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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Kryptic World of Mind Drawing

by William Harris

     In a literature course we usually hear that Poetry is older than Prose, witness the Rg Veda in India and Homer in Greece, beside Herodotus' hesitant manner of writing prose history as something experimental and novel. Over time Poetry acquired the role of container for the finer thoughts and the subtler associations, while Prose was good for history and documentation, essays and philosophy. But this changed somewhere in the eighteenth century as the novel emerged as a tightly woven fabric of stories in words, first in Sterne's Tristram Shandy in 1768 and then the great novelists of the 19th century. This last century has elicited every kind of prose writing imaginable, from the simple story to the wrought word-objects of James Joyce, and we can no longer think of prose as common or ordinary language. We should have seen this much earlier, since some of the finest prose every written is in the Dialogues of Plato which combine rhythm, assonance, cadence, a real sense of musicality and irregular moments of surprise. There we have the model for prose art, if you need a model.

Harris Kryptic Art #1 Small     If the hand is correctly described as "the cutting edge of the mind", then the fingers are even more pertinently definable as the cutting edge of the hand. Everything that we do as humans has at some level a conscious connection not only with the fingers, but an automatic one with the neural network connecting the fingers to the CPU in the brain. The fingers can never be considered a super accurate pick-up device, a biologically operating set of chopsticks, because there is vast memory involved in the digital control system, which enables us to feel by touch, handle with delicate sensitivity, perform complex actions like playing an instrument, and of course, we use our fingers for writing, that special characteristic of human evolution.

Harris Kryptic Art #1     It may be complex Chinese characters, or a string of wavelets in the Arabic hand, even a stenographic set of bare symbols to represent sounds. And as we go one step further, there is a delicate part of the art of drawing which is done not only with arm and hand movements, but with the micro-guided movements of the thumb and two fingers. This is the little private world of image making, which can be the semi-conscious practice of nervous doodling on a scrap of paper, or the fine and careful tracery of hair-thin lines which work inch at a time in an eye-guided close view. There are also times when the fingers can be set free from visual control and mental pre-planning. The musculature of the arm down to the last finger joint is like most actions of the body, quite able to work from experience and memory. This is different from the large swinging motion of the arm with charcoal on a sheet of white paper. It is a close and intense process which can be too small for us to watch as it progresses and too quick to mentally monitor when it is allowed to work on a flash level.

Harris Kryptic Art #3     A one inch square mentally reserved on a sheet of white paper can be loaded with complex results from a single moving pen point in as little as a part of a second. And when the result is enlarged so its contours can be examined in our normal scale of viewing, we often find design features which are clearer and cleaner than we could outline in full scale drawing. This is what I call the art of Flash Drawing in the small, a special technique which combines mind, hand, memory and imagination in an instantaneous relationship. It can be done without thinking, or with an idea in the back of the mind, or even while idly watching an object, a scene or a drawing without trying to copy it. The mental processes with which we normally monitor everything so carefully can be here set free to operate in some sort of automatic mode. This technique is a virtual exploration into the closed container of the unconscious mind.

Harris Kryptic Art #4     Such a procedure should produce abstract images, but so much of our mind is devoted to recognizable figurative forms that it is not surprising to find vague figure-forms being drawn under the flight of the handheld pen. This drawing was thought of as a totally free form, but I later remembered that my eye was on a small wood sculpture on my desk which had a slight resemblance to a standing gnome. I was certainly not observing this piece consciously, but the similarity of the finished drawing you see here on the screen to the figure on my desk is unmistakable. This reinforces my sense of the unconscious mind being a part of conscious behavior, rather than in Jungian sense a separate closed compartment which can only be opened with (conscious?) effort.

     I should insert here a word about the drawings. Since they are instantaneous reflections of inner ideas, they do not require the kind of detailed attention to finish as regular drawings. Some of these will lack clean line contours, but since there is no way to go back and touch them up freehand, they have to stand as they are. In fact any change other than enlargement and color inversion would defeat their aim and purpose, which is to catch the flight of momentary connections between the musculature of the hand and the innervation of controlling parts of the brain. This is less an apology for roughness than an explanation of the importance of reading these sketches of ideas just as they stand.

     The sketches you saw above were done with a fluid ink tip pen, with the thought of getting the best line width for scanning. But there are other ways with soft pencil on papers with varied tooth.

Harris Kryptic Art #5     These drawings were clearly two dimensional, which is not surprising since the writing was done on a planar piece of writing paper. But I later tried various implements, and came up with the one on the right quite by accident. I was using a soft Pentel .9 mm lead in a P 209 pencil, and got an interesting new shape; but didn't see the final result until it was scanned and entered into Photoshop for editing. The lead responded (unconsciously) to finger pressure, and there was a gradation of line width as you see from heavy to intermittent. But it is not just the line width which interests me. The thinning line is a direct reflection of pressure, which means that I am entering my data as a series of directed points as before, but now clearly as a suggested X Y Z three dimensional representation. This drawing may be the only one I can do without being aware of pressure, since I have now tuned in on pressure as a critical part of the process. So here, as everywhere, there is room for new thinking and continual change....

