Learning to Draw Version 4.0

Image: J. M. W. Turner from his perspective tutorials.

I’ve long had this notion that drawing should be added to the list of foundational skills we learn in school such as typing, grammar and multiplication. I think we’d all benefit if we developed our ability to see and represent the complex world around us. As William Morris tried to tell us, combining art with evolving beyond crapitalism will lead us to a better place.

Over the years I’ve made several abandoned attempts at learning to draw. Coincidentally I’m married to a talented artist and have a lot of friends who teach art (Fun fact: I met Kelly because the TV station I worked for had offices in the UCSD art department).

When my attempt to learn Spanish tanked, mid-quarantine, I took up drawing again, mainly focused on architectural sketching since that would the most useful reason for me to hone my weak drawing skills. Am I going to show you my drawings? No. While I’m steadily improving they’re still pretty embarrassing.

In addition to practical reasons, I also took up drawing again as a way to curb my social media doomscrolling. Spending a few hours drawing in the evening reminds me of the 1990s, of those long evenings devoted to some intricate crafty endeavor or just reading a difficult book. I thought that taking up drawing again would counter social media use and, to some extent, it has.

I’ve come to a few realizations about the skill of drawing:

  • Some people, such as Kelly, intuitively figure out the central trick of drawing as kids: that you draw what you actually see not the representations in our heads. For example, a human body is just another shape, like a boulder or a toaster. Understanding this is how you take the first step from stick figures to more accurate representations. This skill can seem magical to those of us who didn’t figure this out on our own. It can seem like a “natural” talent when it’s not.
  • Once you understand this first step the next step is, sadly, much harder. You have to practice drawing over and over and over again in the same way that if you want to learn the piano you have to go through daily, boring exercises. Unfortunately practicing drawing is confounding, frustrating and decidedly not fun especially at the beginning. Scrolling Instagram it much easier and way more tempting.
  • Buying art supplies is not the same as practicing drawing. There’s a temptation to shop when what you should be doing is just drawing. You can do perfectly acceptable drawings with a ball point pen stolen from the bank. Shopping for stuff it just an excuse not to go through the painful exercises and cope with what seems like glacially slow progress.
  • Lastly, I’ve confirmed with my in-house expert Kelly that drawing never gets “easy” no matter how long you’ve been at it.

The exercise of blind contour drawings have been another revelation for me. In this practice you draw without glancing down at the paper. You would think that this wouldn’t work but in fact I discovered that my drawings were better if a bit off register. The line quality was more lively and the representation of complex curves much more accurate. This is simply because you need to actually look at what you’re drawing and not get fixated on the representation on paper. I told Kelly about this and she gave me that “well, duh” look. I told another friend who teaches high school art about my revelation and he said that he has a hard time convincing his students that their blind contour drawings are better than their regular work. It’s a good thing, he said, that I know the difference.

An art professor friend gave me another good tip, that I should look at the drawings of top shelf artists from all different eras. This was a reminder that drawings aren’t the same thing as art and that it’s important to study both the form and content of the works of talented masters.

Image: J. M. W. Turner from his perspective tutorials.

I don’t intend to make art. For me drawing is more a meditation aimed at improving the act of seeing. Practically, I like to make furniture and do light construction work. Drawing is a skill that helps with these tasks. For furniture, I do ink drawings first even if I later go to the computer for the final plan.

If you’d like to take up drawing I’ve used a few resources. If you know of more please leave a comment. For the initial step of learning to see I’ve found the classic Betty Edwards book Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain useful. For exercises and techniques for pen and paper I turn to Alphonso Dunn’s YouTube channel. What I like about Dunn is that he doesn’t assume knowledge and is good at explaining concepts to idiot beginners like me. In the past I’ve also taken life drawing classes and would like to do that again. The takeaway from those classes was the importance of setting time limits and doing sketches that are loose and quick as well as long and detailed.

For architectural sketching I’ve been working my way through a new book, Sketch Club Urban Drawing. See above for my warning on shopping for art supplies, but I do really like my Rotring Isograph College Set. It comes with three refillable pens, a mechanical pencil, an eraser and a handy ruler/protractor thingy. It’s what architecture students used to use before the days of 3d rendering.

