Drawings in Motion

I remember a teacher in graduate school, Law Watkins, describing his vision of paintings by Rembrandt, Vuillard, Vermeer and others. A fellow student asked him, "Do you always see like this?" He replied, "Of course not; if I did I wouldn't be able to drive home after class!"

Painters who work with perception develop an ability to selectively "see" in ways that bridge the gap between the three-dimensional world and the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas. Color, shape, and texture variations in the visual field signify spatial changes in the forms before us. The language of painting teaches us that the planes and surfaces of the world translate into abutting color masses. Lines, while they don't actually exist in nature, as Goya said, are an important part of the artifice of our language, whether they serve as a useful construction device for locating edges, divining proportions, dividing the picture plane, or heightening the lyricism of perceived rhythms and repetitions of the subject.

Our normal sense of sight is driven by a spatial imperative. Along with the native language that we absorbed throughout our infancy and childhood years, we also learned the three-dimensional significance of colors, lights and darks, textures, shapes and so forth. Our senses orient us in the world with such certainty that as we grow into adults we stop taking notice of the raw sensory data impinging on our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin, and, in less time than it takes a meteor to streak across the sky, we deduce the meaning of it all. (See my earlier post of Annie Dillard's essay on seeing.) We reach infallibly for the glass on our dinner table and bring it to our lips. We drive our cars expertly through the visual signs and signals from which we deduce "road," "curve," "hill," "obstacle."

Some years ago I commuted almost two hours one way, twice a week, to a teaching job at Randolph-Macon Woman's College (now Randolph College) in Lynchburg, VA. On a long straight stretch of interstate highway I used to pass the time by doing little blind drawings of the landscape in a sketchbook positioned comfortably on my transmission hump, never taking my eye off the road ahead of me. In the distance, despite my car's forward movement, the landscape's shapes remained fairly stable, but there was a definite, slow morphing of the subject as distance yielded to proximity. Observed silhouettes and shapes, perspectival distortions of the parallel edges of the roadway, momentary glimpses of things before they disappeared behind me - all of these shifting facades imparted a necessary urgency to the drawings.

I rarely view my drawing and sketching as preparatory to anything. The process of drawing, and what results on the page, is a self-sufficient experience, a personal notation of time spent in the passage of my life. You can view an album of these "blind" drawings of the landscape by clicking the image below.


  1. This is very interesting to me as an abstract painter. I have only an opportunity to discuss this with a few other artists but I am interested in your comments. The thing i find is that it takes a lot of work to train your brain to ignore resolving forms into images, it is a constant and on going discipline. When people come into my studio and look at work they often say they see images in my work an ask me if I intended the image or whether I can see it too. I have to explain to them that I work very hard to keep my brain from making images. Seems like it is hard to explain. I think you must understand.
    The other issue is driving home from the studio after working. There are times when driving home the world looses its 3 dimensionalness and resolves into a 2 dimensional plane. I think it happens to me because I have been working on a painting that challenges my brain to push it to its limit to work out the painting, When this happens I stop driving and wait as the world starts to assume its 3 dimensional quality and I am able to drive again.
    Enjoyed your article. All the best.

  2. I just read your bio after making my comment. I went to Ohio Wesleyan in the early 1960s,

  3. Mark, thanks for your comments. I read them with great interest. As a representational painter my ultimate goal is to resolve the form into an image, but I understand well what you're saying. For me the struggle in painting is to stay alive to the "how" of things, instead of the "what." The image, simply as an identifiable thing, is never enough.

    As for the 2-D/3-D experience you describe, I meant to include in the post my own strange experience while doing these drawings which you'll surely understand. The familiar depth cue of diminishing scale dropped out. Trees and telephone poles, houses, bridges and such, stopped receding and seemed to literally leap up out of the ground as I neared them. Who needs drugs, eh?

  4. Frank, a delight as always and more.
    I adore verbalizing the creative process and find your texts as mind-opening as your images!


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