Wednesday, May 01, 2013

You Might be Looking, but do you SEE?

Author, poet and writing teacher Amy Ludwig VanDerwater shared her “Drawing into Poems” project for National Poetry Month.
By Robyn Hood Black, @artsyletters

Poem Farm blog creator and poet extraordinaire Amy Ludwig VanDerwater shared a wonderful adventure in April for National Poetry Month, a project she called “Drawing into Poems.” Here is the introductory post about it, and you can follow each April entry for sketches and thoughts. I also blogged about her endeavors on my art blog here.

Essentially, Amy committed to drawing something every day of the month – really slowing down and looking at something. Then she added all kinds of thoughts/observations/associations, and she’s written some poems inspired by these.

I thought we’d slow down and look a little today, too. As writers, that left brain/language side of our psyche is often on overdrive – wanting to analyze, categorize, describe in words the data coming in. But to be really good writers, we must be able to simply observe first – before attaching judgments and labels to everything in the world around us. I know, I know – I didn’t say it was necessarily easy to downshift! So, first – take a deep breath. Inhale, e-x-h-a-l-e.

A couple of the book titles on Amy’s resource list made me smile, and I recovered them from our dusty bookshelves.

First, THE ZEN OF SEEING – SEEING/DRAWING AS MEDITATION by Frederick Franck (1909-2006) is a classic. My husband picked up a copy of this in college, and I’ve “borrowed” it more than once. First published in 1973, it’s still available and still a wonder to read. Laced with quotations (some centuries old) from zen masters and others, this handwritten volume is a workshop, journey and meditation guide all in one.

Franck discusses the process of letting go of your preconceived notions about something or worries about making a masterpiece, and becoming the object of your attention.

“Seeing/drawing is the art of un-learning about things,” he writes. Ironically, he must use words of course to describe this practice of turning off the part of the mind that wants to label everything. Not surprisingly, his descriptions make very fine writing:

“The pen caresses the round shoulder of a hill, feels its sensuous, lazy curves, then jumps staccato down the aggressive juttings of rocky ledges. Trees and plants push themselves out of the earth, like hairs on the skin, each one from its own roots. …”

Reading this book again brought to mind the statement by famous 17th century haiku master Basho, who said, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about bamboo. …”

Second, my in-laws gave me Betty Edwards’ DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN for Christmas in 1984, when my husband and I were newlyweds. Since hitting the shelves in 1979, this book has sold over a million and a half copies in the US alone. A newly revised version appeared last year.

It’s more of a practical guide about how to draw, but again the emphasis is on SEEING rather than on actual hand/eye coordination. (There are lots of visual references and some great quotes sprinkled throughout this book as well.)

Edwards writes, “Creative persons from fields other than art who want to get their working skills under better control and learn to overcome blocks to creativity will benefit from working with the techniques presented here.” Edwards focuses on making a shift from the left side of our brains, where language and logic usually live, to the right side of our brains (she calls this “R-mode”), where nonverbal, nontemporal intuition and spatial sense reign.

I enjoyed revisiting the practice of blind contour drawing, which we used to do in college art classes. You can try this easily with a pen and a piece of paper – nothing fancy required. The idea is simply to draw an object, figure, or scene by only drawing its edges, AND by positioning your paper away from your eyes so that you cannot see what you’re drawing! Oh, and don’t lift your pen. It’s a wonderful exercise about following the actual shape of something with your pen, not what you “think” it’s supposed to look like.

Here’s an example of what we usually think of as a sketch, with the artist’s eye darting back and forth between still life and paper.

Here are examples of blind contour drawing. The lines made with a pen lend themselves more to this fluid process than the ones made with charcoal.

For more on blind contour drawing, here’s a link to a brief tutorial from artist daily.

Even if you write fantasy, you must first pay attention to the details of the world you create before you can adequately describe these to your reader. In conversations I’ve had with Janice when she talks about Geveg from her HEALING WARS trilogy, there’s no doubt she’s describing “real” details to me from a setting she has spent a great deal of time in!

Working on this post, I realized there’s so much I want to explore on this topic that it could go on for miles. So… “to be continued”! In future months we’ll tackle the idea of gesture drawing and also the concept of positive/negative space as these relate to strengthening our writing, whether poetry or fiction.

In the meantime, be sure to check out Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s first collection of poetry for kids, FOREST HAS A SONG (Clarion, March 2013). You might just see the woods in a different light!

Robyn Hood Black writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction for young readers from the foothills of north Georgia. Her books include SIR MIKE (Scholastic Library, 2005), and WOLVES (Intervisual Books, 2008). Her poems appear in THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (Roaring Brook, 2012), THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL (2013) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY (2012). Her haiku have been published in leading haiku journals. She’s also just launched an art business with “art for your literary side” at


  1. Great post, Robyn. I've used these books & others with students. Our school uses field journals with the kids, from the littlest on up, so by the time they reach middle school, they are competent at 'seeing' & capturing experiences. Amy's work this month was awesome, wasn't it? Thanks for showing examples too!

  2. Oh, Linda, once again I want to be one of your young students! It's amazing what you pour into them. It's gratifying to hear this kind of activity is valued despite the press of rushed, screen-centric, test-driven lives for so many students.

  3. Oh, this is SO interesting, Robyn! I love when a writer draws an unexpected picture with words--but I don't think I try that often enough in my own writing. I need a little zen, maybe? (Or at least that little book!) :-)

  4. Cathy! You're an adventurous sort, so give it a whirl. :0) I could always use a little more zen myself. It's good stuff!

  5. This is a great post! As an artist, I very much agree that details make the world in illustration and in writing. I'm reading THE PECULIAR right now and all the warts and widgets and nitty gritties are roping me in faster than the plot. I love when I can read something I can chew on. Thanks for this!

  6. Thank you for commenting, Cat, and for sharing what's currently on your reading table. I looked up the book - sounds fascinating. Nice to have feedback from an artist/reader/writer!

  7. Thank you, Robyn, for sharing my humble attempt to try to do a bit of seeing/drawing this past month. I sure wish that I could take a class from you! It's incredible the resources out there and in here - so many beautiful ways to learn. Happy May Day! xo, a.

  8. Happy May Day, Amy, and you've sure filled my inspiration cup these past weeks! Thanks so much for playing along and for sharing your rare and wonderful insights with the world. xo

  9. All the time I am reading this post and fondly remembering Amy's sketches, I am thinking of myself and my summer, planning, dreaming. Then I read Linda's comment. Why not do this year round and with students? Thanks, Amy, Robyn, and Linda for your constant inspiration.

  10. Thank YOU, Margaret, for coming by and for what you contribute all around. It's an honor to hang out online with you all. :0)
    I just did a fourth-grade school visit yesterday, and that teacher (who taught both of mine when they were that age) has her students keep a journal all year. What a gift.