Learning to Draw pt. 4: Adolescence, Sweet Potatoes, Adulthood

There’s an idea that’s very trendy in tech and internet culture that inspiration is bullshit. For my blogging peers who write for the Big Audience, the “best practice” is to make writing mechanical: Force yourself to sit down and write for thirty minutes per day. Or an hour per day. Or 1000 words per day. Even better: Make it a morning routine! That’s what the Great Masters did, according to some productivity pornographer, somewhere.

But it doesn’t work for me. It never has. I’ve tried several times to make my writing habitual or like clockwork. The result is always the same: writing that is rote and uninspired.

To be satisfying for me, writing must be paroxysmal.

Jiujitsu Drilling as Dancing, for instance, came to be after nearly four years of thinking about the connection between dance and Brazilian Jiujitsu.

The Emergence of an Industry: The Business of Coaching, was a similar case. It took me months to make sense of why the coaching business was growing.

It’s been two full months since my last post in my “Learning to Draw” series. Where I left off I had just made a switch from graphite to charcoal and I was beginning to “paint” with a pencil.

You may be disappointed to learn that I have not had any higher-order conceptual breakthroughs since then. But I have done some cool stuff and have greatly improved as a technical artist.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve done since my last post was attend an in-person figure drawing class, complete with nude model.* A few observations about the class: First, it was around 80% women. In a flash, my collegiate experience made much more sense. Second, the most useful part of the class was not the drawing, but looking at my peers’ sketches at the end of class.

My most interesting sketch from my figure drawing class.

It occurs to me now that non-artists only ever see finished products: things on display in galleries, on walls, or wherever. I was able to learn a lot about how great drawings are made by seeing my classmates works-in-progress.

For example, it may be characteristic of novice draftsmen, but compared to my classmates, I was conservative with my use of paper. To date, when I sketch a human figure I meticulously draw an arm, then a torso, then a head, and so on until the figure is complete. All of this confined neatly to a portion of the page.

The most skilled artists in my class, however, took a different tack. In a single sketch a figure might have three, four, or five arms, each protruding from a torso at a different angle. After class I actually asked a young woman why her sketches looked that way, to which she responded that she simply “didn’t like the first couple arms.” I see.

If I had to guess why beginners tend to be conservative like me, it’s that we can’t bear to see our mistakes glaring up at us from the page. We have some attachment to the ill-drawn arm. I imagine that skilled artists who have drawn thousands upon thousands of arms have an easier time letting go of their deranged phantom limbs.

Besides the figure drawing class, I have continued to draw on my own. I can basically break down my efforts into four categories: gestural drawings with vine charcoal, copying the works of master artists, still lifes, and cartooning. Each of these categories presents its own set of challenges.

Gestural drawings with vine charcoal, for instance, require a kind of looseness and release from self-criticism that is almost antithetical to my inclination as a beginner artist. All I want to do is use a well-sharpened pencil to delineate this from that. But vine charcoal won’t allow it. My hand is literally forced.

Working with vine charcoal.

I have been copying some famous drawings from the pages of Nathan Goldstein’s books. I flip through these books and when a drawing catches my eye, I’ll try to make a copy. As far as I know, there is no better way to gain an appreciation for a drawing than to try to replicate it. I am in awe of the economy with which the masters work. While perhaps not the most creative work, this practice has helped me make considerable technical strides.

I’m on a low-carb diet, so the only fruit I keep in my house are limes. It turns out that they make a fine subject for an artist, so I’ve been drawing a lot of limes. And sweet potatoes. I just began drawing still lifes in the last week or so, but I expect to draw a lot of limes and sweet potatoes in the coming months.

Finally, I retain an interest in cartooning, which I have mentioned before. (Oh, and speaking of cartoons, I helped to produce this hilarious cartoon animation.) But I have a few thoughts on my mind about cartooning.

First, I realize that I’m living out an archetypal experience in my art education. My out-of-nowhere interest in drawings still lifes in the past few weeks is coinciding with a shrinking interest in cartooning. I remember from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that this is precisely what happens as adolescents artists grow into adulthood.

I think also that I have more difficulty getting “lost” in cartooning than I do when doodling or doing representational drawing. The meditative “lostness” of drawing and making art is perhaps the best part. As Einstein said, “When a pretty girl sits on your lap for an hour, it seems like a minute.” It turns out that in case you are short a pretty girl, a similar experience can be had with sweet potato.

*If you were to time-travel to tell my 20 year-old self that he will someday attend such a class, he would not believe you. Actually––I’m not sure that even my 31 year-old self would believe you.

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