Archive for April 19th, 2010

The Ellipse

Get your hands off the silly keyboard for a minute.  Pretend you’re in the park throwing a Frisbee.  You’ve looked over your shoulders to make sure nobody’s passing your cubicle. You’re safe. So now you’re flipping your wrist and you’re getting the rhythm.  Good.  Now, instead of flipping your wrist outward, flip it inward.  And don’t make it stop.  Let it swing around.  This should feel good and natural.  It should feel as if your wrist had evolved for this specific motion. If you now pick up a pencil and swing it over a piece of paper you will draw an ellipse.  A noble form.  Go ahead, fill a whole page with ellipses.  They will get smoother and more even with practice.  You will feel elegant doing this exercise.

In fact, an ellipse can only be drawn with an elegant swing.  If you draw it slowly and deliberately, it will look like a mangled bicycle tire, cramped and joyless.

You need to practice ellipses.  You need to have them down and in your wrist’s Frisbee swing for any number of applications: hats, visors, soup tureens, plates, glasses, speech bubbles, car wheels coming at you, domes with Corinthian columns, Venn diagrams  and for your clarification of planetary movements over latte at Starbucks.The ellipse took center stage recently when a student was drawing from a photo of Beyoncé just barely wearing a hat.  As you’d expect, that hat would not sit right until she got the swing of the ellipse. (There was more to the Beyoncé attitude.  It involved Contrapposto. That’s what the pink lines are intended to show. More on that next time.) Here’s the page of studies I did while sitting next to the struggling student.

A noble form?  The Greeks didn’t think so.  An ellipse could be fat or skinny, long or short.  Therefore, they condemned it as imperfect.  If you wanted perfection you had to go with the circle.  And perfection is what the ancient Greeks wanted, obsessively.  The universe had to be perfect, by definition.  Therefore the planets and stars had to be moving in circular paths, not elliptical paths.  This Greek assumption hampered observation of what those celestial bodies where really up to for centuries, until Kepler (1571-1630) had the nerve to show that the paths were elliptical.  Boy, a false assumption can gum up your brain for a long time, in this case, for two thousand years.

The Greeks were also obsessing about something they called essence, but that’s for another day.  In the meantime, fill another 8½ x 11 with ellipses.  Go ahead, nobody’s looking and they feel so good in the wrist and you are totally elegant for doing this.

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