An Elephant, Some Batteries and Julianne Moore

Some weeks, my brain is so fried that I can’t think, let alone write. This is one of those weeks. So I thought I’d share a few pencil drawings I made several years ago. Let’s start with an elephant:

This drawing is based on the cover photograph of a beautiful book of wildlife photography, Sunlight and Shadows, which doesn’t seem to be available new in the US. The drawing is a textbook application of the techniques in Betty Edwards’ amazing book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Edwards’ book by itself is hard to learn from, so if you find a course based on it, take it. You won’t regret it. This is one how-to book that isn’t lying when it says “anyone can learn to draw like this.” So long as you aren’t blind, you can truly can get to this level, starting from kindergarten stick figures, in about 5-6 weeks flat.

The course I took (in Ann Arbor) was taught by an annoying old hippie woman who rolled her eyes when I said I was an engineer. She wanted badly for me to mess up and reinforce her conviction that engineers are evil, rational, soulless and left-brained creatures from the Military-Industrial Complex. Unfortunately, I disappointed her by doing better than most of the students in the class. At which point, she decided I was being smug, and started lecturing me about how the left brain makes us all competitive and that it didn’t matter who did “better” so long as we all learned to “see.” Okay, mommy.

Still, she was a good enough teacher that I thought it was worth the effort to ignore her relentless button-pushing. I do believe she wanted me to quit the class.I once went to a few drum circle sessions, and the woman running them didn’t like me either. Probably because I enjoy the actual drumming more than the self-important spirituality of drum circles. Something about me seems to annoy those goddamn hippies. Maybe it is the fact that I, like Eric Cartman, think of them as goddamn hippies. Still, there’s some good in them.

Next, here is a drawing of two AA batteries.

At the time I was obsessed with the idea of blending engineering drawing with “artistic” drawing, so I used a ruler and hard pencils in addition to soft pencils (I had a sheaf of notes on the philosophy of H and B pencils, and notes deconstructing the tension between freehand and instrument-based drawing. Yes, I know I am borderline certifiable). Maybe I did it just to annoy the teacher. Something about batteries fascinates me. Maybe it is the fact that they represent the leaky, messy real world of thermodynamics, entropy and hysteresis entering the clean-edged and smug Tron-world of computing. I just made a big trail about the battery industry.  Some of the new things I’ve learned about in the last week include grid energy storage and nanograss. I also learned that Salar Di Uyuni in Bolivia produces more than half the world’s Lithium. It’s the new Saudi Arabia. I haven’t yet put the story together properly in my head though. When I do, I’ll blog about it. This book about batteries looks like a really good starting point though.

Finally, here is a picture of Julianne Moore. I drew her portrait from a photograph in a magazine, for no good reason other than that I had to pick somebody from one of the magazines the teacher passed around. I quite like her (and redheads in general actually, unlike Eric Cartman, who hates gingers). I cannot remember a single movie she’s been in though, off the top of my head. Still, a pretty good likeness. I lost patience at some point, when I was working on the teeth. Later, I spent several hours practicing drawing teeth.

One of my regrets is that I never truly spent time developing my drawing skills. I did take a lot of extra-curricular drawing classes as a kid, but all the teachers were awful, so I didn’t actually learn very much. The “right-brained” course has been my only indulgence since, and that was in 2002. Drawing, unlike writing, is an activity that requires you to shut off your brain and pretty much let your eyes talk directly to your hands. Hard for me, and getting harder, the more I write. It also takes insane amounts of stopped-time to do right.

Someday, when I’ve made my millions and don’t have to work, I’ll probably stop writing and draw more.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. If you seriously believe I could draw anything like your examples after 5-6 weeks using the method of DOTRSOTB, I will buy the book without hesitation. I don’t have any reason to think I’m congenitally handicapped in this area but I never developed any drawing skill and at 32 I felt perhaps I am too late to get there without inordinate time commitment. I’m more interested in creative drawing (comics, for example) but I assume one must draw from life to get there.

    By the way, it’s pretty funny that you have this ability and yet you use comically bad MSPAINT cartoons/diagrams in your posts. Way to blend in with the engineers!

  2. I am not kidding at all, but you probably need a teacher plus the book to do it in 5-6 weeks. I’ve seen it happen. If you try to self-learn, your self-discipline will determine how long it takes. The technique is efficient, but after all, you can’t expect to get there without some practice. I’d say 5-6 weeks, with about 3-4 hours/week (preferably in 1 or max 2 sessions… these things take uninterrupted blocks of time) and being able to watch a good teacher do it, should get you there.

    The MS-Paint stuff is bad primarily because I still have not learned to use my tablet properly, and am too lazy to fire up a better program like Painter… often I draw with a mouse on my work laptop (which has neither tablet, nor Painter). But I guess blending in with the more traditional engineers is a plus :)


  3. @Joe: I can second the claim that you can learn to draw with DOTRSOTB. I used it when I was a kid and it really helped. It’s mainly an explanation of how to look at things and then draw what you actually see, IIRC. It has some exercises that help you understand and practice those skills, and for most people a class helps. When I later did take a class or two, my teachers had us draw from live models in very short bursts; they were using the time limit (30 seconds, say) as a way to bypass your left brain, which tends to dominate in most people.
    But, the main thing I wanted to mention is that this technique worked great for me for learning to draw realistically, but I’ve never figured out how to go from that skill to abstract or nonrealistic images: comics, drawing without a model, made up landscapes, etc. Maybe one can just end up there with a lot of practice of realistic drawing, but I’m not sure–maybe it’s an entirely different set of skills and if comics are your goal there might well be a shorter path.

  4. anthony gonzalvez says

    there are no rules, as the cliche goes. this hb and 2b thing i’ve never heard before and i’ve been drawing for years now. i’m an engineer as well. i use any pencil lying around, or pens of any kind, or anything that makes a mark on paper. though i usually dont buy h pencils because they’re too hard for me.

    as you draw more and more, you will get better. when i say you will get better, i don’t really know what that means.

    when one thinks about art, it is a good idea to keep in mind that humans have been drawing, painting, sculpting, shaping before pencils were invented. every culture has art in some form or another, and what is fashionable in one culture at this moment may not be in another culture.

  5. Drawing is nothing more than a skill that can be learned by anyone. Its just another way for your mind to communicate, like writing. It is a technical thing merely.
    The the people who do it well have simply been doing it longer.