The Power of a Picture

It’s picture book month!  And boy, do we have a lot of picture books to talk about.  I keep hearing that the pb market is declining, and that may be, but new titles keep flowing through book stores, swirling around the bedrock classics like Good Night Moon and Where the Wild Things Are.  We have some fascinating posts in store: how to read ‘em, how to pick ‘em, and where to find ‘em.  Today, we’ll start off by thinking about pictures themselves.

Can you draw?  Most of us would say No, and perhaps we would add, “I can’t even draw a straight line!”  Here’s a secret: most artists can’t draw a straight line.  And another one: just about anyone can be taught to draw, just as anyone can be taught to write or sing.  Drawing is a gift of God, like language; it has its own vocabulary and syntax and usage rules, and should be formally taught in every elementary school.  

How did humans learn to draw?  In 1940, four French teenagers spelunking near Lascaux, France, found dozens of animals painted on the walls of a cave.  This was only the first discovery of a series of cave paintings, dated supposedly 30-40,000 B.C., scattered throughout France and Spain.  They befuddled paleontologists, because the standard evolutionary theory of the “ascent of man” necessitates that humans developed their skills slowly and incrementally.  But these paintings by “primitive” people were quite sophisticated.  (The same phenomenon occurs with language—the most isolated, primitive tribes have the most complex grammar.) 

drawingIn The First Drawing (Little, Brown, 2013, 32 pages), Caldecott Medalist Mordicai Gerstein speculates on how the cave paintings of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc (discovered in 1994) came to be, and finds inspiration in the fact that the footprint of an eight-year-old child was found in the same cave.  He puts the two together, and viola! 

Imagine . . . you were born before the invention of drawing, more than thirty thousand years ago.  You live in a cave with your parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, many cousins, and your wolf, Shadow.  It is a big cave.

Our imaginary cave girl loves watching animals, and sees their images reflected in the clouds and rocks.  But to her father, a cloud looks like a cloud, and to her mother, a rock is a rock—no one else can see the images reflected in the dancing firelight of the cave ceiling, and no one else dreams of running with the horses and rhinos as though she were one of them.  One day she encounters a woolly mammoth, and in those eyes you see that being a mammoth might not be so different from being you.  That night, the girl draws the first image of a woolly mammoth on the cave wall and her father thinks it’s magic. 

However it happened, drawing represents a significant breakthrough in human development—and only human development.  Gerstein indicates that identifying with the subject gives us the power to draw it, but actually it’s just the opposite.  Setting ourselves apart gives us that power; to observe a separate being and decide how to portray it requires a level of consciousness no other animal has.  Elephants and gorillas can be taught to paint, but any representative art they do has to be mediated by a trainer.  Gerstein is correct that drawing is mostly a matter of seeing, but only mankind can see this way.  Only mankind can step outside himself and consider subjects beyond his immediate need and experience.  In this capacity, he is a creator like God, except that instead of bringing forth new materials out of nothing, he must work with the materials he is given.

And there’s another way human creativity is like God’s.  Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, explores the basic nature of any work of art, and finds that it’s composed of three elements: the Idea, or conceiving the work in one’s mind; the Energy, or objective work itself; and the Power, or how the work affects its audience, whether small or large.  (It’s a process that can easily be traced in The First Drawing.)  These three are the bedrock of creativity, and also—not by accident—conform to the persons of the Holy Trinity: Father as Idea, Son as Energy, and Holy Spirit as Power.  I find this an extremely fruitful and stimulating concept with all kinds of ramifications, but let’s just round it off with the point that the proper work of an artist is not primarily to “express himself,” but to mediate reality for an audience.

This is what picture books do for young, developing minds.  Whatever the style–comic or dramatic, hyper-realistic or semi-abstract—a good artist is showing children how to look, how to frame, how to think in sequence, how to see.  The test of an artist is that when we turn from his work we see God’s work a little more clearly.  Many picture books don’t aspire to quite this high a calling—perhaps most of them won’t.  But there are exceptions, and this month we’re going to be looking at all kinds.  Come along for the tour!

Later this week, Megan will tell us how not to read a picture book, followed by a challenge from Betsy.  We’ll be looking at categories of picture books (including graphic novels and nonfiction) and probe a little more deeply into what  they can teach us (and our kids) about truth.  Plus, lots of lists!  Also, see our review of Boxers/Saints for a powerful example of pictures mediating reality.  For more about the gorilla who paints, see our review of The One and Only Ivan.

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2 Responses to The Power of a Picture

  1. Megan November 6, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    Great observations! I’ve seen another book about this discovery, but Gerstein’s sounds better.

  2. Christina November 6, 2013 at 5:54 am #

    Looks like a fun book! Excited about this series!

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