one where I tell you what to do

I'm gripping my pencil too tight, like I'm afraid the little fucker's going to get away. My drawing teacher wants us to pick the line we want and make it, no sketching allowed. She's got a tricycle for us up front with some croquet mallets and balls for extra complication. And I'm making indents on my drawing pad, digging my B pencil into its guts, trying to make the right line.

She keeps telling the class, "Draw what you see not what you know." She explains it this way:

if you give a small child a can to draw, he will draw something like this:

He starts with the body of the can, the rectangle, and then he knows that the can has a circular top and bottom. He can't see those circles from his vantage point, but he knows they are there. Drawing shapes and their relationships as they actually appear is what makes a drawing look realistic and three dimensional. But it's difficult because our brains ignore much of what we see so that we don't get overloaded. For the sake of efficiency we know can as two circles and a rectangle.

A step further. What we know, often times, is something we've never seen. We think in some generalities, symbols, stereotypes even if we've never encountered a particular to match. For example, this is how most people would draw a house:

I've never seen a two-story structure with a huge door, one window, and an isosceles triangle for a roof. But I know this as "house" because it is my symbol for house.

People are very good at picking out small differences in faces. As a painter, getting an expression right is beyond my skill -- this portrait turned out to be of a mild half-wit who's just sat in a puddle, okay -- because every stinking millimeter of line can change it in a profound way. But the viewer sees it instantly, we are very attuned to those details.

And still, I submit that we have a hard time seeing people. I want to talk about the way women see other women, especially. (There's a Picasso painting at the Chicago Art Institute in which the nude woman's breasts, crotch and ass are all visible while she reclines on the sofa. It seemed telling. The way men see women is terrifying and I try not to think about it.)

The symbol for beauty's most important aspect is large eyes accented by larger eyelashes. As important is that the eyes are hedged in on all sides by a dark solid line. The nose doesn't draw any attention to itself; it's best, actually, if only nostrils are present. This is the image by which I will judge every woman and myself.

The first time I think I really saw a person was one of the times I was looking through my book of National Geographic portraits. The photos were lovely in themselves because of color and form and did not depend upon the beauty of the people in them. When I came to a black-and-white picture of a woman, dark skin, heavy and topless (saggy boobs), decorated in a costume of dead silver fish. She had hold of a little boy's hand and she was scowling like nothing I had ever seen. She didn't look anything like my symbol of beauty, and yet I looked at her for a long time. She was interesting. It looked like she had a story and life and emotion.

I decided she was thrilling to look at -- and that, I figured, made her beautiful -- once I actually saw her instead of making quick notes about how closely she matched the women on the magazine racks.

And I'm wondering, folks, if you even know what you look like. Or if billions of dollars are spent, expectations for the future arranged, and standards set for friends and boyfriends based on how closely you can get your face to look like my silly drawing. Go look in the mirror and try to tell what it is that lets your friends know you from strangers. See genetics and your parents and your acne scars. And the real shape of your eyes and the lines by your mouth and maybe a booger that you should take care of.

Draw what you see, not what you know.

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