The Drawing Lesson: A Graphic Novel That Teaches You How to Draw
by Mark Crilley
Watson-Guptill Publications 2016
What do teachers do? And can anything creative (drawing, writing, music) really be taught? And is talent something we’re born with, or can anyone be creative? Can anyone be good at any creative activity?
As someone who has taught writing, I know something happens in teaching, though it’s not that a teacher fills in the ’empty slate’ of a passive student’s empty brain. I think really, the most important things a teacher offers are a nurturing environment, and short cuts: That is, a student can’t learn unless she wants to, and she can’t really, or hardly, want to without some kind of support. And if someone really wants to learn something, they can/could on their own, but a teacher can save them time and effort (and perhaps frustration).
As for talent, I like to think that anyone can be good at anything, and that what’s required is not talent but some kind enthusiasm, which I’m not sure we’re born with, so much as nurtured into somehow, not by our parents necessarily (though that can help) but our environment. That is, I think we all might be born with a desire to create, but that the form of creativity we ‘choose’ (or chooses us? Maybe?) comes later, or gets ground out of us by bad parents, bad schools, bad churches, bad governments, bad anything that doesn’t nurture the creative power of human beings.
All of which could be, and is, the subjects of whole books—I just can’t go into it here, except to say that Mark Crilley, in The Drawing Lesson: A Graphic Novel That Teaches You How To Draw seems to be on the same wavelength with me about all of this, especially in the value of both a nurturing-but-still-critical teacher and the enthusiasm of the student.
As the subtitle says, Crilley’s The Drawing Lesson is a ‘how to draw’ book disguised in a graphic novel. A young boy, David, with a desire to draw, but no funds to take lessons or even buy a book about drawing, meets a young woman, Rebecca, randomly sketching in a park, and begs her for a drawing lesson. And then another one. And then another one. Each lesson, and chapter, covers a major aspect of drawing, like shading, proportion, negative space.
The ‘story’ of The Drawing Lesson is fairly skimpy: this is after all just a way to talk about drawing in an accessible way. And, for the most part, it works, though I did have a moment of squickiness when David follows Rebecca back to her house to beg for another lesson, since it felt like bordering on stalking. But, ok, David isn’t quite old enough to stalk, and it’s just a way to get the two together again so we can have another lesson, and after that I found myself liking both David and Rebecca, leading me to realize that the more subtle lesson of The Drawing Lesson is not so much drawing, as developing characters via words and pictures: This book is also a lesson in drawing comics.
As to whether the lessons Rebecca teaches David are that profound—that is, will readers ‘learn’ anything more about drawing—I can only speak from the perspective of someone who doesn’t draw (but who has always kind of wanted to, or at least wondered what it would have been like) which is that I feel like Crilley did teach me how to look/see (at least a little) like an artist, especially with perspective and negative space. I’m not sure, though, that the intended audience, which I think is people who already like to draw (and maybe specifically those who like/want to draw comics), will find anything super profound.
But, that gets back to the questions of what teachers actually do: I’m not sure they ever offer anything super profound, at least most of the time. Again, most of the time, I think the best they can offer (and it’s up to the student to take it, or not) are short cuts, things that the student would eventually figure out on her own, with time. And with discipline: Despite David’s overwhelming enthusiasm about drawing, without Rebecca he might never sit down and study/emulate the masters (like, her, Degas) and instead spend all his time drawing race cars.
It’s obvious Crilley is a believer in face-to-face teaching, and I agree with him: there’s something about human interaction, something about how body language works into the communication between teacher and student. And, again, having a nurturing space, where at least one other person is just as passionate (or at least interested) in the type of creative activity you’re interested in, seems vital (we can’t all be Emily Dickinson). But this is the power of comics: Crilley is giving us the next best thing to a real person: pictures of people (even more: a series of pictures) with words/dialogue. Better than just text, better than just a how-to book full of diagrams with dry captions, we’re getting ‘real-ish’ people in the form of David, who could almost be a fellow passionate student of ours, and Rebecca, a real-ish teacher, who can be not just nurturing, but sometimes a little annoyed and angry with David, as real teachers sometimes are (which is sometimes a good way to learn). The Drawing Lesson is a mini-classroom as well as a mini-world.
My quibble, my desire, my wish, is/would be that The Drawing Lesson were stronger on story. Seems possible that you could have all the current content, and yet have more a ‘real’ story, more of David, more of his life, more of the things influencing him like, say, his parents and friends, who are non-existent here. But, then maybe the actual drawing lessons Rebecca gives might seem feel out of place, or lost in the mix. In this form, we never forget, or get distracted from the fact that this is a book about learning to draw. It might even inspire those who think they can’t.