On drawing, seeing and slow photography

A few weeks ago, I joined an arts class: figure and portrait drawing. It’s been a long time since I did any drawing, in fact, I had not done any serious drawing since art school.

In class, we spend a lot of our time (more than 80%) using our eyes to trace our subject, and then, for the remaining 20% of our time, we translate that “eye trace” with a pencil onto the paper.

In photography, quite often, it is the other way around. We take the image in a split second (literally), and then spend a tremendous amount of time tweaking the trace until it is starting to become close to what we think we saw.

In the classic book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”, author Betty Edwards argues that anyone with enough brain-hand coordination to be able to write, should be able to draw. To be able to draw well however, one must relearn to see.

The same may well hold for photography. To put it simply, anyone with enough brain-hand coordination to be able to press the shutter, should be able to take a photo. To be able to take a good photo however, requires relearning to see.

Highway 163, Monument Valley, USA

A drawing class can help photographers develop this ability, because in general, drawing is much slower than photography. Drawing forces you to really spend time with your subject, study the shapes, the negative spaces, the play of light and shadow, before you transfer it onto the paper. Drawing makes you think about where you’re going to put the next line, because the ‘undo’ function (the eraser) is often far from perfect. Drawing gets your hands dirty, whilst opening your eyes.

Frederick Franck, artist and author of the beautifully poetic book “Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing”, describes how he left on a trip to Africa, carrying two cameras and the determination to get to know Africa and the African people. But, as his mission progressed, he felt more and more that the camera “separated his eye from the reality he was observing”. The people with whom he was, ran away as soon as he got his camera out. But when he replaced his camera with a pencil and paper, they were quite willing to “have their portrait taken”. The camera had become a barrier to seeing.

Obviously, since the camera is the tool to use for photographers, we cannot put our camera away completely. But we can spend a more time actually seeing our subject, making contact with the landscape, the people or whatever is in front of our cameras. In that seeing, that contact, we can prepare ourselves and the camera for the photo we are going to take, bringing much more of what we saw into the resulting image.

Plants in a stream, El Tatío geyser field, Chile

Just out of curiosity, dear readers, which other art forms do you practise besides photography, and how does it affect your photographic work?

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