Ramblings about parting hair, drawing, and learning to see

Today after I took a shower, I parted my hair the opposite way of how I’ve been parting it for perhaps the last 15+ months. I mention this mainly because I was reminded of how I used to do it on a (more) regular basis. After, say, weeks and weeks of parting my hair on the left side, I would wake up one morning, take a shower, and then part it on the right side just because I felt like it. And invariably when I did that, the next day somebody I see all the time at work would ask me one of the following: “Did you lose weight?”, “Did you get new glasses?” or (rarely) “Did you cut your hair?” Of course, no, I didn’t; no, I didn’t either; and no, but close. I found it very amusing.

I was once approached by a person at an Artist Alley who wanted to commission me to draw a picture of their significant other, rendered in a manga-influenced style. The significant other wasn’t with them, and they didn’t have a photo either. So naturally I asked some questions, like general body type compared to fictional characters they knew, and things like length of hair and darkness versus lightness. However, one question completely stumped the person. I asked, “Which side is their hair parted on?” And they couldn’t answer.

This is not in any way suggesting that my commissioner was stupid or had absolutely terrible memory or didn’t care enough about their significant other. And it also is not suggesting that my coworkers were stupid or unobservant either. But I think all this hair parting is just one of the many things that say a lot about how we process information, and how easily we take things around us for granted, tuning stuff out as a consistent or unimportant element in the background of our lives. (God knows I often fail to notice things I pass by every day!) We all keep a general impression of people’s faces in our minds, and we might, like in the case of my coworkers, realize something is different with the impression in our recent/recurring memory, but not be able to put a finger on what it is.

We “know” things, so we don’t really see them. This makes sense, because if we gave the same priority to every little thing that happened to cross our path, we’d overload ourselves with useless information and our brains would probably explode or something. We certainly wouldn’t be functioning very efficiently. At the same time, being able to stop for a moment and just take in what’s around you, to really see and be and use all your senses to fully absorb the world you’re in, that can be pretty powerful no matter what your calling in life is, and certainly for people who work creatively and visually.

“I can’t draw. I can’t even draw a straight line.” (I’m assuming here that when most people say “can’t draw”, they mean “can’t draw a realistic representation of something”.) I’m sure I’ve semi-ranted on this topic before somewhere, maybe in my old LiveJournal (I certainly have ranted about it in person to various friends), but when people say things like this, it really works me up. I’m sure most of the time people say it casually, flippantly, or in deference to someone they see as an “artiste”, but it sounds defeatist. And really, I just get upset when I think that people may be writing themselves off as being incompetent when they totally are not, and therefore block themselves off from experiencing something that can be so fun and enjoyable and lovely and wonderful and so many other fulfilling things.

For one, if you can’t draw a straight line, I can’t either and that’s what rulers are for; and two, while I agree that being able to render something realistically does have something to do with skill, I also believe firmly as a skill, it can be honed! And I believe developing that skill has quite a bit to do with making a distinction in your mind between what you expect something to look like without really having seen it for a long time, and actually really seeing it in front of you. And noticing all the details about how perspective is actually warping lines and shapes in front of you and how light hits it and creates different shades of colour in the shadows and so on and so forth. That’s why drawing from life (life drawing sessions, still lifes, etc.) can be so helpful – you’re (re)learning how to see, and the more you do, the greater the understanding grows in your mind about what happens to things in different situations, lighting, angles. That’s the experience that comes with honing the skill.

Certainly, if you’re not used to seeing things in this way, it can be super helpful to have someone guide you. But it’s not like you’re incompetent or deficient in some way that drawing is forbidden to you. I’m probably sounding all ranty, but all I really want to say is, take heart! Learn to see.

(On a lighter note, I’ve also noticed that when people who aren’t usually visually inclined ask me to draw an original character – and they’ve never had this character illustrated before – they often get stumped by a question very similar to the one that stymied my commissioner. How does the character’s hair frame their face, e.g., the hair parting thing? It’s funny that this seems such an insignificant detail, but it makes a big difference in terms of how that character looks. This could probably be a topic for a whole other rambling post.)