Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why humans can't draw

When humans draw things, most of the time the product is something that wouldn't easily be confused with a photograph.

I lifted these prime examples, like a pirate, from the blog Bad Drawings of Famous Musicians.

I used to draw pretty badly myself before I discovered the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain some years ago, and literally became a decent artist in one minute, in a profound moment of enlightenment. I'm not joking. I never finished the book. I didn't have to. In my life, this was one of those game-changing books of quintessence.

Ok, so I'm not DaVinci, but to have gone in one minute from one who draws stick figures to one who draws recognizable likenesses feels like hearing God.

The life-changing insight was this: humans draw badly because they think in symbols. When we see a person's eye, our brain converts it to a symbol in the course of identifying it with the category of "eyes". We strip off data. We generalize. What comes out when we try to draw an eye ends up being pretty hieroglyphic.

So we draw this . . . 

as this . . .

Even as you think about the dissimilarity, you're probably still not doing it justice, because your brain is still doing its interpretive thing.

One awesome hack of a solution to the interpretive problem is to divide images up in ways where your brain can't recognize anything that has a match in its hieroglyphics archive. If you're drawing from a photo, you can cover up parts of the photo, leaving a visible square that doesn't look like anything that activates a definition. If you're hard core, you can then obscure things even more by rotating it.

With enough obfuscation, you should get to a place where you can see things as they truly are, and when you draw the lines and fill in the dark and light places as you see them with your unbiased eye, you'll likely produce something that looks a heck of a lot more like reality.

Of course the ultimate goal is to be able to see things as they are without needing to obfuscate. After a while you get to a point where you can just turn your interpretive machinery off. (Warning: this gives you a surprising euphoria if you're not already used to doing it. It feels really good to give that stuff a rest.)

So with this revelation I learned to draw. Yea! Go back to Hacker News now and vote me up. 

. . .

. . . Ok. And I may have learned something about living. Why am I typing this. (Hey Megan, I love you.)

The Tao Te Ching was another game-changing book of quintessence for me. Oh God, I know how your interpretive machinery just simplified me.

Taoism contends that people can get trapped in words, concepts, and "isms." When I was a kid I attended to an academic debate on the internet about whether or not the Taoist writer Chuang Tzu had been the world's first anarchist. The consensus that came out of the discussion was that Chuang Tzu would give the finger to anarchism itself because it was too still too much of an "ism," and the word was too much of a commitment.

Concepts can disadvantage us (and benefit us) in some ways because they're imprecise, but they're traps because they're commitments. I've spoken before about how I hate dichotomies like "I'm an intellectual, not a jock." But far more deleterious to our happiness, I think, are concepts like, "She's a bitch." Humans are prone to hieroglyph everything away, even each other, so that just as the hour-long drive from work becomes a single chunked "event" that can hardly be recalled, human souls of richness and complexity get written off, simplified to a few penstrokes, and ultimately never engaged with for what they are.

I've half-wanted to write an anarchistic spiritual manifesto growing from the insights that I gleaned in part from learning to draw faces, but I keep getting hung up on the words. "I can't say 'spiritual'" "'Anarchist' isn't right."

I guess "The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao."[1]

With that in mind, maybe some of you will bear with me.


  1. You didn't become a half decent artist in a minute. You became a significantly better artist... that doesn't mean good, necessarily, or decent-- that's sort of a weird thing to say, but mostly just because of the traps of language and word definitions that you were talking about. I know what you mean, though. You've reached a significant milestone. And I'd say you are definitely a budding artist and an artist in general. If you make stuff, and you rely on your senses to a large extent, you're an artist. This is really just the beginning for you. Now you're thinking like an artist. And that's good. But I don't even know what makes someone a "good artist," so the word "decent" is even more of a nightmare. I'd say that you're an artist and you're growing as one and leave it at that.

    Very cool blog post. Thoughtful and intelligent, and your art has certainly changed a lot. I love the connections you make to literature. There's a very interesting story in a very recent New Yorker called 'Life Studies' that is about exactly this-- an intellectual guy who decides to take a life drawing class and humbly learns to, at least sort of, if pitifully, start to really understand learning to draw by seeing and not symbols. I think you'd really connect to it, it's a great read.

    Cheers :)

  2. I've been thinking about writing non-fiction about Taoism and spirituality for a while. I'd love to have a like-minded person bounce ideas off me and vice versa.

    I don't like the idea of blogging...I'm embarrassed by my writing until I have it just right. But if you're interested in collaboration, just holler.

  3. William Blake said that if the doors of perception were cleansed, we'd see things as they really are - infinite.

    That seems a bit extreme.

    But I agree with you, I think, that some light dusting can be quite wonderful.

  4. I agree that breaking free of pre-conceived concepts helped you observer better, but on the whole philosophy of art, tends to stress the abstraction and conceptualization as the core of the artists role.

    Here is Nietzsche's take on the birth of art...

    ""These early artists conceived of no other way of subduing the earth than by converting it into concepts ; and,as time soon showed that there actually was no other way, interpretation came to be regarded as the greatest task of all. Naming, adjusting, classifying, qualifying, valuing, putting a meaning into things, and above all, simplifying -- all these functions acquired a sacred character and he who performed them to the glory of his fellows became sacrosanct."

  5. JD - Email me. I'll hear you out.

    Duncan - Yeah, Richard M. Weaver, ever echoing Nietzsche, says the same about art. I'm too lazy to fetch the exact quote, but he says that we can only perceive the world through an aggregate of symbols. Borges, in Funes the Memorious, makes the related point that "to think is to forget a difference,"-- that our capacity for making sense of the world depends on generalizing and abstracting. Weaver argues (compellingly, or at least entertainingly) that distinction and hierarchy are necessary for the continuation of civilization, and that forgetting this in art precedes a civilizational collapse.

    I want to be a moderate here: know when to turn it on, and know when to turn it off. Use your symbolic tools, but don't get trapped.

    Chuang Tzu again: "Words exist because of their meanings. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the word. Where can I meet someone who has forgotten words, that I might have a word with him?"

  6. As a man human, and drawer of that there bad musician, I would just like to confirm that I really can't draw.

    I'm just a man with too many post-it notes.

  7. George, you're a genius. I love your blog.

  8. Delighted to find someone else whose life was changed by Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain. I defy anyone to do some of the exercises in the book and come away unchanged - you can actually feel the shift in your head.

    Good for you!

  9. Awesome post.

    Wholeheartedly agree that we ought to take people and experiences as they are, without a need to filter them through lenses or into categories. The day that I realized that that "bitch" was actually a multi-faceted human being of infinite complexity and beauty, while simultaneously being a minor, very temporary cause of annoyance, was a game changing moment of quintessence for me. I still don't think I've come to terms with all of its implications...

  10. Got here from the reddit post in /r/taoism (there's an ism for you!)

    I believe that what we Americans refer to as "the ying yang system" is referred to in some forms of Chinese as "the diagram of ultimate power". Or at least Wikipedia tells me so.

    So, on symbolism, why not?