In a digital age, why draw from observation?
Seeing is thinking
One third of your brain is taken up converting incoming visual data into something you can understand. Light projected onto your retina is translated into images and then language used to make sense of them. Seeing is thinking. There is nothing neutral about the way you interpret incoming visual data; your brain actively shapes it into something it recognises. And whilst other aspects of cerebral activity might be consciously developed, your response to vision is usually assumed to be innate.
Yet when it comes to seeing, we are both projectors and receivers of visual data. There are actually many more connections from the brain to the eyes as in the opposite direction. It means we’ve largely decided what we’ll see before we’ve seen it, projecting our previous experience onto the image of the world. So we see only what we’ve seen before, distorting what vision relays to make it conform to our expectations. This creates a gap between what we see and what we think we see.
Learning to draw will start to close this gap. When you are taught how to direct your gaze using different and often counter-intuitive patterns of observation distinct from everyday looking, you’ll grasp more fully the structure of the visual world and the extent to which this shaping of vision is intrinsic to how you normally see.
Learning to draw will teach you how to respond differently to vision, to discover something new and less expected, not only within the visual field, but potentially about yourself too, about what seeing is and how visual perception works.
Drawing from observation isn’t about trying to make a copy of the image of the world in front of you, it’s about beginning to understand your part in the shaping of that image. Observational drawings are essentially your workings out, the paper a site where you try to determine the ‘fit of things’ captured by vision.
And because seeing is thinking, your drawing is also a place where you externalise your thoughts, moving them from the private space of your head and into a social one where others can respond to your reflections.
When you learn to draw, in many ways coming together and making with your peers will intensify your awareness of the perceptual shifts initiated by drawing. And with this heightened sense of how drawing alters visual perception, there is the potential for it to model less predictable ways of responding to the world more generally.
Drawing brings about a kind of ‘slow looking’, an ability to become lost in observation almost to the point of forgetting what you are depicting. This aspect of drawing is often most profoundly felt when you first start. The images here are by members of my current Drawing 1 group, mostly absolute beginners. They chart the acquisition of a skill set, but more importantly, a growing sense of how seeing happens through time and how drawing alters the way the visual world is encountered.
Tony Hull 2023