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Question about artistic skills
November 20, 2012 8:42 AM   Subscribe

There are some people who are excellent draftsmen when it comes to drawing. Their sketchbooks are full of architecture style drawings or similar, with straight lines as if drawn using a ruler and little erasing. Or they're sign painters or car details who can just pick up a brush and literally draw a straight line on the car as they're walking the length of it. No visual planning or measuring or masking off areas, they just do it. Are there scientific studies about the particular set of physical and mental skills these people have and what exactly those skills are? Are their specific differences in their brain or anatomy that enable those skills?
posted by Brandon Blatcher to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
There could be specific differences in some of their brains that make it easier, but you don't need to be "born with it" to draw straight lines by hand. It's mostly practice.

A few years spent in high school drafting classes using T-squares and triangles can train someone out of a wiggly-line to a point at which they can draw lines that fit on a sketchbook page will appear straight. Masters who have spent decades manually drafting their ideas will be even better.
posted by ignignokt at 8:47 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


There could be specific differences in some of their brains that make it easier, but you don't need to be "born with it" to draw straight lines by hand. It's mostly practice.

Yes, but I'm looking for scientific studies that have examined people who were born with the ability, thanks.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:52 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's a similar question with a couple responses at another site. Supposedly, the book listed in the first comment has academic studies listed in its notes. Basically, it seems you're working from a somewhat flawed premise, and I'd need to see proof of the existence of the people you describe in your question and that they've had no training or practice to believe otherwise.

I think it would also be somewhat instructive to look over the examples of student work (before and after training) from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain for a demonstration of how even just a small amount of training can drastically change a given person's drafting abilities.
posted by LionIndex at 9:22 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Drawing straight lines was the first thing they taught us how to do in drawing class.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:52 AM on November 20, 2012


I see in your tags that you have "art" and "artist", but drafting isn't an art, it's a skill. Architectural drafters and sign painters train with a lot of repetition. I have had hand drafting classes of which the first ten classes were nothing but ruling lines on pieces of vellum and then drafting the alphabet and numbers, over and over and over. You're not supposed to be artistic; you're supposed to be rigorous, clear, and precise. There are a zillion conventions in drafting for architecture that you have to learn and follow, and you do them repetitively. So some clarification about whether you want studies of artists or draftspersons would be helpful, because most draftspersons would tell you they are not artists.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:58 AM on November 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Yes, but I'm looking for scientific studies that have examined people who were born with the ability, thanks."

You may be laboring under a false assumption. Do you have evidence for the existence of such people?
posted by tdismukes at 10:03 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Daughter of two draftspeople and granddaughter of a painter here.

No one is born with this ability. Babies cannot draw straight lines, much less identify the generally-agreed-upon use of a pencil other than as a new fun thing to stick in their mouth. Furthermore, you'll have a hard time finding any scientific studies on drawing a straight line, since any number of societally-deemed-"different" types need the skill. Artists, draftspeople (who are not artists, as every draftsperson I've ever met absolutely insisted on pointing out – on preview, ditto oneirodynia), architects, cake decoraters, car detailers, musical composers (ran out of lined paper? draw your own), etc. etc.

As a foreign language and literature degree holder who is not an artist but was once a musician and who drafts layouts for my apartment thanks to being brought up with drafting tables, drafting pencils (the metal kind that could feasibly be used as a lethal weapon), and a gerjillion rulers, drawing a straight line is indeed a simple matter of practice. Probably a greater deal of physical awareness helps, since there are tricks you pick up more quickly when you notice them, but all you need is someone else to point out those tricks and the vast, vast majority of people will also be able to draw a straight line with a bit of practice.

Here's one big tip: stabilize your arm/hand/fingers. One of the reasons craftspeople can go on making incredibly detailed stuff into very old age, shaky hands and all, is that they learned long ago to stabilize their artistic/drawing/etc. implement. There are loads of different ways depending on what you're doing.
posted by fraula at 10:07 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are a zillion conventions in drafting for architecture that you have to learn and follow, and you do them repetitively. So some clarification about whether you want studies of artists or draftspersons would be helpful, because most draftspersons would tell you they are not artists.

