We need to draw on our untapped ability

I am a good drawer and have been since I was a teenager.

Last year, I worked in Presentation College, Carlow, doing a Percent for Art commission called SCHOOLWORK. Presentation is a secondary school. I offered to teach the students life drawing. I did classes with the third-years. Presentation has 20% foreign students — many of them Polish, all of whom could draw, many exceptionally. They could draw better than most Irish adults, even some who have been to art college.

The Polish students had done an hour of drawing a week in primary school in Poland, in addition to an hour a week of crafts. They had a specialised art teacher; they had specialist teachers in everything. These Polish students show that drawing is not innate; it can be taught. My drawing ability is the result of a misspent youth. I failed my Leaving Cert, but I got an A in art.

Drawing is, like writing, best learnt at an early age. In Irish primary schools, poorly resourced teachers cover drawing as one of six strands in the art curriculum. Because there is no book for art and little course support, it’s easier to do anything other than put a pencil in a child’s hand and teach them to draw. It’s a little late to start at secondary level.

Drawing is important — it’s not just for making pretty pictures, and it could save us all. How? At Presentation, I talked with woodwork technology teacher, Noel O’Neill, about the Polish students’ drawing ability. He said the Polish students constructed better projects in woodwork because their designs were better, and they better understood the initial plans, due to their drawing ability.

The media touts maths and science as the saviours of the Irish economy. But every product, package, vehicle, building or object you care to mention started as a sketch. From there, it became a fully conceived drawing and, finally, a product.

The i-Phone is the stand-out example. The technology is wonderful, but the physical form of the object and its interface make it the market leader. Both of these design factors arise from drawing. This is a matter of court record: during the recent Apple vs Samsung case in the US, it emerged that 15 designers meet weekly in Apple HQ and pass pencil drawings around. From these meetings, all of Apple’s product designs emerge.

Drawing is iterative. When you conceive of a new design for a chair, you do a little sketch. This sketch improves your mental concept of the object and suggests improvements. You do another sketch and this further solidifies the concept. Drawing is a stepping stone to making ideas real.

If you cannot draw competently, this blocks your ability to create. As a nation, we are creatively blocked because of low drawing competence. Drawing is the basic skill of so many careers that build products. From industrial design, to architecture, to package design, to the ads that market those products and the videos that present them, drawing is the fundamental skill that teaches you how to organise visual information.

As a society, and an economy, we are walking right past the money if we do not improve our drawing skills. It is like literacy. As a professional painter and drawer, I am the equivalent of a novelist, but everyone else should be able to draw the ‘equivalent’ of writing a letter. From that basic visual literacy, many people, possibly a third of the population, who have no aptitude for maths or language, could grow into great designers, visualisers and creatives.

If I was given the chance to do a social experiment, I would run a school in which art replaced maths for five hours a week, and maths was a treat on Fridays if everyone was good.

*Blaise Smith is a painter and an associate member of the Royal Hibernian Academy. See his work on www.blaisesmith.com

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