Here’s a question for those of you who draw from life: How often and how long do you look at your subject when drawing?
Do you look up at the model or scene frequently, grabbing a fresh impression for each tiny bit of drawing, or do you take in as much as you can in a long hard look, trying to impress a good bit of what’s in front of you on your memory before working on the drawing for several minutes?
Chances are that you glance at the subject frequently, as I do, particularly if you’re tying to be faithful to nature rather than just taking hints from reality with which to be expressive.
Occasionally, I’ve tried to draw a scene or subject from memory (as opposed to making up something from my imagination). I’ve found my ability to do this limited, but our brains may be capable of much more than we give them credit for. People talk about this in the areas of science and mathematics, but it’s relevant in drawing as much as in other areas.
Sometimes people with unusual abilities will make us look at our assumptions about what is or isn’t possible in a new light. Stephen Wiltshire is a autistic savant with a seemingly innate skill for drawing. For background, see my previous post on him.
In the past few years Wiltshire has done a few public demonstrations of his astonishing ability to draw images in detail from memory. In May of 2005 he was in Tokyo. After a half-hour helicopter tour and some additional time viewing the city’s skyline form the roof of a skyscraper (top-left), Wiltshire spent seven days drawing a 10 meter (30 ft.) panorama of Tokyo on the inside of a 360 degree curved surface, without the aid of reference or sketched notes.
You can view a video of the process on the site, from which the screen captures at left are taken. (I apologize for the terrible image quality, but they only offer the videos in Windows Media and Real Media formats, no MPEG or Quicktime. C’mon, people, get a clue.)
There are also similar but less dramatic videos from demonstrations in other cities in the Television section of Wiltshire’s site, in which he demonstrates a similar reliable ability to retain and draw large amounts of visual information with great detail.
I’ve long felt that there is a particular state of mind involved when drawing, in which we see things differently. (See my post on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.) When I was young, I used to think of it as looking at things with my “regular eyes” or my “artist eyes”. Some of you may have experienced it as something similar. How many of us have explored the possibilities of expanding on that state of mind, culturing and developing it, in addition to working on our drawing technique?
Savants often express abilities beyond what is considered normal, but how much of what is considered “normal” is the result of assumed or acculturated limitations? At the very least, the abilities of someone like Stephen Wiltshire should give us a hint that we may all be able to train ourselves to see just a little bit more when we’re drawing, or even when we’re just walking down the street.