Review: The Drawing Lesson

This is part of an ongoing book review series that publishes on Mondays: earlier book reviews are here and here.  My goal with this series is to provide access to a range of resources that I either found useful in MakerSpace teaching or that I think include philosophies and ideals that teachers should be aware of and can draw upon from time to time; or even fiction that I enjoyed.  You are welcome to recommend books to me in the comments; there’s no guarantee I’ll read any of it.  Reviews are starred on a scale of 1-7 stars, with no half-stars given (because I can’t draw in half-filled stars here).  In generally, everything I review here will be 5, 6, or 7 stars, because reasons.

The Drawing Lesson: The graphic novel that teaches you how to draw
by Mark Crilley
published by Watson-Guptill, 2016 (Amazon.com)
ISBN-13: 978-0385346337

✦✦✦✦✦✦✧

I’m a great believer in the importance of the traditional 3R’s of school — readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic, as the saying goes. But if I could add one to that, it would be Drawing.  3R+D doesn’t really have the same euphonious folksiness that 3Rs does.  But I’ve spoken here before about the Semigram, and treating drawing as a third way of understanding the world. Visual note-taking is one of those tools which we ought to do a better job of transmitting to students; but it does sometimes seems like the Ars Notaria (the art of taking notes, the art of the scribe) is really the Ars Notoria (the notorious arts, black magic, necromancy).  And yet, through technical drawings, through electronics diagrams, through images, through flow diagrams and pictures, we all use images to tell stories — sometimes well, sometimes poorly.

And that brings me to this book. Mark Crilley has written and drawn a graphic novel about getting drawing lessons.  It’s a brilliant take on a complicated issue — if you want to be an artist, it requires every bit as much practice as it does to be a good writer; or a good mathematician. The skills of drawing require as much attention as the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The story opens with a young boy, David, encountering a much older woman named Becky in the park near his house.  David wants to draw better than another kid in his class who draws the best Lamborghinis ever; Becky just wants to be left in peace to draw.  The kid’s enthusiasm overwhelms her, though, again and again.  She winds up giving nine lessons on drawing to David: in proportioning his drawings, in learning to see, in understanding negative space, in simplifying, and in creating compositions.  At every step of the way, she reminds him of earlier lessons — and foreshadows the later ones.

The book is elegantly expressed (I read the Kindle edition), in that both David’s drawings and the encounters with Becky start off at the same quality. David is past the stick-figure stage that I learned from @davegray and his teachings on mark-making; but he’s not yet a master artist by any means.  Yet, as the book unwinds toward its conclusions, David’s drawing become better and better; and the encounters with Becky remain the same.  There’s an unmistakable awareness here that Scott McCloud captured in his book, Understanding Comics (William Morrow, 1994), that sometimes the art in a comic book serves the story, and sometimes the art IS the story.  Crilley has captured that balance here, by showing David’s gradual improvement as an artist against a relatively standard backdrop of his relationship with his teacher Becky.  

This isn’t a textbook, but each chapter does end with homework. There’s a clearly defined lesson, and an expectation of follow-through on learning drawing skills.  The ‘homework’ isn’t unusually difficult or terrible, but it has to be done in order to get better at drawing. It’s really nice to see David’s work improve; but it’s also nice to realize that our work could improve in the same way.

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