Sunday, July 24, 2005

Zen and the art of blind contour drawing

Still on the subject of MaDi's question: Blind contour drawing is, or should be, an exercise of intense concentration, better done in a Zen-like state. There is a passage from the Mahabharata that goes something like this:

Drona was testing his students one day. He placed a bird on a tree and asked each one to take aim with his bow. Then he asked: ”What do you see?”. The first one said “I see the bird. I see the tree. I see the clouds behind the tree. I see the arrow. I see my hand”. Drona was vexed by this and did not allow him to shoot. He repeated this with the others, with the same results. Finally Arjuna took aim. Again, Drona asked the question:

-What do you see?
-I see a bird
-Describe the bird!
-I cannot.
- Why not?
-I can only see its eye.
-Release the arrow!-ordered Drona. Arjuna did so and the arrow pierced the bird’s eye.

While doing a blind contour drawing, never allow yourself to see too much. The point you are drawing is enough.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

MaDi's amazing blind contour drawing diet. Or: before/after - satisfaction guaranteed or your money back :)

fig 1

fig 2

MaDi, a reader of this blog, sent in these two pictures. The second one was done according to the directions of the exercise. Notice the thumb. Unlike the first drawing, you can see here the steep angles where the phalanges meet, and the one where the first phalange of the thumb meets the metacarpal (trapezium) bone. MaDi did not suddenly take anatomy lessons: she just started looking. She did not name body parts, but she drew them, and she felt them “through the skin”, and became aware of their effect on contour. Also, note how the rendering is so much more forceful when instead of messing around with small timid lines as in the first picture she just boldly advanced with a single motion for better or worse. The other fingers did not go as well, however. Why? MaDi told me she got confused with the more complex position of the fingers in 3D space. The solution to this is simply to follow the exercise scrupulously. You should not even realize there is such a thing as a finger lying in 3D space. Just move over each line. Do not see the fingers. Do not see even a single finger. Do not see a nail. Just focus on each line. Focus so much that you don’t see anything else. Use tunnel-vision (and Tunnel-thinking. Better yet, do not think at all during this exercise!). Then what you see is very simple. A line, on paper can only have a tangent whose angle with the horizon goes between 0 and 360 degrees. Any such line is as easy to draw as any other. Therefore any position of the finger is as easy to draw as any other - as long as you see each line in turn, never the finger.

This, of course, requires great concentration.

Monday, July 18, 2005

After the exercise

Since you were not looking at the paper, the drawing will probably be a mess, globally, with lots of lines that fail to intersect properly (see the examples above). Do not worry, this is normal (notice however how amazingly accurate your drawing is, locally). The point is that through this exercise you made a direct connection between the model and the paper. And most of all, you observed the model very carefully. You started to see what was really there, beyond symbol, beyond what you think you know. And, no matter how awkward the drawing looks, you have drawn something that is an actual, detailed observation of the object: a direct experience of it, not a symbol. Notice that the amount of detail you can get in is just limited by what you can see (depending on light conditions, distance and eyesight) and by the amount of time you take. If you go really slowly you can find a dozen crests on what can seem a single straight line in a faster drawing. You’ll be amazed at how detailed you can get. And how much you can learn of what a hand, face, foot, whatever, really looks like.

This is a student’s first liberation from his symbolic machinery. By going down in scale, the symbolic part of your visual brain has lost focus. It does not apply at the scale of simple, small, meaningless contour lines, therefore it shuts down and frees you to be able to actually look and, very simply, copy what you actually see.

Exercise: Blind Contour Drawing

Place your pencil on the paper. Focus your eyes on a point on the model, any point that lies on a contour line. As you do this, feel as if the tip of your pencil is touching not the paper, but the point on the model. Make sure you convince yourself of this. Make sure you feel it. Then, and only then, start to move your eye slowly along the contour line. At the same time, your pencil should travel, equally slowly, on the paper, following the same motion as the eye. As you feel your way over the lines of the model, the pencil should draw the contour on the paper. Move your eyes slowly on the model’s contour line, move your hand slowly on the paper, following the same motion, BELIEVING that your hand is touching the model. NEVER look at the paper. You are NOT drawing on the paper, you are drawing on the model. Believe that it is the model’s skin you are feeling and not the paper, pressing against your pencil. When a contour ends behind another one you are allowed to look at the paper, just to place the tip where the new contour begins. Then repeat the process. Do this until you are too tired to go on. There is no such thing as a real ending anyway.

