Waking up Your Eye


This is an excerpt from “By Hand and Eye” by Geo R. Walker and Jim Tolpin.

On the southern shore of Lake Erie lies a narrow strip of cottonwood bramble called Magee Marsh. It’s the last bit of shelter for migrating songbirds before they take flight across the open water. Stiff headwinds can cause a massive pileup with thousands of birds hunkered down, and hundreds of bird watchers converging to witness the spectacle. It’s called a fallout. To a birder, a fallout is an event on par with a solar eclipse.

The first time my wife, Barb, and I stumbled into one, I wasn’t prepared for it. The air bristled with brightly colored warblers as we stepped under the shelter of the tree canopy. I felt a puff of air on my cheek as a blur of yellow feathers darted close to my ear. Veteran birders around me ooh-ed and aah-ed, “There’s a black-throated blue, and just above it, 5′ back at 2 o’clock is a redstart!”

But my eyes weren’t quick enough and I didn’t know how to look, or what I was looking at. Over and over I just missed something wonderful and rare. A 9-year-old boy wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “Birding is not for Sissies” tried in vain to help me, but after a few minutes, politely slipped away. That first morning I wondered to myself if I’d ever get this. I didn’t seem to have the eye for it. In spite of early doubts, gradually my eyes and brain started to mesh. As the day wore on, I began to see clearly those winged jewels I’d only read about in books.

This book is the equivalent of a “fallout” to awaken your designer’s eye. Despite any doubts you might have, you already possess the inherent ability to see with your inner eye. It is, in fact, simply waiting for you to awaken it. You’ll see what once seemed impossible and quickly gain the condence to spread your creative wings. With some practice, the ability to see and unpack a design will become as natural as breathing.

Looking for Clues in all the Right Places

We live in a media-saturated world filled with images bombarding us every waking moment. Yet, as Vitruvius observed, we’re still plagued with a common dilemma: A layman looks while a designer sees. My own craft background, molded by modern industrial practice, left me dependent on measured drawings. The ability to visualize seemed beyond my grasp in spite of a lifetime of building things with my hands. Granted, I had strong opinions about furniture, art, cars and guns, and I knew immediately what I liked or considered ugly. But truth be told, I could only detect the glaringly obvious. Even then, I struggled to pin down what caught my eye. I could admire a masterpiece, but could not explain what tipped the scales in its favor. I’d look at a chair and think, “It’s off; there’s something awkward or clumsy about it,” but rarely could I voice with certainty what looked awry. This is a little embarrassing to admit, but even if I started a project with clear pictures and plans, the image I formed in my head never seemed to match the actual parts as they came together. This reinforced the feeling that I couldn’t trust my eye. Not that I couldn’t “make to print”; I couldn’t “see to print.”


Fig. 1.2.2. Is this just a small writing desk or something more? My untrained eye would have said, “Nice work, nice lines,” with little more meaningful comment to add.

Our modern industrial approach doesn’t awaken the eye. It’s just the opposite; the aim is duplication, and that’s achieved by removing the human element. I started my professional life in the trades as a machinist. Blueprints were my world and point of reference; drawings, measurements and tolerances were my comfort zone. Mistakenly I assumed that’s what artisans had always relied on, just with a more primitive set of tools. I had no idea that the artisan age used drawings in a completely different way than anything I’d been taught.

In spite of my misconceptions, my own background in the trades gave me subtle clues that something had been broken. My apprenticeship as a machinist began in the 1970s, right at the sunset of the hand-drafting era. Apprentices got a taste of drafting in the engineering shop, a massive open room with row upon row of tilted drafting tables. Just a few years passed and those big drafting boards disappeared as computer-aided design (CAD) technology emerged. Down in the factory, those dog-eared paper drawings were stored away in a vault and replaced by crisp, freshly printed computer drawings with immaculate graphics. A few years later, machines came equipped with a monitor, eliminating the need for a paper drawing. The next step allowed machines to download the drawing directly into the machine controller and eventually, no image of the actual part was required, just data. Oddly enough we still called them “drawings” even though they contained no pictures, just code. Industrial drawings reached a new pinnacle; they could speak directly to machines in their own native tongue. What a success. It took nearly 200 years from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution for technology to finally and entirely remove the human worker from the equation.


Fig. 1.2.3. You can learn to see what lies beneath the surface. This is what we are talking about!