Sure, but my line of work is mostly architectural drafting, and while I wouldn't classify myself as an artist, I'd guess that I'm better at freehand drawing than the random person of the street - I can probably draw a longer, straighter line at a go, my perspective angles will probably come closer to reality than a random person's, and I can produce an intelligible drawing that actually conveys information with just a few penstrokes (all abilities obtained through practice and training). However, there's a long tradition in art discussion of describing a painter's drawing ability in terms of "drafting" so the terminology used by Brandon isn't problematic here.
posted by LionIndex at 10:09 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, but I'm looking for scientific studies that have examined people who were born with the ability, thanks.

They weren't born with the ability. They may have had an innate visual aptitude, but no one becomes an accomplished craftsman without years and years of practice, practice, practice.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:12 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is basic Technical Drawing 101. You are taught how. You practice a whole bunch. There are probably some physical trait that help a little (decent muscle control, no tremors) but things like moving your arm from the shoulder and not the elbow and developing your eye are things that are learned, not innate.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:18 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


In lieu of arguing about whether people are born with the ability or taught to do straight lines, let's broaden and reframe the question: What sort of scientific studies have been done that look at the particular neurological or physiological or mental differences exist in people who are born with artistic ability?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:29 AM on November 20, 2012


In the news lately.
posted by rhizome at 11:06 AM on November 20, 2012


You might also want to define what you mean by a straight line. In my art training we were told "it's only a straight line if it looks straight" Placement of a line has much to do with how straight and true it looks.
posted by blnkfrnk at 12:20 PM on November 20, 2012


people who are born with artistic ability?

I think people are rightly pointing out that before we can reason from the group of people "born with artistic ability," we have to identify such a group, and it's not been shown first that artistic ability is an inborn trait.
posted by Miko at 12:35 PM on November 20, 2012


I think my father had an affinity for art and visual design. He started at a very young age taking advanced art classes. He has oil paintings that he did when he was 17 that blow me away for their skill and balance. He talked about one professor later who spent the first five weeks (I don't actually remember how long) getting his students to draw a "perfect" freehand circle with their paintbrushes. He practiced, practiced, practiced. But he also had a strong interest in it and had some success. He ultimately abandoned art as a vocation and took his steady hand and applied it to the field of ophthalmology. He became an eye surgeon. (And also an F-15 jet pilot!)

I feel like the more studies I see on innate verses learned skills and abilities the more I see that something previously thought innate is actually something very, very hard to pin down. Here's a link to a bunch of papers which look at this. It seems that for a lot of things, it's a complex soup of genetics, wiring, environment and learning. Even the old "left brain/right brain" thing has been cast into doubt.
posted by amanda at 1:04 PM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think people are rightly pointing out that before we can reason from the group of people "born with artistic ability," we have to identify such a group, and it's not been shown first that artistic ability is an inborn trait.

Not sure what their point is then. Is that we're all at the same level of artistic ability? Because that makes no sense. Not sure where the communication gap is occurring.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:24 PM on November 20, 2012


Is that we're all at the same level of artistic ability? Because that makes no sense.

No, it's that it's impossible to separate "ability" from "training" with any real efficacy, especially since so many people start learning to draw as soon as they can hold a crayon, and lots of people study drawing or drafting at a basic level in public school, if their schools were well-funded. It's definitely not possible to just look at an adult's output and decide that they were "born with" artistic ability.

One thing that has been studied is the phenomenon of the autistic savant, which can manifest as remarkable and untrained drawing ability. This probably doesn't map to the sort of ability you see in everyday life very well, though.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:33 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, it's that it's impossible to separate "ability" from "training" with any real efficacy, especially since so many people start learning to draw as soon as they can hold a crayon, and lots of people study drawing or drafting at a basic level in public school, if their schools were well-funded.

Sure, but some people are clearly better at it, they have an innate talent in that particular area. As such, was wondering if science had been able to tell what's different about these particular people.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:41 PM on November 20, 2012


Not to toot my own horn, but I did really well in my drafting classes, and I don't think it comes down to much more than being patient, careful, and having some degree of fine motor control. When I got to college, some people were far better at making models than I was, but that was just because they were more careful, had better tools, or knew better methods for constructing their models than I did (either through experience or planning things out better than I did).

