Me and my dad, circa 1980

For this father’s day, a story about my father:

My father’s fingers are yellow where the cigarette rests between his right index and middle fingers. The nails are chewed short and the cuticles ragged from where he has scraped them back with a pair of scissors. We sit at Franz and Aggie’s kitchen table, which has been pushed in front of a window that looks into an opposite view of my father’s red painted kitchen. Below the window, in the tiny city garden, walled in tall, dusty cedar vertical planks two chickens scratch in the dirt. There is a slightly crumpled chicken wire cube topped with more planks that serves as their shelter.

My father’s lips make a tiny popping noise against the cigarette as he opens his mouth after his inhale. The smoke flows in front of my face like a tiny fog. Aggie is standing at the counter chopping onions and my sister Jill is in the other room playing with Mia Aru and Indigo Blue, Franz and Aggie’s two girls. I relish this time alone with my dad. We sit in silence, him smoking, me watching the chickens outside.

“Can I draw?” I finally ask, chickens no longer an allure. I am nine and too young to play with the little kids.

“You want to draw? I nod. He knows I do. He bought me an entire set of coloured pencils for my birthday. “Have you learned perspective yet?”

I don’t know what he is talking about so I shake my head.

“Hey, Aggie, do you have paper and pencil?”

Aggie shuffles around in kitchen drawers and pulls out a lined pad and a broken pencil, handing it to him.

“A knife?” I know already what he needs the knife for. My father prides himself on never using a pencil sharpener. Most of his architectural drawings are done at the dinner table on napkins and I learned long ago to read the squares and openings as rooms and windows viewed as if looking from above, like a giant looking down into a house after he has plucked the roof off. He holds the pencil tightly against his finger and scrapes the knife against the tip at an angle, whittling this way until there is a tiny pile of tiny wood chips on the table and the pencil lead is long and squared off, like the tip of a hand-carved spear. He pushes the wood chips off the edge of the table into his hand and brushes them into the ashtray where his smoldering cigarette waits. He grabs it and takes a quick drag.

He pulls the pad in front of him and smooths the top page with the side of his hand.

“You always start with a horizon line,” he says. “A horizon line is the line you see where the land and the sky meet.” He looks out the window in search of an open field to show me what he means, but all we can see is the choppy shapes of the tops of fences, garages, houses and buildings, like a tiny hamlet of children’s building blocks stacked in a haphazard arrangement. Instead, he pulls the pencil horizontally across the page, halfway down. He stabs the pencil below the line.

“Pretend this is a big field.” Then he pokes the page above the line. “And this is the sky, OK?” I nod.

“OK, now we’re going to draw a road.” He holds the pencil in the center of the line.

“Let’s pick a point on the horizon. That’s called the ‘vanishing point’.” From the point, he draws a line down toward the left corner of the paper. Then he puts the pencil back on the point and draws another line down toward the right corner. I can already see how it looks like a road, disappearing into the distance.

“Roads usually have dividing lines, right?” From the vanishing point he draws a very short line, leaves a gap and draws a slightly longer line, continuing to draw ever longer lines until he reaches the very bottom of the page, directly in the center of the two edges of the road. It looks like the dashed yellow line down the center of a highway. This simple arrangement of four lines on the page looks like a deserted highway in the middle of a very flat desert. His hands move quickly, nails chewed down to nubs, pushing the pencil down hard on the paper. What at first appears to be just a mess of lines suddenly becomes a highway to nowhere, an ordered desert scene. It’s possible to imagine myself in a car looking into the distance and wonder what’s ahead.

“Another thing we can do to create an illusion of depth is to add some telephone poles. What do you think will happen to the poles as they move away from us toward the vanishing point?”

“Maybe, get smaller?”

“Right.” My dad draws a long vertical line that dissects the horizon until it reaches the edge of the road, near the bottom of the page.

“The first pole is really tall. Now they will get smaller and closer together as we move toward the horizon. We can figure out how tall they need to be by sort of drawing another road from the top of the first pole to the vanishing point.” This line he draws very lightly onto the page. Then he makes a series of vertical lines that keep within the “V” that had been marked off. He gives them each two crosses and strings them with a looping wire and now the poles disappear into the distance.

“Make sense?”  I nod. I feel as if I have been given the keys to a secret kingdom, amazed at how simple it is to create such magic in a drawing. He continues to show me how to apply the vanishing point and the horizon line when drawing cubes, that turn into houses and buildings. I spend the next hour practicing my own horizon lines and highways and cubes. I can’t stop. I draw houses with windows whose frames angle the same way as the roof lines, all pointing toward the dot I had poked into the center of the wobbling horizon line I had drawn across the page. My dad leaves me to my own devices once the initial lesson is over, but he wanders into the kitchen holding a brown stubbie beer and leans over my shoulder, drawing on his cigarette, nodding.

“Looks like you got it,” he says with something that I understand to be pride.



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  1. Boo Mayhew June 19, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    I could have been in the room with you … don’t know why but I got a bit teary at the end, prob because I’ve not allowed myself to think much about my own Dad today xx beautiful, Abby 🙂

    1. Abigail - Site Author June 19, 2011 at 12:31 pm

      Thanks Boo. So glad you liked it.

  2. Debra June 21, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    What a wonderful depiction of your dad’s lesson, and his CERTAIN pride! Perspective is, of course, what enables us all to keep on haulin, when the going is particularly rough. Indeed…I think you “got it”…

  3. Pingback: A Father's Day Round-Up - Abigail Carter

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