When you get to the point where you can draw like a bird sings, you should be often singing.
[Top of the post, a drawing by the author’s kid]
Certain kinds of beauty come when the artist is a raw beginner. I’ve pulled out old drawings and appreciate anew the memories they evoke. I wish I had drawn more. Would that I had drawn tirelessly. Lack of confidence trips up too many young artists. But the drawings I made when I knew comparatively nothing have a raw, innocent candour. And now I find I reseek the beginner’s mind.
I began drawing some years ago using my left hand (I’m right handed). I wanted to get the awkwardness back, wanted it to slow me down and trip me up, and make me think harder about where my hand’s lines would go. I have loved the wavy line that is the consequence. The two kinds of drawings, right and left, seem to have slightly different personalities. It’s like finding your alter ego. There you are, long lost twin!
Do not have preconceived ideas about what drawing should be or how it should look. Sometimes be an explorer of the uncharted world.
You are living your life for the first time. It’s all new. Even when one is old, one has never been old before.
[Top of the post: the author’s high school drypoint of her Momma, scratched on plexiglass plate, based on a photograph from the 1940s. Aletha Kuschan]
Through different subjects and media, through thick and thin, I find that much of what has continually interested me is perception. Perception is a tricky thing. I first realized this when I was young girl in high school. I was sitting in front of a sugar maple happily drawing its linear forms, which reached out toward me like welcoming arms. I found that maple to be so very beautiful and complicated to draw.
Struggling with it, however, I couldn’t comprehend one particularly murky passage and paused totally stuck, in head-scratching confusion. Then I realized that I was not drawing “what I saw” — not a bit — for right smack in front of me was a limb, looming into the foreground, practically tickling my nose, that had been until that moment completely invisible. It actually obscured parts of the area I was struggling to see. No wonder I couldn’t see those other details! I thought with Mr. Magoo-like clarity.
For many people life’s problems consist in not seeing “the forest for the trees.” In my case, I was stumped by not seeing the tree for the branches.
I had looked at, had seen, had attended to those things that I insisted to myself were there. Well, sometimes what you see is what you get! I insisted upon my reality to such a degree, wishing to see what I thought I saw so much — that I managed not to see what was right there in fact. Ah, a moment of disclosure I shall never forget. It’s like a story with a moral. Only true.
[Top of the post: my drawing of crepe myrtles blooming. Aletha Kuschan]
I’m glad my comments were helpful. Commenting on your drawings helps me as well, since it prompts me to consider how and why I draw. I guess I want to teach drawing. I’ve thought about it certainly, but I cannot do so in a traditional studio setting for various logistical reasons, my schedule, family obligations and so on. But through writing, perhaps I can find an outlet for teaching the ideas that I wish to share. I see drawing as being a wonderful tool for observing life, and through observing things I also see a path to knowledge about life, even to wisdom.
How perfectly lovely to have a wife who encourages you. Listen to your wife. (I’ve already written about marriage here, so isn’t that apropos?) Her advice to keep your drawings, heed it well. Okay, maybe not every single scrap. But certainly the ones she tells you to keep!
I know the feeling of being dissatisfied, but you can learn a lot from past drawings. People think “yes, I’ll learn to recognize my mistakes.” That’s not what I mean. If the drawings bother you, stick them in a drawer and get some distance from them. Later after you gain skill, you’ll gain confidence and then the drawings may prove helpful. I had ideas from my earliest inkling that I wanted to be an artist — a beautiful shifting mirage of things I saw that held great meaning for me. I tried to draw them, but lacked the skill. I was dissatified with those drawings, but I kept them anyway. Looking back at old drawings now, ah, how revealing! To find ideas that I had forgotten — oh, some of them good ideas! I have the skills now to pursue these thoughts, and because I kept the drawings, I have the reminders of these perceptions, these appearances, that I once wanted to do.
At the time of their making, you may not have recognized that these things you sought even were ideas. Time of itself provides a means of observing life. Seeing events through the perspective of time, we see differently than when events are actually taking place. Time is not just a theme for the novelist. It has meaning in the visual arts too.
Well, anyway, you want to spend some of your regular working hours — your art hours — drawing from life. Even though it’s far more difficult than copying, drawing from life is incomparable because in this direct perception of things, you have no intermediary. You copy drawings to learn different ways of thinking visually, and you draw from life to learn to carve your own path.
I liken it to target shooting. You aim your pencil, point and shoot. Sometimes you miss. You try again. But it involves you in a very precise way of thinking and also a personal one. If you draw what you notice then the drawing becomes a map of your attention and perception. And that can be really marvelous, and again also provides reasons for keeping the old things — because you may lack the skill to record all that you notice, but even the imperfect attempt gets at parts of it — so, you see, by keeping old drawings you get to bump into your past self. Another form of time travel.
Getting a job as an artist — that is very tricky, I won’t kid you. If you get one, put in a word for me too! How good are you at self-promotion? If you’re a strong self-promoter you might find employment as an artist before you’re really “ready” in which case you can (hurray!) learn on the job. Being unsatisfied with what you do, of course, makes self-promotion complicated. So, some employment related soul searching is wise.
As a hobby, art is a fabulous thing. Winston Churchill painted to relax so you’d be among quite dignified good company. Perhaps you cannot be an artist full time, but have you considered becoming prime minister? As to formal training, I was in lots of classes in my youth, but honestly everything I know about art I learned by trial and error and by very careful study of old masters’ pictures. The best art is personal, and the lessons that really count come from inside your head.
Well, I’m glad to be able to give advice and especially where your wife’s concerned. Listen to her. A man always does well to heed his wife’s wise counsels. Don’t be “super” critical, just self-critical enough to move forward. Let your love of drawing guide you. Love is a good teacher.
[Top of the post: Winston Churchill painting in 1946.]
If you copy something in order to learn to draw, it’s best to copy something by a great artist, for the great artist has more ideas and better ones than a lesser artist. So you’ll learn more. We tend to think that visual materials render transparent representations of things, as though the artist just presents what is there. But it is, in fact, visual ideas that the artist creates. They are ideas about appearances and of course they vary tremendously from artist to artist and from culture to culture. Edgas Degas expressed it well in saying that “drawing is not form, but a way of seeing form.”
Copying a drawing is like doing a brief apprenticeship with its author. He tells you what he noticed and what he ignored. What he noticed is the drawing itself. What he ignored you have to figure out for yourself by comparing his drawing with life. Engaging in a conversation of this sort means being able to choose your teacher from any artist that ever lived — so long as you have access to his or her images!
I copied Matisse’s 1901 painting La Coiffure in a sketch book while visiting the National Gallery of Art. It’s not the first time I’ve done so. One earlier occasion I was visiting the gallery, plodding along a bit sleep deprived from a late night the night previous. Sitting before Matisse’s picture I just relaxed and gazed admiringly at it. The afternoon was growing late. I had to go. But some impulse prompted me to make a fast drawing — just 5 minutes, I told myself. So I began to draw with a pencil in a little notebook. And then — amazing thing — it was as though someone were shining a flashlight beam at the painting upon each contour where I drew. As I copied the line, my brain lit up that part of the painting.
I was perfectly sober. I’m a tea loving, tea totaler. Sleep deprivation can have its own intoxicating effects. But I want to give some credit to the pencil and my hurry, also. And to Matisse, of course. And to an over-worked, but grateful imagination.
[Top of the post: Copy after Matisse by Aletha Kuschan, crayon on paper]