Art Makes the Familiar New Again

As an art major, I drew for a grade. But as a child, I drew because I wanted to understand. I wanted to explore why houses, people, and dogs looked the way they did. My tools of discovery were colors, lines, and shapes.

My drawings mirrored my growing understanding of what it meant to live in a world teeming with oddities like bicycles, fish, and stars.

I stopped drawing when I turned 13, partly because the private school I attended in middle school offered no art classes. My skills faded from neglect.

But later on in my junior year of college, at a time when I was deeply depressed, I abruptly changed my major from liberal studies to art. I left some of my professors scratching their heads, but there was something about drawing that I missed profoundly, and I wanted it in my life again.

Majoring in art, however, was nothing like drawing as a child. Each project had strict rules, not to mention the looming threat of a grade—and a potentially humiliating critique for every project.

Although there were parts of my art major adventure I loved, I was always tense. I never really felt like the art was a way to express myself. It was about pleasing teachers for a grade. That is why, when I left college, I stashed my oil paints, brushes, and drawing pencils in a closet. I would only return to them many years later in 2020 during a pandemic.

The pandemic reminded me that life is strange—and that my most basic assumptions could be inverted overnight. Suddenly I was home-bound, and at night there was a sense of loneliness as I got ready for bed. For company, I got into the habit of listening to YouTube. I stumbled onto a speech by Alan Watts, a self-described entertainer and “mystic” who in the sixties popularized eastern religions to the western world. Although I am a religious skeptic, I was intrigued by a video called, “Life is Not a Journey.” I thought that he had an interesting point of view.

I would listen to his lectures as I put dishes in the cabinets. His voice—which sounded like Gandalf—consoled me. And a topic he kept returning to was the unity between opposites such as objects and the space around them. Although they contrast, they depend upon each other to exist.

The speech reminded me of the importance of negative space in drawing. In the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards emphasizes the need to be aware of negative space when you draw. It matters just as much as the “positive” forms because without each other, neither could exist.

This principle goes without saying, yet it is not how most people conventionally think about forms and the space they inhabit. The “unity of opposites” seems strange. But the most basic rules of drawing direct attention to it.

Art makes the familiar seem new again. While drawing I feel like I have gone back in time, like I am a child trying to grasp what makes something look like a house or a dog or a car. Art restores me to a more innocent–and interesting–way of seeing.

I think I know what runner looks like until I try to draw one. Then I realize that I have no idea what a runner looks like. Running has become a musty symbol in my head.

Besides, a running person looks completely different according to the point of view you adopt. Are you drawing them from the side or from behind? Which of the hundreds of fleeting positions that occur in mid-run are you going to capture? Which position should you choose?

Conventional ways of thinking—which usually involve symbols—can lead to boredom; drawing is a way to unlearn them. According to Picasso, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

While I am no Picasso, I get it. When I draw, I become aware that the rules of what makes a thing look real are incredibly odd.

What can be stranger than foreshortening—a distortion of size that occurs with variations in distance? A foot of a recumbent figure, because of its proximity to me as a viewer, can look mountainous while dwarfing his more distant moon of a head.

If I crave new sights, it is not always necessary to travel. Sometimes it is enough to peel the stale skin off the familiar and make it novel again.

Drawing is a way to do that. It rewards you for looking at objects as if you had never seen them before. This mindset yields better drawings and a more interesting life.

But if you persist in drawing what you know rather than what you see, your drawings will look amateurish. To see honestly, you have to unlearn—for the moment—that a head is bigger than a foot or that the lines of a road run parallel as they recede from the viewer.

Another Picasso quote beautifully expresses the relief of “unlearning” old ways of seeing: “It took four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

But studying the rules of perspective can only take me so far. Art also enables me to see beauty in things that people normally think of as unattractive: dilapidated houses, a cracked car window, or the wrinkles of an elderly person. A photography teacher once took my class to a lot full of broken, discarded automobiles. It was a visual feast.

But what about other arts? If drawing can make me relish objects ordinarily overlooked or reviled, can writing? In a different way, yes. Just as drawing from life means honoring whatever you see, in fiction I have to honor my observations of real people.

That usually means I have to let my characters have flaws. Those flaws, even the most egregious ones, are an essential part of who they are.

Instead of rushing to edify my characters by making them more mature or reasonable or pious, I relish those flaws in the same way I could be dazzled by a yard full of battered cars.

As a writer who thrives on drama, I have no interest in reforming my characters or forcing them to conform to some arbitrary definition of perfection. If my characters are jerks, as a writer I am duty-bound to preserve their naughty integrity. That makes them seem more real than if I make them all goodness and light.

Besides, conflict is the engine of fiction. “Flaws” in characters are—for story-telling purposes—pure gold.

We are a culture obsessed with what we can change, improve, reform, rehabilitate, or control. Art is a way to step out of this mindset, to suspend judgement, to observe, and—at least for that moment—to accept what we see. Art is about celebrating whatever is.

Baruch de Spinoza said, “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.”

The best literature is about understanding. If I populate the pages of my story with pious, unselfish people who always get along, my story will stall.,

But it is not just that characters must clash for drama. In fiction, and maybe also in life, we love characters not just in spite of their flaws but because of them.

This should be obvious. But—like negative space in a drawing—it seems so strange.

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