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.

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 2: Why You Need to Learn to Draw

Art is hard. Learning to make art is hard. It’s very vulnerable and labor intensive. The hard part is there because, aside from the ocean of media options and the technical skills involved, art is not as subjective as many people seem to think.¹ I feel pretty strongly that learning to draw is a crucial foundation in making art. Learning to draw isn’t about making pretty pictures, it’s about learning to Listen accurately.

Sincerity of self expression is powerful, but I think it gets more than its fair share of the glory. The silence framed between notes, the volume of empty air the cathedral stones define, the blank space around poem on the page- that which draws the audience into Listening is what draws the audience into Relationship with art.

Sincerity of Listening is powerful. And I feel that the practice of learning to objectively draw is powerful in learning the skill of deeply Listening.

Let me first explain my capitalization of the word Listen. I’m folding some language together here, so bear with me. One common problem in relationships comes from our inability to listen, really Listen, to people. We can hear them, but Listening is a mind and heart opening act. We do our best to loosen our grip on what we know (or assume) and approach the other with a vulnerability to accept, process, and hopefully understand their reality. This kind of Listening emcompasses a host of complexities beyond the spoken words. And when we understand, we say “I see what you mean”. Ha!

Here’s another way to say it. A friend of mine- Chris Dorman- writes kids songs and has one that goes “When you listen with your ears, you hear. When you listen with your eyes, you see. When you listen with your body, you dance. And when you listen with your heart, you love.” (I cannot find a link to just this song, so if you want to hear it you’ll have to learn about how apple blossoms turn into apples on his new show Mr Chris and Friends) I like this song because it applies the word Listen to that deeper, more holistic, meaningful sensing and knowing the world. Thus, I capitalize Listen because I think its uses extend beyond the sense of hearing.

How does this apply to drawing? Well, one of the hardest aspects of learning how to draw is learning how to draw what you see, not what you think you see. We humans are extremely good at processing visual information, but part of our speed and skill in this is because we’re also very good at developing symbols for things. When we draw, often enough we are drawing symbols. Eyes are football shaped with a dark circle in the middle and curvy lines swooping off the top, hands are circles or squares with lines pointing out from the center, trees are thick rectangles with bumpy round shapes perched on top, you get the picture (ha!).² Learning how to Listen until you see what is actually present and draw it is a skill that must be practiced.

Back to the subjectivity or objectivity of this. I think the lines between subjective and objective are somewhat of a false dichotomy while at the same time being useful concepts. Representing something with as much accuracy as possible so that another viewer understands what’s being represented can be measured against the informal democratic agreement of what reality looks like, and for our purposes, this is a good objective measure. Can I tell in your drawing if fur is soft, glass is transparent or the sun is shining through a window and not the floor? Yes? Then good job, objectively speaking. You have done a good job sincerely Listening.

But, of course, it is your unique lens through which you translated it and that is subjective. We can’t escape our subjectivity, but we can try to Listen with sincerity- practice and hone that skill of Listening. After all, what good is your unique lens on the world if you don’t bother to clean it? To grind it and polish it? To focus it and make sure the image is true to your eye? What do you offer your audience if not a relationship founded on sincere Listening? Do you see what I mean?


¹Caveat, people can do whatever the hell they want. I’m not going to bother splitting the “what is art?” hair or the “art versus craft” hair.¹* This is about my experience.¹**

¹*Anyone who knows me knows I cannot actually help myself and I am always splitting the “craft versus art” hair and the “what is art?”¹*** hair. The thing is, I honestly get annoyed at myself from this constant looping and this annoyance leads to the assertion that “people can do whatever the hell they want.”

¹**“Art is not as subjective as you think, as I’ll clearly explain via my subjective experience,” said Ruby, the Lewis Carol character.

¹***I’m much better at explaining why things are art then why they are not art.

²Apply this metaphorically to language- especially language used in your key relationships- and you’ll see symbols emerge here too. Have fun with that (she says with both sarcasm and sincerity).

Art is Hard, Part 1: Art Lesson from a Fictional Bear

When I was going through my foundational program at GVSU, I tried to get home to my family on the weekends. It was a long drive, but it was comforting to retreat back to my folks house. I have siblings from my father’s re-marriage- a brother and a sister- who are much younger than me.

Having significantly younger siblings, I had a pretty developed nurturing sense and the self-secondizing that goes along with it. Sure, I was struggling with those questions of self-identity and learning to make my way in the world, as well as trying to figure out cooking for myself* that comes along with being in one’s early twenties and living outside the house for the first time, but they were struggling with being daily affronted with new foods, learning to read or trying to remember the litany of rules for putting one’s clothes on correctly: rightside out, not backwards, why isn’t it okay to live both one’s public and private life in their underwear?… Those sorts of things. Whether it was altruistic of me to patiently let these concerns be the center of my parents attentional gravity, or it was just easier to stuff my own struggles and existential questions- rightside out, not backwards, why isn’t it okay to lives one’s public and private life in their underwear?- underneath them in the stack of things to do, I don’t know.

Robin (who still struggles with clothing conventions, but more philosophically these days) could always tell if I was having a hard time. Even more surprising, this child seemed to know how to soothe me. He was making a lot of “comic books” at the time and he made one for me on one of these visits home.

It featured a little bear who was trying to paint a picture. She worked very hard but it wasn’t turning out. At one point the bear cries tears of frustration over the struggle, but she bravely persists in her efforts. Eventually the bear triumphs and happily proclaims it to be beautiful. In the tale of this little bear, I saw reflected my long hours bent over a project, fighting through the tears of doubt, blindly groping towards the sublime.

It’s a common enough story- a hero’s journey in miniature- but in that way stories are more precious when they’re personal, my brother had listened to the spaces between my words and actions and drawn this story out. This small allegory had been distilled for me. My brother could see my struggles perched on my shoulders every time I tried to shake them and come home. I also knew he could also see my belief in the light at the end of the tunnel, the faith that satisfaction would be found upon accomplishing the beautiful. That feeling of being seen is a powerful feeling, even (or perhaps especially) coming from an eight year old, and it propped me up. My brother had learned from watching me that art is hard and art is worth it. I had learned this same lesson back from him in the tale of this bear who persists through her tears in search of the sublime.

*Insight for those of you hard on young people who don’t know how to cook- if their family taught them how to cook, they probably taught them how to cook *for that whole family* which is different from cooking for *just one’s self*. For years I could not manage to cook for less than six people at a time, which meant food was constantly going bad in my fridge, which led to eating the chips and dip for dinner people laugh at college students for.