29 September 2016

Drawing Bicycles From Memory

In Bob Dylan's "Highlands", the narrator (presumably Dylan himself) wanders into a restaurant in Boston.  He is the only customer; the only other person there is the waitress.  

She says, "I know you're an artist, draw a picture of me."  

He responds:  "I would if I could, but I don't do sketches from memory."

Then she chides him, "I'm right here in front of you," but he continues to hedge.

Some would argue that all drawing (and writing and other creative and re-creative work) is done from memory.  After all, any thought, feeling or other experience becomes past--i.e., memory--the moment it happens.

I, too, have been asked to draw from memory and "in the moment".  I, too, find ways to hem, haw, hedge and politely decline.  Long ago, I realized that I am not that sort of artist:  When I displayed my sketches and paintings, I got a ticket for littering.

OK, so I made up that last story.  But, even with the meager talent I have for such things, I might have continued to paint and draw--from memory--had I known what has been confirmed in many studies:  Most people don't do any better than I did.  In fact, most do worse.

That point was illustrated (pardon the pun) once again when, a few years ago, an Italian designer Gianluca Gemini asked people to draw men's (diamond-frame) bikes from memory.  Most of their renditions bore, at best, only a passing (pun alert!) resemblance to anything anybody rode down the strada or through the piazza.  Recently, he decided to render some of those drawings into lifelike 3D pictures.

The participants in Gemini's study ranged in age from three to 88 and lived in seven different countries.  Across those generational and cultural divides, Gemini found some patterns, especially among genders.  For example, men tended to overcomplicate the frame when they realize they are not drawing it properly.

I want to meet the dude who came up with that.  What I find ironic is that for all of its sharp geometric lines--as if it were designed by Mondrian on crack cocaine--it actually looks good with "moustache" bars.  Also, the brown leather seat and handlebar tape lend it a certain elegance.

Speaking of elegant, here is a bike that reflects a female pattern

Interestingly, most of the front wheel-drive bikes (the ones with the chains and gears attached the front wheel) were drawn by women.  Gemini can't (or doesn't) offer an explanation.  

I very much like that bike--at least, its looks.  Had I more space and money, I'd have it made and use it for a wall hanging.  Heck, I might even ride it.  Put a Brooks brown saddle on it, and very few bikes would be lovelier.

Here's another bike from Gemini's study that caught my eye:

I mean, how can you not love a bike with track gearing, two fork assemblies, a wheelbase longer than the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge--and that yellow flag!

All right, I'll admit:  I really like the color:  a sort of periwinkle/lavender blue.  If you've been reading this blog, surely, you're not surprised.

Gemini's participants also came from a wide variety of occupations, including students and retirees.  Professional or employment status--or lack thereof--seemed to have little or no bearing on how realistic or whimisical participants' drawings came out.  The most "unintelligible" drawing, according to Gemini, was made by a doctor.  I wonder whether he or she is a surgeon!


  1. I have quite a collection of 2D & 3D bicycle imagery which people give me, wonder why,,.? Only one mug given by someone who wrote a book about cycling and reproductions of early advertising on cards are anything close to rideable.

    Most people do not "look" at the world in the first place so take mechanical things for granted, those of us who are interested might get a bit overcomplicated. Reminds me of a story of a young new teacher in a country school drawing an image of a sheep on the board and asking a child to tell her what it was. He stood there silently and apparently ignorant but actually deep in thought. When asked if he did not know that it was a sheep he said " I know it is a sheep, I was just trying to work out what kind of cross breed it was!"

    I have spent a lifetime wondering about memory, just think of a hypnotist asking their subject to close their eyes and imagine lying in a hammock on a palm fringed beach... My head is blank. I cannot conjure up an image of anything. Could be why I am dyslexic! I could probably draw a rideable bicycle from a memory which is more like a heard list of instructions.

    Now, are we looking for relaxed Dutch Omafiet or a scary upright track bike with paper thin clearances or something in between? I will not do plastic bikes...

    1. "People do not "look" at the world..."

      Indeed! I am a drawing teacher, and that sounds like something I would say during an introductory lecture. Maybe better to say that people glance at the world without really seeing it. As soon as most people have enough visual information to classify something, they look away. All these hilarious things here are definitely bicycles, but what kind of diagrammatic hybrid is before our eyes here?

      The point of my drawing courses is that "If you have really seen something, you can draw it". And a drawing course concerns itself with training people's eyes (and brains) to see. How do you draw a portrait? Look at the person's face long enough to know it. It might take many hours. And when was the last time almost anybody looked at anything, let alone a somebody's face, for three hours straight? Doing a drawing from life takes three to six hours of looking and several minutes of handling the pencil or charcoal. People who say they can't draw have never seen the real world, as it is, a continuous miracle (to paraphrase William Blake). Drawing means to open the doors of our perception, to continue with references to Blake.

      In my experience, dyslexia and visual memory are not related.


    2. Leo-- I was waiting for your "take" on this piece.

      The way you teach reminds me of some things I've done when I've taught creative writing and poetry. I actually have students turn off their electronic devices, close their eyes and just listen to what's around them, whether it's the hum from the light or the whoosh from the vents.

      What you and Coline describe also applies to the aural world: People hear whatever they need to make whatever judgments they'll make. Then they move on.

      When I teach writing or have students read poetry, I don't want them to think only about the subject matter: I want them to hear the poem, as a poem. (Most of the scholarship and criticism I see today avoids this aspect entirely: I feel as if I'm reading watered-down sociology or mealymouthed polemics.) If they remember what iambic pentameter is five years later, great. If not, I just hope they can hear something besides the rhymes (or lack thereof) and think about something besides the subject matter.

      Some composer or conductor, I forget which, once said something to the effect that most people don't love music, they just like the way it sounds.

    3. This, the "music" of poetry, is, as the years go by, more and more of what I come to poetry for, listening to the dainty choreography of Sir Philip Sidney, the baritone sonorities of Dryden, crystalline structures of Keats, or the walking rhythms of Walt Whitman. These sounds we learn before we can speak. It has recently been shown that French, English and Chinese babies babble differently: they are already internalizing this music. I realized some time ago, when I finally made the big step and read Beowulf in the original Old English, that long sections of modern English prose can be "scanned" using the rules of Old English verse. The patterns are ancient. I have been privileged to learn another language up to the point of reading it's masterpieces of poetry and listening to very, very different music, echoing out of bronze age Eurasia. But there is no such thing as abstract poetry, and subject matter dovetails into the mixture. But which is the backbone and which is the soul, I can't say.


      Ps.: I do not mean to step into your area of expertise, Justine. I speak as a civilian.

    4. Leo--Feel free to step into my area of expertise all you want. First of all, you understand it well. Second, you're intelligent and perceptive. And, finally, I step into your area of expertise all the time.

  2. Coline--I will not do plastic bikes, either!

    It's interesting to think that having deep knowledge of something--or simply thinking a lot or deeply about it--can actually impede a person's ability to remember, imagine or conjure. I'll bet some psychologist is researching the phenomenon.