Drawing Badly – Part 2

We come out of the womb pretty much like a glob of Silly Putty, with the emphasis on silly.

Happy, gurgling little fools who know nothing at all, and are therefore, full of bliss – unless we have colic.

Our job is pretty much processing food from one end to the other, and that’s it. Someone else will take care of every other thing – including bringing us the food and taking away the aftermath.

Few of us make art at this stage. We have plenty of time, but no skills. This pretty much debunks the fact that anyone is “born” an artist.

Bliss is short lived, however.

Pretty soon, our eyes start to focus and begin sending information to our brain, which, in turn, wakes up and starts learning.

Though there is little threat apparent at this point, the brain knows we are totally vulnerable and starts trying to define and understand the surrounding environment for the sake of navigating it safely.

It’s called survival mode and it starts early on.

Fast forward five years or so.

We have learned a lot and are very self important. We have oodles of confidence because we haven’t learned to doubt anything yet – especially ourselves.

We are all artists with shows on refrigerators, and we think our art is quite fine – just ask us.

But we really haven’t learned about things like gravity and balance yet either, so our art is pretty interesting.

If only we could dwell here longer – in the land of upside down purple trees and houses that don’t topple – even though they sit sideways on a hill – or catch on fire even though the sun is inside of them!

But along comes a teacher or some other authority figure who tells us that our drawing is “wrong”. A house like that will fall over or burn down and purple trees do not grow upside down. Oh… and trees aren’t purple either.

Bummer. And some of us have still not gotten over it.

But our eyes and brain take this new information to heart. Falling over? Burning houses? This is serious survival stuff.

Sight is our most important sense for navigating our world, sending all the new information to the brain for mapping – where it is eventually hardwired into a sense of how things “should be”.

If something is not as it “should be”, the eyes send an SOS to the brain, and the brain reacts with a protective mechanism of some kind.

Here is a great example…

Ever get dizzy in one of those iMax theaters where you have a “surround” experience that you are rolling in a plane, even though you are actually standing on level ground and holding on to the guardrail they put there because they know you are going to get dizzy?

Your eyes say: “Oh-oh, we are tipping over in a plane”.

Your brain says: “No, we’re not. We’re standing up straight on some concrete.”

Something is just not right!

Since this is a mismatch, your brain goes into protective mode and makes you dizzy so you will hold onto something until all this gets figured out.

In the case of a drawing that is just not right, there is much less drama, but let’s say the horizon in this drawing is sitting at an angle.

The horizon is not supposed to be at an angle. That’s one of the rules our eyes & brain team have hardwired. If it is at an angle, either we are tipping over and should hold on to something – or the drawing is wrong.

This just hits you as an undercurrent. You don’t actually get dizzy. It’s not the end of the world, but it just doesn’t feel right, so it is not a pleasant experience to look at that drawing.

You don’t like it. But you don’t know why. It’s just not right.

So, you decide you have just made a crappy drawing, you’ll never be an artist anyway, so you may as well go out in the garden and eat worms. (This last was something my Grandmother loved to say).

This reaction is way overproduced. Don’t go eat worms. Instead, fix the horizon. Then the drawing will be right, you will be happy, and so will the worms.

This is oversimplified, but you get my drift.

If you are going to make drawings that you or anybody else is going to look at, make them “right” according to the learned rules of the eye and brain, and you will please yourself and most people.

If you don’t know how to make them right, learn the rules and you will.

This is not to say that you can never make art that departs from what the eye thinks is right in the world.

If you know how to do it right, it will still be ok when you depart from the rules a bit  because there will be an underlying cohesion. You meant to make that tree purple and the eye and brain understand that experiment.

Salvadore Dali made a bunch of vegetables and other things fly through the air in the painting below, which our eyes and brain know does not really happen, but because of Dali’s technical skill, that does not make us uncomfortable either. There is still a feeling in that painting that everything is alright with the world because the earth is not tipping and the stuff looks like what it is supposed to be, and from that comfortable place, we can ponder the idea of vegetables flying – a pleasant experience overall.

Now, compare that to this lovely piece from the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) in Boston. (Yes, there is such a place.)

Does this one make you feel that everything is alright with the world?

OK then.

So, the secret to making art that pleases you (and others) is to know that there ARE rules, LEARN what they are, and then PRACTICE.

You can’t help getting better the more you practice anything, because it’s a given that you are not going to start out perfect.

To Be Continued



  1. I think instead of thinking “rules”, think “principles”. In other words, applying art principles gives better communication of what you are trying to accomplish. For example, a color does not have to be an accurate description of reality, but if the values are right, it will be believable. You can distort/modify perspective to communicate an emotion and have it believable. But, you need to know/recognize the principles in order to use them and modify them. Kind of like a recipe- you can tweak it, change it, but you better have the leavening or basic ingredients in the right proportion to make something you want to eat.

  2. Very good insight, Linda. I am purposely using the same words that are being bandied about in conversations these days. You and I would have used the word principles instead, but nobody is out there saying “no principles”. You can hear the “no-rules” theory everywhere and that is what I am trying to counter-balance.

  3. Quite interesting so far. I’m one of the incouragers but I do try to find the one or two “right” things in a picture and then point out if they shift this other thing they might be happier. You are right that there are certain things that make a painting read correctly or acceptably. Sometimes someone posts something I just can’t respond to as it is so badly breaking every rule I am wondering if they are being serious or “pulling our leg” and I just don’t know how to respond to something like that. Your idea of “certain” rules is helpful as I have just been sort of flying blind – except for the horizon line or something very obvious like that although evidently it’s not obvious to some.

  4. A great thing about you and your art, Timaree, is how much you have studied and practiced and it really shows in your results. You are a great example of someone who does follow the things you have learned, and it really works for you.
    Don’t misunderstand that I am not recommending encouragement. Encouragement is the best thing you can do. I have always started any suggestions about a drawing with what is good about it, and then you point out where things may be improved.
    I’m arguing with the approach of “live with your mistakes” and you will just morph into a better artist without ever having to know anything. I think that is frustrating to people who are trying to get better.

  5. When my children were in Primary School (first level after kindergarten in Australia) in the early 1990s, they were told that no child would fail. I disagreed and changed their school as I strongly believe that if we can’t learn how to fail in a safe environment whether it be in school, in life or even creating art at the kitchen table, how will we grow and strengthen our characters, how will we learn to problem solve any of the many difficulties that will come our way, and perhaps most importantly, how will we grow and develop our art practice without accepting that there are certain things, whether they are called principles or rules, that will help us create art in which we find peace, happiness and reward for learning from our mistakes and importantly, our great achievements.
    So yes Jessica, I totally agree with you that learning and practicing the basic rules will give us a great foundation to improve and grow our art and I look forward to purchasing the workbooks that you are creating and hope that my art will improve with using them.
    Cheers from Julie in Oz.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *