The Trials of “Noticing”


Giacometti Figures in a Room by Vi




For the first time in my arts-immersion experiment I’m experiencing real anxiety. And that fact itself fascinates me.


The class is basic drawing. I’m in week three. It’s been more than 20 years since I sketched-for-teacher. I dread this class.

We work on giant sketch pads. We draw big. The scale overwhelms me. I’ve filled reams of blank pages with words but now words aren’t an option. My job is to draw what I see, to become more skillful at noticing what’s before me and to represent that visual composition with lines. Shapes. To scale.

The first day the instructor taught us “the Giacometti method,” which involves painstakingly marking the relationships between objects in space. It’s a brilliant method, explained much better by the artist on this blog than by me. The method relaxed me somewhat because it requires me to stop attempting to replicate everything before my eyes and instead to choose just one small thing as my starting point, drawing a line to indicate where it is going to exist on my paper. Everything else proceeds from there. 


I notice an apple. I ask myself, “How big is that apple going to be on my page?” I mark that. I see a troll doll sitting on the apple and ask myself, “Where does the troll doll touch the apple?” and “How many apples tall is that troll doll?” And so on. I work slowly, sequentially, I forget about whether the thing is art and instead do the work of marking the locations of things.

But I still feel panicky.

Why is that?

Some of it is just ego. I want to be good at this. I don’t need to be the best but I dread being the worst. Why is that? Why does that matter? If the room were filled with professional artists (instead of novices like me) would I still feel the need to be not-the-worst?  Yes, I think so. On some level, yes.

But there’s something else too. Noticing is hard work. Much harder and much less fun than I expected. Like doing leg curls at the gym after years of not doing them. Only worse. Like attempting to do chin-ups. I’ve searched my mind for other analogies (like speaking French to a Parisian, like assembling a toy train, like trying to get my Lab to come when called) but honestly the best ones are physical. I find myself commanding a level of coordination and skill that is definitely within me but utterly dormant and resistant and under-prepared. Attempting to materialize what I’m noticing–to make marks on a page (not even drawings, just marks) documenting what I see–is physically and intellectually awkward. It’s challenging me to use a part of myself I haven’t developed. It makes me feel weak and inept and stupid.

Functional illiteracy. That’s also what this is. In the world of words, my world, literacy is about reading and writing, both of which are physical and intellectual activities that demand a type of focus and concentration and imagination that aren’t activated in exactly the same way by any other task. Other activities are comparable, but not the same. I believe this is also true of drawing. Doing it well requires repeated practice, and practice achieves first physical-mental coordination and later a leap into a different dimension of experience. When I read or write fluently I experience “flow,” not sequences of words on the page.

Noticing is also extremely intimate. In terms of sketching, noticing can’t be done superficially. We must look closely and make note of things no matter how inconveniently they are positioned, no matter how uncomfortable they might make us (physically or otherwise), no matter how intimidating they are now or how insignificant they might be tomorrow. In this moment the job is to notice them and nothing else.


Noticing can’t be faked. What you see is what must appear on the page. It will always be an interpretation of sorts, but certain things must be there in order for the image to be complete. To the extent that visual composition parallels verbal composition we might say the artist simply can’t “bullshit” the composition. If fundamental things are missing or sloppy your audience will know. She’ll know, that is, if she also approaches the work with the intention of truly noticing it.


So perhaps that’s what makes sketching so scary: the vast complexity of seeing anything for what it truly is.



Image source: Vi


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