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Learn to Draw in 30 Days

Bauhaus Curriculum

I’ve been making my way through Learn to draw in 30 days, a book of exercises that will (hopefully) improve my drawing dramatically. To the author, drawing is not an art but a technical skill that anyone can learn. By breaking down the drawing process into small steps and having students copy these steps, he teaches students effective strategies for recreating objects in front of them.  

He compares his approach to writing: when we’re learning how to write as kids, we start by tracing letter forms. Is this an accurate comparison? I’m not so sure.

Writing can be both a physical and mental, but the art of writing is purely mental. You don’t need to be able to type or write by hand to craft the written word. Granted, the way we transcribe our thoughts has some impact on how they’re formed. Some writers talk about the flow, and use a computer to type their thoughts as quickly as possible. Others write by hand because it slows them down and makes them think more carefully about what’s on the page. Whatever a writer’s preference, I don’t think the mode of transcription determines whether the work will be good or bad.

In general, to be a good writer, one need not put pen to paper. But, to be a good painter, one does have to put paintbrush to canvas. This distinction reveals a tug-of-war in artistic disciplines between craftsmanship and mental processes.

At the Bauhaus in the 1920s, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy clashed with the rest of the faculty because he felt that artistic ideas were more important than artistic technique. One of the most versatile of the Bauhaus teachers, Maholy-Nagy pursued many art forms. He believed that when freed from the demand of specialization, the artist could pursue whatever medium best served the idea. The importance of prioritizing the idea over the mastery of skill was not a philosophy shared by other faculty members at the Bauhaus. Instructors like Klee, Kandinsky and Schlemmer adhered to the views of Walter Grobius (then Bauhaus director), who emphasized the importance of craftsmanship and form in artistic training.

The curriculum at the Bauhaus was revolutionary because it diverged from traditional artistic pedagogy. The faculty sought to break down the artistic process and provide students with theories and systems that they could apply to their work. This system of thought is not unlike the philosophy behind Learn to Draw in 30 Days, and it’s best represented by the schematic depiction of the Bauhaus curriculum (pictured above), created by Walter Gropius. The brilliant visualization shows how pieces of technique come together to form a whole.

As a designer, ideas and technique are equally important to me. I’ve learned the foundations of composition and form and I consider learning keyboard shortcuts and all the technical ins and outs of my design programs like practicing scales in music: I’m limbering myself up and clearing the pathway between my brain and my hands so that my lack of technical skills doesn’t get in the way.

But I also accept that limits of our craftsmanship can add artistic value. In an interview about the stuffed animals she made for the movie The Science of Sleep, Lauri Faggioni explains that the final product is never what’s she’s envisioned in her head. She starts out trying to make perfect replicas of animals, but she’s just not skilled enough to make that happen. To me, her creations transcend the life-like to become something much more valuable. They’re quirky, charming and most importantly, flawed.