Why We Draw, Paint and Photograph

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 26, 2015

I’m taking a community education course in beginning drawing and it’s making me think about why we draw, paint and photograph. I took the course to do something with a friend and learn a few drawing skills, but the class is making me contemplate the nature of art. Most people now carry a camera with them at all times because of smartphones. Why learn to sketch, when a click of the camera can capture any image far easier? Yet, before cameras, why did we want to draw what we saw? The urge goes back to our earliest days as cave dwellers. Did drawing skills precede language skills? Often, whenever we want to explain something complicated to another person, we draw a picture. The hot new trend in journalism is infographics. And, there’s that old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

cave art

My efforts to draw what I see has been extremely frustrating so far. I can draw a table that allows someone else to say, “Hey, that’s a table.” What frustrates me is I can’t accurately draw the table I see. I know I can’t become a human camera, but I do want to sketch with a level of accuracy that teaches me to see the abundance of details I’m currently ignoring. When I think about art, I wonder if I’m missing the point. Until we had cameras, artists strove to accurately record reality. Paintings were physical memories of what they saw. Artists also did more. They tell stories and create beauty. And, of course, they wanted to make a living, and maybe even become famous. Since I don’t need to earn money from drawing, nor do I care about fame, that leaves me with beauty, story and memory.


Right now I’m struggling to make smudges on paper that capture what I see. I’m picking objects that look easy to draw. But eventually I’ll want to record something I really want to remember, and something that I’m seeing in a more powerful way than how I look at things now. Ultimately though, I want to create something that’s beautiful. That’s the special quality of art. Art creates something that doesn’t exist in nature but competes with nature for beauty.

Right now I have absolutely no idea of how to create something new and beautiful, but I get the feeling that’s where this path leads. My teacher seems to know that’s where we need to go, but also knows we’re going to quickly get lost, and give up. Most people are artists when they are kids, but they lose their way. Maybe when we get old, we try to return to that way of looking at the world, like when we were young.


I doubt I’ll ever become an artist, or even create something beautiful, but that doesn’t matter. Trying teaches me about the nature of art more than just admiring works in a gallery or studying art history courses. It’s like programming computers, there’s lots of procedures, subroutines and techniques to learn. There are tools to master, and coding languages to memorize. I’m surprised by how many technical tricks are involved in drawing. Talent might be involved, and it might not either. My guess is it’s mostly practice and work, and picking up skills and tricks from other artists.

Anyone can draw a picture or snap a photograph. It’s the why that matters. What do we want to remember, what story do we have to tell, can we capture beauty we discover in reality, or can we add something beauty to reality? I hope I can develop a daily habit of drawing, and it become a routine like exercising. It’s really hard to start doing something totally new late in life, but I think it will be good for me. Just the little effort I’ve put out for this class hurts my brain in a way that lets me know how artistically out of shape I am, and how artistically fit some of my friends are in comparison.


I use John’s Background Switcher to display random photography as wallpaper on my desktop. Every ten minutes I get a new scene capturing a beautiful instant from somewhere in the world. These photos are memories, stories and beauty. I’m astounded by the artistic visions that photographers find, often in locations other people would call ugly. Other times I have John’s Background Switcher randomly go through famous paintings. Every ten minutes I’m reminded of the amazing diversity of what’s possible to imagine that’s not in reality. These paintings and photos transcend time and space, and they tell a relentless story.

Table of Contents

Classroom Learning v. Online Learning

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 15, 2015

This week I started a continuing education class in beginning drawing. It’s the first classroom learning experience I’ve had in over a decade. Of course, folks my age don’t usually go to school, but I was still taking some graduate courses in my fifties. In recent years I’ve been using online courses from Coursera and Udemy, or I sometimes buy Great Courses on DVD. And whenever I want to learn something quickly, I go to YouTube and find a How-To video. Plus, I’ve been an autodidactic my whole life, and learn on my own with books.

Taking this drawing course is way off my beaten path because I’m trying to learn something I have absolutely no previous experience with in any context. Even my expectations for what the class would be like was completely different from what I experienced. I assumed the teacher would start us with pencil and paper and teach us the rudimentary skills of line drawing. Instead she had us create two 1-10 gray scales with 9B pencil and black Conte crayon. Then she had us “draw” from still-life objects by using shading rather than lines. She took us through a tour of the building where the walls were covered with student artwork and showed us how it’s possible to draw without lines, and explained the lines we see in reality are just edges to various levels of shading.


[See the power of the pencil]

It was when we actually got down to work that I realized the difference between classroom learning and online learning. Nine-seven percent of my time I worked alone, but when I did get the teacher to come by to show me something it caused a big leap in my ability. Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t spend that much time with me. She had to lecture and visit the other students. Now this one little insight is the intent of this whole essay. I have found numerous videos online that teach drawing. They are all equal or better to classroom lectures when dealing with information. The same is true for books, although seeing someone demonstrate drawing techniques works much better in videos than from the printed page.

