Express Yourself

Your Imagination Isn’t Quarantined

A simple drawing exercise to help you rediscover the meaning of perspective

Photo: Artur Debat/Getty Images

Everything is closed. Schools are closed. Stores are closed. Parks are closed. Museums are closed. But you know what’s easy to keep open for you and your kids? Your eyes.

Let me show you an easy way to open things up. But I want you to wait until your kids have gone to bed. I know you’ll be exhausted. (We’re all exhausted!) But this will be relaxing; this will be fun. No one is keeping score.

All you need is a pencil and a piece of paper. First, freehand a square in the center of the page. Small or big, it doesn’t matter. Take a second to look at it. Admire it. Okay, now give it some legs: From each corner of the square, drag your pencil to each corner of the page.

Now, before we continue, let’s get one thing straight: This is not a contest. You’re the only one here. Your drawing isn’t any better or worse than anyone else’s. In fact, don’t even show it to anyone else if you don’t want to. When you’re done with this, you can toss (I mean recycle) the paper immediately.

Back to your drawing. What is your square doing? Is it breaking the social distancing rules and coming toward you? Or is it pulling back, receding into the page? The four “legs” you drew to each corner are where the action is. They create perspective.

With a few quick marks, you’ve produced a composition that reveals the fundamental principle of art: space.

Space is freedom. Space is movement. Space is a story. What happens if you take your pencil and darken the square? What if you leave the square alone and shade the area around it? What if you grab a crayon and introduce color? If you’re still with me, experiment. See which hues seem to make the shape pop forward and which make it move away. What happens when these colors butt up against each other? Do they brighten? And what if you go back to those four legs and add lines straight across, not at an angle? Trust me, a few more moves like this and you can make your square protrude, recede, and flatten out all at the same time.

Even while confined to our homes, there’s no limit on what we can learn to see.

I’m not trying to give you a whole course in drawing. Whether you see yourself as an artist or not is irrelevant. But with one pencil, one piece of paper, and a few minutes all to yourself, you can discover (actually, the right word is “remember”) some pretty magical things about seeing. You don’t need a manual on the psychology of vision or an online course in theories of art. What you can figure out with your pencil doesn’t need words. You just need to believe your eyes. You can only learn to see by doing it.

When children draw, they learn to see. From their earliest scribbles to their detailed portraits of their family and friends, kids build an entire world. They translate back and forth between the page and what they see in the world and their imaginations. Kids do this naturally. They build this world without any formal instruction, just the way they learn to walk and talk.

So why is it so hard for us to keep learning to see? Self-consciousness, mostly. We worry about what everyone else thinks of the things we make. We worry about people laughing at us. We’re always measuring ourselves against somebody else’s definition of talent or skill or success.

Even without a global pandemic, it is easy for us to succumb to a permanent state of crisis management. We’re really feeling that pressure now, especially us parents. Are we schooling our kids the smartest, best, most efficient way possible? Are we protecting them perfectly?

The answer is no. We aren’t. And we can’t. But instead of fretting over this inability, why don’t we try to learn something from children instead? Because even while confined to our homes, there’s no limit on what we can learn to see. All we have to do is draw it.

Seth Cameron is a painter, writer, and the Executive Director of Children’s Museum of the Arts in New York City.

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