Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Darwin and the evolution of my brain

 My drawing ability stalled out at the second grade level.  To wit, this drawing of an imaginary place that I did in reply to a request from my daughter just 3 months ago.

It is embarrassingly bad, and it perfectly illustrates why I didn't draw for my entire life.  At least by hand.  (What are those green blobs in the pond? Frogs? Lily pads?)  Ok, yes, somehow I did manage to produce illustrations for two different, 'serious' books, but I thought of that as 90% Adobe Illustrator and 10% me.  But I did learn as I went along, or maybe AI and I trained each other.

Here's one of my first Illustrator drawings, from our earlier book.

From Genetics and the Logic of Evolution, Weiss and Buchanan, 2004

I remember how much I struggled just to make this simple line drawing.

And then one of my favorites, which not coincidentally was among the last I did for The Mermaid's Tale.

From The Mermaid's Tale; Weiss and Buchanan, 2009

Ok, two of my favorites.

C. elegans body plan; The Mermaid's Tale; Weiss and Buchanan, 2009

I learned a lot about using AI by the time that book was finished.  But see drawing above as to how much that applied to hand drawing.

And then a few months ago, by chance I saw that a painter at the local art co-op was offering a beginning drawing class. On a whim, I decided to sign up.  I knew someone in college who drew her way through Norway on a postcard-sized sketchbook, and I always thought it would be wonderful to be able to do that, though I had no illusion that I would ever be able to.  Still, I liked the idea of perhaps being able to improve my drawing at least to the point of being able to enjoy doing it.

I took the list of supplies we'd need to the art store before the first class, bought the pencils, erasers, pencil sharpener, and the suggested sketch pad, which was so large that it was unwieldy to carry.  I was embarrassed to walk out of the store with that 18 x 24" sketch pad under my arm.  I felt a total fraud.

The first class was a bit intimidating -- one woman was already seated at her easel, half-way through copying a da Vinci drawing, which didn't help.  As it turned out, she was a private student but I didn't know that at the time.  I sat down at one of the free drawing tables and opened the sketch pad to the first yawningly empty sheet of paper.  I laid my 2HB pencils and my erasers and my sharpener next to the paper, and looked around at the 6 other students doing the same.  What if they were all as good as the woman copying the master?

Introductions followed -- relief, the rest of us really were beginners -- and then the instructor sat down to demonstrate what he was asking us to do.  He put a simple box on the pedestal that was the hub of the circle of tables and nervous students, and began to draw.  Yes, he did put up his thumb to measure the size of the object.  It was in fact a revelation to me that artists actually do that -- and the beginning of the evolution of my brain.

After watching how it was supposed to be done, I sat back down to try to draw the box myself.  Huge blank sheet, everyday object, render to paper.  Just picking up the pencil was awkward, and the act of putting the first line to paper felt like it was being done by someone else's arm, driven by someone else's brain.  But I did it, and this is what I drew.

Ok, tentative lines, no attention to technical issues, but there are lines on paper.  That was good enough for day 1.

We had eight classes, three hours long, each utterly basic but utterly eye-opening to someone stuck in second grade drawing mode.  Perspective! Oh, that's why I could draw the diagrammatic figures for the books that I did with Illustrator!  No need to make them look life-like.  Oh, we're supposed to draw what we see, not what we think we see!  Revolution.  Negative space! A whole new way of seeing.  Organizational lines, vanishing points, units; all basic, all essential.

As I practiced, somehow the rust fell away, and my muscles started to be willing to move.  Not just arm muscles, but the seeing, rendering muscles.  We went outside to draw houses for one class, and here's the one I drew.

Still tentative, still technical issues, and the house looks rather more haunted in my rendering than it does on the street (it's a very tidy, well-kept house, in fact), but still, progress I thought.  I started to sort of like what I drew, so I kept drawing.

And then the other day I woke up wondering if I could draw Darwin.  Who does that?  So, me, online photo of Darwin, sketchbook and a pencil.  I wish I'd taken more photos as I worked, because the fascinating thing, to me, is that at some point early on, my lines on paper began to actually look like the famously familiar photo of this man.  This absolutely amazed me, and continues to.

Here's a photo of just the face, before I added the trimmings, which turn out not to be necessary for the effect.  I actually kind of like this picture better than the 'finished' one.  But the thing is, it was Darwin after just the first eye was done.

Now, 'finished' (which brings up another artistic problem: how do you know when you're finished?)

How does the brain turn lines on paper into a sense of a three-dimensional person?  Is it because we know this image so well that we excuse my raw attempt at rendering it, and fill in the blanks?  Simple (or not so simple) pattern recognition?  That could be.

And, to pull this tale back to the beginning of evolutionary time, at the end of each drawing class we looked at all of our drawings, and 'critiqued' them.  To me the fascinating thing, each week, was how very differently each of the seven of us put pencil to paper; same beginnings, usually the same object, totally different renderings.  One woman drew a bird's-eye view of the house she was sitting in front of, in the beautiful dark confident lines she used for everything; another man drew every shingle on the roof of his chosen house.  Speciation in action.

As well as evolution of the mind.  My mind, my understanding, my confidence and ability to tell my muscles what to do.  I have a long way to go, having drawn my way into a number of technical corners in just this one Darwin drawing, and I have no idea where to even begin working with color, but I've learned a lot.  Not least about what this optical illusion, this effect of graphite on paper, tells us about the power of the brain, of its constant, effortless brilliance at solving 'the binding problem', the putting together of the results of what so many different parts of the brain are perceiving and making final sense of it.  Indeed, to the brain, this isn't a 'problem' at all.  Even ants and bees and crows and dolphin brains can do it.  It's a 'problem' only for those who want to put it into words.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Beautiful, Anne.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thank you, Holly. It has been fun.

O. Douglas Jennings said...

I've been an art instructor for the past 25 years and I always love to see the very process of learning how to draw that you described so beautifully as well as scientifically: The tentative beginnings, the coordination of eye, brain and hand to reproduce an image on paper --and then the confidence and satisfaction that this accomplishment engenders --is one of the most remarkable aspects of human existence (and, in regard to general artistic design, shared by other species as well, i.e., the great bower bird).
Thank you for this delightful post!

Anne Buchanan said...

O.Douglas Jennings, thanks so much for your comment. You describe the process perfectly! And, yes, the bower bird.

Anonymous said...

I love the house in what I imagined a scrim of fog or light snow or dusk.

When I was an undergraduate we did a lot of "drawing" or "copying" of microscopic images. I was amazed by how well I did since there is little evidence that I draw but learning how to stipple taught me a lot about seeing.

A few years ago I attended a meeting of the Minnesota Native Plants Society. The program speaker was one MN's very best illustrators/artists/painters. She led us through a drawing lesson and I was surprised by what I did.

Among the lessons she left me with was the value and use of an eraser--"the artist's best friend and don't be afraid to use it, over and over." The other was practice.

I think the reason I don't draw better--I do one small drawing a day for a journal I keep but is for my eyes only, is an unwillingness to be serious about it, e.g., do what you did, and to practice (and erase more!)

What a great entry. BTW, I loved the sticker on a previous post but please continue to write about the practice of science as well as policy, etc.


Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks so much, Anonymous (though I'm guessing this is Ed, so if I'm right, thank you, Ed). Yes, erase! Hasn't your drawing improved over time, even if it's just one small drawing a day?

And yes, we'll keep commenting!