Sad if I Lost it


If I wrote clickbait headlines, this one would be: “One Weird Trick to Really Understand Furniture Design.”

But I don’t. So instead, you’re getting some odd indie-rock lyric that works for me but does Jack Buddy for this blog’s SEO.

When I started working on “Campaign Furniture” more than a decade ago, I decided to create my own hand drawings for the book. My drawing process starts with tracing photos of originals, then modifying them in stages to show what’s important to me.

I thought I would some day advance past the “tracing” stage, but I found out something interesting about the tracing stage: It forces you to see things that your eye cannot. When you draw, your hands and eyes have to work together. But, unlike when I sketch, my hands appear to be more in control of the process when I’m tracing.

Put a different way, when I sketch freehand, my brain forces my hands to vomit out the contents of my brain. When I trace a photo, my hands force my brain to make sense of the lines and curves traveling up my arms.

Try it. Trace every detail you can see – not just the overall form. Cross-hatch the shadows. Try to make it something you would publish, which forces you to slow down. This process is in every way the opposite of sketching, which I try to do quickly (45 seconds or less at times).

After I finish a tracing (such as the stool above that I traced on Friday) I understand the seat shape and leg angles in a way that my eyes alone cannot. It’s a helpful technique with casework. With chairs, it’s invaluable. All of my recent chair designs began with tracings of pieces I like. And my deeper understanding of those chairs led to making my own original designs.

Congrats on reading this far; you’ve earned this cute animal video.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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12 Responses to Sad if I Lost it

  1. fedster9 says:

    That’s great advice — on a different note, inquiring minds would like to know where you found the cute animal video. I would have never thought you’d be one of those…


  2. Bob Easton says:

    Very useful! Your advice fits very well with Betty Edward’s “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” (original 1979, 4th edition 2012) Her idea boils down to defining the functions of each half of the brain, and how to use the creative functions of the right side of the brain to quiet the noise and urgency that comes from the chatty left side of the brain.

    When asked to sketch or draw a familiar object, the left side (let’s get it done and go talk about…) urges you to spit out a symbolic substitute for the object. When focusing on the task of carefully drawing, or in your case tracing, the right side of the brain focuses with enough intensity to quiet the noisy, chatty, left side: Result – a much more accurate representation.

    Thanks for the advice!
    …and for the evidence that bats apparently don’t have sharp vicious teeth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael Edelman says:

      “Drawing on the Right Side..” itself is highly derivative of the classic “The Natural Way to Draw,” by Kimon Nicolaides, written. Check it out; I discovered it when I was taking a drawing class in college in 1973. Tracing the edge of an object is one of Nicolaides’ core exercises.


  3. Jeff says:

    I can’t tell you how much I love you mocking the clickbaiters…and all your real advice. Thnx


  4. flyandgrain says:

    Isn’t this just woodworking meditation? Coincidentally, I rode my bike through a colony of bats on my bike this morning.


  5. missionproductdev says:

    I do product design and that is what I’ve found. I learned it from the people who came before me, but you discovered it on your own. You are absolutely right about the process. Get it down as fast as possible and refine via tracing….then prototype, CAD, prototype, etc.


  6. mjstauss says:

    For what it’s worth, there are areas of Brooklyn where those indie-rock lyrics are considered viable click-bait.


  7. asarumcanadensis says:

    I started tracing from black-and-white photos of people for a manual on how to build pit latrines as a political activity in rural South Africa in the 1970s. I couldn’t draw people well enough so I was forced to trace instead. And in the act of copying I would be immersed in the whys, and reflect on the dynamics of movement and balance in how a shovel or pick was held, and the expressions and the feelings of the people by trying to capture the detail in their faces and the subtle shapes of eyes and mouths.

    But I always had an uncomfortable feeling that tracing was cheating somehow. Now that Chris has opened the issue in his way, I see it differently.

    It is what makes this man so subversive: he peels back layers to reveal more than what was obvious before, provides the evidence, and teaches. To express, not to impress – in working wood, in dealing with others, and in being honest about himself.

    Merci Chris.


  8. Robert Geddes says:

    It seems like a close relative of another trick I’ve been told (from a panel beater, of all people): run hands and fingers over a piece to slow your eyes down and take in details that your eyes alone won’t see; and fingers will feel things which eyes can’t see, no matter how close you look.


  9. BLZeebub says:

    Congratulations! You have learned to draw just like the rest of us who might actually draw for a living. The act of tracing is building muscle memory which is all you need to set your drawing free. T’is the way of all Jedi.


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