Essay / Art

See This Sculpture? The Sculptor Didn't.

The caption under it says “Violin Player by Clara Crampton (The artist has been blind since birth.) You need not rely on the eyes alone.”

It’s an illustration on page 7 of The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides (first published 1941). Nicolaides’ Natural Way was nigh canonical at the college where I studied drawing. His remarks on how to combine what the eye sees with what the mind knows take you right to the edge of the mystery that is drawing.

Learning to draw is really a matter of learning to see –to see correctly– and that means a good deal more than merely looking with the eye. The sort of ‘seeing’ I mean is an observation that utilizes as many of the five senses as can reach through the eye at one time. Although you use your eyes, you do not close up the other senses –rather, the reverse, because all the senses have a part in the sort of observation you are to make.

Nicolaides goes on to say several helpful things about how “accumulated experience” informs visual art. Some of what he says is common sense: “You know sandpaper by the way it feels when you touch it.”

Some is oracular: “Actually, we see through the eyes rather than with them.”

Some is Zen-like: “Because pictures are made to be seen, too much emphasis (and too much dependence) is apt to be placed upon seeing.”

Some of it is practical: “It is necessary to test everything you see with what you can discover through the other senses –hearing, taste, smell, and touch –and their accumulated experience. If you attempt to rely on the eyes alone, they can sometimes actually mislead you.” And then he describes the assignments and exercises that train you to use your pencil as an extension of the sense of touch rather than a reporter of the sense of sight.

All of it comes back to the fact that “the five senses can reach through the eye” to inform the drawing. And the proof is Clara Crampton’s violinist sculpture.

It’s tempting to say, “Wow, this blind artist knows what a violinist looks like.” But she doesn’t. She knows how a violinist is.

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