Look closely

Kindergartener Rowan Peters concentrates on his tulip during an observational drawing class he attended with his father at Marcy Open School.

Photo by Kari Goodnough

Marcy students and parents learn the zen of drawing

Of all my elementary, middle and high school classes, art was the one I consistently hated. Certain I was incurably untalented in the subject, I grew to resent being continually forced to produce evidence of the fact. However, the pain of my most recent art class now nine years behind me, I put my misgivings aside for an hour and a half on the evening of Feb. 12, when I joined about a dozen parents and young children for an observational drawing class at Marcy Open School, 415 Fourth Ave. SE.

Our instructor was Lynda Monick-Isenberg, a professor at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul. She runs their Teaching Artist Program, which has placed three teaching artists in Marcy Open School classrooms to teach observational drawing, one of Marcy’s artists-in-residency programs supported by the Marcy Arts Partnership (MAP) and Arts for Academic Achievement.

The February evening class was a chance for parents to see what their kids had been doing and to learn along with them, said MAP Coordinator Tamara Schierkolk. (Marcy parents and students are also invited to a class on May 14 and should register by calling 612-521-9807.)

I didn’t come away from the class with a masterpiece, but I did hear some ideas about drawing that, whether due to narrow-minded instruction or my own willful ignorance, I don’t recall having heard in the classes I’d taken as a kid. According to Monick-Isenberg, it’s a myth that drawing is about talent. Like reading and writing, it must be learned. And observational drawing — slowing down, taking the time to look carefully at something and learning to visually describe it — is the first step.

“You can’t really draw from memory before you can draw observationally,” she said to me after the class. “It’s like trying to write before you know letters.”

Among the toy trucks and trains, Beanie Babies, stuffed animals and yellow-orange tulips that Monick-Isenberg set on a table at the front of the room, everybody seemed to find something they deemed a worthy of careful observation.

Monick-Isenberg’s daughter Emily Isenberg, one of the Marcy teaching-artists, illustrated a method known as the “scribble technique,” a quick sketch to get down the basic shape of the subject. Her eyes fixed on the tulip she held in one hand, Emily paid little attention to her drawing hand as it seemed to translate what she saw onto the paper on an easel at the front of the room. After the 20-second demonstration, Monick-Isenberg assured us there were no such things as mistakes in scribble drawings, and she gave us 30 seconds to make our own.

“As your eye wanders the object, your hand wanders the paper,” she said as we drew. “You’re training your hand and brain to work together.”

At the end of 30 seconds, I was surprised to see that my drawing actually resembled a flower, though not necessarily a tulip (possibly because I had immediately spread the petals wide open to examine its insides). After one more stab at scribble drawing, Monick-Isenberg told us to take deep breaths, perhaps to slow us down for the next technique: contour drawing. The purpose of contour drawing is to slowly replicate the edges of the object, again looking mainly at the object rather than the paper. “Your eye and the pencil move in tandem, looking for details, looking for shapes” she said as we drew.

In the spirit of “no mistakes” drawing, she asked us not to use erasers. Observational drawing isn’t about right or wrong, she said, but about looking closely.

The advantages of learning to look closely extend beyond the art room, she would later tell me. The exercise generates the kind of curiosity that leads kids to ask why a tulip leaf looks a certain way (or perhaps what it looks like on the inside?), which can motivate them to find the science-based answer. In the past, Marcy students have drawn a variety of things from leaves to cheeses, leading to questions about why the objects look and smell the way they do and where they come from, Monick-Isenberg said.

I didn’t have time to think much about the how’s and why’s of my tulip’s anatomy, though, as I’d barely finished my contour drawing when Emily started demonstrating watercolor techniques, including “vacuuming” water out of an area with a dry paintbrush in order to lighten its color, a trick that was new to Marcy parent Marian Eichinger.

Eichinger, who drew and painted a red Beanie Baby dog named Rover, was there with her daughter on a friend’s recommendation. She said the evening had been really fun.
Isaac Peters’ son Rowan, a kindergartener, hadn’t done observational drawing yet in school, but Peters said they came to the class because Rowan really likes to draw.

Though he started drawing from his imagination by the end of the session, Rowan said he liked drawing the flower, and he created a very recognizable rendition of it on his paper.

Perhaps Rowan — presumably of a mind less cluttered with ideas about what things are supposed to look like — was at an advantage. Emily, who’s taught observational drawing to elementary-age and special education students, said it can be hard for students — especially for older ones — to let go of the symbols they have in their minds and instead draw what they see.

Still, I was satisfied with the tulip on my paper. Perhaps it was because I’d been paying attention to the flower itself instead of agonizing over how well my drawing stacked up against all the tulip images my mind has amassed over 23 spring seasons.

last revised: March 26, 2009