At school, whenever rain stopped playtime and we were ushered back inside, I used to draw. At the back of the classroom, I’d find a scrap of paper or the back of a workbook and disappear into my own little world. Before long, there’d be a small crowd around me, and soon after that the requests would start.
“Can you draw a unicorn?”… “Can you draw a unicorn driving a tank?” Sure. Sure.
Drawing for an audience is gratifying. My ego swells inside my school jumper and, suddenly, I’m the star-attraction of a one-woman circus.
Then, inevitably, somebody cries: “Can you draw me?”
Pretty soon you’ve been coerced into drawing a portrait of every member of the class. Everybody gets a portrait; even teachers and school bullies. Everybody wants to be included.
What fascinated me then, still does today: What is so powerful about seeing a portrait of yourself? Is there something about being visually represented that can change the way you see yourself? Or is it just about having someone pay you close enough attention to convey your personality and appearance in a drawing?
When I'm scribing or sketchnoting, I work with a lot of big companies, often at internal events. It's not unusual to have occasion to draw characters who are struggling to be heard, or feeling frustrated. And, every time, clients approach me in disbelief (occasionally with tears in their eyes), saying: “That’s just what it’s like. That’s exactly how it feels!”
Seeing their woes, writ (or drawn) large on a wall by a perfect stranger, can be a pretty profound experience. In that moment, they feel seen, heard, acknowledged and understood.
That’s when the scribing stops being a mere memo of the meeting, and starts to carry real meaning and purpose for them. A good piece of scribing is an advocate for everyone in the room; a permanent record of their rarely heard opinions; confirmation of their importance.
The act of drawing someone in a real life situation requires empathy. You have to answer a lot of questions before you can do it well; What does this person do? What do they wear to work? Do they have to leave early to pick up their kids from school? Did they miss breakfast to get to this meeting? What matters to them most in their job? If the people in the room are going to look at this drawing and feel like it’s relevant to them, the characters have to look and feel real, like they could fit into their life without question. They have to be believable.
Benjamin Dix of PositiveNegatives recently gave a talk about comics he has been making to tell the stories of some of the darkest tragedies of the modern world.
His methods include meticulous research and getting to know the people involved. They help him to write the script so that their story remains exactly, that: their story. He is just the conduit.
Then he sets about using drawing to convey what words might not. As he puts it: “You can see the nuances of the story, the pain these people went through, the expressions on their faces.”
As a reader, you cannot help but empathise with these real lives, and their true stories – just as Dix does when he interviews them, face to face.
Empathy is the fuel you need to tell another person’s story. And telling stories can change the world, in big and small ways.
So, when I think about those wet lunchtimes and my classmates clustered around, I can’t help wondering whether the portraits I drew meant more to each of them than a simple diversion on a rainy afternoon.