Where the classroom wins is when you get feedback. Sadly, most classroom instruction is built around lectures, and the reality is most video lectures come from top tier instructors. I also watched my fellow students in class and realized if I could work with them, all of whom had more experience drawing than I did, I could learn from them as well. This reminds me of when I went to computer school back in the early 1970s, at the State Technical Institute in Memphis. Classes were three hours. The first hour was lecture. The next two hours were programming. The teacher hung around to give one-on-one help, plus students worked together and helped each other. This method was perfect. This is how Pythagoras and Aristotle taught over two thousand years ago. This is not how most of my university classes were like. It was better decades ago when classes were lectures and discussions, but unfortunately, someone asshole invented PowerPoint, and things got real boring. That’s why my last stint at college was taking fiction writing workshops.

My guess, the best way to learn is with a tutor, with one-on-one instruction. And I’d advise colleges and professors who don’t want to be put out of business by online courses to spend more time interacting with students while they work. Leave the lecturing to the folks who are most eloquent in front of a camera. Instruct while walking between your students, and having them work on something you can guide them personally. Stop by each student often to see how they are progressing. Give the students time to work together. Spend as much time as possible away from the front of the class. Online learning can’t compete to this kind of instruction.

Here are some samples of online lectures. Notice how the video deletes dead time—some of these seven minutes lessons would be a whole class period in the real world. It’s very easy to go back and repeat parts. It’s also easy to find other teachers covering similar topics. What the videos can’t do is give instant feedback and guidance. It really helps to have a human say, “That won’t work, try this.”

My continuing education course would actually be far more effective if it was built around a computer lecture series, and all the time I got to spend in class was interacting with a teacher and my fellow students.

JWH – #973

How Good is Your Visual Memory?

I recently read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks and I can’t stop thinking about it.  Sacks is professor of neurology and psychiatry that writes about medical oddities relating to cognition.  The Mind’s Eye is about all aspects of vision and how it impacts the brain, our behavior and our perception of reality.

I’ve always assumed I was an average person, with average abilities, so that I was smarter than some, but dumber than others.  That I was stronger than some, and weaker than others.  I’ve always assumed I fit comfortably in the middle of the bell curve of what it means to be human, and thus assumed what I see and feel is pretty much what other people see and feel.  Reading Oliver Sacks proves that assumption completely wrong.


We all see the world drastically different, both at a physical level and at a conceptual level.  People aren’t a homogenous species.  If you’ve watched the recent Olympics you know what physical extremes exists.  Reading Oliver Sacks will illustrate the cognitive extremes.

Even in the snug middle of the bell curve, we’re all very different.  In the last chapter of The Mind’s Eye, Sacks writes about blindness and talked about his essay on John Hull, author of Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness.  Hull wrote about losing his sight, and slowly forgetting all visual memories until years later he reached what he called “deep blindness.”   Hull blew my mind, when he wrote that he felt deep blindness was a richer state of mind. 

In his essay on Hull, Sacks seem to imply this was how blindness worked in general.  Later he was surprised by all the letters he got from blind people explaining how their blindness had not worked that way.  He soon learned there was an array of human responses to going blind.

From this Sacks wrote about visual memory.  Sacks himself discovered he himself had poor visual memory when he took a lizard skeleton to his mother and she visually memorized it by turning it 360 degrees, stopping each 30 degrees to memorize that view.  She was a surgeon and had expected her son to be a surgeon too, but when she realized he didn’t have her visual memory, she told Sacks he shouldn’t go into surgery.  I suggest you find a copy of The Mind’s Eye and read the whole chapter rather than me paraphrasing it all, because it has an astounding amount of information about visual memory to contemplate.  Especially the stories about blind people who still feel they live in a visual world – an artificial reality inside their heads.

Like Sacks I have poor visual memory. Sometimes when I listen to music with my eyes closed, I’ll have flashes of visual scenes, but I have no control over them, and they last so little time I can’t study their details.  People with great visual memory can study their mind’s image and draw them.  A stunning example is Stephen Wiltshire, who draws Rome from one helicopter ride.  (See other videos here.)

If I was to go blind, I assume my experience would be pretty much like John Hull, and I’d eventually forget my visual memories and end up in deep blindness.  But thinking about this, I wondered if I couldn’t exercise my visual memory, like doing push-ups to make my arms stronger, and develop my visual memory.  After I read the last chapter in The Mind’s Eye I started paying more attention to visual details and became fixated on a church steeple I see on my drive to work, atop Audubon Baptist Church.  I drive by a 8:25 in the morning when the sun is behind me and there is no shadows, and again at 1:55 when I’m returning from lunch, and it does have shadows.

