Seventeen Things: The Other Way of Seeing

This is a post in the continuing series of Seventeen Things: a list of things that teachers can make or build in order to become more involved in Maker culture and sensibilities, while building skills for their future development.

3rd Decan of Gemini
Astrological images train the brain to think three dimensions on 2D surfaces.

Two weeks, I was talking with my acquaintance, H.  H runs a bakery.  It’s a little like the TV show “Cake Boss”, in that they make these fancy cakes that look like squirrels and famous buildings and such.  I’m not sure she’d be happy with the attention such a show would give her, but eh! It’s not my call to make.  Anyway, we were talking about drawing and sketching, and I’d done a drawing to explain something to her, and she asked to see what other art I was working on.  I had two projects with me, but I showed her this one.
As you may be able to tell, I’m creating a little book or two with the images of the Decans from Agrippa. I think the technical term is “Faces”. This one is not my best: It’s supposed to be a man in an arming coat looking for his arms and armor, while a fool or jester keeps them hidden up on a balcony and plays a reed flute or pipe of some kind. It’s a symbol from astrology — a part of the imagery tied up in the astrological sign of Gemini, corresponding to late May and early June.

What do I learn from creating an illustration of an astrological image from a list from six hundred years ago? What’s the point?

Well, it turns out that it’s an exercise in memory, imagination, and creativity.  As an artist, I have to think about what goes in front and what comes behind.  I have to think about where figures are, before the field of the sheet of paper gets crowded.  I have to decide about calligraphy, and how much detail to include in the drawings of people’s faces, how much background detail to include. All of these things are challenging, and require thinking thoroughly about the representation of three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional portrait.

Discussing fortresses before dinner.
The scale is off, but you get the idea, right?

Tonight, over dinner, a different friend was gushing about the 25-year anniversary of a particularly special clambake in Maine. Today, she and about 400 of her extended circle of friends had a clambake in Maine (I think after a Grateful Dead show) near the Portland Head light in a Fort W… something.

Which led to an interesting diversion of its own.  I asked what kind of fort it was.  It turned out not to be a little pillbox-style series of fortlets left over from World War II. My first drawing (on the right of this second picture) was inadequate for explaining what was going on.  So I reached for the other kind of fortress design I know about, namely, the early to mid- 19th century European-style star fort.  Which I proceeded to draw on the tablecloth (fortunately it was paper).  Not the best photograph of course.

This morning, H the baker drew a cake that was a Doctor Who  story: daleks chasing the doctor and his companions through a cherry orchard back to the TARDIS.  She designed the cake by drawing it.  This evening over dinner, I explained the basic principles of 19th century fortress design using a bird’s-eye view of the fortress. And between my two drawings, my dinner companion and I determined that her fort was of a late-19th century design, rather than a 20th century style or my 18th century fort.

The word “fortress” means so many things.  It can mean a castle, or it can mean a star fortress, or a pill box overlooking a lonely stretch of beach, or it can mean a cannon or a ruin.  And only a drawing — of a map, of a bird’s eye view, of an isomorphic view, or any one of another few perspectives of an object on the ground.

Efforts at armor making
Pattern making starts with drawing

But drawing is how we get there.

Drawing provides the visual framework of reference for the part of the brain that schools don’t spend much time training, and don’t really think is as important as the rest of it.  But think about the creative, capable minds who wrought the marvels of computer and portable and mobile devices in the last decade, and built the software of the personal computer revolution.  Sure, they wrote code… but before they wrote code, they drew flow charts.  They made sketches and diagrams.

I’m arguing here that drawing is a Third Way of Knowing the world, every bit as important to a design curriculum or to any 21st century education as learning math or how to read.  Big deals sometimes happen in a sketch on the back of a napkin; major changes in the world begin as a sketch on a scrap piece of paper.  But if we don’t teach kids to be doodlers first, and then good perspective and isomorphic and technical and architectural artists… we’re not going to produce the next great innovation.  Sure, we’ll get writers and mathematicians, maybe, but we won’t have the engineers and scientists and technicians, because our schools will have taught them only Two Ways of Knowing: literacy and mathematics.  Maybe it’s time to reintegrate the Third Way.

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