Preamble to the exercise:

outline of a hand(red)

contour of a hand(yellow)

There are zones on a body that are naturally represented by contours on a piece of paper. This is symbolic too, but at a very low-level. You do not need to be taught what I mean by contour since your visual brain already has special circuitry designed to detect contours. You may need however to be advised that by contour I do not mean outline. A simple example will suffice. Watch these photographs for examples of outline versus contour. In red you see the outline. It is a single line, the border of the projection of the hand onto the plane of the picture. In yellow you see the contour. Unlike outline, Contour gives you information about all three dimensions of an object, about aspects of its surface and about its spatial orientation and its bulk. I have drawn only a few of the lines. You can draw hundreds, depending only on how closely you are prepared to look. As you can see, contour lines have a beginning and an end. They often, but not always, disappear behind other contour lines (sometimes they just fade - the distinction will matter for the exercise). Contour lines are not projection border lines, but lines that you would naturally follow by using your sense of touch if you were caressing the surface. They include lines were curvature changes abruptly, like crests and folds. They include the border itself, although not as a simple uninterrupted line. Isn’t it true that you naturally follow the border with your fingers when you caress someone? Here you look at the border as that part of the picture where the object turns away from you and hides behind its own front plane, creating an inticing jump in colour and a line of high contrast against the background. Lovers are expert at following such lines with their fingers. When in doubt, hire them as consultants...

2 – Avoiding symbols – “Draw what you see”

People like Betty Edwards (author of "Drawing on the right side of the brain") will tell you that in order to draw you have to forget the symbols and draw what you see. This is a great revelation for a beginner. Such simple words tell you so much. Drawing is much enhanced by such simple mantras:

Forget the symbols. See with your eye.

Forget sticks and circles. Watch each line. Copy each line. Forget that this is an arm, that this is a hand. How to draw hands? Are hands hard? Hands are not hard. Faces are not hard. Hands, faces, feet, eyebrows, are just lines standing there. Copy each line and in the end you’ll have a hand. But if you see at as a hand, you’ll just draw a symbol of it. So, forget the hand. See this line. See that line. Draw each one. The hand will surface by itself.

Kimon Nicolaïdes, in his excellent book, "The natural way to draw", will go much the same way (some critics of B. Edwards will say that her book is just Nicolaïdes techniques with a lot of pseudo-neurology B.S. added in – I disagree, but that’s another story). He will tell you to “touch” the model with your eye, to “see” not only with your eyes but with your five senses (in fact, mostly with a sort of tele-tactile sense– we’ll speak of this later, too). Again, he is telling you to forget symbols, and react directly to the image in front of you. There is always a translation, but it is no longer symbolic, conceptual – it is a physical translation, just as direct as the device that turns the pattern of grooves on a record into sound, though much more personal, unreliable, unpredictable. This is cybernetics with stochastic perturbations.

Before I speak of the third stage I think an exercise is in order. I’ll try to explain what “blind contour drawing” is before we proceed.

1 – The first symbolic stage

At first we draw in symbols. A circle is a head. A line is an arm. We do it because circles and lines are easy to draw. But mostly we do it because they are expedient symbols, and because we have not observed, really observed, more details than those symbols can transmit.

The symbols are useful. They are easy to draw and they transmit with perfection a lot of information. They are economical. This first state of drawing is highly efficient. But we must go further and leave this heaven if we want to observe more details.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Forget Art

Forget Art for a second. Forget aesthetics. There is a sense to the word “drawing” that precedes aesthetics and Art. The distinction must be forced. This is dissection. This is physics 101, this is the motion of a sphere in a vacuum. Just as in physics, such artificialities are useful and foment understanding.

Problem: Suppose you have a face in front of you, or a body. You want to preserve what you see right now. You want to preserve it on paper with a pencil or a pen, you want to translate it into dirt that stays on the sheet. Cameras have not been invented. How do you go about it?

Truth is approached by a succession of useful falsities. What follows is a sketch of the usual phases of drawing. There are others possible sketches. This will do for now.