     But that is not all. Our minds see our world in three dimensions and we transfer this view to planar situations wherever possible. In this drawing there are two indicators for dimensionality, first is the large sweep downward and off to the left which suggests the swing of an arm or the snap of a whip, especially at the rising end where the line thins out.

Harris Kryptic Art #6     But there is also a change in the line width which puts the strong and wider line segments to the front, while the thin parts recede. On the one hand this can be seen as the viewing habit of our eyes, on the other hand it is the manner in which the line was drawn responding to hand pressure and the way the graphite "lead" responded to the texture or tooth of the paper. This drawing seems quite different from the previous ones, which is hard to explain since the tools and the procedure were virtually the same. So apparently we are dealing with chance variations in procedure which can produce clear changes in result, pointing to the variability of the complex relationship between mind and hand even when seeming to work under close control.

Harris Kryptic Art #7     But when this image is inverted, all is different. The initial associations are changed and the image seems to have found itself a physical base on which to stand. Is this just a projection of our human stance which always searches for a flat place for our feet? If some mind function drew the first version of this shape as above, there would seem to be another monitoring mind-quality which is now busying itself with interpretation of a shape which it no longer recognizes. We felt so relieved by the parity experiments of Mme Wu half a century ago which demonstrated that there actually was an orientation to the universe, presumably because we live in a web of gravitational attraction which determines everything about our lives. But is MIND bound by this, does the mind have a directionality just because there is a top and a bottom to the brain? Or is there a neural gyroscope which adjusts out thinking on a vertical axis?

Harris Kryptic Art #8     Here is a curious little drawing which opposes openness of swinging motions to a tight little conflux of lines at upper right. This little section is as crabby and claustrophobic as the rest of the image is friendly and free, telling me something about my own feelings about surrounding spacefulness. Space is one of our basic human considerations. Whether we remember it or not we were embryonically once in a very tight container; living in cities we adjust to tightness taking a week of vacation in Vermont to get a glimpse of what a hundred acres might looks like; and preparing to die we expand mentally into a vast unknown infinity.

Harris Kryptic Art #8     Since we all have some hidden fear of being trapped in a closet or psychologically somehow boxed in, we might compare this second version of the above image to see if the border does anything to our perception. But inverting the black and white does make a profound difference in viewing this image, since the drawn black lines on a non-existing white field are now changed into a world of night-blackness in which a white light traces its path. We not only see this as different, we know it has a different meaning with a quite different feeling overall.

Harris Kryptic Art #11     It is always interesting to see how the mind converts planar images to three-dimensional displays, probably largely because we live our lives in an X-Y-Z defined world. Although the human eye is furnished with a planar retina, the use of two eyes gives us remarkable depth of field vision which we use in almost all our daily functions, with the notable exception of reading. In this sketch the drawing, which was made without consideration of depth, turns out to invoke an impression of near and far as well as circular figures are inclined at oblique angles. Furnished with a border closure it gives the impression of a dynamic line traced on white paper, but when the black-white relationship is reversed, there is an entirely different impression of a white seam splitting through a black field.

Harris Kryptic Art #12     Here the blackness of the background forces the lines to the fore and we seem to have lost most of the impression of depth. There seems no real reason for this since the color inversion is exact and mechanically done as an optical exchange. But the eye reads a dark spot on a while sheet of paper very differently from a bright star on a dark sky-scape, and the effect suggests an entirely different range. Perhaps part of the reason is that we are creatures of the day, lacking the reflective tissue which lies behind the retina of night hunting animals, enabling them to see far better than we can imagine. In other words, what we see with our eyes is in part a function of our evolutionary ancestry, something we find hard to grasp since we are so satisfiedly effective in the roles we have set up for ourselves.

     Here as in all investigations into mind and thought, there is always more to say, and these things continue to occupy my attention for other studies in other times. But since this automatic and quasi-unguided instant drawing in a small square is so little appreciated and understood, I suggest that some of you will give this process a try in relaxed moments, and put away fifty or a hundred of your micro-ideas in a safe place for later review. I am sure the will generate new notions given time.

     What works for fingers drawing design on paper should be no different from fingers tracing out acoustic designs on the keyboard of a piano or strings of a violin. I have found a number of my drawings have suggested to me musical interpretation as commentary, and am working on a set of images to be placed together with recorded MP3 piano improvisations in a future article on this website. Here we see one of the risks of walking the road of high imagination, where there are multiple forks and crossroads. But whatever way you take or whatever your pace, there is absolutely no end in sight.

     I can trace the origin of this practice of micro-flash drawing back to an afternoon years ago in one of those interminably boring Faculty Meetings, when I looked over the shoulder of my colleague and friend the late Robert Reiff, artist and Professor of Art, and observed him making one inch square design patterns in the margins of a voting agenda handout. We talked about this after the meeting and he explained his interest in seeing design in small, the sure test of integrity of form. He was drawing with concentrated intent, later I tried drawing with a free and fast motion of the pencil line, and opened up a new avenue into a compartment of my inner mind. But had it not been for that moment watching Prof. Reiff, this procedure would never have been developed, for which I owe him greatly.