You Can Too So
July 2, 2009

Okay, so in the last post, I ran out of time but wanted to talk to those of you who tell me "I can't even draw a stick figure."

As I said, I drew some, but not a lot. I grew up watching my mom draw, paint, use pastels, study tons of art books.

But I was completely intimidated by anyone who could draw, including my mother. The one summer enrichment class I took pretty much sealed the deal for me. As much as I loved drawing technical pictures (I drew a slew of guns for a history project and discovered planes and boats and guns were things I could draw quite well), I thought that any type of artist could "just draw." So, during that summer enrichment class, I worked diligently, but was rather disappointed that there didn't seem to be much "here's how you do this" kind of teaching, which is what I really respond to. I did one landscape where I never did like the perspective, so I kept re-working it. I added more details ... and then something else, a fence post, a no trespassing sign.

But the last straw was the last assignment for that class - a simple still life: draw a realistic apple. But I really didn't understand anything about chiaroscuro (shading - light and dark) and the more I tried, the more frustrated I got. I finally got pissed and stopped.

And that's when my mom got involved and drawing stopped being fun.

She took one look at the twelve-year-old's mess I'd made of that apple drawing and began being "helpful." Look, it's been not quite thirty years since then and with an adult's perspective, I know that she thought she was being helpful. But her method of helping was to tell me to sit down and do it "right." Once again, I didn't get any real instruction on how to actually accomplish this. So, an otherwise fun activity became a terrible homework assignment and a Saturday of summer vacation turned into a freaking nightmare. Even after Mom was satisfied, I still wasn't. I didn't like the way it looked and I didn't like that I'd wasted a ton of time on it and still it wasn't "right."

That was the last time I tried to draw for about twenty-five years or so.

Then, I was surrounded by creative people - artists.

I had just lost my job with that stupid university that I try not to even utter its name anymore and took a job as a copy writer at a major e-commerce company. I had been hired originally because along with my writing experience, I'd been doing web design for the university since 1997. I had been doing more and more "digital art," which I didn't think was really art at the time. So when we hired a graphic designer, I spent a ton of time looking over his incredibly patient shoulder and he was quite happy to show off his serious skillz.

And I slowly learned that I knew more than I thought I did about design and art. That gave me confidence.

The other thing that happened at the same time was the graphic designer told me he couldn't "do" a certain type of art/drawing.

Suddenly something clicked for me.

When I taught freshman writing, I often wrote a Hemingway quote up on the board the first day of class: The first draft of anything is shit.

Being rather sheltered 18 year olds, it took them quite a while to get over the shock of seeing the word "shit" up on the board. One student even asked if he could tell his mom that I wrote a, and I quote, "naughty word" up on the board. The point I made to my students repeatedly was this: No writer EVER went up to their little writing studio and churned out a perfect first draft which became some literature masterpiece. No poet, no dramatist, no novelist, no short-story writer.

The first draft of anything is shit.

Well, hell. How often had I read Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev and read about Asher doing practice sketches and practice sketches and practice pieces. Didn't the same thing apply to painting/drawing/sculpting as it did to writing?

I also knew from my writing that you develop a style ... and that it's difficult to force yourself into a particular style. You either "feel" a style and it's an authentic extension of you ... or it's a bit flat.

I began drawing again. The guys encouraged me and while I don't link to the quasi-comic book I did any more, I did leave the site up still. (It's a survivor's comic ... not for children or the squeamish) I began to develop a style ... sort of ... or at least explore what types of drawing I enjoyed and was good at.

And then I bought Chris Hart's Cartoon Cool, which I credit with really getting me back into the game. That book encapsulated a lot of the stuff I like - cartoon, animation, design. There's a focus on character design rather than background - which quite rightfully is an art in and of itself. I discovered Mike Rohde's "sketchtoons" and studied what he'd done, drew it for myself. There were definitely differences and I didn't like some of what I'd done ... but I suddenly found that I had more confidence than I'd had before.

And the guys in the office encouraged me. They took my thoughts on site design seriously and I was able to take on junior designer duties and eventually more than just "junior." They managed to critique my sketches without slicing me to ribbons - they let me do that part - and they encouraged me to keep going.

What I learned through all of this is that you can draw ... and you can write ... it's a matter of a couple of small things:

  • remind yourself that the first draft of anything is shit
  • it takes time and many pieces of paper
  • mimicry is the way most artists/writers learn
  • you don't improve if you give up
  • you have to finish the drawing to learn from it
  • those "here's how you draw" pages in kids' books? they're not dumbed down directions for kids. You really DO need to draw those shapes and guidelines and then erase them - it's not cheating!

I can't tell you how many times I thought something I was working on sucked and I forced myself to finish it "as an exercise - I'll never show it to anyone" ... only to have it turn out pretty damn well and I was proud of it after all.

Drawing, writing ... like so many things in life, these are about how much time we're willing to put into the end product. My high school creative writing teacher, whom I thought wrote some damn good pieces, claimed he was not, in fact, a good writer. He was a good re-writer. He put his work through a minimum of 10-12 drafts. And, he was primarily a novelist, not a short story writer.

For me, I happened to hit on the style I prefer at a time when there are a fair amount of people doing that style. It gave me the confidence to continue. I still have to FORCE myself to not abandon drawings. I still get that petulant 12 year old insisting "I can't do this!" I still compare myself to folks like those in my sidebar - I am nowhere near their level - any of them. But I get enjoyment at it. And I continue to get better.

And after years and years of saying "I can't even draw stick figures" ... I've learned that I was simply too scared to work at drawing. My stick figures do suck ... but that's because I'm not invested in them and don't want to take any time on them.

Yes, I am incredibly jealous of people like Craig McCracken, Ben Balistreri, David Lapham and a slew of others, who as best I can tell, just draw these things like other people breathe air - easily and naturally. I'm jealous that they can turn out more stuff more quickly than I - but I no longer say I can't draw.

So for those of you who say "I can't do it" - I challenge you to find something like Chris Hart's Cartoon Cool - something simple and work on sketching out things from the book. Look at the shapes. Don't be afraid to erase - and erase a LOT! Erasing doesn't always mean mistakes - it means you're careful enough to draw the necessary guidelines so that you can get it right.

Make first drafts. Learn from them. Take small things from them and ditch what's not working without recrimination.

And when you're not having fun with it, when you're not relaxed with it ... take a break. Remind yourself it's an exercise and come back to it later.

Hey, if I can draw, anyone can.

early character sketches, most of which are utter poo

Floppy Hat Guy

Posted by Red Monkey at July 2, 2009 4:52 AM | Sketches | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Trish said:

What an encouragement this is!
I so identified with you when drawing stopped being 'fun' when your Mom 'helped'. I had a dad - and what I got was 'if you can't do it perfect, don't even start' - and so I didn't.
Now I think I will - thanks for the comment about kids drawing books - and for the 'first draft' quote...
I have paper, and my now maybe I'm not too scared of failing to pick them up and try again...and again...


July 2, 2009 9:32 AM
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