Learning to Draw & System Dynamics

Some students need an intuitive sense of the whole before they can focus on details. Others need the details in order to understand the whole. Something that is known and tested by those who study personality and learning styles.

There are two ways that figure drawing has been taught, for example. One stresses gesture drawing, observation, and feeling the figure you see in your body. You draw standing up with a freely moving arm or sit on a drawing bench with the drawing pad propped up in front of you so you can move freely. Poised for action. You draw a line, erase, draw again. It’s an active process, full of energy and alertness, full body alertness. Very romantic. Tortured or ecstatic, but the ideal is to experience the essence of the unique event.

The traditional way, the classical method, focuses on the rules of the ideal figure, often taught using plaster casts which are more available than ideal living bodies. Students must learn the perfect proportions like the length of the nose in relation to the ears, the size of the forearm in relation to the hand, usually before being allowed to work from real bodies. First you learn these measurements as ideals, then you modify them based on the unique characteristics of your subject. The emphasis is on careful pencil drawings and techniques  like using the pencil to measure the distance between the nose and the upper lip, for example. This is often what you see in films where the artist is holding up a brush handle or a pencil like a ruler. The distance between the nose and the upper lip, for example, is thought my some to be the most significant measurement to capture a likeness. Get that right and you can hardly go wrong. This method typically idealizes the human body in its perfect form.

The interesting thing for me is that I was taught as a student in the 1960s that the first way, the Romantic ideal, using gesture and feeling, was the only honest method to use. Honesty, directness, earthy, gut understanding were important aims. When I began teaching I discovered that some students couldn’t learn that way. They couldn’t understand the exercises. They don’t know what to observe or to feel, and have no sense of using charcoal or paint freely. An agonized line. Or drawing standing up.

My students were doing independent study, not doing their drawings right in front of me, so I had two textbooks that I assigned that included a full course of drawing exercises and projects—one based on romantic gestural drawing and one based on classical ideal drawing. If a student didn’t understand one, they loved the other.

Then I discovered a third group of students. The romantic gestural drawings and the classical ideal drawings are both within the European tradition of creating three dimensional illusions. The flat two dimensional drawings usually referred to as primitive are outside this tradition, interested in neither the romantic angst nor the classical ideal. Two students, for example, from South America were literally unable to draw three dimensional illusions. One insisted on trying and it took her 6 months to finish a 10″ by 12″ still life. She said it was the hardest thing she had ever done and she would never do it again. She was highly educated and been exhibiting her art work for many years. The second struggled with both text books and could produce nothing that even resemble in intention or appearance any of the exercises. Both of us were frustrated because this was her last 3 credits before graduation. She didn’t speak English well and it was hard for me to communicate about a subject she had no vocabulary for. Finally, one day she came in with a large roll of drawing paper, pages from a large newsprint pad. They were beautiful exuberant panoramas of her island—all of it—in great detail. Flat designs that communicated as well as words what each figure was doing and where they were in relation to the mountains, oceans, trees, etc. The primitive style is conceptual, not visual. It is a representation of what one knows to be true, neither romantic nor classical nor illusionist.

Until I recognized these three styles of approaching drawing and seeing space, I thought some students were just unable to draw.

In the specialized, highly selective, professional schools I had attended only one style was considered to be the only right way by that school so only one kind of student is admitted. No one in any art school or class I ever attended taught classical drawing. It was rejected as the academy of the 19th century, wiped out by the Impressionists. But the people who saw the world in classical terms were still out there, just not in my art school. After learning that romantic gestural drawing was the only real kind of drawing, I ended up teaching in a liberal arts and sciences college for adults so my students had already well developed perceptual styles and experience. They were formed.

That’s what I fear might be happening in other fields like systems thinking and system dynamics , where the only methods of analysis are based on mathematical modeling, one approach is emphasized to the exclusion of others. This limits both the thinking in the field and the ability of non-mathematicians to benefit from these ideas.

Original posted on the MIT System Dynamics in K-12 discussion list in the context of how system modeling is taught and understood. Updated 18 October 2010.