’You only think you can’t draw. When you were a child, you probably drew fine. Everyone can draw.’
That’s what Christophe Egret said to me as we waited for our baggage to arrive on the carousel at Venice’s Marco Polo airport. His heavy case contained a stack of sketchbooks and pens.
Egret was due to lead a sketching event for the RIBA Trust at the Venice Architecture Biennale. He’d asked me to take part. Upon which, I had pointed out that I can’t draw. He would have none of it.
Perhaps he’s right, I thought. Perhaps I can draw, really, if I don’t get all self-conscious about it. Even though I had a strong memory of not having been able to draw as a child either, and finding art lessons a torment. So, three days later, the biennale behind me, I turned up at the British pavilion to collect my notebook, pen and my assigned task.
There was a lot of John Ruskin about at the British pavilion. Ruskin is famous for his notebooks, full of little sketches of details of art, architecture and nature. ’Close looking’ was his mantra.
Hence, the big construction by Muf Architects in the pavilion, a one-tenth scale section of London’s Olympic 2012 stadium – made in timber by Venetian carpenters. They call it ’The Stadium of Close Looking’. From here, Egret and Liza Fior of Muf sent us off to sketch other pavilions, one each. I got France.
This was to be an hour’s worth of drawing, followed by a crit. But I had only 20 minutes before I was due to head off back to the airport. So not only had I no drawing experience, I had almost no time to make a stab at it either. I took a deep breath and rushed out.
The French pavilion is a brick box with an oval portico (I drew a rough plan of it). Out the back, I found blocked-up windows, air conditioning units, grilles to an unused undercroft, a dead staircase leading nowhere. These I ’drew’, nursery-school fashion.
At the front there was a lamp-post lost in shrubbery, like Narnia. Foolishly, I tried to draw that. There were lots of people, but people are hard to draw. So I indicated the relative position of their heads, and their distance away, with circles of varying size.
Inside, the show was all projections and mirrors. Oh, great. So I isolated the rectangular benches as if in space, and a doorway (three lines), and what was meant to be architect Jean Nouvel’s face fragmented by mirrors (a really bad mistake).
Then I tried the shadows in the portico, which ended up as a few diagonal slashes.
My self-imposed 20 minutes was up, and I looked at my sorry collection of black squiggles. It was no comfort to find that I was right all along – I really cannot draw. This was rubbish. I handed the sketchbook back apologetically and ran, relieved not to have to face the crit.
But thinking about it now, Egret was also right, along with Ruskin. No matter how bad I was at drawing, the point was that the act of trying to draw made me look more carefully, and find more, than if I hadn’t bothered. It was different from normal looking, different from camera-looking. Even at absurd speed, it was getting on for being ’close looking’. The results are stored in my head. Just a shame I can’t print them out, so to speak.
So – hand-drawing in a sketchbook, I recommend it. And by the way, this column has been a sketch. See what I did there? Hugh Pearman has thankfully resumed his day job as a design and architecture critic