I have spent some more time reading both books, and have concluded that they are doing very different things. The Natural Way to Draw is not at all about teaching drawing; it is, as the author says in the introduction, about teaching how to learn about drawing. Towards that, there is virtually no discussion of specific techniques; the student is given assignments to do a certain type of drawing for 1/2 hour, but no commentary like “Draw the major shapes first”. The student is left up to him or herself to figure out the best way to draw the shape. The author even specifically mentions that there have been several instances where the student was struggling with a technical issue and the author had to work very hard to resist temptation to explain the technical issue to the student; the point was not to communicate the technical solution but to teach the student to think his way to his own solution.
Keys to Drawing, on the other hand, is all about the practical. It is a how-to book, explaining the principles and techniques of drawing and providing exercises and checklists to help the reader develop specific skills. It comes very highly recommended, and I can see why. If I work with Keys to Drawing, I will develop technical skills much much faster than if I work with The Natural Way to Draw.
This reminds me of the most interesting mathematics course I ever had. It was Number Theory, at a summer program at Ohio State University taught by Prof. Arnold Ross. I was sixteen at the time, a mathematical prodigy, and accustomed to charging through math classes, even college-level ones, with ease.
Number Theory puzzled me. Instead of being taught a method and then given some problems to solve using that method, or being given a theorem to prove, we were given statements that we were to “prove or disprove, and salvage if possible”. We had to experiment to figure out whether the statements were true or false, then (if it was true) prove it. If it was false, we had to demonstrate that it was false, and see if we could modify it to produce some useful statement, and prove THAT statement.
In short, we were being asked to do mathematical research.
The distinction puzzled me at the time. I was used to being taught tools and techniques, and given true statements to prove. I got extremely frustrated with the horribly difficult calculation exercises (which were designed to be painful, thus encouraging the student to look for the general solution instead of trying to calculate each of these terribly painful problems). I got frustrated with these statements that I didn’t know whether to try proving or disproving, and I had no idea how to find a related result to prove if it turned out to be false. I kept wanting someone to teach me what to do, so I could do the problems, as I’d been accustomed to in other mathematics courses. I didn’t feel I was learning any number theory at all.
I wasn’t, of course. What I was learning (and didn’t fully appreciate until many years later) was how to survive in the unknown. Because when you become a “real” mathematician, there aren’t any facile answers, and you won’t know in advance whether a statement is really true or false. Faced with a complex calculation, you won’t know what the shortcut is or indeed if there is one at all. Professor Ross hadn’t the slightest interest in teaching us Number Theory. He wanted us to learn how to think, how to approach problems that had no obvious solution.
And that, in short, is the difference between The Natural Way to Draw and Keys to Drawing. Keys to Drawing is like a conventional math class: it presents principles and problem-solving methods that are of great practical value, and it does so as quickly as possible. The Natural Way to Draw is like Dr. Ross’s program: it is not really teaching technique at all, but teaching students how to think about the unknown, preparing them for when they become artists and don’t have facile answers to all problems. It is not about how to draw, but how to learn drawing.
So which will I go with?
You will no doubt be unsurprised to hear that The Natural Way to Draw is the method I will be using. I would like to be able to draw, of course; but more important to me is learning how to think about art and artistic problems, and I think The Natural Way to Draw will serve me better there. I am not going to entirely abandon Keys to Drawing, however: I plan to read through all the principles and maybe even do some of the exercises, after I have gotten further into The Natural Way to Draw. (I think doing both at the exact same time will be more confusing than helpful.)
I feel the proverb about giving a man a fish could use a little expanding:
Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.
Teach a man to think, and he will work out the rest.
The motto of the Ross Program is “Think deeply of simple things.” That’s what I intend to do.