Bamboo in Black and Red

I read a story recently where a zen master was painting bamboo with red ink. One of his students told him that was stupid because bamboo isn’t red. To which the master replied, “Oh, right- because bamboo is black?”

This made me laugh because of a similar realization I had as a child. I remember riding in the car, thinking about drawings I had seen- illustrations in books, animations, etc. These drawings all had black lines bordering the shapes and defining key elements. Part of my curiosity was that I couldn’t figure out how black lines shifted as positions changed- as in, the lines that look like such a physical reality in drawings would have to be in near constant motion if they were really bordering all solid things or defining facial expressions, wrinkles, dimples and other surface details. So I was looking around for black lines bordering things.

I remember clearly holding my hand up against the window looking at the edge between my hand and the sky. I was trying to make out the black line, and I think I sincerely thought I would find one if I looked hard enough. I remember looking at the creases of my knuckles, because those often get black lines too in illustrations of hands. The interior of the car was black, and so there were places deep in the shadowed creases where elements joined that were basically black lines, but that didn’t seem to quite count since the base color was black- and even then the light shining on it meant it wasn’t all the same black… I went back to examining my hand against the sky in the background.

I finally had to admit that I could see my hand and the sky behind it was simply where my hand, well, wasn’t. I couldn’t make out a black line. It just was my hand. And what made it my hand was all the hand-characteristics of color, shape, texture, etc. What made the sky behind it sky was the sky-characteristics of color, texture, shape, etc.

Interestingly, this was a hard reality for my little brain to accept and I concentrated on the edge- the very edge of my hand against the blue. I remember feeling a little duped by drawings. If the black lines weren’t real, what were they? It seemed more likely they didn’t exist outside of drawings, this made sense. However, I reasoned that to really draw a hand, one must draw all the “inside parts” of the hand- the fine lines of the skin and the subtle shifts of value. I was probably five years old and this was a daunting discovery.

I wish I had some of my very young drawings to see if I can spot evidence of this thinking in them. I don’t believe I’m the only kid who’s made this discovery, or at least a version of it. Children’s drawings are strange and idiosyncratic because they lack motor skills and a set of symbols, so there’s a rawness to the translation of the visual1. For example, one of my brothers would draw human eyes as though they were gigantic bicycle wheels with elaborate spokes out from the hub of the pupil. What he was looking at was the iris of the eye- the radial colors, peaks and valleys. My untestable hypothesis is that, along my same lines of thinking, he had questioned the “eyes are black dots or white circles with black dots inside” that he was seeing in illustrations and cartoons. He was looking carefully, deeply, deliberately at eyes. I remember him looking very carefully at mine. The drawings are, of course, very strange, but I can’t say that they don’t look like “real” eyes. Why wouldn’t they? Because eyes are just black dots, the zen master would wryly say?

Years later I was taught to draw by bringing values up to the edges of things, letting the contrast of value and mark suggest lines. There are a number of exercises dealing with this- using large flat pieces of charcoal, lifting graphite or charcoal off paper with an eraser, filling in negative space with flat values. It’s a strangely unsteady way to draw, especially if one works without the help of lightly sketched lines that define the borders of things. Lines are fine, but I’ve begun to think of them as a sort of language in drawing. In the same way thoughts can be expressed with many human languages, there are many methods of mark-making that translate the visual, and lines are one of these. They are not what we see, they describe what we see. They are visual words that point to the meaning.

In the case of drawing something, one is interacting with the subject primarily with one sense- sight. As with many things, we can be very unaware that our experience of reality is shaped by filters we have in our minds, like the black lines of a drawing one doesn’t find when looking at one’s own hand.

So, how does one draw without mark making? Or maybe stretch this question- does one, should one, could one draw without mark making?2 I don’t know and, although it’s fun to think about, it’s not currently relevant. The thing is, we live here in this body and with these senses translating information into our minds and our constructed meanings back out. The meanings we build in the act of drawing describe our experience of reality. Or maybe they translate in marks the translation of information filtered through our senses. Don’t be fooled that this somehow inherently negates the meaning. Take a closer look at what meaning is. Being in the space with the subject, seeing it as accurately as possible with as few extra layers as possible, this is what builds connection and deep listening. Which, at least to me, feels meaningful. Use lines, values, shapes and marks to point at your experience, but understand that the bamboo is neither black nor red.