This will set the scenario of what drawing usually is. Much later I’ll discuss what the purpose of it all is for me. And why drawing can go beyond being just so much dirt left on a piece of paper, as long as you stop looking at drawings and start doing them yourself – drawing as a verb, not as a noun, drawing as a martial art and Zen sitting, drawing as illicit lovemaking. This is not a discussion of what drawing is in itself (that would require terrible arrogance), but of a few of the faces it may have. It is a personal thing.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Wounded Bison and Man

How early is the symbol programmed into a child?
One wishes to draw what is there. One wishes to learn how to see.

Often I thought I wanted to see like a child again, without learned symbols to cloud my vision - Zen mind, beginner's mind, I'd repeat to myself - yet, even a child draws in symbols, so how can that be the proper direction?

How early does the symbol get embedded into the brain? Do we learn it as children? Are we being taught somehow, subreptitiously, from a line that goes back to ancient cave painters, or were ancient cave painters really artistic children and what we observe in children is simply that in a way (biologists, forgive me the abuse) "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"? Does the artistic development of the individual recapitulate the artistic development of the species?...

Maybe all this is well known. Can any anthropologist in the room tell me this: If I draw the stick figure of a man, how many cultures will recognize it? Is it universal, or specific? Is it inscribed in our ancestral genes or is in an artifact of a few civilizations?

Friday, July 15, 2005

The Vitruvian Stick-Man

The Vitruvian Stick-Man

In what way is the previous drawing worse than the one preceding it?

In what way, if any, it it better?

Children draw stick figures because they think in symbols.

Most adults draw much in the same way because, like children, they still think in symbols.

Artists draw differently because they see beyond the symbol. They see what is there.

...or do they?

Make it simple :)

or "Para quê complicar, quando podemos simplificar?" :)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

for Macha K

for Macha K, the misterious chambermaid of Sossego Hotel,
with thanks for all the little seeds, the nice chats by the moonlight, and, above all, all those duels to the death. (apologies to my non-Portuguese-speaking readers who won't understand at all what this post is about :))

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Question: In what sense is drawing like a martial art? In what sense is it like making love?

and again:

The drawing is the traffic accident, the screeching tyres, the eyes wide with fright, the nostrils flaring wide, the headache that lingers afterwards. The mess that stays on the paper is just the skid marks on the asphalt, mere evidence that the accident took place.

A matter of no importance for anyone except insurance agents, traffic cops, and necrophiles.

once more:

The drawing is the act itself. And therefore it can be felt as a drawing only by he who does it, while he does it. The viewers take the part (according to their sensibilities) of tourists, voyeurs, or archaeologists, that come to the battlefield after the battle is over and see the evidence of the action, not the action itself. At the very most they can reconstitute parts of the action from the evidence left behind, from the carnage, from the craters, from the smoke and the stench, from all the crap that stayed on the paper after the soldiers left. Even for he himself who made the drawing, the mess that is left on the paper is merely like that photograph of the girl he made love to - it will remind him of the act, and he will smile, but he will not be making love again by merely remembering. It is just a snapshot of a moment that is gone.

The moment itself is what matters.

Let's try, then:

An honest drawing is one that is made with utter disregard for the crap that stays on the paper after the fact.

For some reason it is called a “drawing” and not a “drawn”. The name seems to imply the present continuous i.e. an action that is presently going on. The real drawing is not the dirt on the paper that we can see afterwards. That is just the evidence that the act has taken place. The drawing is the act itself.

An honest drawing

This was an honest drawing.

(I think the day deserved one)

What does that mean? I've been trying to say it for quite some time, since I wrote the first post of this blog.

I feel it is finally coming around that knot on my tongue. Maybe just one more week or so, and we'll start talking about it...


The European Parliament has rejected the software patents directive by a landslide.

There had been rumours since yesterday, and apparently they were true.

Congratulations, Europe.

Now we can go back to more pleasant things :)

PS: A much better news link than the one I mentioned above (BBC) is this one at WikiNews.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


We are approaching the fateful hour when a bunch of morally bankrupt Bureaucrats on the European Comission may be about to launch us into a US-style patent hell. This Wednesday, on July the 6th, the European Parliament will have the last chance to prevent this. To do so, 367 of the 732 members must be present and vote for the right amendments. Thanks to the machinations of the Commission, absentees count in their favour, so it's going to be a hard one..

I wrote about this here, but only in Portuguese. You will probably be better served by going here or here if you want to be informed about what is at stake.

No more updates in this blog until Wednesday, as a symbolic protest against this miserable mess.