Visual Notetaking

A few months ago, I came across an article about notetaking on NPR.org. In research that was originally published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA studied how notetaking by hand or by typing on a computer might affect learning. A quote from the article:

“When people type their notes they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can. (On the other hand) the students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”

One hypothesis that Mueller and Oppenheimer developed is that when a person is taking notes by hand, “the processing that occurs” improved “learning and retention.”

The thought occurs that this might hold true as well when we contrast the benefits of drawing from direct observation with those gained by taking a photo of the same scene. The active seeing that drawing on location encourages can often lead to better understanding and more vivid visual memories.

Points of View



Having selected a subject, we can view it from different vantage points. To illustrate, here are three views of The Red Door Ale House in Fremont. The first focuses on the intersection of Fremont Avenue North and North 34th Street but the circle indicates the location of the Red Door a block to the west. The second is a contextual view from across the street that shows how the original structure sits atop a concrete parking garage after being moved in 2001 to make way for a new development a block away. The third is much closer, from the bottom of the concrete stairs that lead up to the front entrance. So having selected a subject for a drawing, we still have options for framing and contextualizing a view.

Notational Drawings

Perusing my sketchbooks, one might discover many small notational drawings that I have used to understand and represent certain aspects of the places visited. When drawing from observation, we can capture not only what the eye perceives but also what the mind conceives. We can use the drawing process to think about, visualize, and explore in imagined and imaginary ways the conceptual basis for the environments we see and experience. These notational drawings may be simple plan or section diagrams or more complex three-dimensional studies but in all cases, they attempt to encapsulate the essence of a place or structure.

Whispering…

As with writing, drawing can speak in many voices. Some drawings assertively yell for attention; others speak more quietly and persuasively. Still others merely whisper. Looking through my sketchbooks, I came upon a number of quiet sketches that attempt to capture the feel of a place with relatively little noise.

Line to Color Workshop

Thanks to all the participants in the Line to Color workshop Gail Wong and I led this past weekend in the Fremont neighborhood and Gasworks Park in Seattle. We appreciated the energy and willingness of everyone to endure the less than ideal weather conditions to draw and paint this weekend. When sketching while traveling or simply out and about, we often cannot control how hot, cold, or wet it is. We can only do the best we can.

After drawing on location for so long, I sometimes forget what it is like to be a beginner. More than a few participants mentioned how mentally tiring it was to draw all day, which, in thinking about it, shouldn’t have surprised me. Drawing, and the seeing it requires, does take effort, especially for beginners struggling to resolve the difference between what we know about something and how it might appear to the eye.

During these workshops, Gail and I rarely have the time to do any drawings of our own except for the quick demos we may do in our sketchbooks as we work with each of the participants one on one. Yesterday, to wrap up the workshop, we gathered at Seattle Center for a final session and I finally had the time to do a couple of sketches. The first is the view looking out from under the canopy at the base of the Space Needle, and the second is a contour line drawing of Space Bloom, an installation that combines art, science, and technology to enable the floral sculptures to sing and dance throughout the year.

Architectures of Life

Alva Noë recently wrote an article on NPR.org about a new show Architectures of Life at the Berkeley Art Museum, curated by Lawrence Rinder. To quote from the piece:

“We forget that it is hard to see. To paraphrase Kant (loosely), seeing without understanding is blind, even if understanding without seeing is empty. A good drawing—for example of the working parts of an engine—is often much easier to interpret than an actual perceptual encounter with the engine itself. The engine, after all, is very complicated. What is important? What deserves notice? It’s hard to know. But the drawing, when it is successful, is more than a mere representation; it is, really, the exhibition of what something is, of how it works, of what it is for. A good drawing is an image that has been imbued with thought.”

I like how Noë stresses that drawings are more than mere reproductions of what we see or envision. To read the full article, please visit: <http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/02/26/468216993/life-and-art-unite-in-architectures-of-life>.

Fran’s Chocolates

Many credit Fran Bigelow with helping to bring about the artisan chocolate renaissance in the U.S. Earlier this year, she opened her fourth retail store in the original Seattle Brewing and Malting Company building in the Georgetown neighborhood, built in the 1880s. The grand old structure now houses Fran’s production facilities as well as an elegant showroom of Fran’s signature chocolate truffles, bars, and caramels.

This second drawing shows how I blocked out the initial structure for the scene above.

Singapore Art Museum

During last summer’s Urban Sketchers Symposium, the Singapore Art Museum was the site for my workshops. Opening in 1996, the museum is housed in what was originally St. Joseph’s, a 19th-century mission school run by the La Salle Brothers.

Both before and after the workshops, I had the opportunity to draw two exterior views of the the museum, which focuses on the contemporary arts of Singapore, Southeast Asia, and Asia. The difficult aspect of both of these views was controlling the amount the wings of the building curve as they extend out from the main body of the complex, neither exaggerating, nor minimizing the amount of curvature.

Medellin Workshop


IMG_1542

As part of the conference this week at the Medellin campus of the National University of Colombia, I was able to offer a couple of workshops for the students, something I always enjoy doing. Last Wednesday morning, we met at Botero Square in downtown Medellin, a hub of activity and urban life named after Fernando Botero, whose large, voluminous works are scattered throughout the park.

Here are examples of the sketches that I use to demonstrate capturing the essential structure of a scene.

Omission

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, John McPhee wrote an article entitled Omission: Choosing what to leave out. In the essay McPhee references Ernest Hemingway’s Theory of Omission, which encourages writers to let the reader do the creating by leaving white spaces between chapters or segments of chapters, the unwritten thoughts to be articulated by the reader. McPhee advocates letting the reader have the experience and leaving judgment in the eye of the beholder.

This idea of omission can also be applied to drawing as well. Just as writing is a matter of selecting and stringing words together to create a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter, sketching is a matter of drawing a line, then another, and another, until one creates shapes and compositions that recall to the seeing eye the scene set before us. And what we omit from a drawing is just as important as what we include.