Sketching and drawing: teaching, learning and living beautifully.

If there is a fire at home I know what I will try to save: It won´t be my paintings or my books, neither my laptop or the jewels (ha!). The objects I’d rescue will be my sketchbooks! They are my most precious possession, not only because they are maps of my life, images and feelings, but also they are the source of my processes of learning and creativity. Sketchbook and drawings occupy the centre of my practice on my work both as an academic as an artist. In this post I will try to explain the virtues of drawing and sketching in two levels: firstly, in the basic process of translating a moment into a drawing (sketching from nature), or in the process of visual note-taking and its qualities in transforming the invisible (ideas, concepts) into visible (image, text, symbol). On a second level, I will try to address the quality of drawing in “capturing the moment” and hence, bringing back memories, as well as its potential as a well of creative ideas, projects and developing knowledge.

As documented by many, drawing has an important impact in processes of cognition: on teaching and learning, at the class-room level, but also in terms of organisational learning (For an excellent introduction check Thinking through Drawing, edited by Andrea Kantrowitz, Angela Brew and Michelle Fava). This post is also a “sketch” or a “draft” in a wider reflection about drawing and virtues: a topic I will be developing for Culture and Organisation “Eine Gedenkschrift” in celebration of Heather Hopfl‘s legacy. This reflection also responds to a request by my colleagues Jenna Ward and Harriet Shortt about my drawing, and their interest is perhaps explained  by their experience of my compulsive doodling and drawing as a way of capturing ideas in conferences, meetings, and also as a way of communicating.  Their  request echoed with my own reflection about the centrality of drawing and sketching in my practice, and indeed, with the ideas discussed on the Symposium on Drawing and Cognition (#WeAllDraw) last weekend in London; hence, everything is serendipitously converging around my drawing.

In order to develop these ideas, I started by drawing what exactly are the “uses” of drawing and sketching in two main realms: in transforming the invisible into visible, through visual note-taking and teaching; and a further process of transforming the visible into memorable. I will try to explain that, albeit I hope the drawing speaks by itself…


birds and herbs


But we love words… so let’s try to explain the drawing:

The first aspect that seems to be aided by drawing is the action of FOCUSING: Either through listening or to seeing, drawing and sketching help me to focus intently on what I am “perceiving”. Perhaps because when I was a kid I was shortsighted and could not look at the board, so I had to concentrate, and hence trying to imagine what was in front of me. During my whole life, in meetings, conversations or conferences, you will find me with a notebook taking notes, and drawing them. For example, these are my notes of the introductory presentation by Judith Burton (Professor and Director of Art & Education, Columbia University Teacher College NYC) at the Drawing Symposium (center):

I have presented different examples of this visual note-taking, for example, the illustrated notes of presenters in the Heather Hopfl’s memorial. They seem to focus on the presenter, as providing a visual cue for the developing and recording of ideas. Somehow, I guess this is a reluctance against a “dutiful note-taking”, because I need to establish a communication, a communion (a common union) with the person who is presenting.  The centrality of the speaker is a device I use a lot, albeit there are other ways of visual recording explored widely at the professional level by groups such as the International Forum of Visual Practitioners and the growing professionals on “graphic-facilitation”.

This visual/graphic note-taking is crucial not only to activate the memories of the “concepts” written or the ideas discussed, but most importantly the notebook opens a whole “cognitive dimension” and I find myself “in the place”, in the very moment of when I wrote this or other memory. Sometimes takes time as if I surprise myself of having been there, had thought that… The thing is that this “being in the present” helped a lot to identify and clarify different moments in the process of thinking, which connected with a personal memory, makes LEARNING possible.

A similar process occurs when “drawing” for art sake. I have described in my podcasts series that drawing has been an essential part of my training, and more than a discipline is actually a great joy!  The technique championed by my tutor Nelly Rojas was Betty Edward’s Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain. In this approach, as I understand it, the purpose is to connect directly with what you are “looking”, an action that requires a complete surrender to the subject, object or landscape in front of my eyes. Here it is not possible to “think” in the sense of bringing and “idea” of what is in front, but simply “see” what is it. Andrew Marr, in his delightful “Short Book about Drawing” says: “Drawing can make us see the familiar as we have never seen it before. It can make us think about seeing, as well as simply seeing” (p. 41). Drawing entails a mindful touch, a caress of the surface, an act of care and seeing. Later I will explore the potential of this honest encounter and the virtues in drawing as a non-judgemental, compassionate way of learning and being.

