One Drop of Water

You don’t need to look at the drop of water on your car roof, you’ve seen it a million times. But if you had to draw it, at least without looking at it, you’d have a hard time. We know what things look like in a general way, but the specifics will do us in.  That’s what makes being an artist fun. We look at things in different ways. As artists we have certain expectations of water drops–we assume the light comes from above, so the highlights in a drop are around the curved part on top. So far, so good.

Except the image I chose to draw from was a second generation photocopy of a drop of water on metal. No color, just values and they had been distorted by the photocopy machine. The highlight was on one side, and the drop was probably not originally water, as it had a sharper profile than water. I struggled with making the drop look round. It looked flat and lifeless.

Drawing was made more difficult not just because I didn’t have what I needed, but because to recognize a drop of water, I have to include certain things that make it recognizable–shape, reflection, color.

” The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” Marcel Proust wrote. And new eyes consist mostly of observation. How does this thing look in this light. What, exactly is it that makes the eye think it is round and wet.

And after a while, it emerged, looking as it should. Not because I was born talented. I was not. But because I used my eyes in new ways to see a new perspective.

–Image: “Drip,”  © Quinn McDonald, colored pencil on110-lb.  Bristol Board. All rights reserved.

--Quinn McDonald is writing a book on the inner critic and the inner heroes we develop to confront it.

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12 responses to “One Drop of Water

  1. I could have sworn the San Andrés roundabout had a white, tall monument featuring a man on a horse, It turn out to be a rectangle with a Virgin´s shrine in the middle. Where did the original thought come from? Monuments here often have horses and I turned the size and shape to fit that. At least the roundabout was actually there. :D

    • We see what we know, and we draw conclusions that way. I walk the same path most mornings, and the family that had two dogs that always bark at me had acquired another one. It was the ugliest dog I have every seen. It doesn’t bark, though. When I stepped closer, I saw it was not a dog, but a pig. And a quite handsome pig. It’s all about what we expect.

  2. I dabble with art, mostly from necessity. I like beautiful things. I like to have them around me inside my home and out. Most of my beautiful things probably wouldn’t be considered beautiful to “professional” artists. They are old and mostly sentimental to me. It may be the way the grain of wood looks or the fact that I put it together with bits and pieces of our old house discards. Like Pete…I digress.
    What I really wanted to add to the conversation is that I look at people and see something different, mostly children. I see them with a different eye than most adults. Children are my opportunity to create a living, breathing piece of art. They never disappoint me in that. It may not be exactly what I had in mind but they always turn out just the way they should, and it always amazes me how they got there. Like Quinn’s drop, they aren’t always what they appear to be.
    My point is that seeing with a different eye can and should be applied to more than the canvas, wood, clay or marble. Life is a canvas. We provide the strokes that create the beauty around us.

  3. Kristin McNamara Freeman

    This topic was a central theme to one semester in a college art class. At least once each week the instructor put before us the same all white still life consisting of rectilinear and spherical shapes and several seed pods painted white. We had a sketchbook especially for containing our weekly efforts to capture what we saw using only pencils. It was a profound wake up to me about using my vision, testing my mental recording in drawing and then testing again and again. I have found in writing poetry that this revisiting practice only using words and not the sketch has been always a good way for me to begin to really see; see my memory expressed and see my intention in my work.
    Thank you for reminding me again to pay attention to what I see; whether it be my mind picture or the visual which is inspiring a work of art.

  4. I’d say that we *don’t* know what things look like in a general way. We know what we think they look like, which over time becomes a mental shorthand, sort of. Like a mental icon, and most people process fairly visually so the “icons” more or less resemble visual things.

    I don’t seem to process things visually, or at least not as much as many people. Not that I have a handy metaphor for how I do process things, although words and numbers are much easier for me than pictures. But I digress.

    I wonder how much our neurobiological characteristics influence, for example, the fact that we can recognize a drawing as “like the real thing”. I’ve read some speculation that recognizing drawings is not innate but learned. I must have skipped that class!

    • This is a fascinating topic, Pete. I had to “learn how to see” when I took a drawing class. It was amazing. You are right, of course, we don’t really “see” things at all–we register them. I became a much better illustrator because of art class–because I learned to see in a different way.

      • I had a similar experience — in college I took a drawing class. It wasn’t at all what I expected; everybody sat in a circle around whatever we were supposed to draw, which was usually something placed on a table. All the instructor did was walk around, look over your shoulder, and *the only thing she ever said* was “does it look like that?”

        I actually learn to make a recognizable representation. And there’s a “mode” of looking at something that I need to invoke in order to do it.

  5. To really see, we need to really look, if that makes sense. I recall an experiment my college sociology prof performed. We were in class when, suddenly, a woman, being chased by a man, ran into the room, around it, and then back out. Then, the prof asked us to each write down what we had seen, without comparing notes. Of course, no two people had seen the same things. I guess what we all need to learn is to really see by really looking. Thanks, Quinn–oh, and your artwork is beautiful. Simply beautiful–though, not really simple, even though it looks it.

    • I was a witness to an auto accident once–along with three other people. Each of us was sure of what we saw–although each one of us saw something different. The policeman told me he hates eye witnesses because they all know exactly what happened–but they are wrong.

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