Why You Can't Draw Things Even If You Know What They Look Like

Why can't you just draw the things you've seen? Because no matter how carefully you've observed things during your life, you haven't been observing them the right way. Here's an experiment that shows how looking at the world isn't enough to allow you to recreate it.

The Challenge

Most of the people reading this have read a few comics during their lives. Even the most casual observer knows a few animated characters. Think of a simple one, and one that you've seen your whole life. Think of Mickey Mouse's head, or Homer Simpson's face. Now pick up a pencil and a sheet of scratch paper and try to draw it. Really try, just for two minutes. Do it from memory.

I'm guessing it didn't go so well. In my drawings, I got Mickey's ears okay, but couldn't remember how to draw his nose. Homer Simpson's big bald dome and overlapping circle eyes were right, but I couldn't recall exactly how his lips curved into his neck, even though I've seen that chinless Matt Groening style all my life.

Why You Can't Draw Things Even If You Know What They Look Like

This isn't just a matter of technical inability. Although no novice would be able to recreate a professional animator's work, the lines involved aren't complicated. Put a drawing of one of those characters in front of the average person, and although their work would be shaky, it would resemble the original well enough. The problem is, when drawing from memory, memory fails us. We can't think of how the lines fit together.

It's also not a tedious example of the famous Holmesian quote, "You see, but you do not observe." Most of us have never counted the number of steps that lead up to our front door, and we wouldn't notice if the number were altered. But put a bad knock-off of a certain cartoon character in front of us, and we know that they look "off" the instant we set eyes on them. People do "observe" these characters. Although we can't draw them, we do accurately remember what they look like. It's not a trick. We both do and don't remember some of the most famous icons in our lives, depending on how we are trying to remember them.

The Experiment

One experiment brings this into focus. Subjects sat in a chair while they were given a series of guided tours along three paths in a virtual city. The subject experienced each path differently. They used a joystick to move along one path, guided by a researcher who gave them directions. To explore another path, they just sat back and watched as they moved through the city. The last tour involved no motion; the subjects were only shown a series of snapshots that took them from one location to another. Although it was possible to understand how one would move in virtual space to get from one snapshot area to the next, the participants didn't actually move.

Why You Can't Draw Things Even If You Know What They Look Like

At the end of the experiment, the participants were tested. The first test was pretty simple: point to the way "back" from the end of the path to the beginning. Then there was a test of recognition — did people recognize the scenes they'd just walked through? Finally, the participants were asked to draw the route of the path. No matter how they moved through the path, the participants did equally well at pointing their way back and recognizing where they'd been. When it came to sketching the path, the snapshot path was hopelessly inaccurate compared to the other two sketched paths.

Although the participants knew every step of the way, and although they knew the rough direction they'd gone, they weren't able to sketch out a simple path. When they had been drawing the other paths, they were doing it by recreating the actual motion of the trip in their head. They weren't able to do the same with the snapshot path, so when they were asked to trace the path, their mind went blank. The problem wasn't that they didn't remember the path they'd been on. The problem was that they didn't have the specific memory they needed in order to do the task.

Paperless Drawing

This is why we can't recreate drawings even if we can remember them. When we rely on memory to complete a task we need a memory that pertains to that specific task. Passively remembering how something looks, and actively remembering how to reconstruct it are two separate processes.

Why You Can't Draw Things Even If You Know What They Look Like

What's more interesting about the experiment is the fact that we don't necessarily need to practice the "drawing" part of drawing in order to learn to draw. The participants in the experiment didn't need to actively make their way through a scene to remember what the path looked like. This could mean that we don't need to actually put pen to paper and practice the physical motion in order to improve our drawing skills. All we need to do is imagine how we would recreate the characters while we look at them.

This might be the basis for a cool, if time-consuming, experiment. There are plenty of people attending art classes. It would be interesting if one such class were split into two groups; one group that actually practiced art, and one group that had a teacher who led them through virtual exercises on how to "see" like an artist, without ever putting pencil to paper. Obviously, the physical process of sketching is a skill like anything else, and the people who were physically drawing would have an advantage. It would be cool to see how the virtual students stacked up against the practical ones. This experiment proves that we need to learn to draw with our mind, as well as our fingers, but could we learn to draw with our mind alone?

Top Image: Ole Houen.

[Via Active, Passive, and Snapshot Exploration in a Virtual Environment]