The Sketch Process

It’s pouring with rain so, rather than set off home and get drenched, I thought I’d spend a few minutes on the blog and hope that the deluge dies down before I leave. Knowing my luck it will probably get worse.

Anyway, I thought I’d put together a short item on the theme of sketching. This is quite a strange subject for me to pick because drawing is something I’m completely useless at, but I hope you’ll bear with me and hopefully it will make some sense in the end.

What  spurred me on to think about it was the exhibit I’ve been involved with for the forthcoming Architecture Biennale in Venice as part of a project called Beyond Entropy organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Unfortunately, although I’d originally planned to attend I can’t be there for the opening Symposium, but I hope it turns out to be as successful event as it promises to be!

Anyway, in the course of this project I came across this image of the Moon as drawn by Galileo

This led to an interesting discussion about the role of drawings like this in science. Of course  the use of sketches for the scientific representation of images has been superseded by photographic techniques, initially using film and more recently by digital techniques. The advantage of these methods is that they are quicker and also more “objective”. However, there are still many amateur astronomers who make drawings of the Moon as well as objects such as Jupiter and Saturn (which Galileo also drew). Moreover there are other fields in which experienced practioners continue to use pencil drawings in preference to photographic techniques. Archaeology provides many good examples, e.g.

The reason sketching still has a role in such fields is not that it can compete with photography for accuracy or objectivity but that there’s something about the process of sketching that engages the sketcher’s brain in a  way that’s very different from taking a photograph. The connection between eye, brain and hand seems to involve a cognitive element that is extremely useful in interpreting notes at a later date. In fact it’s probably their very subjectivity that makes them useful.  A thicker stroke of the pencil, or deliberately enhanced shading, or leaving out seemingly irrelevant detail, can help pick out  features that seem to the observer to be of particular significance. Months later when you’re trying to write up what you saw from your notes, those deliberate interventions against objectivity will take you back to what you  saw with your mind, not just with your eyes.

It doesn’t even matter whether or not you can draw well. The point isn’t so much to explain to other people what you’ve seen, but to record your own interaction with the object you’ve sketched in a way that allows you to preserve something more than a surface recollection.

You might think this is an unscientific thing to do, but I don’t think it is. The scientific process involves an interplay between objective reality and theoretical interpretation and drawing can be a useful part of this discourse. It’s as if the pencil allows the observer to interact with what is observed, forming a closer bond and probably a deeper level of understanding patterns and textures. I’m not saying it replaces a purely passive recording method like photography, but it can definitely help it.

I have not a shred of psychological evidence to back this up, but I’d also assert that sketching is very good for the learning process too.  Nowadays we tend to give out handouts of diagrams involved in physics, whether they relate to the design of apparatus or the geometrical configuration of a physical system. There’s a reason for doing this – they take a long time to draw and there’s a likelihood students will make mistakes copying them down. However, I’ve always  found that the only way to really take in what a diagram is saying is to try to draw it again myself. Even if the level of draftsmanship is worse, the level of understanding is undoubtedly better.Merely looking at someone else’s representation of something won’t give your brain as a good a feeling for what it is trying to say  as you would get if you tried to draw it yourself.

Perhaps what happens is that simply looking at a diagram only involves the connection between eye and brain. Drawing a copy requires also the connection between brain and hand. Maybe  this additional connection brings in additional levels of brain functionality. Sketching iinvolves your brain in an interaction that is different from merely looking.

The problem with excessive use of handouts – and this applies not only to figures  but also to lecture notes – is that they turn teaching into a very passive process. Taking notes in your own hand, and supplementing them with your own sketches – however scribbly and incomprehensible they may appear to other people – is  a much more active way to learn than collecting a stack of printed notes and meticulously accurate diagrams. And if it was good enough for Galileo, it should good enough for most of us!

Now it’s stopped raining so I’m off home!


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3 Responses to “The Sketch Process”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    There is a superb trilogy of books by ER Tufte on this subject, of which the first is called The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ll take this opportunity to pass on (anonymously) the following comment which was an email I received about this post:

      There is a brilliant essay by John Berger on sketching which he matches up to the what he considers the equivalent in writing- the essay (or the “try”). To him it is an interactive process in a way that painting or anything else isn’t.

      I haven’t read this essay, but will look it out. It sounds like Berger probably says everything I wanted to say here, only probably very much better!

  2. [...] the light of this I thought it would be topical to post an updated version of an old piece I wrote on the theme of sketching. This is quite a strange subject for me to have picked pick [...]

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