What I Learned From a Year of Drawing [almost] Every Day

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a drawing of a small boy with a red shirt, playing by a lake
My sister-in-law (swimming), dad (kayaking), brother (wading), and nephew (playing).

I’ve made a lot of attempts at drawing in my life. I took required art classes in high school and a non-required one in college. Every few years through my adult life, I’d get together some pencils and paper, do some drawings, and, within a week or two, drop it, frustrated by my lame attempts.

Sometime around the end of last January I decided to change this. Drawing every day was a private project. I didn’t hold a launch party. But I started, and I mostly stuck with it, and now I’ve been drawing for a year.

Part of the key to my success was being quite generous in how I defined a drawing. A doodle on a meeting agenda at work counted just the same as if I spent an hour on a still life. I kept a notepad in my bedside table, so if I realized I hadn’t done a drawing by bedtime, I could do a quick sketch of a stuffed animal or my eyedrops. My Instagram followers are familiar with my lamp.

The first thing I had to let go of was caring whether a drawing was good or not. Sometimes I do a lousy drawing, and that’s ok. Sometimes I do a pretty good drawing, and that is also ok. Often a drawing that I dislike when I finish it turns out to have some redeeming element when I look at it later. I don’t think I’ve ever done a drawing I’m 100% satisfied with.

But, it turns out, if you do something every day, you get better at it.

Penelope is a stuffed gorilla…with feelings. I suspect that the success of this drawing is largely due to luck.

Last spring I had a revelation that I wasn’t actually going to be happy with my drawings unless they looked like they’d been done by Rembrandt or Leonardo. (Or Rubens, whose drawings of lions I wrote about last year.) Once I realized that, and laughed at it—it is a ridiculous goal, and I don’t have the patience for it, and besides, I am not a man who lives in Renaissance Italy or 17th-century Leiden—I was free to do whatever I wanted.

I’ve discovered that drawing is a lot like writing, in that almost every piece goes through a phase in which it is a disaster. Oh, I know it’s a disaster. I can see it. It’s right there in front of me. Why did I think drawing was a good idea in the first place? Why did I think I could write for a living? But then I keep working on it, moving that totally incorrect line over a bit, adding some more shading, taking another stab at the first paragraph, calling a source back to clarify something. And it gets better. Now that I’ve been writing feature stories for 15 years, I know to expect this phase, I recognize it when I’m in it, and I push on through. It was a surprise to discover the same discomfort in drawing. A pleasant surprise–to realize that maybe creating things is just hard, and it’s ok not to be sure if it’s going to come out well.

One of my favorite things to do is to draw a scene or a still life with pen, then color it in with colored pencils. It’s like making my own coloring book. I don’t recall seeing a lot of this kind of work on the wall at the Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. But they’re satisfying to do and fun to look at.

They’re lopsided and wonky and I drew them with my own five fingers while waiting for my burger and fries.

I’m told I have a writing style, but I don’t know what it is. Similarly, I think I have a drawing style. I don’t know what it is, either. I think both might relate to what I notice and highlight–the condiments, not the table they’re on, or the couple at the next table; in a feature story, the funny things that scientists say when they’re in the field, and the way it feels to do boring work. Somehow all of that adds up to a style.

Over the last year, I developed a new mode of communication. I know I’m pretty good at communicating ideas by writing. Now I also have confidence in my ability to depict a thing on a page, as long as it is not a person’s face. They aren’t great works of art, but I’m not sure anything I’ve ever written qualifies as great literature, either, and I can pay my rent with that. Now I can use a pen and a piece of paper to send a friend some inspiration, amuse myself on a flight, distract myself from the news by taking a good long look at a beloved object around the house–and share those experiences with other people.

I rested my feet and exercised my brain on a bench in Berlin last summer.

Giving myself permission to do whatever I want on the page has been immensely freeing. If I do a weak drawing, who does it hurt? No one. It’s made me wonder if there are other areas where I’m holding myself back from doing something because it might not come out well.

My neighbor dropped off some paints and brushes for Christmas. I’ve been ripping up magazines and making collages. I drew some amusing protest signs last weekend. What should I do next?

Photos: Helen Fields

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13 thoughts on “What I Learned From a Year of Drawing [almost] Every Day

  1. You draw, you sing, you write, and now you’re looking for something that makes the rest of us one-or-no-talent people feel inadequate?

  2. When I did this, I was amazed at how often I discovered worthy shortcuts because I had to draw something and time was short. (My family quickly learned what the 10 pm “oh crap!” meant.) I was amazed at how some of my Instagram followers enjoyed my nightstand drawings. (Until learning that, I hated those the most.) I was amazed at my increased confidence to take on a subject. (But also, like you, I always faced uncertainty and doubt during the process.)

  3. Plus, the important thing is that you took the time to stop and pay attention by really looking at things. Probably more beneficial in the long run than whatever you put down on paper.

  4. When I was teaching geology, I always had my students draw their minerals, rocks, fossils, and outcrops. They complained, saying they were not artists. They thought they were being graded on the quality of their drawing. They weren’t Truth be told, it forced them to notice the structure, design, and form of the world, whether or not they could convey it on paper. Afterward, a few thanked me for having made that a requirement of their lab.

  5. a high school teacher once told me that a drawing is just a series of approximations, each more precise than the previous one. that seems true in so many other aspects of “skilled” work so i guess i’m grateful for the encouragement to make the next approximation.

  6. Ooh! It all rings true to me! I have a maxim, “every good painting is going to be a wrestling match for awhile.”

    There’s an example from when Van Gogh was learning to draw that’s in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” of two drawings he did a year apart. You can see them here: https://goo.gl/images/oifOnr

  7. As you know, Helen, I draw all the time. And now I’m on the other side of your experiment: writing every day, seeing if I can make something resembling a story out of words. I’ve found a lot of the same frustrations and delights and parallels between drawing and writing that you describe here – just viewing it from the other side of the … sketch pad? word processor?

    This draft needs an edit. I can see that. But that’s okay – the process will get us through!

  8. I had to smile when I read this story. I can relate because after trying to learn Spanish “every few years” over the last 25 or so, in 2016 I finally made a goal of practicing a little Spanish every day. I took an 8-week class, signed up for Word of the Day, read news articles in Spanish, watched Spanish language TV channels, listened to Spanish language radio stations, and drifted off to sleep listening to recorded Spanish lessons. Anything I could think of to expose myself to the language a little bit every day. The result? I’m far from fluent, but I made a noticeable leap in my abilities. What’s more, I figured out a way to make it a regular part of my day to day without much trouble…which, by my estimation, can only lead to more improvement! So draw on!!

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Categorized in: Art, Helen, On Writing