Learning how to see

Drawing is all about learning how to see. We spend a lot of our time in our academic pursuits gaining skills in writing and reading but without the other half of our consciousness we’re missing out on half our capabilities. Drawing and seeing go together like reading and writing do but with images instead of abstract metaphors. Learning how to see and therefore how to draw, dramatically improves imagination (which then also benefits reading and writing too).

As part of my role as weekend boarding duty master I’m involved in organising trips and events for our boarders at school. The pandemic has limited what we can do off site for now, but we have been able to run events in house. We’ve had quizzes, sports, fitness, chess competitions and the Philosophy nights. Recently I decided to run a Portrait Drawing Masterclass.

The focus of my dissertation at the University of Oxford for my postgraduate Masters degree in Teaching and Learning was on the use and effect of seeing and viewing images, diagrams and visual models in learning (mainly in the teaching and learning of science). Before teaching in schools I often taught drawing skills as part of my creativity and innovation workshops for businesses around the world. 

If someone is asked to draw a chair that’s in front of them, for example, they will often draw it with four legs because they know it has four legs. However, from where it is positioned only three of the legs are visible to them. Plus, the one nearer the observer is dramatically larger than the thin ones to the rear. The casual observer who has not considered learning to see will not draw this. They’ll draw the icon of the four legged ‘chair’ which resides in their memory. Most of us walk around not really seeing anything except this assumed batch of icons: chair, flower, tree, car etc. 

It’s the same with colour. If I pointed out a red car to someone and asked them to paint it with coloured pencils, they’d probably reach for the bright red pencil. In reality, when observed, there may well not be any bright red on the car. Instead, it is made up from pinks, greys, browns with highlights of white. 

This is all because the information contained in the photons of light reaching our retina would require a vast amount of processing and time to engage with all of it. So instead, our visual cortex takes short cuts to keep us multitasking and rushing through our day, throwing out most of the detail and vibrance of what’s going on around us.

Learning how to see (and draw) slows everything down. It requires time and it requires focus. That’s why is a relaxing and meditative thing to do. 

In the Masterclass, in addition to all this, I told them I was going to train them in two techniques. One to look for lines and relationships between lines and two, to look for light and shade. The results were astounding. Only two of my students confidently stated they were happy with their drawing skills beforehand. The others were surprised and delighted with an evening’s work, feeling empowered and confident in themselves and what they could achieve with just a little directed focus and time.

Ayd Instone, Head of Enrichment and Extra-Curricular