At this point, I’ve read a great many books and papers about elephants. I’ve watched hours and hours of YouTube videos and documentaries. And I’ve seen thousands of images posted on the Internet. I’ve filled an entire notebook with notes about their diet, circulation and migration routes, and emailed a number of scientists to ask follow-up questions about their research. But there’s a deeper level of understanding than what all this research can teach—an understanding that can only be gained through sketching.
In preparation for this week’s blog post, I reached out to my mentor and friend, author/illustrator David Macaulay, to ask him how he thinks about sketching in the context of working on a book. Here’s what he had to say:
“I think of sketching as basically a conversation between the sketcher and some aspect of the world around him or her, big or small, for which you have allotted a certain amount of undistracted time. The more the better, but interrupting the routine of life to really look at something in order to better see (understand) it is what matters.”
What a perfect description of what sketching is, and what sketching can do! It’s a conversation through images—a discussion in shape, weight, movement, and time—and that conversation has the potential to deepen the understanding of a subject. Be it drawing a shark or an elephant or a Paramecium caudatum, careful seeing is what keeps the fog of science facts grounded in something real. It’s all well and good that an African elephant’s trunk has 40,000 muscle units while the human body only has 640. But what does that LOOK like? How does that AFFECT the way an elephant moves its spectacular nose?
Anyone can watch an elephant moving its trunk through the air and notice all sorts of things, but I promise that if you try to draw a trunk, you’ll understand it so much better! Creating a sketch forces your brain to really learn it in a more meaningful way—to know it so well you can recreate it on paper.
By watching and sketching my way through a YouTube video of elephants, or by observing and sketching elephants in the wild during my research trip to Africa, I can see all sorts of subtle details about the species. For example, did you know an elephant’s trunk is flat on the underside—it’s not really shaped like a tube at all!—and it retains that flatness as it twists and turns through the air? I also noticed that the round, regularly spaced bumps down the sides highlight major muscle rings along its length, and that the nostrils and “fingertips” flare open and closed as an elephant smells. Even by doing a lousy drawing of a trunk, I can see the trunk differently—see it more.
So that’s what 40,000 muscles can do!
If I repeat this process with another feature, like feet or ears or color or balance, I’m guaranteed to learn something new each time around that I’d never get from reading a book or passively watching a video. Until I start sketching, it doesn’t matter how much research I’ve done, because I won’t really understand how a trunk behaves in time and space, and that knowledge will (hopefully) translate into more accurate scenes in How To Be An Elephant. I need to know more than just the science to show how a baby elephant walks or drinks or smells; I need to understand how to build the foundation for a living, breathing animal on the page. The narrative of the book may be hypothetical, but the elephants still need to move through the story in a believable way!