Thinking with a Pencil

Originally published in 1957 (Editions 1964,1981), Thinking with a Pencil by Henning Nelms provides a catalog of how the styles and technology of representation can shape the thoughts and pattens of observation. He starts by pointing out that  knowledge can affect drawing ability and confidence:

Need for Data. If you have found drawing difficult, you probably attributed this to a lack of skill. Actually, part of the trouble was almost certainly due to something quite different – lack of knowledge about the thing you were trying to draw. (Pg 1.  Ten Speed Press, Berkeley California, 1981)

The proposal that drawing skill and confidence will improve with an increase in the quality of knowledge is insightful, and the inverse also seems likely true, that knowledge will increase with drawing.  It seems that the action of completing an observation drawing, putting “pencil to paper”, will similarly increase the quality of knowledge.  Although drawing from memory is dependent upon knowledge and memory,  observation drawing provides an opportunity to visually study an object or scene in greater detail and over extended time.  Knowledge of the subject and sensitivity to the patterns of the field of study are promoted by observation drawing.

Thinking with a Pencil - Nelms 1981 CoverThe diagrams and illustrations in Nelms 1981 edition remain the originals from the 1957, maintaining the fashion and image reproduction technology methods of the late 1950’s era.  Compass protractors, copy stand devices, and late-fifties style and fashion demonstrated in the photographs display that era’s image reproduction technology and methods.

The reproduction methods and tools included in Nelms’ book were used previously by industry professionals, and provided the opportunity to improve observation and visualization skills. Yet, the tools (protractors) and methods (copy stands) in Thinking with a Pencil are not commonly used today. Among the proliferation of mobile-phones,  tablets, and laptops, our cultural landscape is even more hyper-visual than the mid-twentieth century. Our current cultural communications are dominantly visual, digital, mobile and online.

There are (rare) laptop and tablet devices that promote (permit) the use of drawing as digital input, either through peripherals or system based tablets.  However, the pencil and paper will always remain the most affordable and widely accessible technology for drawing observations or plans .  Amid this digital boom, there is perhaps no better time to ensure we keep putting pencil to paper, or stylus to screen if available.

Observation drawing provides an valuable opportunity to enhance observation skills and knowledge.  Thinking with a Pencil is filled with useful insights on the relationship between visualization and knowledge development.  Although the text has a couple of chapters that are obsolete and historical, but most of the text remains useful for those interested in improving their ability to draw, whether for observation or visualization (thinking).


Henning Nelms (1900-1986) also wrote a mystery novel (Rim of the Pit, 1944) under the pen name Hake Talbot (1).


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