The Teaching of Drawing

I didn’t really start to draw until I was in middle school. I wasn’t interested in making my drawings look realistic and no one in my family believed I had drawing talent until later on. What’s more important, if anyone had asked me to take a drawing class I would have said no.

Line drawing of two women

Line work has tremendous expressive capacity as this bar scene captured in a few minutes demonstrates.

My handsome and very popular seventh grade art teacher was more interested in motorcycles. But then something happened that would change my life. I took an elective with another art teacher, someone who wasn’t as popular but who taught drawing strategies systematically, gave exercises and assignments, and most important, feedback. I still remember the day I discovered basic shapes, it was very much a “Hellen Keller” moment for me. After I discovered there was a visual language of line, shape and value, no one could keep me from it.

But before that happened, I was oblivious to all the ways drawing knowledge could help me be a better artist. I firmly believed those who drew had “talent” or were “gifted,” and I didn’t consider myself artistic. Without anyone to coax me into developing my drawing skills, my journey was both voluntary and solitary. I mention this background so you can appreciate what a surprise it was to me to discover I could create good drawings. My drawings when from “meh” to “wow!” over the course of one semester, with a teacher who didn’t talk much, but who looked at everything I made in class.

Portrait of my friend

Sometimes spontaneous work has the most appeal. I did this head portrait working quickly before my friend discovered I was drawing her.

She gave us exercises to train our eyes to think in terms of design elements. Because we were in a class I was able to see how others dealt with the same challenges. Soon I was taking my newsprint pad with me everywhere.

But adults are different. Adults don’t have the extreme limits of a teen’s budget. They can go to an art store and purchase paints instead of pencils because, who wants to work in black and white when there is color? They can gift themselves the experiences they missed when they were busy pursuing a career. Why revisit their earlier (painful) attempts at drawing in a class setting, when there are You Tube videos and so many books to learn on your own? And so still life drawing is often the least popular class to take at a community college.

But what if instead of a series of exercises, your drawing class became a series of exciting discoveries. A way of keeping a journal about yourself. A way to find out what attracts you visually and the way you go about committing it to paper. Would drawing class become more engaging? I have also thought of teaching it the way Mona Brooks would, though a variety of subjects which in turn would motivate the student to learn strategies the teacher would match to the assignment. Drawing could also be taught as a series of assignments, but why, if some of them might end up not being motivating enough?

Drawing of a man sitting

You can still see evidence of all the measuring involved in this realist figure drawing of a model.

For us to learn something difficult, the motivation has to be intrinsic.That’s why it is so important to talk with the student initially, to discover what is driving them to draw in order to use it to maintain momentum during class. And intrinsic motivation is different for every adult. Some students want to master a certain subject (gardens, portraits, animals). Others want shortcuts. And there are students who feel trapped within a certain style and want to break free. All of them should find drawing class a place to feel free of expectations, a place to be free to make “mistakes,” and a place to leave work unfinished, if it gets too frustrating.

Drawing is like painting, a challenging field of knowledge that deserves a nuanced, individualized approach if the adult student is to feel successful at it.