Things you can do with paper: 6 months in

Concerned woman (Feb 13, 2010), by Ian Garrick Mason

I had a bit of a crisis a couple of weeks back. I’d been working diligently on this whole “learning to draw” project for five and a half months, and had steadily worked my way through ups and downs to a point where I could say that my skills had progressed from “really very bad” to “mediocre”. This was a significant source of personal pride for me, as I hadn’t been sure when I started that I would manage to reach any higher level of artistic competence at all. I was feeling pretty good, frankly.

Then I watched Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary on Valentino.

It was such a little thing really, hardly five seconds of the film. The designer is discussing an idea for a new dress. He picks up his pen and runs it down a sheet of paper in an undulating line. Another vertical line follows, then a handful of quick horizontals. The shot is over, the film moves on. But in that short time, with those few strokes, Valentino has perfectly depicted the clothed female form.

Inspired, I sat down with my sketchpad and tried the same thing. Utter failure: the figure a jumble of incorrect proportions and lines seemingly formed more of random hand jitters than of elegant curves. I excused this by reminding myself that I was still inexperienced at drawing bodies. The next time I sat down I decided to draw a face instead — this being a subject that I’m far more confident about — but again, as Valentino would, I intended to draw a face without a reference, and with a pen (no going back and erasing mistakes) rather than a pencil. A daredevil, I.

Failure again — less catastrophic, to be sure, but failure nonetheless. I wallowed in a surge of self-doubt. My so-called progress was an illusion! How can it be real, I asked myself, if I cannot even draw a smooth and confident line — the basic grammar, the “See Dick run”, of art? I was in kindergarten still.

I’m old enough now that I didn’t for more than a moment think about hurling my sketching kit in the garbage, but I did resolve to downgrade my activity to a weekend-only pursuit. This left me free to reconnect with my writing again, which was a welcome return to form both for myself and for the blog. As it happens I didn’t pick up my pencils at all for a good two weeks or so. I read and wrote and watched movies. I didn’t draw a thing.

It was the break I needed. This past weekend I started to feel the itch again, so I sat down with my sketchbook and laptop, found an interesting-looking person on Flickr, and gave it a shot. The result is the sketch at the top of this post. It’s a little smudgy looking — mainly from the soaking-through of ink from my pen experiments on the previous page of the sketchbook — but overall I was surprised and pleased with it. The drawing came together easily, and with a greater feeling of confidence and precision than I had felt in all of the past six months of drawing practice. I was particularly happy with the fact that I managed to get the eyes and brows to work together to convey a sense of the woman’s alert anxiety as she walks down a city street. It’s not immensely better than my previous work, of course, but it is more assured — and that’s the more important thing.

I’ll end with a glimpse of where I started, way back in August 2009. I use “started” advisedly, since the contour line drawn through the eyes and around the head indicates that I had already learned something about construction. But nevertheless it’s the first drawing in my sketchbook, so I’ll grant it the honour of representing the beginning of things. Heck, maybe I should give him a name?

First face (August 2009)

5 thoughts on “Things you can do with paper: 6 months in

  1. Speaking as someone who recently started drawing again himself, I wouldn’t give up hope just yet. I think there is something to Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. I was always considered a “creative”, “artistic” child, but without that solid 15 or more (with emphasis on more) minutes a day drawing in a sketchbook, you don’t really see solid, consistent results until after you’ve been practicing for a few months.

    One thing is for certain: I find it a lot more satisfying than blogging:)

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Mark. I’m with you on the daily practice approach, although God knows 10,000 hours seems rather blue sky-ish (at 1/2 hour a day, I’d be 95 years old by the time I hit world-class status).

    I like your blog, by the way — are you posting your own pictures somewhere on it?

  3. Thanks! I have posted some of my own illustrations accompanying posts written in July, August, and September of 2009, and plan to continue running my own illustrations when I write similar autobiographical posts in the future.

    The 10,000 hour rule is a hard benchmark to achieve – I’d probably be 95 too once I hit it. However, what I’m doing one year after I started doing regular pracitce is head and tails above where I started, so in five years I figure I would be a pretty decent amateur:)

  4. Whenever you learn a new approach to drawing, your lines become insecure and wobbly, and your drawings look crappy. It’s that way for everyone — so it’s very easy to get in a rut once you’ve found a style you’re comfortable with.

  5. Thanks, Christer. I feel better now. And you make a good point about getting into a rut. As Ronald Searle said recently, “As soon as something is successful, kill it. It can only get worse.”

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