Written by David Savage
Originally published as Draw your way to better woodworking in Popular Woodworking / 2016
Most of us use our eyes to avoid bumping into things; we probably are only using 20 percent of our visual ability. I had a student some years ago at Rowden Workshops who had a history in the special forces. “I’ve never drawn in my life,” he said in a deep, dark, threatening voice. Yet within six weeks he was a highly competent draftsman, putting down accurate lines that described what he was looking at. His visual accuracy was trained on the battlefield. He had used his eyes to stay alive.
A notebook goes everywhere with David, who insists that students learn drawing as part of their furniture making courses at Rowden Workshops, his Devon, England, school. While waiting for a doctor’s appointment, he wrote a job list and sketched two drawings of his shoe. Don’t wait to draw special stuff, teaches Savage. Just draw what’s there.
All of us can learn to draw. We all have the ability. What we need to understand is that to do this as woodworkers we do not need to draw like Leonardo do Vinci. We need to draw just well enough to put the image down.
I ask students to give it 20 minutes a day, of good time, four times a week during their time at Rowden. It’s not hard, but it is demanding. Like going to the gym, it gets easier and more rewarding as you do it. It is important but never urgent – so you need to make it a part of your planned day. If you don’t, that urgent sanding or dovetailing will always get done; drawing won’t. Which is stupid.
It’s about making something worth making. You might cut lovely dovetails, but is the piece in proportion? Does it look good? Will someone 100 years from now say, “that’s nice,” or did your piece go in the dumpster 50 years ago? Drawing is about your response to the patterns of nature. Seeing things – really seeing things – not just taking phone shots and putting them on Instagram. Drawing allows you to make better visual judgements when planning your piece of work.
Drawing is going beyond “the golden section” and conventional proportioning systems and going to the essence of how they were developed. Drawing takes you to seeing the patterns and essential structures of nature. It enables you to build your pieces “in tune” with nature, not at discord.
Seeing better is what happens when you draw. You come out of a life drawing session and go home, all the colours of the field are vivid and sharper, much more than before the class. Drawing is a process of filling up your visual vocabulary, assembling a set of images, shapes you like – anything from sea shells, to a woman’s bottom, from the way a leaf joins a twig, to the way water flows over a beach. All are gathered into your personal visual language. Again taking photographs doesn’t do this; it shows your interest, but it is outside your mind, still not a part of you.
Like learning a language, you need to gather the parts that make up language – the visual equivalent of syllables and words – and put them in the back of your head. That’s where the live. I call it “uploading”. You upload when you sit and draw an object.
I tell students to not wait for significant objects; just draw the damn teacup on the bench. Mundane it may be, but you will soon find visual interest in the shadows, in the way the handle joins the body. You will start to really see that teacup. Upload four times a week, every week, and you will start seeing stuff when you go out. You start bringing stuff back to draw, you start drawing your left foot when sitting waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Now your eyes are working for you.
It is personal – powerfully deeply personal. These are images gathered over years to form your individual visual vocabulary. Unlike most ideas that disappear with saddening ease, these are ideas that stay with you. Like a stick stuck in the ground 40 years ago, when you did that quick drawing – give honest lines. Now you do back, dig under the stick find the original image. The original idea. Still there bright and shiny and complete like buried treasure. Fail to draw and your ideas will not stop coming, but they will tend to disappear with the morning mist. Nail them down immediateely; drawing five honest lines will install the image in your memory system. Thirty years later when you need that idea you “download” it and it pops of the end of your pencil.
This is the creative bit; having put stuff up there in the back of your head you can upon it. Notice the language. Sit with the problem and just draw. Be uncritical, just see what pops off the end of the pencil. Paul Klee called it “taking a line for a walk.” Just doodle. If you have done it right something will come pretty quickly. At Rowden, we have a two-week gap between getting the brief and doing the doodles. That allows the brain a time for “unconscious scanning.” Your first ideas will probably be from the front of your head, the area of conscious thought. Those ideas might be OK, but dig deeper and you get to the gold.
These are the ideas you uploaded years ago; it takes the filing system in the back of your head a while to get to them. A second day at the problem will usually drop ideas off the end of your pencil that will surprise you.
But the brain works a bit like a computer. Rubbish in, rubbish out. It demands that you put down a powerful vocabulary of strong visual images to draw upon. Then all sorts of new and interesting ideas come together.
So that is why. There is no way that gathering images in Instagram or Pinterest will work the same way.
We see student pieces in exhibitions every year sourced crudely from other people’s work – the top of this man’s table with legs from the woman’s table. Digital photographs are great tools, but they are external. Drawing is internal.
CAD is a great tools in the process of developing an idea, but it is fundamentally uncreative. I have a friend who works in the Audi design center; she tells me all the concept work there is still paper and pencil. The great architect David Chipperfield has a studio marked with an absence of computer screens and an overwhelming presence of models of buildings being developed in a series of iterations.
At Rowden we would not employ a maker – however competent – without decent drawing skills. Drawings show they have “good eyes” and as a consequence he or she is much easier to work with.
Getting started on your own is not easy, but it can be done. You just need a plan. Betty Edwards’ book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” is a good plan to follow. We use some of her exercises at Rowden.
The essence of doing this is to do little, but often. Starting is always the hardest part. I go through a series of things that I call “othering”. I turn off the news. I shut the phones off. I sharpen give pencils and put some music on. All this prepares my visual mind to start work. I shut down the right side of my head. All the command enters of control, mathematics, language, rational thought, get put to sleep.
You do need to control your thoughts when drawing. The major control center will not find it comfortable at first. That part of your brain is used to providing you with quick visual symbols of things: “Don’t bother looking at that bicycle; I have a symbol of a bicycle already – here you are.”
I set up a drawing session once with students ranged all around a bicycle. One guy was looking right down the side of the bike; all he could see was the tire and handlebars. What he drew was not what he saw, but a full-on-side view of a bike. This was the symbol of a bike his left brain provided him with. Shut this side of the brain down; the visual holistic and music centers of the brain are all in the right side of the head. Let them work.
Start simple and sit down as you draw; this keeps your head in one place at one height. Drawing a white cube and rectangle on a white background – just the outlines well, observed. Honest well-seen lines. The first time, a good hour looking very hard will exhaust you. With a few weeks of consistent work you should be banging those lines down with the confidence of an expert.
Move on to curves and circles. Drawing an ellipse is like stirring a cup of tea. You need to practice the hand, wrist and arm movements necessary to put the line where you want it. The pencil is the Ferrari of mark-making tools: light, fast, agile. But you need to acquire the skill to drive her, or she will kill you. Like using a chisel, it’s a skill.
Drawing is not just for woodworkers but it does make us all better makers. And you can learn it. I boasted once that I could teach a house brick to draw; that was a vain boast. The house brick has to really want to learn to draw.