Hand Thinking (SF)

San Francisco, CA. Legion of Honor. In the “Truth & Beauty” exhibition, I noticed a few visitors sketching. It’s not an unusual sight, I guess, but it triggered some vivid memories and associations for me. My mother, now in her 90’s, is an artist who values sketching as “a way of knowing.” When I was young she taught me to practice it when we were traveling or hiking in nature. Devotees know that drawing is a deep way of seeing. To me it’s a kind of “hand thinking.” A meaningful alternative to taking photos, and a powerful way to “take notes,” about virtually anything.


In terms of visitor holding time, sketching visitors “in the zone” are like solid gold rocks in the constant stream of visitor flow. Even a 10 minute sketch is a long time to observe a piece of art. In crowded exhibitions, the presence of sketchers underscores the tension between crowd control and engagement.


Sketching is a time-honored tradition in art museums, but all museum should be sketching friendly. “Hand thinking” can be about anything. Museums that do have sketching policies have common sense guidelines, such as dry medium only and size restrictions, etc. Some go further and actively promote drawing, offering creative tips, activities, and stools to carry around.


Seasoned museum sketchers are by nature extremely polite. They are ninjas at being unobtrusive, drawing without drawing attention to themselves. Simply viewing is a kind of mental “copying," a way to analyze and understand. Sketching, as a more involved form of “copying” goes further to inform the visitor’s personal creative process.


My real reason for coming to the Legion of Honor was to meet up with my friend Stephen Woodall, the Logan Collection Specialist for the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. He invited us into the museum’s hushed library, and showed us a few of his favorite books in the collection. His knowledge and passion for book arts always leads to an animated discussion.


If you love artist illustrated books, the Reva and David Logan Gallery is a sacred little alcove. One of the legion’s innovations in book display design is the use of tiny powerful magnets to hold a page spread open.