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?