Art Education & Theory: Draw Me a Cursive Tree

Student Sara Barkat has been an artist for as long as she can remember. The educational setting she was raised in cultivated a no-fear, exploratory approach to art that remains with her to this day. She believes, strongly, that everyone can move beyond “stick figure drawing,” even if everyone won’t be Picasso. It is her aim to help people find their real abilities to draw, and to bring Art to the center of curricula, thinking, and human life and interaction.


“Draw an l.”


“Draw an L. the letter L, in cursive.” So I replied to my grandmother, sitting beside her with a pen, a paper, and a plan. Looking at me doubtfully, she complied, drawing a beautiful, though minutely shaky, capital cursive L with loops up and down. I stared at it for a moment. Not quite the simple lowercase l I had been expecting, but this was even better—and I realized, in that moment, that I had never really seen her handwriting.

“Like that?” she inquired, and I answered in the affirmative, taking the pen back and drawing a line of looped L’s across the page. “What about that?” I asked.

Taking the pen back, she copied the motion, still looking confused. What she didn’t know yet was that I had had an epiphany a few days ago, and was testing my newly-born theory. I had been thinking, as I tend to do, about art, and many people’s steadfast insistence that the breadth of their drawing ability was limited to nothing but a straight line. I was thinking about the evolution of language, from pictograms to symbols to the Latin alphabet used in the English language. Why was this crippling belief so entrenched? I mean, these same self-avowed stick-figure-landers could write perfectly passable cursive, replete with the fluidity, detail, and strong lines required for drawing; yet when asked to turn their pen another way, the results were abysmal. Fear was, of course, the answer. The self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity, of people believing that they could not draw; faced with the expanse of the page and with no idea where to turn, it was far too easy to fall back on the old stick figure.

But the gulf between art and writing had not existed forever; at their roots, way back in the shadows of history, the two were intrinsically connected. When did that stop? And more importantly, why?

It was late at night and my little cousins had gone to bed. Curled up on the couch beside my grandmother, I drew a straight line. “Draw L’s along that line—like this.” She did so. From one straight line with the L’s all riding on the upper lip, we progressed to twining l’s dipping above and below the line, forming a pattern. From there, I drew a simple exoskeleton of a tree. “Draw L’s on the edges of that.” By now she was beginning to catch on. The L’s, in this case, were the leaves.

As I started watching my grandmother draw, I came to notice the most interesting thing. She started by copying my technique exactly, L’s curling around the sides of the branches, but as they gravitated around the tree, they began to morph, becoming looser and more fluid, curving leaves and swirls tracing through the inky branches. I held my breath, almost unable to believe my own eyes. Many times throughout the years I had tried to teach my grandmother to draw, and the results had always turned out shaky and timid, as though made by someone who didn’t know how to hold a pen. This was something different.

I drew more tree-skeletons, and a straight line along which grass could be drawn, giving suggestions as we went. Seeing that the middle tree had branches that stopped halfway down the trunk, my grandmother took the initiative and drew more. She was no longer passively copying my vision of the picture but adding her own ideas. I said she could draw more cursive letters along the ground as grass, and she started to do so, drawing curling R’s, B’s, and S’s. Halfway through the grassy ground, she stopped. “That doesn’t look right.”

I could almost feel my mind turning somersaults of pure shock as I stared from the page to my grandmother. I agreed – the other letters just didn’t give the impression of grass, looking more like, well, capital cursive letters – but I had never, in my wildest dreams, thought my grandmother would have stated a similar opinion. She had never given an opinion about art or aesthetics before; I didn’t even know she had any.

“Here, why don’t we draw L’s again,” I found myself saying, illustrating a few to show her how it would look. “See? Those look a little more like grass.”

And so we continued, drawing together a landscape which I proudly entitled as a joint project “by Sara and Grandma.” She seemed almost as surprised as I.

Photo by Richard, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Sara Barkat.

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  1. says

    I would love to see that picture! Genius, Sara – thank you. However — there are some of us who cannot write cursive to save our lives. And it gets worse with age. I have tried a little drawing (using the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) and had more luck than I would have guessed. But handwriting? A thing of the past for me. Sigh.

      • says

        I’m a (too) strongly left-brained person, so learning I had another side was huge! I think maybe the whole turning the picture upside down to copy it was the first breakthrough. I could not use my mind to identify what I was seeing, which is what gets in the way of truly looking, you know? With drawing, you need to convey eye to hand, skipping mind, in a way. My dear spiritual director, who died three years ago, gave me a last assignment that was along the same lines, but to do with meditative openness. I was sent to ‘look long at the sea,’ and to wait until the sea was looking at me. Hard to do. Really hard. Takes time – like an hour or two. Man, that’s hard for me. Even as laid up as I’ve been these months, it’s still hard to just sit and not do.

  2. says

    I love this, Sara. The way you considered how to use something “familiar” to bridge into drawing, to help her “turn the pen” so to speak. When what you were really doing, perhaps, was turning the mind, through a very non-threatening approach.

    Do you have other ideas about “familiar” things that could be used to bridge into drawing?

  3. Marcy says

    Oh no, you found out about me, didn’t you? Loved that book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” Whenever I send out cards to friends it’s all Calligraphy, it’s beautiful because each person deserves the beauty of this kind of writing. However, it takes patience and a love for writing in a beautiful way. Anyone can buy a book and learn but I went to school for four years and then more art school and loved it. Handwriting expresses who the soul really is, I got picked often for jobs at school because my handwriting stood out. Christmas cards means starting in October in order to make each beautiful. Even with calligraphy my cursive is beautiful and important when I sign the mat on the photo’s I take. When someone hangs that photo in their home my name is at the bottom.

    Sara, my Grandmother lived with us and she was an artist/painter. She drew heads of women which I have in small frames and I have her old books where she drew in them. She passed her talent down to a few of her children and grandchildren, to which I am so thankful. It was especially special as a child to walk into my Grandmother’s room and watch her paint at her easel. Artist are different people, they think a lot, very creative in many ways. Example, I get bored easy so when there’s a doctor visit along comes a journal, pad & pen with me. Many surgeries leave me waiting so I draw on anything, the paper sheets and once I drew on the cloth sheet after getting an Ok from a nurse. It was a fall scene and one of the nurses took it home.

    Like a book you read, in your mind each character looks different. It’s the same with any kind of art, if you can read, you can draw. The key is practice, with practice you can get better at anything and like good wine improve with age.

  4. says

    “Fear was, of course, the answer. The self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity, of people believing that they could not…” <– this bit here, I'd sure like to change that for my own self.

    Ah, miss Sara, each time our paths cross, you astonish me with your depth of insight, creativity, and skill.

  5. says

    What a creative approach to engaging non-artists in something artistic. I think your hunch was a good one that it’s a matter of the mind that keeps most people from even trying. The Ls were so non-threatening.

    What a wonderful experience for you and your grandma.

  6. Allison says

    This is AMAZING. It makes so much sense when you presented it and I’d have never thought about the connection. I am a performing artist and visual art admittedly frightens me. I think now that it is the fear of mediocrity in this art form that is what I fear. A PhD student in my program is from China and she told our advisor that ‘ in Chinese I dance, in English I stumble”, I feel like that in visual art.


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