My 2014 foray into drawing – which you can read about below – ended like the others. I got frustrated by my limited skills and gave up. Then in January 2016 I got sick of giving up on stuff I’m not very good at and started drawing every day. You can see the fruits of my labors on Instagram, and read what I wrote after a year of dailyish drawing here. Read on to find out some of the things I liked about drawing in May of 2014.
Last year I started drawing again after about a 16-year break. I say “again” like I ever really drew in the first place—really, I took a few classes, produced a few things that bore some resemblance to the thing they’d been based on, and quit.
Then, one day toward the tail of last winter, I was walking down a street in northern Sweden. I was spending three months in a tiny town and going slowly crazy.
I spotted a store that sold art supplies. It occurred to me that maybe drawing was what my brain needed to keep it from constantly refreshing the social networking sites. And I’d been so careful with money for so long that having a legitimate reason to shop for something that wasn’t food seemed exciting. I picked out a set of pencils (with sharpener and eraser) and a sketchpad.
Over the next month and a half, I pulled off a number of respectable sketches. A cup, a statue, the statue again. A circle of stones around snow, some saplings, and dead growth.
Then I came home to Washington and stopped. For nine months, those art supplies hung in a tote bag on a door knob.
Until I stopped in the Zurich airport on the way to France last month. Along with the cowbells and watches, many of the souvenir shops feature pencil sets made by Caran d’Ache, apparently a Swiss company. I remembered a college drawing teacher had advised me to try working more with color–perhaps I seemed less incompetent when I got away from line–so I bought a set of watercolor pencils. In France, I added a pad of watercolor paper and some pencils.
Apparently something frees up my brain to draw when I’m away from home. Maybe it’s all the new sights. My first and least competent work with the watercolor pencils was a half a head of garlic. That may sound like the opposite of a new sight, but this French garlic was a lot more exciting than the stuff at the grocery stores at home. It’s got purple streaks and enormous cloves.
Drawing makes me really look. I have to take things as they are. As we grow up, and our brains develop and we learn to interact with the world, we learn what things are. When we look at something, we instantly categorize it. Dog. Bus. Garlic. Mug. That can get in the way of drawing it. I know what a tree looks like. But if there’s a tree in front of me, I have to forget the cartoon trunk with a blobby top growing inside my head. I want to get down something that actually resembles the thing I’m looking at.
I don’t draw because I’m good at it. I’m not an undiscovered talent. But you don’t have to be. Drawing used to be in the list of young ladies’ accomplishments, like sewing and French. The only surviving contemporary portrait of Jane Austen is a sketch, in pencil and watercolors, by her beloved sister Cassandra, now enshrined at the National Portrait Gallery in London. If Jane Austen were alive today, either I’d know what she looked like or I’d be able to look her up on the internet, posing for a portrait on a dust jacket. Now we have photographs.
Drawing seems worth working at, though, in part because it reminds me of writing. It takes a lot of focus and a lot of persistence. The early phases of creation can look so crushingly bad, it’s easy to stop. (It’s even easier never to start.) But it can help you see things better. And, if you keep going, there’s a chance of making something non-terrible that’s worth sharing with someone else.
art: Helen Fields, attempting to keep practicing back at home.