Continuing with the flow of my drawing, the second aspect is ILLUSTRATING as TEACHING & LEARNING:  In my academic practice I depend entirely of drawings and sketches. When I need to understand a concept, when creating relationships between concepts, understanding connections and systems. In management studies, drawings, diagrams and maps are crucial part of the organisational identity, strategy and aesthetics. In teaching, ideas such as hierarchy can be easily represented by the “organigram” as well as other aspects of power (Hopfl and Linstead’s seminal book on The Aesthetics of Organization, is a great collection for exploring such ubiquitous yet overlooked aspects). The thing is that complex “invisible” topics of theories, concepts or ideas, become “visible” through the process of drawing. Perhaps one of the most visual methodologies in management studies is Peter Checkland’s “soft systems methodology“. Merging this methodology with a post-structuralist approach was the basis for my PhD dissertation about the process “of  Creating the Cannabis User in the United Kingdom, (2002-2005). Similar to the mind-mapping, soft systems methodology helps understanding processes, decision making, interdependence and also it clarifies the outcomes of intended transformations.  I used Checkland’s notion of rich picture in a literal way. In order to understand how cannabis policy and in general “drugs policy” involve so many different appreciations (or worldviews), I drew a diagram in which I could represent the tension on the appreciation of “drugs” as both “poison” and “remedy” for “body” and “soul”.



This, essentially was my dissertation of almost 100.000 words!

In my teaching I use a mixture of image, text (word) and performance/entertainment (“edu-taining“?).  The main purpose of all those “mediums” is to transform ideas and concepts in to “visible” and “understandable” issues.  The use of “slides” mixing images and texts are common tool for teaching and, consciously or not, we are all using art-based methods: by including films, diagrams, videos and powerpoint presentations. Indeed, art-based methodologies have been extensively used in management development (Taylor and Ladkin, 2009).  Drawing on their brilliant classification, I can describe some of the art-based strategies that I’ve used on my own teaching, in modules on ethics, sustainability and environmental management. I’ve used art-based techniques for engaging students with sustainability in a joyful and sustainable way (Acevedo, 2013). For example, in ‘illustrating the essence” of complex topics such as climate change, I have used films such as The Age of The Stupid (2009), An Inconvenient Truth (2006), etc.  Specifically, I use drawings as a “projective technique” where “the output of artistic endeavours allows participants to reveal inner thoughts and feelings that may not be accessible through more conventional development modes” (Taylor and Ladkin, 2009: 58). For instance, in the first session of my module on environmental management & sustainability, students are encouraged to ‘write’ about what sustainability is and then they have to ‘draw’ the same thing. Invariably, the written definition tends to replicate and use standard words, whereas the drawings reveal a different approach.  In terms of skills transfer, drawing can be used for training in environmental diagnosing: in my modules, the students are encouraged to ‘draw without seeing the paper’ and to draw with the opposite hand from the one they normally use. This exercise is inspired by Betty Edward’s techniques and it is aimed at interrupting the process of ‘thinking’ what you see, and replacing this with ‘what you actually see’.

Drawing has been used in science education (Koester, 2015), but it is rarely used in management teaching. This is partly explained because lecturers have learned our “trade” by “reading” instead of “drawing”.  Whatever the reason, learning to draw would be an excellent and healthy avenue to explore in the Post Graduate training for education and teaching (that’s an idea!).  But even the most accomplished drawer meets with difficulties in distilling the essence of an idea or instruction. For instance, in the last few months, I have been creating a “visual research handbook” for the students. Although they have access to plenty of books on how to do research in management studies or social studies,  I feel that still the basic aspects of going from “what topic to choose” or “how to start writing” produce a great deal of confusion amongst the students. Using simple A4 sheets in the format of posters, I drew some cartoons combining text and image to pin point the essence of doing research, while adding a “fun” note to all of that. The fun aspect should be taken seriously because it creates attachment, personalisation and ultimately learning.