The first time I noticed this steeple after reading the book, I tried to memorize as much as I could when I was at the light near the church.  The steeple sits on a peaked A-shape roof.  The steeple has four parts, a square based with one round window per side, an eight-sided level above that with large rectangular windows, an even smaller level above that with wooden shudders, again eight sides I think, and a tall steeple that comes to a very sharp point.

When I got back to work the first time I tried to draw it from memory.  But I didn’t have any visual memory.  I remember the peaked roof, the four sided box, an eight-sided box on top of it, and another eight-sided box on it, and then the steeple, so I tried to draw those geometric shapes.  It was a terrible drawing because I tried to draw all the sides.  The next time I drove by I studied it again and realized, duh!, that I only see one side of things, and only a portion of the geometric shapes, and from a certain angle.  I had started my drawing with an 3d octagon wire shape, and that’s a conceptual view, not a visual view.  So if I’m looking from the side, I’ll see one side of the 4 sides, and 3 sides of the 8 sides, and essentially a very long triangle.

To test my memory just now I found a picture of the church on the web and it’s nothing like what I remember seeing.  For some reason I remember the church as having wood siding, and it’s brick.  I did remember the wooden slates on the third level, but I didn’t remember the tall windows of the second layer.  I’m no Stephen Wiltshire.

I remember having a much better visual memory when I was young and smoked pot.  Oliver Sacks said he experimented with large dosages of amphetamines when he was young and for a few weeks could draw quite well, especially from his visual memory.  After he stopped taking the drugs he lost all ability to draw.  The poet W. H. Auden took Benzedrine to write poetry, because it helped him to concentrate intensely on detailed verbal imagery.  I assume drugs in each case helps tune out larger reality so we can zoom in on a single tiny aspect, which helps the brain focus.  But can visual memory be enhanced without drugs?

I’m pretty sure it can because of my experiment with looking at the church steeple.  If I studied that steeple every day, and tried to draw it every day, and checked my errors every day, I’d learn about seeing and drawing, but I don’t know if I would have a better visual memory.  Many of the blind people Oliver Sacks wrote about, have extremely detailed inner worlds.  They know they aren’t accurate compared to the outer world they can’t see, but they are very functional models and maps that help them live and work in reality.  One blind man even re-shingled his own roof, freaking out his neighbors because he worked at night.  Another could design machinery with his inner sight.

I think when I have flashes of visual memory it’s more like dream memory.  I have very vivid dreams, but sometimes I’ll have microsecond flashes of dream memory when I’m awake.  When I took drugs when I was a kid, some of those memory flashes would last seconds.  I remember one of flying over the Golden Gate bridge, as if I was a bird, or riding in a helicopter.  Often my flash memories are visions from great heights – and I can’t explain that.  A person with good visual memory could retain those images in their mind.  I can’t.  My memory of them are more like wordy descriptions, which probably explains why I write rather than paint.

I’ve always been impressed by 19th century scientific drawings.  Drawing was an important skill to a scientist.  I don’t know if this meant they had good visual memory, or just a good eye for detail.  And that makes me wonder if I developed an eye for detail would that enhance my visual memory?

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctionsmoon-drawing

I’ve always wondered if painters had to paint 100% of what they put on canvas while observing their subjects, or did they paint some of their pictures from memory.  Often when I look at photographs I think I remember in great detail, I’m shocked to find my memories are either wrong or just fuzzy smudges at best.  People with perfect visual memories are often autistic.  Temple Grandin, a famous autistic person, profiled by Oliver Sacks and featured in the wonderful HBO movie of the same name, thinks in visual imagery.  I’ve many times wondered if animals, who don’t have our language skills, think in pictures too.

To be honest, I believe I have a poor visual memory because I go through life not paying attention to visual reality.  My life is books and words.  I think in concepts.  And I wondered if John Hull felt deep blindness was more rewarding because it allowed him to focus more intensely on concepts.  Now, I have no desire to go blind, but I can imagine after reading Sacks, that blindness isn’t the sensory depravation I once thought it was.

Also, I wonder if I can improve my current abilities.  The cliché is your hearing and touch senses improve if you go blind, but do you have to go blind to improve your other senses?  Can one enhance all our senses, or is their a limitation in brain processing?  Because I’m getting older and my memory is failing, I pay attention to all that advice about improving memory.  I started playing Words with Friends.  I used to be terrible at Scrabble, but now I keep 6-8 Words with Friends games going and I can now beat people that used to always stomp me.

I’m confident if I got some drawing books and practiced, or even took some drawing classes, I could improve my drawing skills, but I also wonder if those skills would translate into better visual memory?  Is that a physical limitation – you either have it or you don’t?

How good is your visual memory?  Post a comment.

JWH – 8/11/12 


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