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How drawing is like juggling; and how both are as difficult to see as a gorilla on a radiology slide.

Would you ever compare the skill of drawing to the skill of juggling? How about finding a gorilla on a radiology slide? The process of drawing, like juggling, is a”global skill”, which means it “is made up of component skills that become integrated into a whole skill”, Edwards: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 1999. There will be stages during the process of drawing, when the image doesn’t look accurate, just as when you are practicing juggling there will be moments in the sequence of moving and catching objects, when one object is missed and goes flying. Often, missing one ball can cause a chain reaction. The next ball is missed and flies off, too, until suddenly you are in the practice of picking things up, rather than juggling.

I’m not a juggler myself, but I assume in order to become a competent juggler, one has to learn both component and global skills: to throw and catch the balls with both hands; to throw balls in the correct direction at the appropriate rate; and the global integration, or how to coordinate the brain/hands/eyes to execute everything all together throughout the practice.  Drawing is a similar process. It is done by moving a sequence of  marks (the component skills), that are all relative to one another while coordinating the brain/hands/eyes to make those marks with precision (the global integration of the component skills). When you move one mark, it impacts the way we see the surrounding marks. The way that I teach drawing is to teach lots of small component skill sets in digestible pieces. Learn how to accomplish each task and you are half way there. And then comes the monumental act of integrating those skills into a global practice by way of the brain/hands/eyes.

Often, I hear complaints from my adult students who are learning to draw, that keeping track of all of these acquired skill sets at the same time is the most difficult part of the practice. On top of it being challenging, they often have the expectation that they should be able to perceive and monitor all of these tasks at once, in equal amounts. Somehow, I don’t think these same adults assume they should be able to pick up 8 balls and juggle them at once, without ever having practiced or dropped a lot of balls. But drawing is a birthright- around the globe we all start off our young lives drawing. Then we see certain people who are able to learn the component skills and integrate them by themselves, without much instruction, and they keep drawing. I guess we don’t have as many spontaneous jugglers- so we have different expectations of what our natural abilities should be in the world of juggling.

Which is why I was thrilled to read the article on National Public Radio, titled “Why Even Radiologists Can Miss A Gorilla Hiding in Plain Sight”. The article, written by Alix Spiegel, addresses the work of Trafton Drew, a researcher in the Visual Attention Lab, run by Jeremy Wolfe at Harvard Medical School. Drew’s study found that when radiologists, people highly trained to study visual images, were presented with medical slides that included a small superimposed image of a gorilla, 83% of these skilled scrutinizers missed the gorilla image. The reason for this is our brains are wired to see whatever it is that we are looking for. Not only is it very common for the adults learning to draw to be unskilled at seeing, but also, it is difficult for any human to see all things equally at one time. If we are trying to see more than one thing, it is likely that we will have to do so sequentially, rather than all at once. So the radiologist were working on one component skill set- looking for cancer- which is very different than the component skill set that entails looking for gorillas.

The radiologists illustrate a part of human perception called “inattentional blindness”. It is not that the radiologists didn’t see the gorilla with their eyes, but their brains were focusing on the task of looking for cancer, rather than gorillas. As Speigel puts it “what we’re thinking about- what we’re focused on- filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see”. This is what makes it so difficult to learn to draw. It is easy to focus on making one line by itself. It is more challenging to focus on how long that line should be, or how much space there should be between it and the next line. Then, consider how dark does it need to be, which affects how much pressure I need to apply with my hand. If I draw the line quickly, it might look smooth and fluid but the direction or length could be off the mark. If I draw it slowly, it could be the right length and direction, but maybe it looks wobbly. Those concerns merely address the element of lines in a drawing! Add in value, how light falls on a three dimensional object, texture – both implied and tactile, composition, and the meaning you want your drawing to convey. You will suddenly realize, you’re juggling a whole lot of balls, my friends.

So remember, drawing takes focus, time, practice and working within the confines of our innate humanity. It is brain science, and many of us could stand a mindful workout in perception. When you do, you’ll find it will benefit you in other areas of your life, as well.  Wait, did somebody say something about a gorilla? What gorilla?!