The trick is: you have to pay attention.

To actively engage yourself in something, try to describe it, aloud. For example, say you’re trying to draw a tree. What could be easier, you think. You see the tree, why shouldn’t you be able to put down on paper what you see before you? The problem is that you’re engaging it passively, which means that you’re not engaging it at all. You “just” see it, but it doesn’t leave an imprint on your memory, so the minute you look away, it’s gone. Which side of the tree has more branches? What are the colors of the leaves? What are the shapes? Are some of the roots sticking out? Are you sure?

Now look at it again and describe it to yourself, preferably aloud. This may seem silly, but it works. The better you can verbally describe the shade and tone, the shadows cast on the trunk (what does the shadow look like?), the direction of the light as it hits the branches, the more successful you will be in depicting the tree on paper.

The same can be said for music. It boils down to awareness. Have you ever noticed that all of the sounds around you, the honking of a car, the beep of the alarm, even the whirring of the air conditioner, have a pitch and duration? If you hum along to that squeaky sound in your car engine, you may be surprised that it’s flat. A flat, that is. It certainly needs a tune-up.

A while ago I tried to write a small composition for the string orchestra. I had some ideas, having played in our school orchestra for many years, had the melody, and knew some basic orchestration and music theory. But to make the composition fuller I would listen to several of my favorite pieces, notably by Apocalyptica, and try to incorporate what I liked into my “symphony”. I found that though I could follow the melody, countermelody, and harmony in the Apocalyptica pieces, I would draw a total blank when I’d sit down to add similar elements into my own work. Eventually I realized that I have to literally write down, in words, what each of the four cellos from the band is playing. Only then could I put what I learned to work. This may seem obvious, but it’s not. You actually have to pay attention.

The other really cool thing about describing what you see/hear is best applied in art. When you learn to draw, one method that you can use revolves around finding ideal shapes in real-world objects, and depicting them as such. Here’s how it works: First you learn all about what an ideal (ie. perfect) sphere, cone, cylinder, cube looks like. You learn (by observation or instruction) where the shadows fall. You eat, sleep, breathe “light, shadow, core of the shadow, reflected light”, in that order. Then, you learn to find these ideal shapes in any object that you intend to draw. And finally, you draw the object as if it was an ideal.

This is pivotal.

By learning to see the ideal shape in the real object, and then by drawing that ideal shape (following the light/shade pattern ingrained in you), you will actually be depicting the real object. This is the draftman’s best-kept secret: YOU DO NOT DRAW WHAT YOU SEE. You draw what you know you *should* see, if the shape was perfect, and the result *looks* like the real thing in the eye of the beholder. Trust me. It works every time.

Why? Here’s what I think.

You have the artist and the art work on one end, and the viewer on the other. Between them there is a sort of translucent filter where everything going through loses some of its focus and intensity. Some information is always lost in translation – translation of sound, visual stimuli, emotion, thought. In order to make up for it you have to exaggerate. Think about the loud makeup on stage. Or about the extra expressive movement. Or about how in orchestra you play pianissimo when it says piano, and fortissimo for forte.

This is also relevant when you’re telling a story where the fish you caught was “LIKE FIVE FEET LONG, MAN!”, where your thrifty mother-in-law never gives you anything for Christmas, and where you went twenty days without seeing a soul, ten of which you didn’t have any food, and five of which there was no water. Oh, and you were going uphill both ways…

It’s curious how in order for the receiver of your information, be it a viewer of painting, listener of symphony, or empathetic friend hearing your survival story, to perceive the message accurately, you have to send it in an exaggerated form. You almost have to lie, in a way.

Which brings me back to analyzing information in order to make sense of it. Making “sense” means finding patterns. Finding patterns means making generalizations (case in point). In the end, generalization and exaggeration are just two sides of the same coin. Both must be used to convey truth. Right?

* This is a quote from Fight Club. It won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the movie or don’t remember this being said.