Not sure what their point is then. Is that we're all at the same level of artistic ability? Because that makes no sense.

I think that it's closer to reality than what you seem to believe. I pretty much went to a type of art school and have worked in an artistic profession for over a decade, and I don't know any of these people you're talking about. I've classmates and co-workers who were fantastic at drawing, but they got that way through practice. People that have sketchbooks full of awesome drawings have sketchbooks full of awesome because they're drawing in their sketchbooks all the time.
posted by LionIndex at 3:01 PM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is something I spend a lot of time studying professionally, and I agree with everyone above that there is no hard science on this issue. The problem is, it is very, very difficult to set up the relevant experiments and other studies.
I also agree this has a lot more to do with training than most are willing to acknowledge. Some people practice because they love it, and some learn it at school, but all practice. So the teen who draws perfect lines without ever having taken one art class is probably training on her own account. Case in point: my own 13yo has suddenly started drawing amazing drawings of whatever catches her attention. I'm an architect and her dad is an architectural draftsman. So everyone around us and at school are talking genetics. And there might be a component of genetics. She always did good work for her age. But there is also the fact that she has seen the both of us working our asses off, practicing again and again, and the fact that she is not very good at language stuff, so she draws in the classes she feels weak in. Like I did and her father did. In other words: practice.
Also, she probably gets more accurate and practical advice than most teens with pencils. But we didn't have that (dad and I).
When she was younger, she came home one day and said she hated creativity. I said I thought is was a wee bit strange, since she was thinking to be a designer. Her answer: "naah, you and (friend) are designers. You sit up all night drawing in your books and on the computer, laughing. Creativity is something boring with felt and beads...."
posted by mumimor at 3:03 PM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


When I've asked some of the people I know who are strong visual artists about how they do it I have learned that they have way, way stronger visualization skills than I do. It seems that they can hold, rotate and manipulate (etc.) images in their mind's eye and work from that image as a reference when they put it on paper.

I can barely hold any image in my mind's eye for five seconds with out it deteriorating or disappearing, and as a result I can only draw crude chickens and cows and once a shitty dragon,

But I've never worked at improving those skills so I have no idea if they are innate and I struck out genetically, or if I am just someone who never practiced.
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:50 PM on November 20, 2012


Here's a nice piece on Einstein's brain. You can find numerous stories over time about his brain. Some have said it is no different. But we keep learning new things about the mysterious brain all the time. In that story, you'll hear about a more recent finding which may make Einstein's brain very unique indeed -- maybe unique in just the way to account for his amazing contributions to science. So, perhaps that points to an innate talent? But, whose to say there isn't some brilliant person with a similar brain just wasting it due to lack of resources or an outlet? How do we study that?

I feel like people that are very "naturally" musical tend to also be good at math. (My father was also good at math and music so I'm probably biased.) Some of the most brilliant programmers I've known have coincidentally also been very musically inclined. There's an order to math, to coding, to music that is similar so perhaps it makes sense that they are linked for some people. But you'll always find those that break the mold and don't conform. And you'd have to study a lot of brains (dead and alive) to find those links if there are any.
posted by amanda at 4:08 PM on November 20, 2012


I'm a former art major who switched to psychology and got an undergraduate degree in the latter. (This of course does not mean I'm an expert.) As far as I know, there aren't any such studies. I'm not aware of any research in psychology that's looked at artistic ability in that level of detail. There's very little overlap between artists and psychologists. I don't think most psychologists would understand your question, and it's not something it would occur to them to ask (though it's a really interesting question).
posted by nangar at 5:46 PM on November 20, 2012


I did a little digging and found a few articles which might address your question. I'm no researcher, and I'm sure as hell not an artist, so don't believe a word I say here. I got to these via my institution, so I'm not sure if they're freely available. For purposes of discussion, I'll happily send you a pdf if you memail me. I wasn't able to find anything specific to drawing, so I broadened my search to include talent/giftedness, with the idea that drawing was similar to other creative abilities like musical ability and verbal facility.

