Sketching out a new foundation

In Professor Logan Grider’s Foundation Drawing class, students stand and assemble in a circle of easels arranged around a chosen subject of study. A nonparticipating observer (a rare presence in the class) has two options: constantly move around inside the circle catching bits and pieces of each student’s drawing process, or pick a spot outside of the circle and remain stationary, following at most half of the circle all the way through the sketch. I chose the latter, partially out of convenience, but primarily because twenty minutes of circular pacing is really too much excitement for one day.

It turns out that the practice of drawing stationary objects is not much of a spectator sport. The visible horizon from outside the circle revealed a few sketchpads and several concentrated facial expressions. There are likely a number of existential remarks to be made on the inherent absurdity of watching a room full of people draw the same thing for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, print media has unavoidable space restrictions. It is important, rather, to focus on the insight that sitting in on an art class and talking to a couple of its participants can provide.

First, consider what the students are there to learn. It is an “art” class according to the registrar, but the focus of the course is very specific and essentially technical. It is easy to forget that behind making works of art lies foundational skills, and these skills may be more basic and broadly relevant than they at first seem.

“The central objective of Foundation Drawing is not making art but rather developing how to see the world and translate complex visual information onto paper,” said Professor Grider.

Given this explanation, drawing is not just a vehicle for creative expression, but a technique for parsing a complicated environment and communicating it. A sketch is as much a poem as it is an instruction manual. Making “art” in the traditional sense, then, is a secondary concern for students of this art class.

“In practicing drawing, or studio practice of any kind, art is something you’re trying for but is not necessarily always the outcome of your efforts,” Grider added. “All exercises position students to become more aware of how they see, and what they choose not to see.”

Perhaps this kind of awareness is applicable outside of the artistic sphere. Maybe drawing goes hand in hand with an improved capability of processing the world in general, a capability that is dulled as we lose our interest in something we see as fruitlessly difficult and unprofitably, non-traditionally fulfilling.

“I consider drawing to be an essential tool that can form thoughts, solve problems and communicate information,” said Grider. “It is likely one of the first things we all did as children and also likely one of the first activities we all shed as we matured through childhood.”

Learning to draw may be an effective way to grow comfortable shedding the predilection to make judgments based on what is already known. Foundation Drawing requires its students to disregard their notions of hands and faces, and take the material in anew with every sketch. The real lesson is not so much in drawing as it is in interpretation of material.

“Teaching basic drawing has much more to due with teaching students how to engage with complicated information directly rather than relying on preconceived knowledge,” said Grider.

 This ability to engage applies itself to academic interests that are only vaguely related to sketching figures.

“There’s so much more to learn about the different ways of seeing this world,” added Adan Leon ’17, a student in the class. “I want to go into sustainable design, most likely architecture, and this class is helping me build my own aesthetic taste and values.”

The unspoken communication between the inhabitants of the quiet, busied circle of easels is an essential part of the learning strategy of the course. Being in an environment like the one in Foundation Drawing requires broadly applied self-confidence and trust, a willingness to have anyone else look at your work at any time and a responsibility to look at someone else’s work for the right reason. Fortunately, the students in the class accept their responsibility, and let their guards down in a way that allows for collaborative learning.

“There’s an odd comfort in the room — I really don’t know most the people — and there kind of has to be when you’re all constantly unsure of what you’re laying down on paper,” said Leon.

“Built into learning how to draw and learning from others is an understanding of failure not as something shameful but rather useful, something to spur us all along,” added Grider.

The circle of artists has a few standout boards showing off exceptionally detailed sketches, but for the most part, it is a group of beginners. They are learning how to draw — and probably a lot more than that — in silence, standing up, and very gradually. As they pencil fervently I start to doodle in the margins of the notes that become this article. I draw someone drawing someone, not paying much attention to the fact that I’ve made the head too big and the joints don’t bend properly. I don’t think to care. I’ve never taken art. 

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