As a kid, one of my favorite art books was Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book: Make A World. It’s one of the few childhood books still in my collection. I drew a lot when I was younger, enjoying the act of getting lost in creative expression, without concern whether the house or dragon was good or not. I found other hobbies and put down the drawing pencil for a number of years. When I was in college, I bought a used copy of Betty Edward’s Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain. I worked through some of the exercises in the book then stopped. I still have both drawing books along with a trunkful of supplies stored in the attic.
I recently passed Emberley’s book onto Luke who I like to sit at the kitchen table and draw with. The practice of seeing where light falls on a subject is key to drawing and ends up helping my photography too. “Draw More” has been at the top of my Things I Like and Want To Do More. So I found the sketchbook and pencils and checked out two books from Peter Jenny’s Learning To See series: Unlearning to Draw and The Kitchen Art Studio.
Written for anyone who has ever wanted to learn to draw or simply draw better, the Learning To See series offers a mix of inspiration, motivation, and doable exercises. Sized to carry in a tote bag along with your drawing materials, the books show how to make drawing a daily staple.
Unlearning To Draw, the fourth book in the series, takes inspiration from how children and outsider art use direct experience to express themselves on the page. Jenny gives 22 drawing exercises and asks you to use family photographs as a way to create your own outsider art. They can be cut, collaged, marked up in order to transform them into new material to work from. The first exercise, You and I, asks the reader to “strip familiar images of their personal meaning in order to develop new image-making techniques.” Throughout the book the author returns to the theme of transforming personal narratives to create new ways of seeing. Personal photo albums hold many of the great themes of life, including: “love, sexuality, sickness, death, children, festivities, work, money, personal endeavor.” The book concludes technical possibilities and tips for keeping your eyes open and this passage stuck out in particular: “Schooling in perception should be a matter of concern not only for visual professions but for all of us. It is actually just as important as learning to read and write.”
The fifth book in the series, The Kitchen Art Studio, looks to everyday pantry items as perceptual art experiments. According to Jenny, “The kitchen of our childhood is the one that stays with us our whole life” and I tend to agree with him. He lays out seven principles for the kitchen art studio that reads like a quipping manifesto on food and art: Art does not have to look like art. It arises out of unusual combinations. It can even look like cuisine.” Most of us have access to a kitchen art studio where the author encourages us to experiment with another set of 22 exercises meant to shift visual perception. Exercise 9, Reporting, was one of my favorites, which asks you to “break with traditional reportage of news-worthy events and turn to the triviality of what goes on inside the four walls of your kitchen” instead.
I’ve been carrying both books in my tote bag for inspiration to make time to draw in those in between moments. I tucked several family snapshots into a sketchbook with a pencil and draw when I need a break between my pen and camera. Learning to draw is about putting pencil to paper and if you study Jenny’s books, you’ll likely arrive sooner than expected.