1 Caveat: there is a lot going on in children’s drawings related to much more than simply visually processing. I claim no expertise in child development, just sharing what I’ve observed and how it relates to my thinking on drawing in general.

2 There are artists playing with this idea if you’d like to see someone drawing without mark making. I’m working with a deliberately small definition of drawing to keep this discussion from sprawling too far.

You Just Lost the Game

If you’re a millennial, like my brother, you’re cursing my name right now. For the rest of us who need the game explained, I’d be delighted to help you lose it.

The rules of the game are:

  1. If you are aware of the game, you are playing the game.
  2. Don’t think about the game.
  3. If you do think about the game, you have just lost the game.
  4. If you lose the game, you are required to announce it.

 

That’s it. My brother explained it to me and it sounds like a millennial version of “cooties”. In crowds of his friends, someone would say “I just lost the game” and every one would groan and the cascade of “I just lost the game” would roll around, with the phrase popping up to everyone’s annoyance for the rest of the day. It seemed ridiculously silly to me at first. However, since I’ve been digging into all this mindfulness stuff, I’ve been losing the game like crazy. It’s become really interesting to me, because it’s sort of a mindfulness game.

To play the game, one must be aware of their thoughts and let this one go- the goal is to dismiss it quickly as soon as it surfaces. Are you winning or losing? It does not matter- evaluating how you’re doing in the game will not help you. As soon as you congratulate yourself on your long stretch of game-winning, you’ve lost it and the clock resets.

Why dismiss a thought? Because, in this case, you lose a dumb game. But, applying that to other areas of your life this exercise could be useful.

For me personally, I’m in the middle of a big life-transition (moving, developing this project, looking at my art practice as a whole, not sure what the future will bring) and I’m very aware of my fears moving forward. The thing about thoughts is, they feel so very real. Our minds are very motivated to be right and very good at offering evidence to support these notions.

I’ll give you an example of one I grapple with. I think that real artists have a consistent style and medium in which they work. Real artists can summarize their practice with clarity. Because I fit neither of these, I’m amateur. A half-baked poser, and I can provide plenty of evidence to support this claim.

For some people, maybe this sort of thinking would motivate them to get their act together, but for me it doesn’t work that way. Although I understand the value of clarity and consistency, my efforts to establish legitimacy as an artist against such a measure gives all my work a stiff quality. I can tell which pieces of art I’ve made while this reality looms in my mind. They’re usually one-off’s and they’re usually not very good. When I believe this thought, I feel like either I have to fit the shape-shifting peg of my work into a square as consistent as an instagram pic, or lament it as underdone and unworthy.

Anyways- enough about me and my crippling insecurities when it comes to my creative practice- lets get back to the game. I’ve been trying to “game” this thought- the idea that real artists are consistent. I try to dismiss it as soon as it surfaces.

In the game, you “catch and release” thinking about the game. This is somewhat simple because there’s not much to think about with the game. There is a big difference between the game and other habitual thoughts, but I think it’s good practice. I get a deluge of supporting evidence to raise that tide of insecurity and discouragement with my nagging thoughts about what real artists do or don’t do. If I can “gamify” this thought, I can recognize the thought when it arrives, and the supporting arguments flowing in with it. Sometimes, I can metaphorically cross my fingers (the tried and true guard against cooties) and let it pass over me. Sometimes I just brace for the hit, accept that I’m going to get mentally and emotionally rocked, and try my best to keep my footing.

The thing is, the game and my real artists idea are thoughts and will pass with or without my help. What I have control over is what I decide to do with them. Sometimes I decide to embrace my slug-nature, hide under some rotting bark, apply some empathy and take some rest. Other times I’m better at cheering myself on and digging back into my work.  The clever part is, if I’m making work and moving forward, no one ever need know I’m playing this game. Either way, I can tally it up as a loss, maybe congratulate myself on a long stretch of oblivion, announce the real artists thought for what it is and reset the clock.

 

My Mind and My Skull

I’ve been working on developing a method- something repeatable and hopefully explainable- of mindfully drawing as a meditative practice. To this end (“end”- ha!) I’ve been drawing almost every morning for at least a half an hour for the past few months. I’ll flesh out how I’m understanding some of these terms before I try to relate my experience.