Now don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a rant against technology. The ability to mass-produce and duplicate things with precision is crucial to our modern society. From safe baby food jars to fail-proof landing gear on an airplane, our world today is unimaginable without it. But at its core, measured drawings and the way we use them in our modern industrial approach focuses on duplication. It removes human error but at the expense of creativity by limiting choices and dictating rigid commands. Worst of all, by emphasizing measurements and ignoring proportions, it masks relationships between parts and how they relate to the whole. We look at a historic drawing and conclude the details shown to build it are sketchy. Conversely, an artisan-age craftsman might conclude that our modern drawings contain everything but the kitchen sink, yet they obscure the essence of the design. The creative spark requires a different set of conditions to ignite. It feeds on choices, options and the ability to see. In short, it needs the human element restored so that a dance can emerge between the play of hands, eye and the wood itself.

Meghan Bates

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11 Responses to Waking up Your Eye

  1. antinonymous says:

    Thank you, Ms Bates. So very profound and well said!

  2. Shel Sanders says:

    Well stated truth, which raises another specter of modern technology. The CNC machine goes further in removing the human element from our work. Anything can be built by the least skilled amongst us. Don’t follow the lead of the progressives who claim p, audaciously, that their works are hand made.

    • jayedcoins says:

      CNC has its place, and requires a lot of learning… just check out the posts Chris and Randy have made regarding the production of their dividers.

      I suppose you specifically mean wood in this case, so perhaps that changes the take.

    • jenohdit says:

      The “desk” illustrated looks like a fairly generic Mid-Century “Scandinavian” piece of a type which were mass produced by the literal boatload using machinery. The essay itself is about proportion, which has nothing to do with the method of manufacture. While I know enough about computer aided design and manufacture to laugh at the idea that no skill is involved, I can’t see what if anything would be lost if the entirely skill-less among us were to be able to produce beautiful well proportioned objets at will.

      What’s more noteworthy about the essay is that the author doesn’t himself seem to have developed the skills to see proportions in designs. Figure 1.2.3 is mess that obscures more than reveals what ” lies beneath the surface” of that drawing.

      The 2 overlapping circles and the wavy thing on the top are unnecessarily confusing and the alternating bars on the sides are just flat out wrong. The bars imply that the dimension from the top of the drawer support has been divided both into 5 and 6 to derive other dimensions. That implies that a smaller module of 1/30 of that oddly chosen dimension is the real measure when is just isn’t. The actual module is 1/24 of the total height.

      The height/width ratio of the desk is 1/2. The inner edges of the legs are in 1/8 of the total length from the ends of the top. The detail on the bottom of the leg is up 1/8 of the total height. The ratio of the shorter to the longer drawer is 5/8. The 3 drawers occupy the space between the legs for a total of 18 units. That’s 3/4 of the total length of 24 units. Double that to account for the height/width ratio and you get 24 units high by 48 wide. Subdivide the drawing that way and all the details obviously fall onto a square grid, no pseudoscience necessary. It looks like it was probably drawn on graph paper originally.

  3. Wonderful post, and stimulating on many levels regarding craft, design, and production…Much thanks!!

    “…The ability to mass-produce and duplicate things with precision is crucial to our modern society…”

    Hmmm…??…Is that really the case? Modern is modern…I am not sure it is always (seldom actually) better or crucial. CNC and modern modalities are a way to…mass produce…and this of course is the child of the IR (Industrial Revolution)…in turn the foundation of industrial profit. It also has overtly bread a normative culture of mass consumerism…once again great for corporate profit. I would suggest that profit is the primary motivation…not good design or an actual crucial element of society’s benefit. It definitely doesn’t help Earth’s environment we must live in…

    CNC operation may have a limited and very narrow (as well as alien) skill set within it that is highly technical, yet it is not, as others have suggested…very often a related skill to what it creates. One can learn to operate, repair and facilitate a timber frame CNC machine in relatively short order. (I know…I have…) Intern this machine (not a human) can force a medium (aka wood) to be whatever a computer program (and technician) forces it to become…This is not craft…nor is it a crucial element to modern society…It is a way for a company to homogenize and mass produce a commodity that has the facsimile of craft…and…achieve it with unskilled labor in large quantities to achieve higher profit margins.

