Last week, I set myself the task of drawing “a convincing approximation of a human”. Here’s an approximation of how that went.
The first hurdle I came across was the complete absence of any pencils in my flat. This forced a decision point between acquiring some and deciding that biro would be an acceptable medium. I opted for the latter, reasoning that I would be too amateurish to actually make use of the pencil’s advantages vis-à-vis shading, that preparation is all too often little more than slightly beautified procrastination, and that giving myself the option of using an eraser would be symbolically inappropriate. To a substantial extent, this exercise is about granting myself the license to fail – something that is extremely difficult, even though failing is the only thing I could reasonably be licensed to do in almost all contexts.
The next decision concerned what sort of drawings I’d need to produce. Unsurprisingly, I opted for the most lenient possible interpretation of my own criteria (behold the complacency of self-direction). This meant that the aim was to draw portraits, with no need for a body, and that a two-dimensional, cartoonish style would be acceptable.
Since I lacked the skill to translate even the ghost of a face from my mind’s eye to a piece of paper, I needed a visual aide – congratulations to conventional wisdom for that sound advice. A photograph of somebody’s face would be the natural choice. I chose Willem Dafoe:
Dafoe, clearly, is a paragon of human facial construction, and should be a shoe-in for the role of holotype should that task ever be undertaken for Homo sapiens. More importantly, as can be verified by watching any film in which he appears, he is interesting to look at. Conventional wisdom was also quick to point out that drawing should be fun, and a photograph of a grinning Willem Dafoe seemed like objectively the most fun choice for this exercise.
Please be forewarned that none of my pictures resemble this photo, even remotely. It was nonetheless useful as a point of reference. There are also more drawings than appear in this post, for reasons both practical and ethical.
The first thing I did was to test the waters, employing the time-honoured method of ‘just eyeballing it’. Here’s how that came out:
… that’s not very good at all. He looks more like some kind of forgotten archaic Homo species, or else a fantastical troglodyte or ogre of some description. It’s an approximation of a human, but it’s certainly not a convincing one.
The next attempt went off the rails almost immediately. I drew the eyes about sixteen miles further up the head than they should have been, meaning that the only way to fill the excess of space was to have the mouth and jaw be freakishly elongated. This, too, did not look sufficiently human for my liking. It did look excellently demonic, however, so I decided to lean into that concept rather try again:
The early attempts demonstrated beyond even the slimmest penumbra of doubt that a raw, unguided approach was beyond my means, even with my trusty Willem Daphoto as a compass. More assistance was required. I found some lists of quick tips concerning the proportions of a face – the appropriate alignment of the eyes, nose and mouth, the approximate width of the head, that sort of thing. I crosschecked them against the photo, and they basically held up. Another resounding victory for the internet.
The rules were all perfectly simple and required no special effort to observe, which was convenient. I did, however, fail to account for the slight extension of the head caused by Willem’s smile:
Now, this is still a devastatingly bad drawing, and an equally crude application of the lessons gleaned in the ten minutes preceding its creation. Nonetheless, two things are true about it:
1: It is much better than the first attempt.
2: It is undeniably a picture of a human. That human is clearly not Willem Dafoe, and they have also clearly done a number of unsavoury things in the very recent past, but they are a human nonetheless.
Satisfied that this approximation was sufficiently convincing, I focused my attempts to improve upon it not on precision or verisimilitude, but on trivial, self-directed entertainment. I did a fair few of those, so here’s a couple.
Pseudo-Willem, Benthic Deity:
Pseudo-Willem as some kind of horrible, miasmatic nightmare. This one’s honestly pretty good:
Drawing accurate, visually appealing representations of real-world objects and/or mental images is a challenging feat that likely requires some combination of talent and tutelage. In most cases, these will have to be supplemented by copious amounts of self-directed practice, but I’m not sure that even the most manically devoted autodidact could achieve good results without those two things – or at least the talent. That said, the large number of very good drawings out there indicate that this talent exists in more people than may realise it, and can be successfully brought out through a process of nurture that is not too galling.
Technically speaking, we can’t say outright that the diagraphically challenged are incapable of drawing as well as their more skilful counterparts. It’s just markings on paper, and given the existence of appropriate apparatus, we’re all capable of making the same markings – or at least markings of an equal quality, however that would end up being determined. In that sense, the upper limit for drawing skill would have to be universal among humans. Sadly, that sense is basically meaningless. Whilst my hand could theoretically generate the same images as that of say, Stephen Wiltshire, it’s never going to. His brain is so much better suited to the task that the gulf is effectively impassable. The majority of people would be in a monkey/typewriter situation if required to draw ‘as well as’ Wiltshire, or even somebody who was simply extremely good in a less extraordinary way. So, it’s probably the case that differences in innate (or simply current) starting ability combine with differences in plasticity, dexterity, mental image detail, etc. in such a way that de facto hard ceilings do exist on an individual’s ability to draw ‘well’ in a given context. They would certainly exist within a limited time span, which… well, we are all going to die at some point.
There are a lot of deeply fuzzy concepts involved there, but I think what I’m saying is general enough that I don’t need to worry about it.
The real conclusion, though, is that nobody is so bad that acquiring a little bit of extra help won’t allow them to produce dumb, misshapen images that are:
A: Sufficient for the purposes of self-entertainment.
B: Capable of communicating a good amount of their intended sense to an observer.
This week’s goal: Meditate.
Well, “Get drunk and watch the Super Bowl” seemed a little too easy, although it would be a first.
I’ve never made any serious attempts at meditation. This state of inaction is increasingly out of touch with the current discourse on personal welfare, which appears increasingly favourable towards intentional states of inaction. Meditative practices of various kinds now have a fairly solid foothold in the set of advice given to people who want to get their act together, approaching the level of exercise, diet, avoiding drugs, regular sleep schedules, and not buying Monster Hunter games. Those last two are pretty much a lost cause (no regrets).
Clearly, further investigation is required. There’s a whole wealth of literature on the topic, an equally broad range of methods that a budding meditator could try, and doubtless a few dozen people in Cambridge willing graciously to take money in exchange for guided sessions. So, really no excuse not to try.
That’s all for now.