I Want to Teach you to Draw

Glen was the first man to strip naked for me to draw him. He was very casual about the whole thing, chatting as he struck poses. He’d clearly done a lot of life modeling and understood how to give the whole room something interesting. In one of our first sessions, he got cheeky and struck a jaunty hitchhiker pose. He brought a lot of levity to a room full of mostly awkward young adults.

Our other male model- whose name I can’t remember- was silent, slender, tall and almost always had a 40%-60% erection he seemed very self conscious of. I don’t remember much about him other than how tense he seemed compared to the Glen who posed like a cat enjoying a sunny window.

My favorite woman to draw was Belinda. She was easily in her 80’s and didn’t speak a great deal of english. She was so beautiful. Her sagging breasts and belly pulled and wrinkled the skin along her bony hips and shoulders like withering drapes. I would sink into the charcoal, tracing the uneven descent of her hips, the lines of her body were very in sync with my natural stride in drawing.

The other woman who modeled for us was a much younger, strong, athletic woman with an even tan, carefully shaved pubic hair and prominent- and, I believe, artificial- breasts. Her breasts were so aggressive we all avoided them until one day our teacher had her simply sit in a chair and told us all to draw her from the breasts up. I look back at her and think how she sort of defied being naked. So much of her, even with no clothes on, seemed like it anticipated presentation.

I got good at drawing in that class, but that wasn’t the biggest lesson for me. I know I’m not alone in this, but life drawing guided me into seeing humans as beautiful. Because the word beauty is so closely linked to aesthetic enjoyment, I have often fumbled explaining this and have usually said “I find I can’t see anyone as ugly anymore, not if I really look at them”. I use the word beautiful here because I feel it’s more accurate to my experience.

It’s not always an experience of aesthetic enjoyment or conventional attraction, more of a feeling of curiosity that grows into marveling that blooms into awe the more closely I look. So I love people’s bodies now. Fat, thin, scarred, flabby, muscular, freckled, hairy… I was guided in giving bodies careful, non-judgemental attention in order to draw them and have found that exercise makes them shine, makes them beautiful. The closer my drawing was to representing what I actually saw- no flattery, no avoidance- the more beautiful my drawings became. I know it’s a quasi-mystical idea, but I do believe that sincere attention- sincere listening, sincere seeing– makes people beautiful. My drawing practice over the years has fostered this attitude in me towards other things as well- plants, animals, landscapes, building, household objects- anything, really. And I think it’s good for my brain.

The more in-practice I am with drawing, the less I glaze over my visual environment. I see my stack of dishes and start breaking down the visual relationships. Which doesn’t mean I don’t do the dishes, just that when I do the dishes, the little gremlin that whispers in my ear about what a lousy housekeeper I am is slower to the punch. The part of my brain that observes carefully and without judgement had been well exercised and beat the gremlin of my self-criticism to the front of my brain. Not every time, and sometimes only for a millisecond, but enough that it’s worth it to me.

It sounds paradoxical, but being in the practice of giving more attention to the visual world makes the distressing parts less distressing. This exercise of drawing regularly (without evaluation- no grades, no audience) makes me feel more comfortable in my own skin with the people, spaces, critters and objects I love. When I’m good about drawing regularly, I feel like my anxiety switch is slower to flip. I wanted to share this feeling and felt invigorated by the few, side-stepping opportunities I got to do so.

These past handful of years, when trying to explain my desire to teach drawing, I’ve tried to verbalize its value in my life. It usually came out along the lines of “it’s a good way to spend time with someone or something special”, which now seems weak, flat, and off-the-mark. What I’ve come to realize lately is that, for me, drawing has functioned as a type of mindfulness meditation practice, although I didn’t know it. Mindfulness- as I understand it- is the practice of attentive observing present reality without judgement, and maybe especially the reality of one’s own thoughts and feelings. I bet you already know this, as mindfulness is a hugely popular concept presently. If you’re interested in mindfulness in general, a quick google search will turn up plenty of helpful information and lots of empirical evidence of its positive impact on health.

I’ll leave the more general mindfulness explaining to the experts and share my vision of how drawing fits into this. Since I clued into this connection, I’ve paid a lot more attention to how I draw (side note: thinking about developing a way to transmit ‘drawing as a mindfulness practice’ has nearly devastated my ability to use drawing as my own mindfulness practice- ha! It’s one of those “don’t think of elephants” problems. So I’m working on that.). I’ve been digging deeper into information on mindfulness and, by random chance at a used bookstore, discovered an artist who was teaching what he calls “drawing/seeing” as a zen-meditation practice. I’ll dig into these resources and reveal this artist in later posts. For now, I mention them only because they have been greatly influencing my thinking on this and fueling my excitement to further develop these ideas and put them to use.

And, yes, practicing mindfulness meditation is increasingly on the list of things healthy people do, and this approach to drawing is one method. Drawing is a way to practice shutting down judgement, “should”, rushing or forcing- because all those things often result in poor drawings. At its most stripped down-level (which is the one I’m interested in acquainting you with), drawing practices noticing.

