Done Right
June 15, 2008

When I was born in 1968, my mother thought she was getting a nice, docile Shirley Temple child. A daughter she could bond with, could dress up, teach to dance and sew and sing and be a delicate flower of baby-woman-hood.

Instead, she got a wild li'l red monkey baby, whose first words were practically, "I can do it myself."

In short, we were at odds from day one.

We fought about the length of my hair - my scalp is sensitive and I had very fine, very straight, very fly-away hair. My mom insisted on combing my hair with a very very fine tooth plastic comb. This meant screaming, crying rebellion every day.

We fought about appropriate toys. I wanted airplanes and cars and trucks and six-shooters and drums. And a banjo, but that's something of a digression.
Mom wanted me to have pretty dollies and Barbies and play dress-up princess.

We fought about clothes. I preferred to live in jeans and t-shirts. Mom wanted me in if not frilly dresses, at least cute li'l jumpers. I came home in tears on more than one occasion in kindergarten because some little boy tried to look up my jumper whilst we were on the jungle gym or slide or swings or what have you. Mom's solution was to not do those things in a jumper - my solution was not to wear jumpers.

The problem was more in the time period than anything else. Parents at that time had been led to believe that children could be told this is how things will be, and so mote it be. At the same time, however, it was the time of "Free to Be You and Me" - where kids were encouraged to be themselves.

I also grew up with two very creative parents. My father played honky tonk piano for hours, completely losing himself in the music he generated. I never heard him play anything other than "his" song, but it was an endlessly mutating and developing creation.

Mom also played piano, although she played less frequently and always played from sheet music - not because of any lack of skill or desire, but, I think, because she feared doing it "wrong." And, in addition to her piano playing, my first memories of her are of her painting and drawing and sketching. Whether it was Toll painting some wooden box or serving tray or actually doing a pastel portrait or acrylics on canvas, Mom was always creating something new.

But like with her piano playing, Mom seemed scared of somehow "doing it wrong." She laboured over every detail, often stressing herself beyond belief to get every detail exactly "right." And, she was far too hard on herself when a shadow wasn't perfect or some tiny detail was out of alignment just the slightest bit. I would watch her scrape paint off, in tears, sure that this was another example of her failure as a human being. And I would watch her, once she was finally done - put herself and her work down. I didn't get it. Her stuff looked easily as good as things I saw in the stores.

I think it was sixth grade when I took a serious interest in drawing myself. I was interested in cartooning, in comic strips, and in technical drawing. I enjoyed drawing fictional maps and would spend days creating new lands. In social studies, we had an assignment which included drawing - and I discovered a latent talent for drawing flintlock rifles ... and then more modern rifles ... swords ... and airplanes. (I have no recollection where that jump came in except I loved F-15 and F-16 planes.)

So that summer, when told I needed to take a summer enrichment class, I picked a class on drawing. I had a blast with it - it was mostly just a scheduled time to draw with the teacher critiquing us gently and there was little actual teaching of technique or theories of perspective or something along those lines. The class went along swimmingly for quite some time.

And then we had to do a still life.

I set up an apple on the kitchen table and scrawled something. Erased, re-drew. I hated it and I couldn't get the chiaroscuro to make the apple look 3d instead of flat. I finally got it "done enough."

Mom looked over my shoulder. I don't remember our exchange, but the gist was "You'll sit here and re-do it until you get it 'right.'" I sat there for what felt like weeks, and I think I switched from pencils to pastels or pastels to pencils. Eventually after much temper tantruming and fussing, I had something that did resemble a decent still life of an apple.

But the shine had gone off of it. I didn't see it as an exercise in improving my drawing eye. I didn't see it as a learning experience in shading or use of colour. Drawing had become just another thing that I didn't do well enough to please my mom ... and so I stopped sharing that with her ... and eventually decided that I simply could not draw since it didn't come easily and perfect the first time I attempted something ....

Instead, I turned to writing stories and novels - and simply didn't share most of those with my mother. The bulk of them involved children in peril from kidnappers or evil parents - not things Mom would actually approve of.

I doodled now and again ... I reveled in Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev - kind of the Jewish Portrait of the Artist as He Develops. But I had stopped drawing "seriously."

Then, in the mid-90s, I discovered this nifty thing called the world wide web. For ten years, I learned digital art in the form of creating website designs with Fireworks and then Photoshop. And I re-gained my interest in art and creating imagery.

But I still insisted that I couldn't draw.

Then, I took a job as a copy writer who was to also help with web design at a large e-commerce company. I worked with a gentleman who'd had his own design company at one point ... and another with a degree in graphic design. And as I observed them working, I realized something. The skills I had honed over the last ten years were comparable to theirs. I didn't have all the techniques nor all the same knowledge and theory - but I had the skills and the instincts. I started reading theory and observing more - asking more questions, learning more programs, growing more confident.

