Learning to Draw (or, Learning to Meditate)

I think that the hardest thing to master in learning to draw is learning to actually see. Whether you are drawing from something in front of you or trying to create an image on paper that you have first dreamt up in your head, drawing happens in the mind not in the hand.

what does the horizon look like underwater?

But actually seeing properly is really difficult! I mean — seeing what is actually there, in front of you, and not what you expect to see. Have you ever tried to draw the face of someone you know well, that you love? Even with a nice patient and indefatigable photo to work from, unless you are a skilled portrait artist, creating a real likeness is pretty difficult. But turn the same photo upside down and draw from it that way instead and it is much easier to recreate you friend’s face on paper. Why is this? By making the face less familiar, we can actually see it more objectively. So often we see only what we expect to see, what we already (think we) know. We see a loved one’s face in her familiar expressions, in tiny subtle, un-draw-able details like a hint of dimple, a glint in the eye — not the lines, shadows and form that you can create with a pencil or brush.

The trick to drawing well without a live model to work from lies in learning to  see and look at the world objectively even when you are not trying to draw it, and in being able to remember and re-imagine them clearly later when you do want to draw. When you can really see things clearly in your mind, transferring this to paper is (more or less) a cinch. One only has to pull up a stock image from the collection of visual observations and project it mentally on the blank page. The last step then, of drawing, is simplified basically just to the act of tracing that image onto the page.

Maybe this sounds crazy. I got to thinking about this in the middle of last night when I couldn’t sleep, and got out of bed to write about it – it seemed brilliant then!

Maybe approaching learning to draw from this perspective is a little daunting, since what I am really proposing is practicing a stillness of mind and open observation of the world that most of the population reserves only for spiritual purposes, if they use it at all. In fact, my super corny ABCs of Yoga book (published 1971) describes meditation in just this way, as the “concentration upon an object, such as a candle, and apple, a beautiful picture, until one can see the object in the mind’s eye with eyes closed.” This explains to me why drawing has always been a calming, centering activity for me. It isn’t just like meditation, it is meditation! The only difference is that drawing is a question of being able to see the object in the mind’s eye with the eyes open. Ha.

beginnings of a new painting

I can hear you thinking already, “You mean that if I want to learn to draw I need to learn to meditate, too? Ugh!” Well… yes, i really do think so. The kind of seeing necessary goes beyond judgment and rational categorization, and it is damn hard work!  You need to turn off your intellect and turn back on your imagination.  Forget what you think you know about how things look, and learn the real visual language of life. The standard rational, intellectual way of seeing and understanding the world is ingrained in us from a very young age; it over-simplifies everything and is a learned way of digesting the visual landscape and navigating the social world. It is necessary on some level – it helps us to get along with each other and organize all the information our brains are bombarded with continually, on a daily basis – without this visual shorthand we’d go bonkers, overwhelmed by really seeing everything. But doing this doesn’t serve art, and it doesn’t serve creativity. Learning to not be visually distracted robs us a certain inherent creative power, curiosity, and ability to be awed. It’s the same force that, suddenly at a certain age, takes all the wildly imaginative drawings of children and standardizes them into a narrow range of cookie-cutter lego houses, stick figures, lolly-pop trees, blue skies and yellow suns. It eradicates the unique vision we were all born with and convinces some people that they can’t draw, they aren’t creative. It is a tragedy. But oh, I digress…

It is much easier to accept and be motivated by the idea that drawing is something that can be practiced in an external fashion, solely a technical skill that can be mastered by training the muscles of the hand. And yes, obviously some technical skill is necessary, but learning to control your hand is just about diligent practice, and most anyone can learn to do it with a little effort. Learning to change your mind and perception isn’t something most people really want to take on! But without being able to clearly and in detail imagine the object of your art’s desire in your mind’s eye your ability to draw well will be limited. Even the most highly skilled hand can only execute the directions of the mind.

drawing hands is hard; look how many i erased before i was satisfied

On the other hand, the nice thing about thinking about drawing as being mostly a visual and mental exercise is that you need no special tools or lessons to become a better artist. You can start right now.

