Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Drawing Like a Child

Piera is a model I've worked with for a few years - Lorenzo is her newborn son. I did a few drawings the other day of Piera breastfeeding Lorenzo.

Friend, artist, and blog reader Ed Felker compared them with a drawing I did last night:

He said something interesting about the newer portrait in comparison with the Piera drawings:
I like it more but probably for a weird reason. I can't imagine drawing - or seeing someone else drawing - the previous set. I like, and relate to, the bit of exploring that comes with this type of drawing, finding the line, moving it a bit, committing in some areas with a bolder, simpler stroke. I don't know, I just like the thought of all of it, the discovery of the shape through the feedback between your eyes and hands, and I like seeing the artifacts of that discovery in the faint lines you moved away from.
The difference Ed is describing is something that we could describe as the difference between adult drawing and childlike drawing. I use these terms in light of Picasso's famous comment, "As a child I drew like Raphael, it took the rest of my life to draw like a child." The reason I would call the Piera drawings childlike is because - to solve the mystery for you, Ed - I drew them as a child draws.

A child does not seek the right line, revising, expressing subtlety and differentiation, comparing the minutae of the drawing and the thing drawn. A child puts a line on the paper and moves on. To draw like a child is difficult to do, because it is scary to do. You must abandon your fear of error. There will certainly be errors.

To draw without hesitation is very hard to do. You must draw quickly, you must not go back, you must surf forward and then when you are done you must not fiddle around, but rather say, "Now it's done - next!"

When I draw this way, I reduce the number of lines I make on the paper. I also hold the pencil differently. I usually hold it softly and gently. When I draw this way, I hold the pencil the way a child holds a crayon, with a stiff and unfeeling hand, jamming it down onto the paper so that the point is rapidly worn away. But I draw each line more slowly, in the dull, deliberate way a child makes a straight line between two points.

I think that drawing this way is a good way to break up the choking ice floes of the visual mind. You work for ages to master a technique, and then you sink into the technique as you would sink into a large and comfortable chair; you can't get out of it, your ass goes to sleep, your blood begins to thicken and slow. It is good to strip yourself of everything you have, sometimes, and make do with little or nothing. When it works, you produce work that looks miraculous, that looks uncreated. When it doesn't work, you get a good slap in the face to remind you that most of what you do is trash anyway, no matter how much technique is backing it up.

I have several more posts to write on this and related subjects:

-the maximum surface area of the field of visual comprehension
-some thoughts on Hokusai, Matisse, and line, which thoughts I cannot remember just now, but I know I thought them
-the long-delayed Edges and Edge Detection, part IV
-the Piera Pregnancy Project

I'm just going to leave this little list here so that (a) I remember it and (b) if I don't get to it, you can remind me if you like.


I notice we have a few visitors from New Zealand. Thank you for reading, and I hope that if you have family or friends in the Christchurch area, they're doing alright.


  1. Daniel, I love those line drawings. They're observed with great affection and rendered with a very sure hand.

    Though I understand why you call this "drawing like a child" in terms of the points you're making, it's not how I would describe what you're doing here.

    A child indeed draws boldly and moves on. But a child does not draw from careful observation and sophisticated visual distillation. A child draws conceptually - a head is round, a hand is a shape with elongated extensions, the ground is a linear base upon which everything solid rests, and the sun is a disc with rays. For a child, drawing is not a way of seeing but a way of thinking, using schematic representations of basic concepts about things.

    Your line drawings come from a way of seeing that is educated by a study of the history and practice of artists. The drawings incorporate perspective and other complex spatial relationships. What distinguishes them from the shaded drawings is that here, perhaps because your time is limited, you are getting right to the point, making decisions in the moment about what aspects of the scene are most salient, and what contours will most efficiently capture what you see.

    To me they show what is so good about practicing quick poses, even for an artist who is mainly interested in more developed work.

  2. Dani, it pleases me greatly that my remarks would play a part in sparking further discussion on this really interesting topic.

    As I said before, until I started discussing art (and our friendship and your blog have encouraged that), I wasn't aware that I was even thinking about art! It was just kind of running in the background.

    I think I need to start drawing again. But it's been a long time, I may have to go back to the beginning, start from scratch, and draw like an adult.

  3. Fred - first of all, thank you! I'm glad you like those drawings!

    And second - as always, your perspective complicates me being doctrinaire about my own. Thank you for taking the trouble to write this up so clearly.

    I think the way I was using "drawing like a child" is a little different in emphasis from the actual drawing like a child that you're describing. There were two emphases - one was the physical activity of drawing, which I think we are agreeing about - that bold stiff-handedness. The other was drawing without fear, but inside the observational stage. I know the conceptual approach to drawing that you're describing. I also remember struggling toward the observational approach. There was a long interval of the purely imaginative approach, which involved a *lot* of robots. But I was frustrated with how I drew them, because I couldn't consistently make them look real. So I shifted toward an emphasis on observing the real. I think I figured out the idea of serious observation when I was 8, and it had taken over by the time I was 14.

    So I was using the term "drawing like a child" pretty sloppily!

    My time wasn't actually limited here, except artificially - all the drawings are from photographs, Piera being unavailable right now. But I did force myself to draw quickly. It's no good if you take all day, as you know.

    This is exactly what I do with five-minute poses when I'm in a mood to do more than just a highly-rendered detail, but I'm not usually in that mood.

    Not much of a reply, but I thought I could contribute a bit on where I'm coming from, when analyzed through your set of categories. I hope it helps more than it doesn't...

    Ed - I'm glad to have had your remark to inspire my own thinking on this topic. I wasn't thinking so explicitly about art until I started this blog either. But now I sure am, and I'm enjoying what I'm learning, from me and from everyone writing comments as well. I think it would be excellent if you resumed drawing - I really like your woodcuts and I'd love to see what you did with other media.