One of the things I teach in my drawing classes is not to trust your brain. You have to learn to let your eyes and hand communicate to each other. Human brains are wired to identify patterns, rely on prior knowledge and make snap decisions in milliseconds. These are survival lessons taught over thousands of years. Of course, these finely tuned aspects of the human brain are in direct conflict with the act of drawing.
When learning to draw, the brain interferes with the processes that are necessary to create a realistic representation of what the person is trying to draw. While great for identifying predators in the wild, most of the brain’s everyday functions hinder good drawing. It interjects what an arm should look like, or a bird, tree, woman, building, etc., and replaces it with a ‘stored’ memory of what said object looks like. So even though your mind remembers what a bird looks like, it doesn’t store the details that allows a drawing to look realistic. This is why so many people who can’t draw end up with drawings that look like disproportional, exaggerated cartoons. They are simplified symbols of what they are actually seeing, the brain’s interpretation of the visual experience in front of them.
Turning off Your Brain
The images the brain stores are simplified exactly for the reason that people can’t go on with life if they got caught up in every detail they see at every moment. Staring at a wall will reveal paint thickness, subtle textures, pinholes, scrapes and scratches. And then the light source may be moving, recasting shadows in real time, subtly changing everything every single moment. There’s no possible way to stare and contemplate every single detail while going about your daily life. Your brain registers the big information (‘wall, white’) and moves on with its day, looking for whatever needs the lumbering body attached to it needs at that moment.
It’s the ability to turn off the brain’s willingness to simplify things that allows people to finally ‘see’. Simple relationships, proportions, and details come into focus. “I never even realized that was there’ is a common refrain from students when this happens for the first time. By not relying on the brain’s shorthand, your hand and eye can finally work in unison. You can now properly analyze and create a drawing that is now relative to the subject matter.
Life is a lot like being able to turn things off to see things with fresh eyes. Removing oneself from their surroundings in order to view themselves from a different perspective is wildly important and eye opening. Identifying patterns and cycles of self destruction or pain is a hard and humbling experience. Identifying troublesome cycles can feel overwhelming and feel impossible to change. Breaking free from those destructive patterns is another mountain to climb.
The best way to go about changing is simply to make a change. Breaking cycles and learned behaviors is one of the hardest things to do in life. Bringing an end to writer’s block or artist’s block or those periods of non-creativity that plaque artists pales in comparison the real world psychological cycles everybody finds themselves in from time to time. It’s natural to feel beaten down or shellshocked in those psychological ruts, but everybody has to move on at some point. Having the desire for something better will ignite that move. When you don’t feel like painting and feel like it’s all become a futile exercise without any benefit or audience, the only thing you can do is actually start to paint. That’s really the simplest solution to breaking cycles.
This month’s music comes from Jonathan Richman, with his great song ‘Summer Feeling’