Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How to draw a tree

How to draw a tree. How to draw a person, a house, or the Sun. How to colour-in the sky. Basic skills for children, or adults for that matter, taught via a series of small books. A project very much of its era: for while it’s quite possible to imagine similar books being produced now, the approach to teaching creativity within rules – the classical alongside the modern – is something I recognise from the pedagogical fashions of my childhood.

How to draw a tree was the star of the show, and is still in print, also in English. It isn’t so much an instructional book as the story of how trees are drawn by nature. The inspiration is this drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, on the proportional growth of tree branches (from his Treatise on Painting).

Leonardo’s theory held that ‘all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk’. The book’s author – my beloved Bruno Munari – uses this idea for a collage exercise towards the end of How to draw a tree, but translates otherwise the drawing as the following recipe/mantra repeated throughout the text, in big print and small print, upside and sidewise and down:
Every branch is thinner than the branch that precedes it.
That is the moral of the story of how to draw a tree.

I’ll get back to the book. But for the purposes of this post I revisited the others in the series, almost three decades on from when I first encountered them. And found them inferior to that first title. How to draw a house (by Roberto Lanterio) is just a catalogue of the different shapes that dwellings take in different cultures. You won’t know how to draw them any better than before you picked up the book. How to draw a person (by Rinaldo Donzelli) is similarly lacking in invention. How much better it might have been had it borrowed Munari’s own approach – from an essay in his seminal collection L’arte come mestiere – to drawing faces out of found design elements and shapes. Fellow children of the Lego generation could really have done something with this.

However I do recall being struck by the book’s central fold-out pages, which vividly illustrate how real-life faces aren’t symmetrical, and also that they are more interesting that way.

Not this

Nor this

But this

I never owned a copy of How to draw the sun, but from what I can gather from the internet it contained another of Munari’s old ideas– namely that ‘the sunset is just a dawn seen from behind’ – and also employed another favourite technique of his, which consist in highlighting a visual element by concealing it behind something else, or pointing to its absence.

Munari’s stated intent in writing or overseeing these books was to help readers avoid the clichés typical of childhood drawings. Trees, people, houses, skies, the Sun: for each of these basic elements of our early art there is a stereotype we can immediately picture in our heads, and easily repeat even as adults. Munari’s method is to strip down these socially acquired conventions, and teach how to look at the world as artists – that is to say, to capture the essence of a subject, its visual signature, so as to be able to reproduce it on the page.

Back to the trees, then, whose job is to grow and branch out.

Every branch is thinner than the branch that precedes it, and this is almost all you need to know.

The growth of our basic tree is shaped and constrained by its environment. For instance, by the wind.

And naturally different kinds of trees branch out in their own peculiar ways.

By observing an oak leaf, we discover that their veining reproduces the pattern of how a tree grows. Take out the outline of the leaf, and we are back to drawing trees.

Some adults, ponders Munari, will resist these teachings. They will say ‘I can’t draw’. But of course you, can, he taunts them. You can draw the letters of the alphabet, for one thing. You can draw them big and small, uppercase and lowercase, in wavy lines or at right angles, can’t you. Yes, yes, yes. Well then, he continues, if you can draw a capital Y you can draw a tree. There are no excuses.

How to draw a tree is less a practical lesson than an extended meditation, the story of how (and why) one might draw a tree. Above all, it presumes of young children and primary school teachers a willingness to engage in philosophical enquiry. For that fact alone it deserves to be reprinted and read and kept around, at least for as long as there are still people and trees.

Bruno Munari, Disegnare un albero. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1978. (Available in English as Drawing a Tree.)