Wednesday, December 01, 2004

It's a Draw

I can't remember where I read a blurb about The Undressed Art: Why We Draw by Peter Steinhart, but I do remember it was earlier this year and that I got a copy of it soon after. I was excited to get to it but one book led to another and it wasn't until now that I got around to reading it. I'm glad I did. According to Steinhart all children draw, it is a part of childhood development. Most of us, however, stop drawing around the age of 11 because the language parts of our developing brains overwhelm the visual parts. Suddenly we find it much easier to say things than to draw things. We also begin to become more aware of criticism. Those who continue to draw past the age of 11, when asked, cite specific reasons or events that encouraged them to keep at it. Steinhart thinks we do ourselves a disservice by cutting ourselves off from drawing even if we aren't very good at it. The Undressed Art focuses almost exclusively on life figure drawing. Steinhart obliges the reader with a brief and interesting history of drawing as well as of artist's models. He also assesses the current state of life drawing at arts colleges and discovers that an art major can get a degree and never take one drawing class. Steinhart also stresses the difference between drawing and painting. Drawing is more spontaneous, less planned. A drawn picture will turn into a painting as soon as the artist starts to plan it, compose it, place the figure into a setting with a background and other figures or objects. When I first finished the book I thought that it was good but that Steinhart hadn't explained the why part of Why We Draw. The more I have thought about it though, the more I realize that he explained throughout the book. There are two places in the book where I think he most clearly explains why we draw. The first is in chapter three, "Learning to Draw"

Art is an extension of our human abilities to make mental images and to hold ideas in the form of symbols. Art thus increases our abilities to record and manipulate experience. We draw to assemble more complicated details than we can assemble in memory alone...And some of us draw to assemble even more complicated details, for example, the details of a natural landscape that, appropriately recorded and properly arrayed, give insight into the environment around us...We draw, too, to make sense of our own feelings.
But I think the best explanation comes toward the end of the book in chapter twelve (there are fourteen chapters) when he is talking with artist Maguerite Flecther who both paints and draws. He quotes her, "The purpose of visual art is helping people transcend the way they see. Not just mirroring back like a snapshot. Not just a memory of something." Steinhart quibbles here and says that that is the view of a painter, but it it precisely the point he has been making throughout the book. If instead of "helping people" Fletcher had said "helping the artist," Steinhart would have agreed with her wholeheartedly. Because drawing is learning to see and in the process of seeing, one learns to understand. And that brings me to the one flaw in the book. Steinhart has a tendency to complain about how neglected drawing is and how it isn't often even viewed as being real art, it's the painters that get all the attention. He portrays those who draw as being somehow better, more noble people than those who paint. Fortunately it is only mildly annoying and does not swamp the enjoyment of the book. I found the book to be rather inspiring. I draw on occasion but am entirely self taught (from books of course!) and have only ever drawn from photographs. I haven't done much drawing in a long time, but after The Undressed Art I am going to try my pencil in a drawing class in the spring. Hopefully the teacher and the other students will be as supportive and encouraging as Steinhart claims they are.