Student's field sketch from Saguaro class

Saguaros: Portraits of Giants.

Drawing Skills for Field Notebooks

by Paul Mirocha, Artist in Residence

“You can’t see what you don’t understand. But what you think you already understand, you’ll fail to notice.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory: A Novel

As I say at the beginning of a Tumamoc Art & Science class, “we are not just learning to draw, we are drawing to understand. Instead of fundamental drawing, I call this “fundamental seeing.” What do I mean by that?

Dr. Alberto Burquez
Dr. Alberto Burquez giving his lecture on Saguaro growth and form.

Understanding science helps us to begin to see things we didn’t notice before. That’s why we invited ecologist Alberto Burquez to start the class with his lecture called, On Growth and Form: Ecology and Evolution of Columnar Cacti.

Saguaros are easy to identify of course, but after slapping a label on them, then what? Try drawing one from memory–you will see what I mean. You don’t know them until you try to draw one.

For this next layer of understanding, we’ll use a couple of pencils, an eraser, and a pen. This takes a decision, an intention to go beyond our normal habits of seeing. To get out of the box. But, try to stay inside the sheet of drawing paper.

Paul Mirocha demonstrating how to break a saguaro down to basic shapes
Instructor Paul Mirocha demonstrates how to see a saguaro by breaking it down to basic shapes.

Before you try to draw them, saguaros look like a crowd of prickly cigars.  How hard can they be? I don’t want to denigrate cigars, but after drawing saguaros, one realizes they are not like cigars at all. They are as complex and subtle as a human figure. There are just as many small details that make all the difference.

  • Did you notice the subtle way the arms join the trunk with little curves and angles?
  • Does your drawing balance like a dancer who is standing on one leg for 150 years?
  • How many pleats can you see from one edge of the trunk to the other? 
  • Can you hear a saguaro?

These are some of the questions we asked on the Saturday morning of March 7, in the Saguaro module of Drawing for Field Notebooks. They are not easy questions. 

Saguaros are giants. They live about three times as long as humans do. They deserve respect as our elders. As you might expect, they take some time to respond to our questions. The best attitude is to just pause, so they know you care enough to slow down. Make eye contact. Listen as you would to a friend. You will learn a lot. I can’t tell you exactly what that will be, but you will know when it happens. It may be something just for you, that no one else has seen.

These are some of the drawings we did in the Saguaro Portraits class. I’m proud of this work. I don’t know what everyone’s questions were, but, as you can see, everyone got an answer. They got to know one individual saguaro.

Students compare and discuss their work after the saguaro drawing session.
Students compare and discuss their work after the saguaro drawing session.

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