On cultivating the capacity for observation and imagination through sketching. Here are six pointers for anybody looking to trap those slippery ideas, illustrated through sketches of architecture students of Ahmedabad’s CEPT University.
While many writers have elaborated on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, designers likewise will tell you about the creative benefits of keeping a sketchbook. Graphic Designer Milton Glaser observed that “the great benefit of drawing… is that when you look at something, you see it for the first time.” Architecture students are drilled into the habit of sketching during their early days in college. While most of us struggle at first to ‘free our hands’ of the habits of dictation-oriented note-taking from school days; we discover over the years the possibilities that open up when one can draw at the speed of thought.
Here are six pointers for anybody looking to trap those slippery ideas!
1. Observe and grasp the essence
The first thing anybody will tell you is that sketching differs from photography. Sketching involves extracting the essentials, instead of literally representing everything that is visible. It is a selective process that involves filtering out what to draw, and more importantly, what not to draw, so that one can accentuate a certain aspect of the place – mass, light, surface texture, shadow, etc.
2. Leave your camera in the bag!
A believer in the premise that creativity evolves from the mental pool of resources that one takes the care to gather, I am an advocate for travelling and gathering experiences. But in an age of speed, the rush to see many things often comes at the cost of authentic experience. Milan Kundera wrote in the novel Slowness,
There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.
Our shutter-happy selves need some reminding as to the limitations of photography as a tool for observation. As architect Juhani Pallasmaa says in The Thinking Hand, an altogether unmissable read on the embodied wisdom of the human hand,
Every act of sketching and drawing produces three different sets of images: the drawing that appears on the paper, the visual image recorded in my cerebral memory, and a muscular memory of the act of drawing itself.
This multiple nature of the sketch, its layered exposure, as it were, makes me remember vividly each one of the hundreds of scenes that I have sketched during fifty years of my travels around the world, whereas I can hardly recall any of the places that I have photographed as a result of the weaker embodied recording of taking a photograph.
We are not usually aware that an unconscious experience of touch is unavoidably concealed in vision. As we look, the eye touches, and before we see an object, we have already touched it and judged its weight, temperature and surface texture.
3. Draw to understand
Observations inform understanding. The rift between these two can be bridged by drawing (or writing) – with the hand-mind combination serving as an invaluable tool towards investigation.
Our ability to imagine is perhaps what makes us uniquely human. A mind brimming with imagination that lacks the ability to externalise this, however, would be at a grave disadvantage. Pallasmaa laments in The Thinking Hand this evident disconnect between mind and body,
The duty of education is to cultivate and support the human abilities of imagination and empathy, but the prevailing values of culture today tend to discourage fantasy, suppress the senses, and petrify the boundary between the world and the self.
Is our uniquely human gift of imagination threatened by today’s over-abundance of images? Do our mass-produced and computer-generated images already imagine on our behalf?
The power of such drawings lies in their suggestiveness – in the fact that they are not concretised or real. They allow for several possibilities ahead of them owing to their ambiguity.
5. It’s about the process
The process of developing an idea is more important than its outcome. There is, in fact, real danger in pouncing upon an initial thought and acting upon it, without evolving it further. An idea must undergo several mutations and transformations before it is ready to become something. And to do this, there is no better tool than the hand. Philosopher Martin Heidegger connected the human hand with thinking capacity when he said,
Every motion of the hand in every one of its works carries itself through the element of thinking, every bearing of the hand bears itself in that element.
As we design, the speed of thought must resonate with the speed of the hand. As Drew Paul Bell of ‘How to Sketch Like an Architect’ fame, explains,
Your brain probably darts around faster than you can speak or write. So when you first try to draw as fast as you think, it may be difficult. But to get used to this, sit down to sketch for two minutes and never pick your pencil off the paper and never let the pencil stop moving. You can go over things multiple times – just don’t stop moving the pencil.
This is an exercise in thinking as much as an exercise in drawing. When you can think through your hand like that, you can get into a “flow”, where great thinking happens.
The notion of thinking this way is the same concept behind stream-of-consciousness writing, improv acting, and freestyle rapping and dancing – make your actions and thoughts one and the same, and the genius of the human mind can more fully express itself.
It is in the process of overlaying sketches and evolving upon existing ideas, that we are able to tap into that mental pool of resources that we have gathered over experiences. Existing insights subtly blend into our work – in this way preventing us from falling into that whimsical pit where creative work is misunderstood to be about originality.
With the advent of advanced rendering softwares, one is used to seeing glitzy images that promise beautiful spaces before they have been constructed, in order to sell themselves. Some architects try to express the design product as a ‘thing in process’, that never ceases being in process, through images that can involve the imagination of the viewer/client. Sketching, by virtue of its ‘unfinished’ nature, is in this case the perfect medium for triggering imagination and involving the users, instead of just convincing them.
6. Don’t forget to doodle!
In a letter written in 1945 to the French mathematician Jacques Hadamard, Albert Einstein wrote,
The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined.
[…] The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.
It is well known that visual imagery helps in remembering things. This “process of drawing an idea out by hand with images, words, and diagrams – both to analyze that idea in a visual (rather than just verbal) way and also to better remember that idea in the future,” is called sketch-noting – a process explored by many, like the above-quoted Graphic Recorder and the delightfully informative RSA Animates.
Recording notes and observations graphically in a sketch book not only aids in memory recall, but also in bearing witness to our thoughts and experiences. Admittedly, honing the ability to doodle unabashedly requires first that we un-train ourselves of the habit of ‘staying within the lines’ (as high school teachers were inclined to make us do).
The trend in many schools today is to fixate on the usefulness of softwares and technology in enabling efficient processes. I am prone to echo Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s doubts as to whether the computerised hand allows ‘the happy moment when all conscious control can be forgotten’, in the design process. While not discrediting the many advantages of using software, it must be remembered that the computer ‘creates a distance between the maker and the object, whereas drawing by hand puts the designer in skin-contact with the object or space.’ This is not true only of architecture/design schools, but is a general trend that one must be wary of if we are not to lose our innate capacities for thought and observation. As he adds,
Similarly in the act of writing, it is frequently – perhaps even most often – the process of writing itself that gives birth to unexpected ideas and an especially fluent and inspired mental flow. It is beyond doubt that the hand has a central role also in writing.
Cover sketch is by Niket Dalal.
This article was first published on Campus Diaries.