Look around you! Pay attention to what things really look like, beyond the labels we give them. Don’t use visual shorthand, don’t be lazy, don’t make assumptions. Real grass often isn’t green at all, apples aren’t round and red, etc.  Start small scale, say, by examining the actual texture of that toast you’re having for breakfast. Get out your pencil crayons and try to match exactly the colour of  your cat’s fur, mixing as many colours as necessary to get it right.  Forget expectations and draw in your imagination what you actually see!

Don’t be discouraged if at first you can’t let go of rational seeing.  It’s sort of like the act of looking at those MagicEye art posters — only in reverse: seeking to dissolve what is familiar into a pattern of pure form and colour… Keep at it and you will reach the “ah ha!” moment. [Try it after a couple of drinks, if you’re into that.] Once you begin to be able to un-see this way, practice this constantly – whenever you have a moment to un-concentrate. Better than turning on the TV! Turn off your intellect and watch the colours and patterns of the world go by on the screen of your mind. Whenever you see something that really resonates with you, stop and pay particular attention. Hold your mind still and empty it, then dip your mind into whatever it is you see that moves you — the pretty leaf, the sunbeam falling on the floor, the sleeping baby — and take a mental photograph of it. Close your eyes for a second and see if you can recall it. Open you eyes again and try to notice more details. How the edges of the leaf curl, the flush of colour on the baby’s cheeks. Practice this every time you see something you like!

The extra beautiful thing is that not only will this practice serve your drawing later, it will serve your happiness right now. Slow down, be here, really look.

There is beauty all around us, all the time, if only we can notice it.

be well,



6 Responses

  1. i’m going to re-read this one a couple of times, it’s inspirational…there’s a neat way of experiencing drawing that i’ve used with kids – poke a hole in a paper plate and stick the paper plate on top of your pencil (admittedly easier if there’s an eraser on the end 🙂 now, draw! it’s amazing what happens, and it’s much like your “letting go” of preconceived ideas.

    i’m starting to fall into the lazy-getting-older trap of saying “oh, i can’t draw”. it’s funny – that’s all i did when i was a kid – read and draw. must get out sketch book again……thanks, anna

  2. p.s. i loooove that first painting of the boats….so many questions (why are there so many? why are they anchored? who’s on them? is anyone going to go swimming?) and it’s such a beautiful perspective…..

  3. “Whenever you see something that really resonates with you, stop and pay particular attention. Hold your mind still and empty it, then dip your mind into whatever it is you see that moves you…”

    this IS meditation! in fact, in my experience of meditation, the very point of meditating at all is to “dip your mind” into all that is true and good and full and beautiful and to learn to experience this state more and more at all times. so that the very mundane and the very extraordinary all become washed in the same light of the meditative state. the way you’ve described practising this is a very, very ancient tantric meditation technique. both the studying of an object to dissolve it into it’s parts without attaching meaning to the lines, colours, shadows, etc and the recreation of the image in the mind’s eye. so cool, anna! you seem to be really reaching the source with your musings. go blog go!

    • !!!!

      neato! thanks for this, jordan. I’ve been feeling really pumped and centered lately — like i (finally) have found my way into the current, rather than swimming like mad in the eddies and whirlpools around the edge of the river… it is a nice feeling to have a sense of calm and confidence about what i am doing and where i want to go with it. and the even nicer thing is, that with the greater sense of ease and relaxation and enjoyment of my work, i am actually getting a lot more work. imagine that. 😉

      stay tuned for “Learning to draw, part II”… coming soon to a blog near you…!

  4. This is EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for!! Finally someone broke down the aspects of drawing down to the very simple whole. Thank you SO much!! This will help me improve my artwork(S) infinity fold. BTW your a WONDERFUL artists, please keep up the AWESOME work!! :0)

  5. […] Learning to draw […]

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