    So, a well versed Timberwright usually takes a minimum of 10 years to get to even a basic level of proficiency within their style of craft, while a CNC operator can be churned out in a matter of months (if not weeks.) Good design is an art and craft onto itself. CNC will never capture the true essence of Wabi Sabi, and can only crudely emulate the proportions and true understanding of something like the Golden Section based on a computer program’s parameters. A contemporary Artisan/Craftsperson can of course use these machines in many marvelous ways…Yet again, they typically have skill sets that a computer does not…nor someone just versed in CNC operation…I would also suggest…in the big picture…they seldom (if ever) improve very much of anything…

  4. SSteve says:

    Can someone explain what the two side-by-side circles are supposed to communicate? I’ve been looking at this for days and still can’t figure it out. Their centers don’t line up with anything and their intersections don’t seem particularly significant. What am I missing?

    • Hi SSteve…

      I hope the author comments…but I can give a limited explanation for expedience as the actual reply would take some time and length…

      Shortest explanation…the overlapping circles establish great (and traditional – natural) proportion…

      Circles in general are directly related to the Golden Section. To those of use that tend not to “measure” but Story Pole and/or use other traditional layout methods (not tape measures)…Circles are a foundation element of Geometrics within traditional design…Think of the two overlapped circles as a foundational element to other geometrics that are likely at play in the table designer’s head…

    • jenohdit says:

      It isn’t you. Some of that drawing is wrong, the rest irrelevant and/or confusing.

      The centers of the circles are on each other’s edge. Drawn that way, they can be enclosed by a rectangle with a ratio of 2:3. Count a radius as 1 and you get 2 radii high by 3 wide.

      The idea is that the placement of the legs has been determined by that rectangle. Strictly speaking that isn’t untrue, but it has little to do with understanding the overall proportioning of the pieces, the ostensible lesson of the diagram.

      The total width of the desk is twice its height, a ratio of 1:2. Two side by side but touching circles fit perfectly inside the rectangle that just encompasses the whole piece. Drawing that instead would make more sense.

      Ignore the black and white bars entirely as well as the wave thing. The bottom of the drawer support is 3/4 of the total height, and the leg detail 1/8th.

      The inner edges of the legs are each in 1/4 of the total height (1/8th total length) from the ends of the top. That brings things back round to the circles you asked about.

      The total length is equal to 4 radii (2 side by side circles). If you subtract 2 x 1/8th of the total length from that you get the distance between the legs.

      2 x 1/8 total length = 1/4 total length = 1 radius
      distance between legs = 4 radii – 1 = 3 radii

      The total height is 2 radii, so coupled with 3 radii between the legs you get the 2:3 rectangle. It’s there, just not the key to understanding things by any stretch.

      Also, circles are not “directly related to the golden section.” A circle is the set of all points equidistant from a central point. The golden ratio is where a line is divided into 2 parts A and B, where the ratio of the longer part (lets call that A) to the shorter part (B) is the same as the ratio of their sum (the total length of the line or A+B) to the longer part. A/B=A+B/A

      • Hmmm…Wrong…???

        Well, One could say your perspective of this is article is…wrong…but that isn’t constructive, nor fair as you are more than entitled to your view of it…

        As to circles beging part of the Golden Section perhaps the term…indirectly… fits sensibilities better..which is fine…

        It doesn’t change that fact that the Circles (and circles in general) when applied in different methods of design are…indirectly…connected to the Golden Section…I had no need to define a circle (as you did that is basic geometry and well understood I am sure by most here) to speak to one of the (many) uses of circles in traditional design work is another matter…By the way…a Pentagram and 3,4,5 Triangle and many other forms of geometrics in traditional design work also (indirectly and directly) are part of the application of the Golden Section and related tools of gaining natural proportion and homeostasis in a good design…Since this subject is not only vast (and acient) trying to over systemize it, and or define in to shear…this or that formulaic alone does the art natural design an injustice…

        I believe perhaps, and this is just my perspective…some get to caught up in just trying to apply mathematical proportion alone and have very rectilinear thinking when it comes to design, and perhaps the application of some of these tools…or…the license of an author to employ circles, and related graphics to make a statement…One should not get to terribly bogged down in the details perhaps of…just the graphics…within a presentation. Just enjoy the big picture perspective of the topic and the fact that the table presented is rather nice…unless you don’t think so…and that is just fine too…

      • SSteve says:

        Thanks for the reply. I didn’t catch that the centers of the circles were on each other’s edge for the 3:2 ratio. But, yeah, they don’t really seem to provide much else.

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