrong roadmap. 

How do you repair all the compound fractures? Well, don't try to reclaim your childhood by gluing uncooked macaroni to bristol board. We can't 'be kids again' and who the hell wants to go back through the nightmare of acne? But you can rediscover your inner 5 year old by starting to draw outside the lines. 





We All Have Dogs in This Race



What about Grade 2 and drawing pictures? At 7 we begin the process of severing our ties to the tactile, physical and visual world of our childhood. We learn to use the horizontal and vertical bars of the literal and the real. The coloring book --stay inside the lines--one of the least visual activities we can give a child rules the day.


The Medium is the Message


How apt that Michael Valpy's article on Marshall McLuhan appeared in the July 16th Globe and Mail Focus section. McLuhan had much to say about communication media, culture and meaning. A good intro to his ideas can be found at

McLuhan describes the impact of the 3 most important technological changes that have influenced culture; the alphabet, the printing press and the telegraph. He described not only the changes these tools have wrought, he expressed how they reshaped the world we live in.

The alphabet is the most incredible advance in the technology of communication. Typing this on an iPad, I can't help wonder how today's tools will shape all of us. McLuhan describes how the alphabet ushered in a linear, geometric, and specific environment. A world as a series of parts. The world before the alphabet was in his terms 'acoustic' or using multiple senses to understand the whole. This is where drawing comes in, as it is a language that engages all of the senses to express meaning.

The Greek philosopher Plato had a unique opinion about the alphabet. The alphabet was the ENEMY, he saw it as a new technology that diminished memory, as he came from an oral narrative culture. Writing could lie and yet still be believed--hard to stare down a cheater when they are symbols on paper. Sounds a bit like Plato saw tabloid news coming.

Some great ideas about words, images and writing in Simon Morley's book, 'Writing on the Wall.'

A Drawing is a Horrible Thing to Waste

Drawing pictures begins with our frenemy the eye. OK, not the eye, the EDUCATED eye. The tiny gelatinous orb that grabs us by the collar and slams us up against shiny, bright delights burned onto it's liquid backside. Give it enough tinsel and it will overwrite every texture, taste and sound that the rest of your body has experienced.

It all begins in school in Grade 2...