conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Seeing Past Childish Symbols

with 8 comments

Step 1: See the Template You’re Working from

I’ve been trying to learn to draw and Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has been particularly helpful. Edwards looked at why it is so many adults say they can’t draw, which is especially odd since nearly every child loves to draw. How did we move from love to incompetence? Edwards answers that by tracing our development as artists, and here is one milestone:

By around age five or six, children have developed a set of symbols to create a landscape. Again, by a process of trial and error, children usually settle on a single version of a symbolic landscape, which is endlessly repeated. (73)

As we age we become dissatisfied with those symbols but we have not worked out new ways to put on paper what we see. And so we give up, and our drawing gets stuck in that old symbolic system. Edwards provides a much richer discussion, but at least one result is that we must set aside our childish system of symbols to begin to see.

Which is not so simple.


I still start with a circle.

Not so simple because of the confusion that sets in as we try to translate real world scenes into a two-dimensional representations. To set aside the sun as a happy face in the upper right corner means I must look at how the sun reflects off, well, everything. To look at a face and see that—no, there is no outline—is off-putting. How to draw a face without starting with an oval?

This is why Edwards starts with learning to see as a precursor to learning to draw. In my 70+ days of drawing daily, learning to set aside my childish symbolic language has proved difficult. But the answer to seeing better and especially to seeing past the old symbols is to do things badly. And maybe do them badly for a long time. To do things so bad they are cringe-worthy. But that is the price one pays to learn.

I cannot help but think this life lesson and applies across the board. Learning to see and hear, and learning to form your own opinion and make your own representation applies universally. Growth from child to adult means you find new ways to interact with parents, so you set aside some (not all) the old relational cues. The ways we interact with colleagues and bosses must change as we take ownership for our work. Even the childhood symbols that directed our understanding of life purpose and how one knows God must be rejiggered. There is a template for romance we would do well to look at again. Nearly every part of life is helped by reexamination.

"Cutie Pie" + "Let's Read" seems like a good place to land.

“Cutie Pie” + “Let’s Read” seems like a good place to land.

But make a deal with yourself : be patient and give yourself time to move beyond the immediate confusion.



Image credits, including dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 16, 2015 at 9:27 am

8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Reblogged this on Dumb Sketch Daily and commented:

    It’s confusing to let go of those old symbols that populated my early drawings.


    February 16, 2015 at 9:30 am

  2. Step one is to realize symbols are what you’re using now. Next one (in my experience) is learning to see. Really see. That one takes time, I think. I find that lots of shadows on a face really helps me get it down. I want lots of curves and lots of shadow because that helps me make something more realistic. My two cents.


    February 16, 2015 at 3:32 pm

  3. It really is counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Because you end up drawing the shadows and it seems wrong, like you are obscuring rather than rendering. And yet, there you go. I’m eager to learn to see. Thanks for the comment.


    February 16, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    • It’ll change your whole life. It’s like you come out of a cave into the light. You’re in for some amazement, I suspect. Very cool.


      February 16, 2015 at 6:04 pm

  4. I enjoyed your last paragraph. Learning to see goes beyond “seeing” – shedding the rules of childhood in adulthood is more difficult than it looks. It is like we accumulate symbols and rules as we enter adulthood from the culture around us and then as we get older learn to deconstruct them, shed them and free ourselves. It is a parabola. Drawing is like this but so is just being human. I’m quite often finding some place in my “being” that is stuck in symbols, sticking me from evolving and then so surprised that I’m so stuck and still need to unlearn.

    I have read this book as well. Really enjoyed it and it helped me get a handle on drawing better than any art class.

    Marika Reinke

    February 16, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    • Thanks for your note. I agree with your “just being human” part. I like how trying to draw seems to unearth so many things. I’m going pretty slowly through the book and hope it will help.


      February 16, 2015 at 9:10 pm

  5. Our whole education system is built on being constantly successful; you’re absolutely right that allowing failure is the only way to really learn (and often, as you say, unlearning has to come first). It’s hard to get past that fear of imperfection, especially when we’ve spent years being penalized for it.


    February 17, 2015 at 5:42 am

    • Seems like our need to know has to be greater than our need to not fail before we are willing to learn.


      February 17, 2015 at 6:59 am

But wait--what do you think? Tell me:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: