A DIFFERENT WAY TO thINK ABOUT DRAWING
thINK is an educational drawing process and a set of creative learning tools I developed as a metacognitive teaching model for my students. It evolved over a lifetime of deep observation of my own drawing processes, and decades of teaching creative thinking via the art of cartoon drawing.
In my teaching practice, I was able to observe and identify consistent over-arching patterns in the ways people experience ease and difficulty in the act of drawing. I noticed that these factors (ease / difficulty) were influenced but not determined by perceived technical ability or talent – or a perceived lack thereof.
The patterns I observed seemed essentially symptomatic of two categories of cognitive process:
– Socially- and culturally-conditioned ‘self-talk’: internalised judgments and comparisons, emotional content, expectations of what drawing ‘is’ or ‘should be’, self-esteem, limiting concepts of success / failure etc.
– Neurological cognitive processing factors: differences in visual perception, spatial awareness, capacity to focus, motor skills, different ways of accessing & connecting information – factors that can have significant impact for those whose experience includes autism, dyslexia, ADHD etc.
While the thINK techniques can be used solely to develop drawing skills, the process has broader implications for other developmental learning. Fine motor skills, spatial awareness, sequential thinking, symbol recognition, social & emotional intelligence are just some of the areas thINK has been applied to in learning environments.
THE BRAIN FILLING IN THE GAPS
The thINK process is distinct from other ‘how to draw’ approaches, in that it breaks down and abstracts the essential elements of linemaking itself, and re-orients it as a ‘how to think’ system – that is, using the simple act of linemaking to observe how the brain naturally forms novel connections. The abstracted Elements used in thINK do not ‘make sense’ in themselves, but by their very absence of information, or incompleteness, they automatically inspire the brain to suggest more information. Consequently, a drawer using thINK Elements will often ‘see’ a picture, pattern or form that is not ‘actually’ there, and proceed to draw it. In this way, rather than being directed (by a teacher) towards a specific outcome (‘picture of…’), thus forming an expectation, the drawing emerges instead as the result of inner connectivity, self-guidance, creative problem-solving and spontaneous discovery – all the things that make drawing so interesting and fun.
Another form of metacognitive connection that often occurs is when the drawer has a kind of ‘epiphany’, recognising where they have seen the abstracted Elements used in other drawings, comics, advertising & design. Adults and children alike have reported that once a particular Element has been pointed out to them, they begin to ‘see it everywhere’ – much like a child recognising other symbol systems such as alphabets and numbers in the world around them.
MEETING BOTH ENDS OF LEARNING
In any typical school classroom environment, there will always be a spectrum of abilities including widely disparate extremes. Even in a specialised classroom environment (eg a workshop focused on drawing skills) there will still be a spectrum with its own extremes.
Over many years of intensively testing thINK resources ‘in the field’, I developed the thINK systems in order to simultaneously meet two needs within a classroom:
– accessible foundation skills for beginner (or less-confident) drawers
– open-ended springboards for more confident drawers to extend their skills through self-guided experimentation
By providing a set of simple building blocks, and a base upon which one cannot ‘fail’ because there is no prescribed outcome, a beginner drawer and an experienced drawer can both experience quite sophisticated outcomes according to their ‘level’ and their willingness to experiment.
My School Of Cartoon Artistry page provides some fantastic examples of how students made use of this approach.
BACKSTORY: EVOLVING MY PEDAGOGY AS A RESPONSE TO CULTURAL CHANGE
Since the 1990s, my most popular workshop formats in schools had been Cartooning For Kids and Creative Communication (using cartooning to explore emotional communication).
Cartooning For Kids (later renamed Totally Random Stuff) was a completely open format, in which I modelled general drawing skills in an improvised ‘mash-up’ using random ideas from the students, so that every workshop was spontaneous and unique. The focus was very much on hands-on learning disguised as silly, irreverent, creative fun. Creative Communication was a more deliberately designed format, a series of sequentially structured modules exploring facial expression and body language in cartoon drawing.
By 2010, there had been many shifts in educational priorities, cultural expectations, and of course the impacts of digital technologies. Children’s needs were being shaped by the changes too, and I shaped my teaching to respond. While the cultural push was to become ‘technologically relevant’, I deepened my commitment to providing creative, thoughtful, process-based learning with a focus on well-being, because I saw kids who were suffering emotional exhaustion or hardened cynicism under the strain of such a rapidly changing world.
Children in classrooms naturally tend to reflect the culture. The cultural imposition of digital technology was exponentially interfering with (retarding) important cognitive processes that all human brains need for healthy long-term development: fine motor skills, spatial awareness and co-ordination, capacity to concentrate, independent learning & problem solving, psycho-emotional skills and so on.
In the decade leading up to 2013, working in schools and speaking with teachers, I had observed a steady decline in many students’ basic linemaking abilities – just the physical act of putting pencil to paper and steering a line. In fact I was alarmed at how rapidly this decline emerged. In the 2000s, students were struggling with fundamental drawing techniques that students in previous years had engaged with much more easily.
Increasingly, as a teacher who cared about effective learning, I had to slow down and simplify my own linemaking approach even further, in some cases almost to the point of it seeming infantile. This was especially confronting when students were of high school, or even college, age.
Many teachers I spoke to during these years confirmed that in the classroom, more and more students were struggling with basic handwriting and line control.
In the early 2000s, research on the impacts of screen time on brain development in early childhood (infants and toddlers) was only just starting to surface, but with most of consumer culture so entranced by the novelty of digital gadgetry, these important warnings were largely ignored or dismissed as technophobic. Yet even by the 90s (pre-‘smart device’ era), teachers were contending with the negative effects of TV / video / computer game consumption in their students’ behaviour. These emerging generations showed signs of being unable to creatively occupy themselves, to generate solutions for themselves, to negotiate social dynamics effectively and to cope emotionally with an increasingly unpredictable and demanding world.
From my first ventures into teaching, my workshops aimed to re-connect children with the simplicity of pencil and paper, the pure explorative contact between brain and hand. In my autistically iconoclastic way, I was reminding children of ‘stone tools’ thinking – ie that ‘less is more’. I used drawing to show that in creativity, process is more valuable than outcome.
(In the years before the Great Global Digitisation, I often deliberately revealed to a class that I didn’t own a TV, and couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly have time to watch TV every day. The class would stare back at me in blank confusion; these generations had never known a world without TV. On other occasions, whenever a student, obviously enthused by the workshop, piped up with “You should have a TV show”, I would explain that if I ‘had a TV show’, I would use it to tell kids to stop watching TV and do something creative instead – therefore making my TV show redundant. My point being: engage with life, think for yourself, and question the culture.)
The ‘stone tools thinking’ of drawing with pencil and paper proved to become especially challenging for subsequent generations, conditioned to immediate results at the push of a button – eliminating the many steps of natural process, so necessary in any form of creativity. I observed that the more children were conditioned to hyper-realistic computer-generated images, the sharper the contrast in what they could accomplish in a drawing. Their imaginations were primed with such vividly dimensional imagery that many of them were crippled by unrealistic expectations before they even put pencil to paper. I saw this as a serious cultural symptom, and I developed the thINK Process as a response – ie to slow down and simplify.