Thursday, July 26, 2007

Spirit Drawing

Draw bamboos for ten years,
Become a bamboo,
Then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing

I first learned about contour drawing in my high school art class. Betty Edwards also describes it in her seminal book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In blind contour drawing, you put your pen on the page but keep your eyes on the object you are drawing while you trace around its outlines without looking down at the page. It produces mysteriously satisfying results. I used it throughout high school and college classes to capture the likenesses of my teachers, other students in my classes, my shoes and my own hand drawing. Sometimes you get a undecipherable tangle of squiggles. But other times you end up with a lovely sketch that really captures the essence of the person.

Spirit drawing simply takes contour drawing to another level. Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook says it's as if “what the eyes sees then travels through the heart (the emotional heart, which can recognize the spirit or essence of an object—something the mind cannot do), then continues down the arm and fingers, and finally through the pen or other tool and is then recorded onto the paper.”

Before beginning to draw, spend time simply taking in the subject as much as possible. Then take your pen (Siegel recommends a pen as it will force you to commit), choose a spot on the subject, and focus your eyes and attention there. Begin drawing, traveling along the lines of the object. If you are drawing a flower, Siegel suggests pretending you are a tiny bug traversing the edges of a petal. Or you can imagine tracing the edges of the object with your fingertip. After tracing the outline, you can being to trace some of the interior edges.

Siegel uses spirit drawing as a warm-up before a more studied attempt and I’ve used it this way. I have to admit that the first sketches are often more lively than the sketches I labor over. As the name implies, they capture more of the spirit of the plant.

For instance, here’s an attempt to analyze the way a plantain plant looks as it bursts into blossom.
And here is a spirit drawing I did of the same plant as it withered and shrunk. I think it has more life (though it’s clearly ebbing away).

Another example of a spirit drawing, this time of a peony, followed by a sketch of the same flower in which I actually looked at what I was doing. Both are appealing and certainly the second one is technically more accurate but there’s a certain peoniness about the spirit drawing.

Although I’ve been practicing spirit drawing on flowers, I’ve also started using it to capture glimpses of my everyday life. I have to admit these are my favorites. For instance, this picture of a dog I saw at Pettirosso one afternoon. It might be hard for you to tell what this is supposed to represent, but for me it vividly recalls that moment when the dog woke up to look at a customer.
If you've never tried contour drawing, try it and let me know what you think.


wanderwoman said...

I love this idea of 'spirit drawing.' I can't draw worth a bean, but I couldn't wait to try this. It was really fun and meditative! Thanks! said...

I'm glad you tried it and liked it. It takes a certain amount of letting go of results, a good spiritual practice.

Nancy said...

I've done contour drawing for years, but I really liked reading about sprit drawing. This idea will deepen my drawing practice, I'm sure.