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.
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.
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.
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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