Fountain pens, prisms, trig integrals

(Note: I wrote this a month or more ago, it’s been lingering, I know it’s a bit too long but if I pull the ideas apart they’ll lose something. That or it’ll turn into a 4-part series, which is waaaaay too much. Enjoy!)

This past summer I decided to take on learning to draw. I had to make it a project, a goal, which will likely seem absurd to almost every artist who has devoted their life to the visual arts. So many kids who just love drawing, who grow up just loving drawing, struggling to find a way to make ends meet through drawing because it’s what they’ve wanted to do all along.

I was and wasn’t one of those kids.

Sure, I totally drew stuff all the time. In school when I’d finished my homework (with time to spare – yes I was *that* kid) it’d be time to draw absurd cartoons, swap them with my friends, create dumb jokes that were hilarious then and would probably just make me shake my head today. But I never, ever tried to draw anything real, anything serious, anything “good”.

Working with both large and small-scale game development had reminded me of this gap between my doodles and what “artists” can do. Without visual art, drawing, 3D modelling, and sound design, most games are impossible to make.

So I was often reminded that I can’t draw. Which is a lie.

Of COURSE I can draw. I can pick up a pencil and make marks. I can even compare those marks to the shape of what’s in front of me and try to make them resemble each other. But somewhere along the way I had decided, this is not what I do, this is not what I am good at. I didn’t have that many classmates who really loved to draw, and it seemed a distant thing.

The lie of “I CANNOT DO THIS” is pervasive, controlling, and debilitating. I know this because I’ve taught math. Kid after kid after kid who declare “I HATE MATH”, who describe themselves as incapable, powerless in the realm of numbers. Who fail to pick up the pencil and try because they know they won’t succeed. You can put up all the motivational posters you want, try to tell them that not trying is the only sure way to fail, toss up “First Attempt In Learning” acronyms (I really like that one, actually) but this is something deep inside, something a poster is likely never going to reach.

I’ve always been “good at math”.

I knew this about myself when I hit Calc 2 in my first year of Engineering, didn’t know how to self-regulate my effort spent on practice work and failed my first midterm exam. I was MAD. I KNEW I was good at this, had to be good at this, how dare you tell me that I should consider a voluntary withdrawl.  I was mad at myself for letting this happen. I was mad at trig integrals for not having a consistent, well-defined path to solve.  I studied more for that final than anything before, maybe anything since.  I walked away with a B.

The power of “I am good at this” saved me that year.  Although maybe without it, I would’ve seen that I really did need more practice along the way. Maybe those trig integrals would’ve stuck, instead of coming back to bite me in my third and fourth years as I struggled with Fourier transforms.

I’ve taught a lot of kids without the “good at”. I struggle to keep them engaged when curriculum guidelines tell me they should be able to factor a polynomial, solve for x, parse this obfuscated word problem.

So this summer I told myself, I am going to draw. I am going to draw whether I am good at it yet or not. I am not going to let the “not good at this” voice win, I am going to push past it and succeed despite it.

The NeoLucida Kickstarter was a nice boost in that direction. Learning that the great masters of old may in fact have been using technical aids in drawing felt like a playing field being levelled.  I dove onto the initial offering of the NeoLucida within the first 24hr blitz of pledges. (Not something I usually do, or recommend.)  I found a copy of Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge” in the library and read it cover-to-cover. I decided I would practice drawing now so that when the NeoLucida came, it would be an aid instead of a handicap. So I wouldn’t be cheating. (I knew it wasn’t cheating, and still worried about feeling like it was cheating.)

Reviving an old Processing sketch to try and publish something on Android was another boost to drawing. I had created one tool for digital drawing that looked neat, and drawing on a touch screen sounded like a natural fit, so I made it run on my new (and first) smartphone. Then I reworked it to incorporate ideas that had come up while teaching middle-school kids to use Scratch to create drawings. They created some crazy ideas, most of which looked like scribbles, and I realized that we were translating movement into line and computers are incredibly powerful at simulating and inventing new kinds of movement. So my radiating lines became a physics simulation, particles orbiting your touch and leaving traces.

Developing a drawing app while feeling incapable of drawing sounds crazy, but it was safe. I was comfortable with computing and with generative art. Giving a computer partial control over marks on the screen took away the pressure of precision. But the irony, the hypocrisy was still there.

So I started to draw.

