Reinvigorating Drawing in the Classroom

This morning, I took my sketchbook, and Christopher Warnock‘s book, the Mansions of the Moon, to the local coffee house and drew pictures to represent Mansions 1 through 5.  More than ever before, I’m convinced that these pictures are A) part of the Ars Memorativa system of the ancient and medieval worlds, and b) that they’re a training course in drawing and sketching.  Consider…. Here’s a list of things that kings, nobles, merchants, priests, and religious institutions would regularly want pictures of:

  1. Royal faces with crowns on their heads
  2. A man on horseback fighting something
  3. A woman giving suck to her baby (!)
  4. A man planting a tree
  5. A woman sitting at prayer
  6. A merchant with his scales
  7. A soldier with weapons
  8. A trader with letters

And so on.  Add on top of these, the idea that the images are associated with success, or the removal of obstacles, or victory in battle, or the overcoming of enemies, or safety on journeys, or the arrival of good news, and you have a system ready-made to win over folks (like kings, nobles, merchants, priests, public institutions) who are looking for an edge in trade, military or political affairs.  That it requires a trained hand, a trained mind, and a deep grasp of a lot of confusing information about color, line and visual representation, as well as about astrology and alchemy, and … hey, look, there’s a whole medieval career path here!  Helps explain the Renaissance, too, to some degree… especially when you consider that in the Art of Memory, practitioners are encouraged to make the images “include the faces of your friends and family, so that they are more readily called to mind.”  Well, how are you going to know the faces of your friends and family, unless you sketch them occasionally?

I had conversations with an acquaintance from Portugal this week about exactly this: he’s looking to use the pictures I’ve already done on the Kavad to do his own work.  But as RO says, there a value in kinetic meditation — that is, physically making these things for yourself.  Zach, our local artist, has told me more than once that the way that artists get better at their craft is to practice drawing the work of others.  If you want to draw or paint like Picasso, copy one of his drawings or paintings for yourself.  There is simply no other way to do it.

I think this is part of the reason we deemphasize drawing skills in middle school in America — we don’t approve of copying someone else’s work.  Yet what’s appropriate to forbid for writing (to avoid plagiarism) is appropriate to encourage for drawing (to improve fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination).  They’re two completely different sets of skills.

Moreover, my work with teaching sixth and seventh graders about the Art of Memory last year, and this week, continues to demonstrate that improving a student’s visual skills also improves their ability to memorize and retain information.  As I showed  to my own satisfaction with the Mars image from earlier this week, just having the Mars image on the same page with the pronunciation of Latin letters, I improved my students’ pronunciation of Latin by reminding them of Mars just before I did a speaking exercise with them.  The sounds are associated in their minds with the picture, and their hands are associating the sounds of the words their writing, because the same hand drew the picture.  Likewise, my hand improves the quality of its work, and the quality of my memory skills, by drawing the images in my notebook and on the kavad.

It’s not enough just to know what the images are; your hand has to have drawn them. But once you’ve drawn them a few times, they’re yours. You can use them again and again.


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