Artistic Literacy – The Importance of Knowing How to Draw


I’m just finishing up a 4-week on-line class by Mary Ann Moss calledSketchbookery. I have done drawing in life drawing classes, on a computer, and as an engineer (technical drawings). It all started when I was almost 30 years old and finally got the chance to take an art class. I’d been teaching technical classes at the University of California Extension and received a discount on taking classes so I used it to take “Drawing on the Right Side of The Brain.”

I had an epiphany in that two-day class. I COULD draw! I had made an assumption that as an engineer, I had no artistic skill. What I learned in that class was the training and practice I had from mechanical drafting classes in high school directly applied to artistic drawing, though the reliance on triangles, rulers and lettering was missing.

The class started us by doing blind contour drawings. Then we moved on to contour drawings. We could peek at our papers, but the emphasis in both blind and regular contour drawing was more on the “seeing” and less on drawing.

In Sketchbookery, Mary Ann Moss kicked it up a notch with us. We were challenged to do contour drawing with a pen, rather than a pencil. This might seem like a small difference, but for me it was huge. First, I had not done contour drawing in years. I felt I had “graduated” beyond that to drawing more realistically, but I had gotten very relaxed in the “seeing” part of the drawing, and it showed in my work. Consequently, for the past 20 years, my art work has relied more on image transfer and collage, rather than original marks.  That’s okay – collage and image transfer are beautiful and legitimate art forms. Getting reacquainted with drawing what I was seeing, in ink, woke up a beautiful space in my art – the space filled with my marks. Second, using a pen meant the marks are the marks. There would be no going back and erasing and adjusting. There is a certain amount of liberation when that thought is in your head and hand as you start to draw.

These past four weeks, I’ve found it so calming to draw this way – draw just the shape and line that I see. There is no pressure to draw a perfect flower or bottle, only the line of the edge that I see. That’s a huge burden to be lifted. I’m in the class with 40 or more people who are posting their work to the share area of the class website. I have no idea of their competency levels, but I’m assuming they fall into a typical bell curve. Yet all of the drawing I’ve seen produced in the class is good. Very good. Some wonky stuff, including mine, but even that is very good. It’s all recognizable. And the wonky part is that artist’s fingerprint on their work – their signature.

Which leads me to my point: drawing, like math, writing,  and reading, is a core competency, or it should be. I wonder if all the people I run into day after day who say “I’m not an artist. I can’t *** fill in the blanks ***” would feel differently about that mysterious art world if they had the ability to draw something they saw in a way they were pleased with it. That would help them understand and not be intimidated by the work of other artists too.

For me, it is absolutely thrilling to look at something, put a pen to paper, and look back and recognize it as the object of my interest. I believe that through simple contour drawing – a pen, some paper and a big heap of quiet time – anyone can draw if they are willing to slowly put to paper what they see. And when you can draw, you are free.