Weekend Linkages: All Plants and Mirrors

Build a protected garden enclosure

Mayor de Blasio’s strange burger and fries moment

A Visit to the CIA’s “Secret” Abstract Art Collection

Digital tulip fever

Chipotle Is a Criminal Enterprise Built on Exploitation

A Caledonia house on the edge of a crumbling cliff has sold after a monthslong saga

The bells v the boutique hotel: the battle to save Britain’s oldest factory

Ever wonder what all of those surface car parking lots in downtown LA used to be?

How you can help stop Airbnb in LA

Programming note: I’ll return to blogging soon–been busy with workshop organization tasks, seeing actual people for the first time in 14 months and other mundane but blessed activities!

Weekend Linkages: Ghost Kitchens, Cats and Recursion

Some parody billboards just dropped in England and Wales. Via @BrentToderian

Ghost kitchens of China

Goodbye to the Future: The Last Days of Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower

Metro’s Oscar Nightmare

NSFW explanation of cat domestication

‘It’s like a place of healing’: the growth of America’s food forests

Print rooms, prints, and their printed borders

This week’s strange real estate listing

A plaque about plaques

McDonald’s Corporation Headquarters Used to Have a Suede Waterbed Think Tank

Evan Collins, co-founder of the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute, stumbled on a forgotten and bizarre bit of corporate American woo-woo in an old issue of Domus Magazine. Apparently, back in the 1970s, McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago had a literal “think tank” lined with suede walls, a 700 gallon waterbed, mood music and an early biofeedback machine called a Toomin Alpha Pacer.

A 1972 article in the New York Times fills in the details,

On the seventh floor is the mail room, where rock music blasts from a radio, the cafeteria, where free coffee and nickel Cokes are available to all, employees, and “the tank” where’ with a reservation any McDonald’s clerk, secretary or executive, can escape to relax, write, or recharge their energies.

Entered through a hatch and hallway maze, the tank has total silence, indirect lighting, temperature controls, soft beanbag chairs, and an area for pacing.

Up a few steps and through another hatch, those who remove their shoes may enter upon a 700‐gallon water bed where every movement is instantly felt by all others present. Behind one panel are the stereo radio and tape player controls.

“According to the theory,” says Mr. Watterson, “the tank is so totally different—there are no vertical or solid horizontal reference points, for instance—you, will be unconsciously encouraged to think differently. It’s instinctive to resist change, but the tank almost forces you into a change configuration.”

In this same article we learn that Silicon Valley’s silly office culture isn’t new,

Instead of a desk, each employee has a “task response module, a combination phone booth, room divider, desk, table, set of drawers, closet and bulletin board that contains its own electrical and phone wiring and can be moved before you can say “double cheeseburger.”

Seated at a five‐foot tall module, an employee is protected from distraction by pervasive soundproofing, the arrangement of other modules and 400 deftly arranged, leased plants.

But when he stands, the worker is instantly part of the entire floor and within easy view’ of many of the 3,050 bright, cheery windows and dozens of colleagues.

And casual office wear also isn’t new,

Both male and female employees have taken to brighter, more mod apparel since the move here. Many more men, including Mr. Kroc, now work coatless. And the costly turnover of secretarial help, which had been 110 per cent a year in the downtown office, has been 30 per cent in the new surroundings, where the colors tan and burnt‐orange predominate.

I guess we can conclude that toxic work places can be cured with some tan and burnt‐orange suede walls and a 700 gallon water bed? Corporations these days have ditched the water bed pods for “mindfulness” classes but I doubt the workers are any happier.

I’ll leave it to some of the commenters on Collins’ Twitter post on the McDonald’s think tank to sum up what we’re all thinking about this think tank,

Saturday Linkages: Mostly Architecture

Special thanks to friend of the blog Nic for this week’s real estate listing of the week–your chance to buy Nixon’s old compound

Door of the week

L.A. Built a Tiny-House Village for Homeless Residents, and Some Aren’t So Sure About It

Inside the ‘Tartarian Empire,’ the QAnon of Architecture

Traffic Was Historically Low In 2020. The Death Toll On LA’s Streets Was Not