Drawing skills

April 13, 2006

Robert Genn


As I've grown older I've noticed a decline in my ability to
draw. That is, my facility to draw lines that show the way
things look is less than it used to be. I put this down to my
increased interest in directly painting form, colour and tone
rather than accurate delineation of edges. Fact is, I've been
less interested in linear work. I've done fewer drawings and,
unlike some of my actively journaling, sketching and thumb
nailing contemporaries, I'm rusty.

I've often wondered if there are other factors in play as well.
If you read Nicholas Humphries' remarkable thesis comparing
cave drawings with those of a mute, autistic child by the name
of Nadia, you begin to see that the ability to draw may be
linked to the absence of well-developed language skills. Nadia,
born in Nottingham, UK in 1967, has been the subject of much
speculation. Drawing brilliantly at the age of four, her
ability gradually diminished as she began to use words and

As we come to know more about our world, and develop terms to
describe the objects and experiences therein, we begin, in our
drawing, to draw our ideas of things rather than the physical
nature of things themselves. In other words, our ability to see
becomes clouded by what we know.

Anecdotally, I once met an artist who was unable to read and
was very nearly mute. He happened to draw like a wizard. On the
other hand we all know artists who are well read and verbal but
who also draw well. By sidestepping language, they have taught
themselves how. "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain," by
Betty Edwards, gives various techniques a dedicated drawer can
use to trick the knowing faculties rampant in our evolved
cortexes. Other mind benders that may improve drawing include
loud music, magic mushrooms and lobotomies. I may be wrong, but
these days there doesn't seem to be a big demand for

We can, however, take an excellent lesson from a surprising
source. Wildlife artists such as Roger Tory Peterson, the
creator of the Peterson Field Guides to Birds, taught himself
to find, observe and draw the thousands of minor variations
that distinguish different species. These differences became
vital to wildlife nomenclature. Peterson's drawing skill
depended on circumventing words and investing in a pure form of
unabashed "scientific" observation.