This first article is about musicians, not artists who draw, but it may offer some insight. Differences in Primary Mental Abilities Between Musicians and Nonmusicians by Nadine Helmbold, et al, offers this:
Abstract
In the present study, psychometric performance on different aspects of primary mental abilities (verbal comprehension, word fluency, space, flexibility of closure, perceptual speed, reasoning, number, and memory) was compared in 70 adult musicians and 70 nonmusicians matched for age, sex, and level of education. No significant differences could be confirmed for either mean full-scale scores or for specific aspects of mental abilities, except Flexibility of Closure and Perceptual Speed. In both these subtests, musicians performed reliably better than nonmusicians. Musicians' superior performance may reflect nonaural aspects of musical ability or the result of long-term musical training. Eventually, a similar factor structure of intelligence does not support the notion of qualitative differences in the conception of intelligence between musicians and nonmusicians. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
My limited understanding of the article is that they tested the relationship between "musical intelligence" and "general intelligence" and found no indication that one caused or presupposed the other. It did, however, find that trained musicians outperformed nonmusicions in two areas (Flexibility of Closure and Perceptual Speed) that could indicate the influence of talent rather than training:
However, both groups did not differ significantly in their performances on these two subtests. This result is consistent with the notion that musicians' superiority in Flexibility of Closure and Perceptual Speed does not primarily reflect the effects of musical training, but possibly prerequisites or even components of musical ability.
Whether this talent shows up as a structural difference in the trained musicians' brains wasn't addressed.

Another article more directly discusses the question of talent vs. training. The origins and ends of giftedness by Ellen Winner [American Psychologist, Vol 55(1), Jan 2000, 159-169. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.159]:
Abstract
Five issues about giftedness are discussed. First, the origins of giftedness are explored. The view that giftedness is entirely a product of training is critiqued. There is indirect evidence for atypical brain organization and innate talent in gifted children: Many gifted children and savants have enhanced right-hemisphere development, language-related difficulties, and autoimmune disorders. Second, the intense motivation of gifted children is discussed. Third, it is argued that gifted children have social and emotional difficulties that set them apart. Fourth, evidence for the often uneven cognitive profiles of such children is presented. Finally, the relationship between childhood giftedness and "domain" creativity in adulthood is discussed. Few gifted children go on to become adult creators because the skills and personality factors required to be a creator are very different from those typical of even the most highly gifted children. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
This one shows some evidence of structural differences in the brains of exceptionally talented folks -- prodigies and savants -- but it doesn't have much to say about those we might consider talented but not exceptional, if that makes sense. It also supports a common finding that talented youngsters rarely go on to become adult creators because, basically, to do so they have to practice and train, and these aren't innate abilities but learned skills.

Toward a Science of Exceptional Achievement: Attaining Superior Performance through Deliberate Practice by K. Anders Ericsson, et al, explores whether exceptional performance requires genetic predisposition or intense training or some combination of both. From the abstract:
Furthermore, the theoretical framework of expert performance explains the apparent emergence of early talent by identifying factors that influence starting ages for training and the accumulated engagement in sustained extended deliberate practice, such as motivation, parental support, and access to the best training environments and teachers. In sum, our empirical investigations and extensive reviews show that the development of expert performance will be primarily constrained by individuals’ engagement in deliberate practice and the quality of the available training resources.
One last article: Brain Activities in a Skilled versus a Novice Artist: An fMRI Study by Solso, Robert L Leonardo.
Abstract
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of a skilled portrait artist and of a non-artist were made as each drew a series of faces. There was a discernible increase in blood flow in the right-posterior parietal region of the brain for both the artist and non-artist during the task, a site normally associated with facial perception and processing. However, the level of activation appeared lower in the expert than in the novice, suggesting that a skilled artist may process facial information more efficiently. In addition, the skilled artist showed greater activation in the right frontal area of the brain than did the novice, which the author posits indicates that such an artist uses "higher-order" cognitive functions, such as the formation of associations and planning motor movements, when viewing and drawing a face.
No mention here of innate ability or talent, and the findings seem to indicate the differences in their scans could be attributed to differences in training and practice, but this wasn't an explicit research question.

There's likely much nuance and depth I'm missing, so I'm not going to spend much time trying to interpret the articles. I think, though, they offer at least a bit of insight into the research that's out there which, broadly, has found that while talent may exist, it's no guarantee of success or exceptional performance in whatever area it manifests without intense and prolonged training to develop it.
posted by malthusan at 7:41 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


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