Comprehensive drawing

My PechaKucha presentation on “Comprehensive drawing” (20 images each with 20 seconds of explanation):


1 – Good evening, I’m Sylvia. My presentation is about “comprehensive drawing”: understanding through sketching. Drawing is an art form, but I will show that it’s also good for science and for sharing a feeling of wonder.

2 – Pencil and paper are all you need if you want to become a universal human. This is a page from a notebook I kept when I was seven. It was all I needed to be happy: making up stories, computing, and drawing. Key ingredients to all of the disciplines I still practice.

3 – When I was sixteen, I made this sketch at a local drawing studio. I was practicing anatomy from a book and ended up reflecting on infinity. My work now still involves infinities and infinitesimals.

4 – In the same year, I made this as a tribute to Escher. I used my own left hand for reference. The portrait is fiction. I had short hair back then. But that’s the beauty of drawing: you can show what you see even if it’s just in your imagination.

5 – Once I had decided to study science, I worried that I would lose touch with my imagination, that studying maths and physics would be very hard for a dreamy person like me. But imagination is very important in science, too, especially when you need to come up with a new hypothesis.

6 – Starting your own research project can make you feel small: a feeling similar to confronting a blank canvas and fearing that you will mess it up. But trial and error are important parts of both science and art. Learning how to fail is crucial.

7 – One of my art teacher taught us about the effect of canvas proportions on a composition. He taught us about twelve dynamic rectangles: a theory due to von Wersin. His explanations were chaotic, but I managed to make a reconstruction with the help of geometry.

8 – In the physics lab, I learned to work with various microscopy techniques. Nowadays, we use computers to view and store the results immediately. But Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, one of the first microscopists, employed artists to draw his observations. These are grains of sand.

9 – My favourite optical instrument is a confocal microscope. It contains small pinholes at crucial positions to block out light that’s out of focus. You can also use a pinhole: to project an image of a solar eclipse, by using a small gap between your fingers.

10 – It saddens me that in most biology classes, pupils just need to fill out words on sheets like this. I think it is much more instructive to let them draw the animal themselves. Comprehensive drawing isn’t about the product, but about the process: the art of really looking at something.

11 – Likewise, in introductory courses for university physics, there is a tendency to use really slick American handbooks with colour illustrations. For instance, a Newtonian problem with various pulleys and forces is illustrated like this. But, to be honest, I think…

12 – …students learn a lot more when they make the drawings themselves. Start out by drawing a single pulley. You need to understand how one pulley works, before you can figure out combinations of them. These divide-and-conquer algorithms are common to art and science.

13 – That’s why I like these sketches by Da Vinci so much. They are pleasing as a product. But also very suggestive of the process: observing something, imagining something. Zooming in on a detail. Figuring out how it all works. Allowing yourself the time to understand the world by seeing.

14 – As a physics students, I learned about interference colours. These are colours due to thin layers of transparent materials, for instance in a soap bubble. The colours occur due to the interference of various wavelengths in white light.

15 – Because of this background knowledge, I see the world with different eyes. After cooking spaghetti, I sometimes notice interference colours at the bottom of the kettle. As a physicist, I take a picture before I clean it. And if you black out the background, it looks like an alien moon.

16 – When my son was still a baby, I noticed that the tear films of his eyes showed interference colours, too. Apparently, babies have more oily components in their tear fluid, which causes the film to be thicker and evaporate more slowly. That’s why babies need to blink less often.

17 – I also wanted to point out how much knowledge of physics and in particular optics is required to make realistic computer graphics. For instance, sub-surface scattering of light has to be taken into account to get a realistic rendering for human hands.

18 – But I like drawings on paper best. Especially if they contain a puzzle about physics! This is a 10 meter long drawing by Roberto Schiavi. The turntable at the left turns at a moderate speed, which is amplified through the gears to the speed of light. But that’s impossible!

19 – When I was still in physics, I could draw schemes and add microscopy images. I miss that now that I work in philosophy, so I decided to draw a graphical abstract for a paper I wrote on probability. Unfortunately, philosophy journals don’t accept graphical abstracts.

20 – To end, a quote attributed to Da Vinci:

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

That’s what I call “comprehensive drawing”!

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