Other aspects of drawing transcends the transformation of the invisible into visible into the conversion of the visible into memorable. Let me explain, it is not only the explanation of an idea, but also the feeling related to that idea/situation/moment. Through drawings it is possible to CAPTURE the “fleeting moment” and create a treasure of memories that can be activated when reading/seeing the sketch or the drawing. John Berger, the art writer and drawer, has beautifully explored the power of drawing as a “device to brining back memories of time past.”  He illustrates this might by referring to his own urgent sketches of his dead father in the coffin, for him, this drawing was the way to capture the moment:

“To draw is to look, examining the structure of appearances. A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree-being-looked-at. […] Within the instant of the sight of a tree is established a life-experience. This is how the act of drawing refuses the process of disappearances and a proposes the simultaneity of a multitude of moments.”  (John Berger, Drawings, p. 71)

My sketchbooks are illustrated journals, including drawings -of course, but also writing, reflections, poems, notes from books, cuttings, souvenirs, letters, mails, etc… they are a living map of my personal journey. I had been using sketchbooks since my “re-discovery” of drawing in my epic botanical expedition, but it was in 1999 when I started seriously to keep proper sketchbooks as loyal companions in my travelling.  From the thick  and sensually charged sheets of my Sketchbook of Buenos Aires, to the cheap and cheerful HEMA notebooks in the Netherlands, sketchbooks have helped me to make sense of my life:  the broken heart of my divorce , the sensual discovery of my body in the Bonaerense Summer, to the upheaval of migrating, and trying to find a path for my life and career. Sketchbooks are albums of memories, landscapes and moments intensively lived, more even because they are “drawn”, “recorded” through the permanence and simplicity of a stroke. When my dear friend Erik Fromberg recently died, I tried to “see” him again through my sketchbooks. I do not have so many pictures around (and this is the pre-Facebook period), hence, my drawings of Erik and his beautiful house and family in the south of Holland became the way to conjure him and bring him back to say my last good-bye. Opening the pages of my time in Amsterdam returned me to that moment in space and time: I could recognise the smells, the sensations, the images of the landscape… How powerful was that all! The notes and the drawings took me to my old self in that time! It occurred to me that drawing is a way of capturing those fleeting moments, in a way that the intensity of being in the place were conveyed by the marks and lines. And this is the big power of the drawing in comparison against photography and painting. Because in a painting, you work and re-work, you convey issues in paint and ink, yet, you obscure the ‘basic’ drawing, the sketch that is linked to that image, imagination or memory. Photography on the other hand can be so blindly obvious, perhaps because we are so used to them than they lose their explanatory power. So, a drawing: in its simplicity and essence can be the key for cherished memory treasures, the possibility of contemplating from the distance (in time and geography) the immensity of being alive, there in the moment!

Perhaps a good way of talking about drawings is to refer to them as “CREATIVE CAPITAL” (so to add to the five capitals of Forum for the Future) but it makes sense when we think about the means required for art and creativity.  For example, British artist Maggie Hambling compares drawing with the basic exercise of “playing scales”, a way of keep feeding the well of creativity; for Anthony Gromley “drawing is the zone of fredom, fertile ground, out of which all my work comes”(cited in Andrew Marr’s book).  Sketchbooks are indeed a CREATIVE treasure for ideas, for future projects, for creative experiments, and ultimately, they document processes of thinking, creation and evolution.  But above all, drawing is such a nice thing to do!  It is both relaxing and intense, it is a simple action (children do all draw) yet it is profound and transformative.  When you draw you are completely taken by drawing, there is nothing else but your connection with the pencil and paper. David Hockney talk about drawing in the relationship between hand, eye and heart, arguing that only “two of these, are not enough”!  Drawings are honest, direct, raw expressions of personal and intimate moments. They can be “therapeutical”: sometimes there is not other way of expressing certain feelings of sorrow or pain but through drawing. When I had my breakdown in 2013, I could not talk or write, I was scared and shattered… so the only way to process and understand what happened was through drawings (Journal of Transformations, 2013). And at the same time these can be bleak illustrations of the complex aspects of depression and stress, they are also full of life and hope in the recovery of my health!


Through all my art my purpose is to comfort and care, and to offer ways of bonito thinking and beautiful living. I, like Matisse, would like that my art is a comfortable, joyful and beautiful space for people to rest, to be gently tickled to be care for.  In my drawings, more than anything else, I feel the “compassive” nature of art, in the sense of connecting to the landscape, the subject or an object, that inspires people. Likewise, education for me needs the aesthetic component in order to link with the ethical responsibilities of living in this world. But this may be the topic of another post.










One thought on “Sketching and drawing: teaching, learning and living beautifully.

  1. Pingback: On the right to draw “undressed” | Artist and Educator

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