Mindfulness– A mental state of observing the present without judgement, prediction, attachment to future outcomes or analysis of the past. This includes observing one’s thoughts and feelings as they happen. Notice, but don’t pursue. See the thought or feeling for what it is- a passing state. Yes, it’s real but it’s not permanent and one can be deliberate about level of involvement. With physical surroundings and sensations; again- notice, but don’t judge.

Meditation– This term refers to a lot of things the way “exercise” can mean a lot of things. Exercise can mean weight lifting, yoga, dance, running, boxing, et cetera. Meditation can mean anything from listening to a relaxing audio track while you fall asleep to trying to levitate or astrally project your consciousness out of your body. It can get pretty fancy. For my purposes, meditation means a special time set aside to practice being in a mindful state.

Drawing– This is also a huge hugeHUGE category. If you start trying to box this term in, it will defy you at every boundary you set- which is very exciting. The flip side is that most fruitful practices come with design constraints. With that in mind, I present my (evolving) constraints in place of a definition of “drawing”. I am drawing from visual observation, on paper, with a pencil or a pen. I am not using an eraser at any point. I am not using any tools to aid my seeing (for example, a sighting stick) and trying not to use techniques I learned to represent shapes/volumes/values/etc. This last part- not using techniques- is probably the most difficult part, but I also think it’s what makes this a mindfulness practice.

Now that I know what I’m doing (ha!), I’m ready to draw.

I get up pretty early, stumble down the stairs with bleary eyes and swat my hands in the direction of coffee… You don’t need to know the whole routine, just understand that once I’ve got some coffee, breakfast and morning news in me, I’m ready to draw. I pick a subject- today it’s an animal skull- and get my sketchbook, pens, pencil, and my phone. I use an app called “Insight Timer” to time my drawing. It’s handy, but any timer or method of timing will do. I set the timer for a half an hour and begin.

First, I take a few breaths with my eyes closed, sitting upright, feet flat on the floor, hands still. I try to pay attention to my breath using a little mental checklist. Nose, face, jaw, throat, shoulders, ribs, belly. I try to follow my breath past each of these. (If you look into mindfulness or meditation at all- “breathe breathe breathe breathe breathe….”) I listen to my quiet house. I try to ignore my cat.

I open my eyes and look at my object. I have to stop myself from picking up my pencil and starting to hash out the shape. This is part of resisting my training. When I’m not mindfully drawing- when I’m drawing to WIN!- I start with light lines and ovals. I try to get relative shape mapped out, length versus width, angles and relationships, etc. In my trained-drawing, I’d also start hitting areas of deepest value and locating highlights- just a gentle shade to begin with. But no! This precious time is for mindfully drawing, so I need to resist! I simply don’t touch my pencil for a while. I look at my object, really look. I try to listen with my eyes to see.

This is tricky with ambiguous objects. The skull I chose has been damaged- part of the front of it is broken away. The jaws are intact, as is the back dome of the skull and most of the eye sockets, but the area that would be the bridge of the nose up to the space between the eyes is missing and the spongy, lacy sinus cavities are exposed. This is a tough area to look at and see because there aren’t any clear lines or clear areas of value or shape. This is where letting go of prediction and evaluation are important, I have to loosen my grip on my desire for a clear line, shape, value and just trust my eye on this rocky terrain.

I pick up my pencil and start somewhere “easier”, the bottom of the jaw. I draw a line slowly slowly slowly… Following the outside of the skull. I try not to look at my drawing too much and move slowly. The goal is to sync my hand up with my eye. When I’m doing this well, it’s like my sight, the focus of my vision is the point of the pencil touching the shape itself. The pace is the same, the rises, falls, turns and arcs line up with where my eye is. It’s like a mime caught in an invisible box, my pencil on the paper must trace the boundary, make a reality in the blank space of the page- treating where my eye/sight touches as solid reality for my hand. It brings me into the present with the skull. I have a skull and teeth and a lattice of sinus cavities too, and I will die, rot and break someday as well. But to be honest, I don’t really think about that very clearly. I try to just listen with my eyes, touch it with my sight, say it with my hand.

