Learning to Draw (Since You’ve Forgotten)

“When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college — that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forgot?’” —Howard Ikemoto

My foot and a sailboat in the distance. Two weeks into drawing.

I’ve drawn more in the past three weeks than I had in 25 years. The 25-year hiatus was the consequence of my own variation of a popular identity claim: I was “unable to draw,” “untalented,” or “unartistic.” As it turns out, I am none of these––and neither are you.

My most popular posts on this blog––those that have reached dozens upon dozens––have all been learning retrospectives. This post about drawing is not retrospective. I am in the thick of learning to draw, at the base of the mountain.

Nevertheless, I thought I’d share some observations from these early weeks of learning. I suspect that experienced artists and draw-ers might roll their eyes at my banal freshman observations. But if you’re someone who holds the identity claims referenced in my first paragraph, this post may speak to you.

In fact, this post was inspired by a weekend conversation I had with two friends who “can’t draw.” During our conversation, I showed them a drawing I did of my foot (pictured above) after only two weeks of learning. My friends were impressed––even awed––by my foot and interested to hear what else I was learning.

My observations so far:

1. I lifted this first observation from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: Your ability to draw is not representative of talent or potential. It is representative only of the age at which you quit drawing. I found this idea both insightful and motivating. Below you’ll see my drawings from Day 1. I think I quit drawing at around age 7.

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Doodling on Day 1.

2. Drawing and surfing have similar learning curves. Once I put in around 10 hours on a surfboard I was getting up on the board and having fun. Likewise, after 10 hours of drawing I was having fun.

My teacher had me do two hours of drawing each day during my first week of learning––baptism by fire. I suggest this method to any new learners.

3. Those first ten hours, however, were not fun. They felt like the withdrawal scene in Trainspotting.

4. I am a self-critical writer: I cannot write two sentences without going back and rewriting the first. Surprisingly, it has been fairly easy for me to sketch and doodle without being critical of my drawings. One consequence of my 25-year hiatus, I guess, is blissfully low expectations.

5. Another instruction my teacher gave for those first weeks of drawing was to “just doodle.” That meant avoiding drawing things. But as it turns out, it’s difficult to let a squiggle be a squiggle.

My ego wants to turn every curved line into a banana. And if I resist turning it into a banana, my ego will want to turn it into a boat. And so on and so on. The risk of a beginner drawing a banana or a boat is that he becomes discouraged when the sketch falls short of perfection.

While natural, it’s an absurd reaction to imperfection: A sketched representation of a thing will never be perfect. Even bananas and boats drawn by the Old Masters are not bananas and boats.

The Treachery of Images - Wikipedia
Case in pipe.

6. I’m doodling everywhere. It’s as though I’ve been saving up doodles for 25 years and they are pouring out. I drafted this essay with pen and paper and there are doodles in the margins of my page. As of three weeks ago, my notebook was doodleless. Now it is full of doodle.

7. Rocks are interesting. A personal story: My stepfather is an artist and collector of rocks. Not flashy “minerals,” by the way. Just plain old grey rocks. I’ve always humored the interest, but after a few weeks of drawing, I better understand his geologic interest:

-Rocks have interesting, natural edges.

-Light interacts with natural edges in provocative ways.

-Rocks don’t move. (Unlike other things you might try to draw!)

This description of what makes rocks interesting is a pitifully inadequate reconciliation of the left- and right-brain––You’re right to be underwhelmed. But if you disregard my description and instead go outside to draw rocks, you’ll know what I mean.

8. Drawing can be learned by anyone. (Of course, there is drawing and then there is drawing.)

So you can draw a foot––now what?

I was convinced to learn to draw because my mentor told me it was important. There wasn’t any impetus beyond nebulous “importance.” That said, now that I’m learning to draw I’m starting to think of some possibilities of what to do with drawing.

For one, I’m keenly interested in cartoons. Over the last year I’ve written two cartoons. The first was Roger and Rufus, which I did with a partner. It ran out of steam when my partner ceased to do the illustrations after the first. I had written a full 15 strips:

The stillborn Roger and Rufus

The second is MAN-UP Man, which I am writing for the coaching business I work with. It launched this week. For MAN-UP Man, I’ve been collaborating with a terrific freelance artist. But again, I’ve been unable to contribute much to aesthetic direction:

Besides cartooning, I see drawing becoming a part of my social life. Growing up my stepfather attended a weekly drawing group. Like rocks, it is kind of hard to understand the appeal of a drawing group without being a draw-er yourself.

But now I’m getting it: You just chill out, maybe put some music on, and draw stress-free. And maybe if you’re feeling it, you investigate your peers’ techniques and learn something. And also there’s a model provided for you. Again: Things that don’t move are cool when you’re a draw-er.

Finally, I have an inkling that I will be able to use the representational skill I’m learning in my work as a consultant, blogger, and operator. Candidly, I have no idea what form that will take. But I now have confidence in my ability to “make things look nice,” so I think there’s a there there.

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