Lessons in Observation

A few weeks ago, my artist friend, Lynne Baur, commented that she could help me learn to draw after I mentioned that I’d love to do an illustrated book but have no artistic talent whatsoever. (She said, and I quote, “You shouldn’t take ‘can’t draw’ as an obstacle to an illustrated book.”) For a sample of my stick figures, check out this post.

Anyway, it turned out that she was working on a project for which I could give her some thoughts and I wanted to learn how to draw, so we cobbled together a do-it-yourself creative retreat that ended up lasting the better part of a week. We stayed at a fly-fishing lodge in Wisconsin, next door to a somewhat mysterious flute player whose nightly serenades began promptly at 11 p.m. I forgot my bath soap, so I had to use what was in the shower dispenser, and so I spent the week smelling like Old Spice (this should not have surprised me as much as it did; see “fly-fishing lodge.”)

The other people staying at the lodge were all couples: the husbands were enthusiastic about the outdoor pursuits, the wives stalwart. One night Lynne and I stayed up late, laughing so hard my abs hurt the next day. I hope you have friends like that.

Lynne has an amazing project she’s working on, but she’s going to have to tell you about that. I wanted to tell you about the drawing lessons. I learned to draw much MUCH better than I ever could before, but that’s not the important thing, or not the most important thing.

1. Broccoli trees do not exist in the real world. You know what I’m talking about, I’m talking about the drawing you make to show “tree”: the rectangular brown trunk, the bushy green foliage. Lynne calls these “broccoli trees” and points out that trees don’t actually look like that. We know they don’t look like that. We just use the broccoli trees as a kind of icon, a shortcut. To really see a tree requires fooling your brain, which wants very badly to just rely on such shortcuts. “It’s a tree, not a saber-toothed tiger, nothing to see here, move along.”

2. You can tell your brain, “I am going to sketch a real tree, not a broccoli tree,” but the minute you lose focus, it’s back to drawing broccoli trees. I found this out personally when Lynne gave me a small mannequin to sketch. I positioned it with its arms stretched out in front of it. My brain had me draw it with its arms at its sides, EVEN THOUGH I knew the arms were stretched out in front. Because arms at sides is easier on the brain. Damned brain.

3. Art requires effort. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) every moment of figuring out how this stuff works. But when, for the tenth time in fifteen seconds, I held up a ruler to an object I was sketching so I could figure out how far the top was from the bottom, I thought, “Wow, this is a lot like work.”

4. After I spent half an hour trying to catch the shape of a barista’s mouth, I thought, “Geez, I used to be only obsessed with words. Now I’m also obsessed with shapes. That’s not going to fuck up what’s left of my social life or anything.”

5. Also, March wheat is down.


Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available!
Catch a Falling Star (by Jessica Starre) and The Matchmaker Meets Her Match (by Jenny Jacobs), two of my favorite novels.

And don’t forget classes for writers—and more on writing at BeYourOwnBookDoctor.com


  1. Every time I catch a link to one of your posts swimming by in my Twitter stream, I think “Why haven’t I been reading this blog regularly?” then lose the next hour or so to catching up. Being able to draw a real tree has been a goal of mine for a long time…

Comments are closed.