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.
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