I think that writing a good song or designing a nice chair is a skill you can learn.
The problem is that learning to write or design is not like memorizing the capitals of the 50 states. For me, that sort of rote learning is like gathering up a good collection of bottle caps and stashing them in a drawer.
Learning to design and write, on the other hand, is more like building a bottling machine when you’ve never even seen one before. You have to assemble lots of unfamiliar parts and get them working in concert.
One common piece of advice is to visit lots of other bottling plants to see how their machines work. In other words, listen to a lot of really good music to learn to write a song. Look at a lot of really beautiful pieces of furniture to learn to design your own pieces.
I give that piece of advice all the time. But it leaves out an important first step. You first need to learn to see and to listen. And learning to see or listen is damn hard.
That’s because when we look at a piece of furniture or listen to the radio, our brain simplifies the stimulus into a single object or sound, when it really is a combination of a bunch of complex shapes and sounds.
How do you force yourself to see? Here’s how I do it.
It came by accident when I was working on “Campaign Furniture.” Many of the drawings in that book are tracings that I made of photos I’d taken in years prior. As I traced each piece, I was forced to examine the shape of every turning, moulding and component. I had to draw both the major forms and all the minor details. In other words, it forced my brain to stop seeing the whole piece and focus on all the small elements.
As I traced more than 100 pieces, I began to see obvious patterns. The handles of campaign chests were spaced above the centerline of each drawer. The stacking chests had drawers that refused to graduate (Fibonacci is a fibber). Sometimes the pieces got away with awkward drawer arrangements that looked dang good.
I also noticed so many little details. The best chests used drawer blades that were hidden – a detail I missed until I started drawing them. And I got a great feel for the beads and tapered cylinders that made up the feet of the chests.
So when I decided to stop copying old stick chairs and strike out on my own, my first step was to buy a pad of tracing paper at the grocery store. I then opened the enormous folder on my laptop of chairs that I love, picked the 50 best and printed them out. Then I began tracing them.
To be honest, once I started tracing chairs, it was difficult to stop. My pencil forced me to see so many things I had glossed over before. Chair shapes that I thought were complex were reduced to the squares, circles, rectangles and arcs I learned at Robin Wood Elementary.
I saw – for the first time – how certain elements were grouped together. Many beginners think that a design element should be carried throughout the entire piece. Matchy-matchy – like Garanimals. That’s how we got the California Roundover style, the nadir of furniture during my lifetime.
Instead, I learned how circles and rectangles worked together with the occasional irregular curve to make something that looks right.
I know, this is a boring and arduous way to learn design. There’s no Zen koan. Instead, it is a gradual revealing of the structure behind our world – one pencil stroke at a time.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. And if you want to learn to write a good song (and to learn to listen), try this.
17 thoughts on “Learn to See With Your Pencil”
Such an interesting post. A confidence builder for sure. Thank you Christopher!
I am an art teacher. I tell my students that I am not interested in teaching them how to draw, but how to see. I find it helps them to stop worrying about what their drawings look like, and focus more on the small shapes, lines, and spaces made up by the thing they are drawing.
Dumb question time!
(Insert submarine DIVE alarm)
What is a drawer blade?
They are the horizontals structures that separate one drawer from another.
And as a followup, what did you mean when you write that the best chests used drawer blades that are hidden? Hidden by the drawer fronts?
So the drawer blades are hidden behind the drawer fronts. Put another way, the drawer front is wider than the drawer opening and covers the front of the blade.
This is some of the best design advice I’ve heard!
Thank you for this generous piece! It is a marvelous bit of advice for many aspects of life!
You nailed it with the logic of why it is so hard to learn to see. Part of your brain wants you to “quit messing around and get this done” and substitutes simple symbols instead of what you actually see. You have to overcome that impulse and your tracing regime serves that purpose well.
The concept is very similar to one that Betty Edwards describes in an old art classic “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” Her explanation is that the left side of our brains is verbal while the right side is spatial. While we draw best using the right side of the brain, the verbal left side too often wins the argument by substituting simple symbols that keeps the right side from focusing.
Tracing is a great suggestion!
I learned to carve from Phil Low, Will Neptune, and Al Breed. All were fond of saying “You can’t carve if you can’t draw.” Drawing teaches our hands and eyes.
Everything is a product of its era. Garanimals started in 1972. Anyone who tried to dress themselves back then appreciated Garanimals.
TBH I’m shocked that you are able to buy tracing paper at your grocery store. You must have a well stocked grocery store based on previous articles! Mine on the other hand hardly has the items I want in stock.
Where may I purchase a set of plans/drawings/templates for the second to the last chair in the article? The one with the flat seat. I would like to try that one for my first chair.
That chair is from St Fagans. I don’t know of any plans out there, but it is one of my favorite pieces of furniture on the planet. Perhaps someday I’ll try to reproduce it. Sorry I can’t be much help at this point.
This was how animation storyboarding was taught by one of the old UPA studio founders (Zack Schwartz). He would frame advance the vcr to the pertinent spot and get the class to copy it. He’d then identify the next “story telling” frame and we’d sketch that. It was (is) an incredibly effective way of building a working vocabulary of film and what I recommend every time a young person asks how to learn how to storyboard. A lot of people think that just watching movies and instructional materials will train them but I try to point out that nobody ever learned to play guitar just by listening to guitar music…at some point you need to pick up the instrument and imitate what you hear..
Several short sentences about writing. Verlyn Klinkenborg.
“Imagine it this way:
One by one, each sentence takes the stage.
It says the very thing that it comes into existence to say.
Then it leaves the stage.
It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one down.
It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience
Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded.
It doesn’t tell about what it is saying.
It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.”
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