And then I picked up pencils again.

I'm still more confident with my digital art than my sketching, but both have improved dramatically over the years. There is no doubt that web design is more forte, at least for now, but my ability to create brochures, flyers, layout manuals, create signage, all of that has suddenly exploded - because I stopped being afraid about how to do it "right" and began studying theory, studying good design and began trusting my self.

I'm tickled to be in the process of designing a tattoo for a friend over at Cre8Buzz. I started out sketching it by hand until I had the design the way I liked it - and then I transferred the design to the computer to clean it up. I'm beyond flattered that she likes the design so far.

Tomorrow, I'll take a copy or two of the design to the hospital with me so I can continue to tinker with it whilst I wait three freaking hours for them to prep me for surgery on my leg. (Will someone explain to me WHY I need to be at the hospital at 6:30 a.m. for a 9:30 a.m. procedure???) Over the last couple of years, I've taken artwork to the hospital to keep me busy whilst my other half had surgery ... it's a wonderful way for me to focus on something other than the stress at hand.

Like my mother, I do still worry about doing my art "right" ... but I think of that a lot less nowadays than I used to. Instead, I'm spending time looking at what other artists do "wrong" which actually gives them their own distinct style - and then working on my own style.

Today, if I sit down to draw a still life, I'm still not going to enjoy it. It's not the type of art that I really enjoy. But today if I sit down to draw an apple, it's because I know that really concentrating on capturing the form and essence of an apple will help hone my eye and my hands and that I'll apply those skills to my own way of doing things.

Meanwhile, I have to laugh at all the times I told my students who were afraid they were not writers simply because the first draft of their essays were not perfect ... no one is perfect on the first draft. There isn't a writer today who completes a short story or novel or academic essay or even speech writing in a single draft. What makes you a writer - or an artist - is a passion for what you do so that you are willing and wanting to do it over until you get it as close to that picture in your mind as you possibly can.

I get that now. There's no way to do it "right." There's just the way you enjoy doing it.

Posted by Red Monkey at June 15, 2008 6:06 PM | Design | People Say I Have ADHD, But I Think - Hey Look, A Chicken | Sketches | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

My dad died in 2005, and I have blogged very little about him, but I have been toying with the idea of seriously WRITING about the whole "dad thing." Last night, I started. YOu're right; the writing process (like any creative process) is so complicated, so layered. Aside from my Masters thesis, I have never had as much difficulty with getting the whole picture together. So, I've started by writing pieces and shuffling them around. I've gained more respect for writers already; this is going to be a lot of work. The cool thing is that I'm writing it for me. I'm glad you have been doing the same with your graphic arts. Good luck tomorrow...

June 16, 2008 1:52 AM


LiteralDan said:

I totally agree-- I can't imagine expecting perfection right out of the gate, instead of just a quality first try.

It's too bad about the disconnect between you and your mom. I think she just lost the view of the forest for the trees.

June 16, 2008 11:34 AM


crunchy carpets said:

I used to LOVE to draw..could NOT be without a sketch book.

But I was always dissatisfied with it...when we did clay..I wanted my stuff to look like know, figurines!

The drawing faded and so did any skill I had..however I AM the person the kids come to draw stuff for them...

So a lot of sidewalk chalk art is now my forte.

June 16, 2008 12:20 PM


Nola said:

You drawing a tattoo for me only makes me want to get one!!! Glad you kept going back to your pencils!

June 16, 2008 11:08 PM


Alan said:

6:30am for a 9:30am operation is actually fairly Late. Ron had to be there at 5 am for his 9am surgery. take care and be well, ender

June 18, 2008 6:36 AM


Rachel said:

My mother has always been the same with me. Once when we were shopping for my girly cousin she actually said "This is like shopping for the daughter I never had".

June 26, 2008 12:25 PM


Dawn said:

"What makes you a writer - or an artist - is a passion for what you do so that you are willing and wanting to do it over until you get it as close to that picture in your mind as you possibly can."

Can I use this next time I teach? :) It's so true...Robert Olen Butler says much the same thing in _From Where You Dream_ and it's certainly true from my experience. Your creative impulses/outlets sound more akin to your dad's rambling music than your mom's perfectionist attempts. More surprises come that way, don't they?

Also, glad to not be the only one with a sensitive scalp. I practically scream when Lucy gets her fingers tangled in my hair, and my sister used to want to "fix" my hair, though I always found even her gentlest combing painful.

June 27, 2008 12:36 AM
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