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Learning How to Look

POSTED ON: November 1, 2015

When I was little, my grandmother used to tell me to draw flowers. Walking around her garden, I knew the thing to do was to pick an ‘easy flower’ as the subject for my drawing: the fewer petals and leaves the better. I avoided strange angles or stems that knotted together. Picking a single flower was effective - I could return after a few minutes with a fairly realistic drawing that my grandmother would admire and praise.

One day she asked me to draw the dahlias. This plant fell completely out of my usual criteria: it was a huge bush thick with leaves and tangling branches and flowers that had a hundred petals. As I sat in front of it with my sketch pad and pencil, I knew this was not going to be so easy.

What I was looking at was so complicated and full of detail that whenever I decided to begin my drawing, I had to stop myself. I couldn’t simplify this to make it easier on myself. In order to translate the complicated arrangement of leaves, flowers and branches onto my page, I had to look much harder than I had before. This drawing took much longer than the others and I am not sure if it was very good, but it is the only drawing I remember making in my grandmother’s garden because I was being forced to learn how to look.

By age sixteen, I had forgotten this moment of learning. I sought out the Outreach program, wanting to know how to improve my artistic skills. I came to Outreach with a sense that the ways I had been making art had become a little too easy.

On the first day of class, our drawing teacher, Adriana Farmiga, gave us a deceivingly simple task: using only pencil we had to draw a crumpled piece of tinfoil on a large sheet of paper. We had more than two hours to do this.

I found it difficult to decide how to make the first mark on the paper. It was such a complicated arrangement of tiny angles and different shades of gray. Like that dahlia bush, the object in front of me felt too complicated to simplify. Depicting it meant paying attention to every one of its details with a rigor that I had known before but had forgotten. I realized our teacher had presented us students with that same challenge: we had to learn how to look.

That sense of suspicion I mentioned before was there because I was making things too easy for myself. Before coming to the Outreach program, I had a way of drawing that was effective: though I didn’t have to look very hard, I could produce good, finished drawings I could put in my portfolio. The faculty at Outreach helped me immensely by challenging my complacency with my “good enough” drawings.

Looking is harder. The first drawings that come from looking are imperfect, unfinished, off. But they are closer to the truth. 

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.