And I am trying my best. I really am. But at the same time my to-do list pops up in my head, chunks of songs or movies run around, the mound of dirty dishes chatters at me, my cat climbs into my lap and insists on being petted. (She used to get fed in the mornings as well as at night. We’ve switched to just feeding her at night, but she’s hopeful and keeps fighting the good fight.)

And, honestly, I think about you. A lot. As I watch myself draw, I narrate to you. Sometimes you’re a loving friend with whom I can relax and share my excitement and sincerity with, but then you morph into someone I admire and am intimidated by. Sometimes you’re an attractive and cool stranger and I can’t read your reactions and spend my time wondering if my outfit is too wonky or shabby. (The outfit I’m wearing is in the future in my head too.) Sometimes you think this is all really cool, but you don’t know me very well and I’m scared you’ll find out what a dork I actually am. Sometimes you do know me well and have watched me fail over and over again in the past- you both love and remind me. Sometimes you tell me this is a silly, gimmicky, cliche, and an indulgent waste of time. Sometimes you ask me why I think I’m qualified to try to develop this into a practice, writings, workshops…

I rehearse your praise and rejection, as though bracing for it now will somehow lessen the blow when it finally lands. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. It’s bad enough just drawing with the knowledge of an audience on the other side- and I am good at drawing- but thinking over explaining, even trying to guide a practice- you, dear audience, you loom. 

To assert some space, there’s something I need to say to you. When I see and hear your reactions to my efforts, I feel annoyed because I need freedom within my own set aside time to develop this practice both for my own good and in hopes of sharing it with my larger community. I need this time alone with myself to explore this by myself. There will be time in the future for you to give me feedback. Would you be willing to wait outside until I’m ready to give you my attention?

I finally get you to back off and give me some space. I notice my drawing is coming out pretty well and pat myself on the back for drawing good. Then I notice myself patting myself on the back and notice that I just judged that. Which I’m not supposed to do. But then I notice myself judging myself judging. I am an excellent noticer. Which is also a judgement. Crap.

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I set my pen down (I’ve moved onto pen), sit up, put my feet flat on the floor, and close my eyes again. I go through my breathing again. I pat myself on the back for remembering to breathe and reset my posture. I notice this judgement, judge the judgement, notice the judging of the judgement, mentally flip off the part of my mind that is monitoring this, open my eyes and look at the skull.

The little skull, that’s the important thing. The skull and it’s cast shadow which I haven’t drawn yet because I find cast shadows boring and difficult. But the cast shadow cannot be divided from the skull. It grounds it on the table where my paper is resting, where my hand is moving in harmony with my eye that I refocus on the skull. I remind myself to relax my hand. The universe can be extrapolated from a piece of sponge cake (any other Hitchhiker’s fans out there?)…

Next, the inside of the skull’s former mouth- I can see the lower jaw receding and the points of the upper teeth just poking out below the side that’s closer to me. I’m very tempted to block the shape in as a long, jagged rectangle with my pencil and then chip the details out of that. But that is my training, and I resist. I step off onto the white of the paper with my pen and follow the little wedges and ridges and how the bone molds around the roots of the teeth…

I’m singing to myself in my head and try to guide it- gently this time- back to the skull…

The little pit where the lower jaw joins the skull…

The way the cast shadow and the lower back corner of the dome are almost indistinguishable, they are so close in value… It is tempting to insert information that I can’t see….

And there you are again, audience, as I start explaining this little ambiguous corner. I begin counting the pencils and pens you will need. I try to look away from you again and watch the lines and shades…

The shade in the eye socket…

That dark pit just below the eye… and the other tiny ones towards the front of the lower jaw….

Eventually the timer winds down and dings it’s little ding. But I don’t stop drawing right away, I want to finish it (whatever that means). I keep drawing, but in only a few minutes my to-do list, the dishes, the cat will all get my attention and I let them retain it this time. I either relax, or relax out of relaxing. It’s hard to tell which. I breathe and rub my face. My eyes turn back into my eyes, the skull turns back into a skull, and I break our connection to the table when I pick it up and stand up.

Usually I take a few notes in my sketchbook, but today I wrote this.

I should go do the dishes now.  

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.