Another way to say this is that drawing what you see and not what you think you see is hugely important. This means one needs to be aware when they are drawing a symbol for something. For the beginning draw-er, this is very difficult. Their brain is filled with an extensive catalogue of how things “should” look and the temptation to draw those things instead of what ones sees is massive. For the more advanced draw-er, this is equally as difficult. Their brain has an extensive and highly sophisticated catalogue of how things “should” look and a set of practiced techniques to make them look that way. Basically, no matter how skilled you are, the struggle to draw what one sees and not a symbol for it- however refined that symbol may be- is constant. The veil between the ego-self and the present moment is broken down, bit by bit, through this process of continually stepping past the symbols your mind offers up and seeing, ever more carefully, reality-as-it-is.

If that sounds too woo-woo for you, let me offer you this as well. Sometimes I simply want better quality laying around time, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. I need periods of rest, but entertainment and media are only actually soothing if I don’t over do it. Drawing is a more satisfying alternative. I do find drawing tiring, it does take effort, but it’s a refreshing effort for me. The same way yoga and other forms of exercise are work, but they’re also refreshing and I feel the benefits throughout the day when I’m practicing regularly. I also believe that developing the ability to be present in our increasingly visual world can help combat the numbing and fatigue many people experience being surrounded by advertising and media, in particular through our ubiquitous screens. Drawing can put you in greater touch with one of our most relied-upon senses in the same way dance, yoga, and martial arts can put you in greater touch with your body.  
So, I want to teach you to draw. Not so that you can perform drawing and become an amazing artist, but so that you can really listen with your eyes and see the world around you. So that you can find your surroundings more compelling, more beautiful- not by changing anything about them, just by changing your way of seeing it. So that you meet the world with curiosity, spend time with spaces, people and objects that are precious to you in the sincere present. Even if these benefits are only marginal at first- the world is just a tiny bit more beautiful, you’re just a tiny bit more piqued with curiosity- I feel they contribute to quality of life.

Art is Hard, Part 3: Why Art is Hard

The idea that some people are more creative than others is bullshit.

I won’t deny that there are variations in aptitude and interest, but I do believe we all have a creative capacity and that we would be healthier happier people if we exercise that capacity. This has a lot to do with creativity’s relationship to a healthy mindset. The thing is, without that natural aptitude or interest, or if one wasn’t encouraged at an early age, making art can feel incredibly difficult. To be honest, in some ways, it’s never not-hard no matter how long you work at it. For the purposes of this blog entry though, I’ll be discussing why it’s hard for beginners.

Observational drawing in particular seems to have this petrifying effect on people. In my limited experience teaching drawing, even getting people to put a pencil to paper and make a mark is challenging. The worst possible outcome is a bad drawing, and I’ve made plenty of those- I make bad drawings all the time. It’s not a big deal. But for many people this process is very painful and they look desperately for short cuts- ask for simpler subjects to draw, map out grids on their pages, resort to formulas of lines and shapes, etc. Don’t misunderstand, there are uses for these tools, but I sometimes watch beginners lean hard on them as though they will assure success. If these tools are what get them to start marking up a page, so be it, but they have to let go of it if they’re actually going to learn to see and draw.

Let me share another take on this same phenomenon. I’ve been involved in roller derby for a few years. Learning to skate was, literally, a painful process. Last night I went to a class where a lot of new people were trying out skating, some for the first time. I don’t remember these contraptions from when I was a kid, but there are PVC pipe frames with wheels we call “walkers” that some of of the most timid new skaters were using. The skater holds onto them to help with balance and many of us veterans grumble over them.

What they do is prevent one from falling. And to learn to skate, one must fall. To learn to really skate, they have to leave the walkers behind and bring their breakable bodies into a new way of being. They have to learn to listen deep inside with their bones and muscles.

And yes, it hurts to fall. Sometimes it hurts a lot.

The thing is, many people have had those metaphorical falls when it comes to art making and it hurt so bad they never got back up. Brene Brown found exactly this in her research on shame:

“… 85% of the men and women who I interviewed remembered an event in school that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. But wait – this is good – fifty percent of that 85% percent, half of those people: those shame wounds were around creativity. So fifty percent of those people have art scars.”¹

Art scars that changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. That’s heavy. Although I don’t personally bear this sort of art-scar, I know the feeling she’s talking about. And I know plenty of people who do bear these scars. Among these people, most of them tell me they don’t want to correct this- they’re happy without it. They claim they don’t feel the lack, “I’m just not artistic, I couldn’t draw a straight line!” or “I can’t even draw stick figures!”

The earnestly seem to view “artists” as a different breed of people, and it’s a breed they don’t belong to. I don’t feel qualified to argue with what makes people happy, but when I see people venture into a drawing lesson, sweating and fretting over shy strokes of graphite, I think that- at least for some people- that hunger is real. But for many the simple act of drawing what one sees has been confused with the ego which really really wants to get it right. If they get that little incubus of creativity shame perched over their hearts as well, even the hunger can be dampened.  

This is why art is hard. It’s a fight through layers of ego and maybe past an incubus that needs to get lost. To get to the meat of art- the zone, the listening deep inside with bones and muscle, hearing the signal through the noise, seeing and drawing for what it really is- is vulnerable. Which is why art is hard.


¹ Side note- as I was skimming for this quote, my partner walked by and said “Magic lessons! Ooo, fancy!” I didn’t know what he was talking about and unfocused from my text-block skimming. There was a bright rainbow square with the words “Would you like to take a couple of MAGIC LESSONS with me this summer?” right in the middle of the paragraph I was skimming. I laughed because I hadn’t seen it at all. He made a comment about my 20/10 vision… Then I told him that I’m working on a blog article about seeing and he laughed. A lot.