Your Unicorn’s Got Lumpy Legs? So What!

In last Sunday’s post, I expressed my frustration at the fact that, more often than not, we can only experience ancient monuments/ruins through our sight–no touching, no licking, no sniffing, nothing that helps us experience the monument/ruin as it was experienced by people in the past, and nothing that helps us square it with the information we are given by guides. Though I didn’t point this out in the post, this is is often the case with artefacts displayed in museums as well, which are usually kept inside glass cases. At the end of the post, I suggested that an interesting alternative to the sight-dominated way in which people usually experience ancient monuments/ruins (and, I am adding now, museum artefacts) might be to design (video?)games through which these things can be taken apart and then put together again, or built/crafted from scratch following ancient architectural or artistic conventions–sort of like the popular Prison Architect game.

I’ve since realised that a much simpler solution would be to draw what you see. I’m not sure how I managed to forget this while writing Sunday’s post, since I’ve done it before, most recently in August, and loved it every time. I guess I’ve never done it with ancient monuments/ruins though… which is a surprising oversight on my part.

Drawing takes time–time to consider, and wonder about, every inch of the thing you’re looking at. No detail, however small, can go unnoticed, unless you’re deliberately producing a very rough sketch–and even then, it’s likely you’ll notice a lot of stuff that your eyes, left to roam by themselves, might not necessarily have picked up.

(Which leads me to a short, but, I hope, interesting, digression. I find that, left to their own devices, my own eyes kind of scrabble around to no effect, too anxious to find cool details to actually find any. Alternatively, they end up tracing the same paths up and down an object, noticing maybe one thing but not three others because the latter lie outside the paths. I’ve read studies tracing where people’s eyes tend to focus when looking at different things, and how there may be cultural differences in what our eyes tend to focus on–e.g. when looking at someone’s face culturally Asian people tend to focus on the margins, while Europeans tend to focus on the eyes, or so I read many years ago in some magazine or other–so I wonder if the fact that I get trapped in these paths has anything to do with the fact that the people who produced the objects I’m looking at looked at things differently. Which, in turn, makes me wonder if we can tell anything about where the eyes of ancient people tended to focus based on the objects they produced.)

Huastec Front

The front of the Huastec “Life/Death Figure”, now at the Brooklyn Museum. The notes say “J-shaped earrings” and “Ehecatl-Q Aztec wind god”.

Huastec Back

The back of the Huastec “Life/Death Figure”, now at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Note the corn growing from the back of the living figure’s legs, and the funky jigsaw-puzzle way the leg bones connect.

So, for example, if I hadn’t drawn this beautiful Huastec sculpture they have at the Brooklyn Museum, I think my eyes would have been too preoccupied with its face, and maybe the general contours of its body, to notice the comparatively huge round hole on the statue’s belly, and the similarly-shaped ones under its ears. These made me wonder if they were meant to be filled with orbs or spheres of some kind (made with semiprecious stone perhaps, or silver, or gold–which maybe are missing now because the Spanish took them)–and if the eyes, too, which I suddenly noticed could also be described as two large round(ish) holes, could also have once held similar ornaments. But then I also noticed that the dwarf skeleton on the sculpture’s back has a protruding stone sphere tucked underneath its ribcage, more or less at the same height as the hole on the other side. This made me think that perhaps the the central hole, at least, was deliberate, and meant to draw some kind of comparison between life and death–a comparison which is somewhat counterintuitive to my Western mind, since I would have assigned the protruding organ (which I described in my notes as a “heart”, given its position on the skeleton) to the living figure, and the empty hole with the dead one. All these relationships and questions–I don’t think they would have occurred to me if I hadn’t drawn the sculpture–certainly I didn’t notice any of this while researching Huastec art a few months ago, and used a photo of this very same sculpture for my post on the Whacky Huastecs.

The fact that you have to connect your eyes to your drawing hand also probably brings some kind of advantage. Perhaps by connecting your eyes to your hand you end up experiencing a shade of what it was like to design or produce the object.


According to Maerten de Vos, this is what was going on in America when it was discovered: 1. people tapping maple trees, 2. people riding around unicorn-led chariots, 3. bow-and-arrow inside circular enclosures, 4. cannibalistic BBQs, and 5. pervy armadillos smiling pervily.

No doubt at this point some readers will be thinking that they can’t draw and therefore this is not the way forward for them. To those readers I say: anyone can trace, on a piece of paper, something that even vaguely resembles whatever object is in front of them–so what if the end result would never be considered for display in an art gallery. A very interesting and recent study showed that, the higher up you are in the world of sciences, the less your drawings of things like cells resemble what they are like in reality. This suggests to me that the point of a drawing doesn’t have to be to provide a perfect reproduction of something: rather, it can be simply to convey the overall idea, or feel, of something. An example from my notebooks: I’ve recently been to a small exhibition on unicorns, at The Cloisters (the Medieval branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum) and I saw this 16th century engraving (left), by Julius Goltz (copied from Maerten de Vos), which encapsulated so many bizarre ideas I had to copy it. But how? There was so much detail, and no way could I do justice to all the muscles involved in unicorn locomotion! and I could never possibly draw that carriage and fit everything in the pad and do perspective! But in the end I simply focussed on the key details and drew those, roughly, and found that the fact that my unicorns’ legs were lumpy didn’t detract from the general idea I wanted to capture. I am very, very happy with the result.

What about you, readers? Does anyone else like to draw things they see in museums? If so, do you think I’ve left anything out, in terms of why this is an excellent thing to do? Answers to these questions, and more questions or comments, would be welcome, as always, in the comments section below.


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