Samuel Rowlett, "Manifest Dissemination" (Image courtesy the artist)

Samuel Rowlett, “Manifest Dissemination” (Image courtesy the artist)

I teach drawing, and I often have people tell me that they can’t draw, that they couldn’t even draw a stick figure.

And so I ask them how they know that.

And they say, “Yeah, I tried it and it looked like crap.”

The truth of the matter is that art is not so much the way things look, but a way of looking at things. It is a way of looking at the world, of interacting with the world, in the same way your education is a way to interact with the world around you and perhaps, at its very best, it helps you to understand how you fit into that world and to deepen your relationship to it.

How do we build relationships? We communicate.

Samuel Rowlett (Image via Mass Moca)

Samuel Rowlett (Image via Mass Moca)

Education is based on communication. Not the transferring of knowledge, like some would have it, as some top-down pouring of information into empty minds. More accurately, it is the exchange of ideas. It is a dialogue, a conversation, a collaboration.

We are programmed for communication. Before we know how to read or write, we are already reading body language and facial expressions. We observe others, we listen, and then when we’re ready, we speak.

But you can’t draw you say?

You probably don’t remember the first time someone put a crayon into your hand and sheet of paper in front of you. Think about the first thing you likely did with that crayon. Okay, after you stuck the crayon in your mouth and chewed on it for a bit until you realized it wasn’t actually food — You made a mark on the paper.

Not just any mark, you traced an arc with your hand. It was a gesture, a motion. Your arm followed that curve like the path of a compass, which was the measure of the reach of your young arm at that age. A broad mark, a singular scribble unlike any made before. Something brand new that you had brought into in the universe like your fingerprints. It was your signature. And if you were like me, and this signature was done on the wall (much to your parents’ chagrin) it was your first foray into tagging and graffiti art!

So when people tell me that they can’t draw, I don’t believe them. That’s because we are built to make marks, to draw. Whether at first it comes out looking like a scribble, with practice that scribble becomes a face, a flower, or a design, and perhaps some of those designs become letters and numbers, words, and equations. All are ways to explore your world that are linked by a common thread: you.

You begin to process the visual world around you, and immediately interact with it.

A good friend of mine told me that when she first went to college she was disappointed that she couldn’t major in “The Universe.” Meaning everything, all of it: stars, galaxies, philosophy, math, history, literature, art; the whole totality of the universe and everything in it as her major. Because, she thought all these scholars were asking essentially the same questions. She thought there were too many fields of inquiry, and if we could ask those questions together we just might get somewhere.

So that is what I hope you will do most of all. Ask questions. And no question is too silly. Ask the big questions, and ask them of everyone, especially each other. Pick your professors’ brains; pester us to the point of annoyance. Consider everyone together as collaborators in this ongoing conversation that we call the universe. An interest in that conversation is likely why you’re here today.

So as my daughter said when I asked her for advice that I could give, she said “Tell them, don’t be shy.” So, there’s some wisdom from a five-year-old: “Don’t be shy.” I also asked her how she felt about drawing. She said she likes to draw because “drawing makes her happy.” Now, there will be times, especially around midterms and finals, when not every single one of your classes is going to make you happy. But remember your questions whether you ask them in a poem, or an equation, or a hypothesis, or even a drawing. They are all ways to engage with your world.

And if there are some of you out there who still think you “can’t even draw a stick figure,” well, you now know I don’t believe that. Swing by the art studio sometime. We’ve got lots of pencils and paper, and we may even have a crayon or two.

Editor’s note: This op-ed is taken from a faculty keynote address given by artist, professor, and Hyperallergic contributor Samuel Rowlett for Landmark College’s Spring 2013 convocation. 

Special thanks to Jessica Cuni for her story of trying to “Major in the Universe.”

Samuel Rowlett is an artist and writer living in Western Massachusetts. His work can be viewed at Samuel is Assistant Professor of Art at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. He is...

3 replies on “Why Can’t You Draw?”

  1. Harvard education researcher Howard Gardner investigated the question as to when and why children stop drawing and decide they “can’t draw” in “Art, Mind and Brain,” a book I read many years ago. Basically what he found is that we all reach a point developmentally in early adolescence, where we become more aware of ourselves as separate individuals and start to look more critically at ourselves and our abilities. If we can’t make our drawings look the way we want them to, we stop drawing. Betty Edwards suggests something similar in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” — if you stop drawing when you’re 8, your drawings forever look like those of an 8 year old. So advice from a 5 year old is cute, but not really to the point, because 5 year olds don’t have a concept of setting goals for their artwork or making something look close enough to their original intention to be satisfied with the product. They fill the page and move on. Gardner suggested that more art education and skill development in the late elementary school/early middle school years might encourage more kids to continue when they hit adolescence, though I don’t know if that’s been evaluated. I do agree that drawing is a skill that can be taught, and everyone can be taught to draw better, but like any other skill that involves hand-eye coordination, from playing an instrument to playing a sport, that takes commitment and practice.

Comments are closed.