Primal Attraction to a Low Tech Tool
(first published in the Globe and Mail LIFE section ....July 11, 2012)
Today, in this cafe window seat, it’s a Staedtler HB, an all-rounder, an elegant wooden cylinder that falls comfortably into my grasp. A single black line on a crisp white page.
Call it my analog drawing instrument. Call me a graphite Luddite. Or maybe its just another badge of hipster culture (“free retro pencil with every MacBook!”). But its a habit I can’t kick, with roots in architecture school. It was the mid-80’s and I was part of that lost civilization of architecture students pushing pencils, running T-squares, bent over drafting tables. One stroke equalled one part of an architrave, one curve of a receding street. Artfully pre-digital, we sensed the wave coming but we couldn’t quite see it.
The ubiquitous AutoCAD drawing was still just over the horizon, a fantasy of some Jetson future. But it came soon enough and we were all swept up in its shining promise. Today, it’s the world we inhabit, a digital culture of design and drawing, manipulation and file sharing, virtual cut-and-paste. Productivity has blossomed exponentially and drafting tables have become must-have antiques.
My digital camera records in high-def clarity, and I can shoot with abandon. But distilling the shape of a park bench calls for deliberation and careful observation; a hand-eye-paper connection. The furrowed bark on an ancient Maple is flattened as it spews out of my ink-jet printer. No number of megapixels imprints that nubby texture on my mind the way drawing it can: one line at a time, feeling the bark as the graphite rubs off on paper.
So I fall back on an un-plugged media, going acoustic in a canyon of electronica. Maybe it’s an age thing.
But I pause. A guy at the next table (an architecture student?) with very large glasses and black stubble, is working on his knitting. Fleet Foxes harmonize on the cafe speakers, singing in a barn, crooning away about the noticeably non-digital Meadowlark, their music distinctly hand-made, if that’s possible. “By hand” isn’t just some hipster catch-phrase, it’s something we crave, a visceral tie to something we risk losing.
In an hour or so, I’ll be rotating a steel and glass box in 3D, entering coordinates, doing sunlight studies in the virtual world of computer-aided design. But even that glass box started life as black lines on a sketch pad one crisp autumn day last year. I sat on a granite boulder, October clouds scudding overhead. A pencil, a pad, a place, an idea: it was a pared-down moment and it worked. There was something in the directness of it al – lines on paper recording my first thoughts about the shape and position of an embryonic building.
And there was emotional connection too; the excitement of creation coursing from brain to muscle to pencil, the complicating layer of mouse, keyboard and software absent for that moment.
The English sculptor Barbara Hepworth said: “I rarely draw what I see – I draw what I feel in my body.” A pencil allows for that; it doesn’t try to re-align, edit or elaborate. It doesn’t flash warnings or second guess instinct. Frank Gehry has harnessed the power of complicated 3D software to render his titanium architectural confections, but his free-flowing, emotion-charged pencil sketches are where it all started. And they are the things that sell in the gallery shop.
The guy at the next table has set his knitting aside for a moment and is updating his Facebook status on his iPad. He’s a perfect picture of the modern man as he does so, giving me some hope for the future of pencils and drawing: an urge to make things by hand while immersed in digital culture. The two can co-exist and flourish.
My kids are much the same, travelling with sketchpads and ipods, fascinated by Medieval ruins as much as SimCity. The world is their multi-faceted oyster.
I realize that while I’ve been musing, I’ve been doodling on my pad, each stroke an aid to concentration. I focus on the cup in front of me, trying again to capture its roundness and how the shadow falls across the cafe table. I could let 3D software do it for me: and the shading would be precise, the diameter exact. But I’d miss the immediacy, the aroma, the warmth of the ceramic.
Sort of like how I’m sure I could text the knitting guy and he could send me photos of his finished project. But I think I’ll take the old analog approach and just ask him.
“What are you making?” I hope he’ll tell me it’s a pencil case. That would be perfect.
But in a minute. Right now I’m running another line out across a new page, starting another drawing, working the muscles of another part of my brain.
(with thanks to Globe Editor Jane Gadd and Art Director Cinders McLeod)