Monday, February 23, 2009

Framing the Problem

6. Framing the Problem

"Originally published in Ceramics Monthly (,
JANUARY, 2004, PAGE 112. Reproduced with permission. Copyright, the Ceramic Publications Company"

One of the odd little requirements of my graduate program was that each degree candidate had to take one drawing class at the university. It didn’t matter how much drawing you might or might not have done elsewhere. One class, at this university, and it didn’t matter what skill level either, you just had to have it.

So, having nothing to brag about in the way of personal drawing skills (though I’d had some previous training) I dutifully enrolled in Drawing I. The class was full of freshmen and sophomores and taught by a Painting graduate student.

I found that I had one major advantage over my fellow students (other than being old enough to drink). I knew how to frame the problem. That is to say, I knew what not to draw, what not to worry about. I could get more done on my drawings in the first minute than my fellow students were getting done in five.

Drawing instructors will often have their students make small rectangular cut-outs to look through to help them to imagine the edges of their drawings. It’s a little like our stereotypical images of movie directors looking at scenes through a rectangular box formed by their thumbs and forefingers. What needs to be included and what can be left out? What is the most interesting composition?

These issues come up again and again. As a student, writing papers, working in the studio, meeting departmental deadlines, and juggling outside work responsibilities, you have to be able to frame the problem. What is the focus of the assignment? How wide a view can you take? How much space or time do you have to work with? What do you need to achieve?

In many ways it’s a matter of defining the hoops you have to jump through and it doesn’t end when you leave school. Far from it. The paper is always only so large. What do you choose to spend your time drawing? Every day you have a powerful influence on how your energies are spent. Of course outside entities make demands on your time, but it’s always up to you to organize your response to those demands.

My college soccer coach once spoke to us candidly about the advantages dim athletes have in sports. He felt that they performed better because they were better at sticking to the problem at hand. The game totally filled their minds while the “bright” kids might have their attention diluted by passing thoughts of Latin declensions, Hegelian meta-physics, and upcoming Chemistry experiments. Certainly the time spent on those other things can be important, but the time to spend on those things is not game time.

To what extent do unimportant considerations slow you down? Do you have trouble identifying or predicting the irrelevant elements of your problems? Do you stare blankly at the page unable to find a starting point? Sometimes meditation and contemplation are appropriate, but not when the bloodhounds are on your trail, the devil is at the door, or the toddler is headed for the open elevator.

If you must train yourself to be decisive, so be it. With practice comes competence, with competence comes confidence, with confidence comes everything. Once you can apply the full range of your abilities to the limited scope of your problems those problems will seem far less intimidating or time-consuming.
[My thanks for the illustration to Kevin Cannon of Grinnell College '02, and Big Time Attic.]

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