Commander Mark and visual vocabularies

I got a blast from the past today when my old friend and awesome comic artist Dan Fraga posted this video of “Commander” Mark Kistler’s classic drawing show from PBS, The Secret City:

I took Commander Mark’s drawing classes during the summers when I was a kid. He was actually from my hometown, and his mother and brother also taught at my high school. I think a childhood friend of mine even sang in the theme song for his show! Apparently his more recent work has even earned him an Emmy, which is most certainly deserved.

Those lessons I’m sure made an early impression on my thinking about how drawing is learned and understood. His basic ideas certainly align with my own: drawing is made up of a “graphic vocabulary” that is used and manipulated to create novel whole drawings. In fact, I still draw various things exactly as I was taught by Commander Mark when I was nine or ten years old.

I also frequently use one of his tricks during lectures and presentations. Just like he did (still does?), I’ll ask the crowd to draw something simple, like a house and a flower, and I give them only 10 seconds to do it. Inevitably, they will all draw something exactly the same (which would look exactly like what you’re thinking now), and I’ll have those images appear on the screen. It’s taken as amazing, as if I had some mind reading powers.

Really though, this exercise nicely shows how we all share common cultural schemas in drawing, despite most people not progressing in their graphic fluency. These schemas are analogous to conventional gestural “emblems” like thumbs up or “OK.” These gestures might be systematic and shared across our culture, but most people still haven’t reached the ability to use a full sign language (which has its own vocabulary and grammar). Similarly, these simple graphic schemas are patterned forms of graphic expression that people are able to produce, even if they haven’t fully acquired a complete visual language. I discuss these ideas more in my book and paper “Explaining ‘I can’t draw’.”

In any case, if you’re looking for works “to recommend for kids learning to draw,” Mark Kistler’s books are at the top of the list.


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