I picked up “Keys to Drawing” by Bert Dobson from the local library, and loved it. It put concrete experience and immediate action first. It didn’t try to abstract reality into shapes. Dobson just told you, draw what you see. The hard part isn’t the drawing, it’s the seeing – letting yourself put to paper exactly what’s in front of you without letting your mind preprocess it into concepts and abstractions first. It had exercises. It was perfect for me, and when I had to return it I went out and bought a copy of that plus his later “Keys to Drawing with Imagination”.

I started working through the exercises. It was kind of safe – this was homework, I was supposed to draw this, it was okay if it was a weird thing to draw – and once I started, I kept drawing and drawing and suddenly I had something that looked GOOD. It worked. Next day I picked the next exercise and drew again.

It took me a while before I realized I could draw with my fountain pen.

I’ve been a bit of a pen geek for years now, lured into buying nice looking ballpoints and gel pens and whatnot. But when I got my Lamy Vista, I was done buying anything else.  It’s the affordable version of a Really Good Pen – clear plastic body, durable, made for everyday use, not too pretentious, but a for-real fountain pen with a high-quality nib.

Writing with a fountain pen took some getting used to. Fountain pens don’t require the kind of brute force that we’re used to with ballpoint pens.  When the tip touches the paper, ink starts to flow.  If the pen so much as thinks of touching the paper as you move from line to line, from letter to letter, it will leave a mark.  My writing, on the other hand, was shaped by the ballpoint pen.  Signing my name dozens of times at once when I worked as a courier turned my signature into a swift, violent scribble.  You just can’t do that with a fountain pen, it’ll slice things, it’ll tear paper, it’ll jam paper scraps into your nib and muck it up.

The world shifted away from the fountain pen before I was born, but not so long before that I wasn’t still raised in its legacy. I grew up learning cursive writing in elementary school as well as “printed” letters.  It wasn’t long into high school before I had dropped cursive entirely, resorting to a semi-connected mess of hastily printed letters that I still use today. When I first learned how to use my fountain pen, I remembered that legacy.  I remembered it every time I failed to lift the pen completely off the paper between lines, leaving connections where there were meant to be gaps.  I saw first-hand why cursive writing had persisted for generations despite it seeming like more work and more pretentiousness than simple printing.  The fountain pen is the hardware it was designed for.

The dominant writing hardware shifted decades ago, back in the 1950’s and 60’s, but in education we still see people struggling to choose what writing software to teach.  Cursive is fading, a writing style meant for pens we no longer use, and it’s neither good or bad that this is so.  It’s a natural consequence of a change of tools, of our shift in media (as Marshall McLuhan would think of it).

But it’s taken us this long to see the change caused by the ballpoint pen.  We mostly don’t even see why it happened.

Makes you wonder where we are in the shift caused by calculators – never mind the computer, LOGO and Papert, the freely-available computer algebra systems.  Maybe Wolfram Alpha will change how we teach in a few more decades.

So. One day I picked up my fountain pen and drew.

loved it. Somehow the results felt more real – not more realistic, but more “I AM REALLY DRAWING”. I wasted less effort with the insecurities of erasing. I was careful where I placed my pen, as I had been now trained to do when writing with a fountain pen, and when I did choose to leave a mark the ink and paper responded at my merest touch. No more faint, cautious layers of graphite as I try to define proportions correctly before wrestling darker shades of graphite into the image.  The fountain pen insists that where I draw, I DRAW.  Don’t pretend to put a mark there that you can’t really see.  Put it there for REAL.

I came up with some good drawings. Some getting-closer-to-great drawings.  I started getting brave enough to carry a drawing pad with me in public spaces, drawing during my son’s swimming lessons. (Maybe later I’ll be brave enough to put them online, but not today.)

Summer’s ended, and my mind has turned from my learn-to-draw project onto finding another classroom, trying to define for myself what I want to be teaching and what I want my teaching to be.  Starting to read Invent to Learn and understanding why I loved teaching middle-school kids how to make things in Scratch.

And now when I see my drawing pad beside my usual laptop parking spot, I hesitate. I feel like I can’t do it. I’m not patient enough. I don’t have time. I’m … not good at it.

Sometimes, change is slow.

And I need to remember that when I teach kids math who don’t believe, and I give them something they succeed in they still don’t believe, and when I give them another space to succeed in they still don’t believe, and when they walk out with a B they breathe a sigh of relief and are grateful to have survived because they still don’t believe.

And I need to remember that when I see the news that somewhere not far away, positive change is being clawed back in the name of tradition, of getting “back to the basics”, of holding on to old software because we’re still only a few decades into calculator use and we can’t remember why we valued cursive, we just know we did and still should, somehow.

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