Monday, February 18, 2008

Teaching Myself to Draw

Beginning in fall 2007, I began to teach myself to draw with colored pencils. This is an entirely new venture, a new world, a new way (for me) of making art, and an adventure of exploration into new territory.

Since youth, I always believed that I couldn't draw. I always believed that I couldn't paint. When we were children, our family decided without much discussion that I was the Musician and my sister was the Artist. These divided and designated conceptual roles lasted well into mid-life, for me, although I have learned over and over again that I can do anything in the creative arts that I put my attention to. It was when I began to work in photography and digital art in Photoshop that I began to free myself of that birth-tribal belief.

In fact, I'm a good visual artist. I have "the eye" for composition, color, form, and contrast that a competent visual artist needs.

I was originally drawn towards photography, in my youth, in part because it was a visual art that my sister wasn't interested in at that time, and therefore there was no possible competition. Being the younger child, I always felt slower and stupid about a lot of things. Then I realized as an adult that I am fact highly gifted in many creative arenas, but since I was literally several years behind my sibling who was both my friend and role-model in the arts, I had developed a skewed notion about my own competencies. I was in my twenties before I realized, through observation, that in fact I was able to learn everything faster and more thoroughly than most of my peers. (My "secret super-power" is that I seem to have an exceptional memory; I absorb material quickly, and retain almost all of it.)

I have been honing my skills via photography for more than twenty years at this point: my first good, mature photography came into being when I was living in Java, studying gamelan music on a Fulbright, but also studying life, and photographing dance, the countryside, people, landmarks, and cultural events. I date my first "mature" photographs to that time. It was also soon after, when I returned from Java to the Midwest, that I began to get work as a graphic artist in Photoshop and Illustrator, which have become tools so familiar to me now that I don't have to think about them, I just use them.

What drawing does is provide me with a new set of tools for art-making: a new medium. I will probably end up combining drawing with photography, typography/calligraphy, poetry, painting, and multimedia. I have an artist friend who often takes her drawings into Photoshop for further manipulation and processing. It falls into the realm of play, which is where most discovery happens.

At the same time that I have been teaching myself to draw, I have also re-connected with a pleasure in calligraphy that I explored earlier in life: at the end of my college years I was a part-time professional music copyist, calligrapher, and letterer. I studied music copying in part because I was a composer, but I also did score and parts for other composers, including orchestral parts for a couple of off-Broadway musicals. I find these pencil and pen and brush manual skills to all be connected. I have been writing haiga—illustrated haiku—and brush-poem-pictures. With the colored pencils, I have been freehanding some similar themes from nature. It's all about making images with the hands, directly onto paper, as opposed to photography or digital artwork: the manual touch, the sensual nature of the tools and the feel of the paper.

I am not interested in photo-realistic drawing, or photo-reproductions. I am still learning basic techniques and tools. I am using photos for reference, for drawing, but I am also using the natural world and my imagination. I'm not interested in photorealistic reproductions, though, but in evocations, in archetypes, in forms, in the forms behind the forms. This also ties into my long-standing interest in fractal geometry.

I am not using high-quality pencils (such as Berol Prismacolor pencils) yet, although I have a few. I am restricting myself to cheap RoseArt colored pencils (which you can buy at Target in graduated sets of 70 or 100 for less than ten dollars). I am doing this to learn technique and control. Cheaper pencils are no waste and no worry; if you use them up fast, who cares. Learning techniques with harder-to-control materials also means that when I graduate to using better pencils, my control will be more refined simply by the quality of the materials. When you learn a new skill, refinement comes later; sometimes "brute force" is the only way to get going. These cheap RoseArt pencils suit this need admirably.

I am also using small notebooks to draw in, for now. The idea of a large sheet of paper or canvas is too overwhelming. You want to work up to larger scale works, not start there, or you risk paralysis. It can be come too overwhelming too quickly. Far better, for now, to set some arbitrary limits that I feel safe working within, with no expectations that anything that I do at this point will be anything more than an étude, a study, a practice piece. I am not looking to make "finished art" pieces any time soon. This is actually liberating, because it completely removes the pressure (internal or external) to Make Art. It allows me the freedom to learn at my own pace, to develop at my own rate, and to progress without expectations or goals in mind.

I am also discovering that one of the reasons I have liked photography over painting so much is that I'm impatient. I'm discovering that I like doing quick pencils drawings rather than drawings that take days. I like being able to finish a piece in a short period of time. I have always been productive in the arts; I've joked with fellow artist friends that two of my favorite four-letter words are DONE and NEXT. The truth is, I'm already more prolific than I know what to do with, between music, art, photography, poetry, and the rest. In some ways, teaching myself a new artistic skill slows me down again to a level of appreciation and slow-pleasure. It curbs my impatience, and reminds me that I have a lot of time left in which to continue to make art.

(Lately I've been feeling my productiveness in the arts slow down a great deal. But I've also been going through several life-changing experiences, and my energy and my time have both taken hits. One reason I felt like teaching myself to draw with colored pencils was that I needed to do something completely new—some completely new way of making art—to affirm that life goes on, and that I have my own future to pursue. Teaching myself to draw is as much about the new life as it is about completing the old. Don't read some heavy-handed Freudian cause-and-effect interpretation into all this. It's mostly about teaching myself to do something new, to affirm life rather than rebel against death. It could have been pottery.)

During this same time, I have been re-discovering an appreciation for the art of Georgia O'Keeffe. I went to an exhibition last October at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts in Minnesota: Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction. At the exhibition I was impressed with how the artist kept returning to the same themes and motifs throughout her life—and how some of those were always on the edge of abstraction. There are circles and spirals encompassing voids filled with both darkness and light, that appear in her work again and again, from her earliest charcoals all the way to her late paintings. This exhibition was chosen to emphasize these connections, and to point out how O'Keeffe was always just on that edge between realistic depiction and abstract form. It was an interesting way to retrospectively look at some recurring themes in her work, and the arrangement was convincing. I bought the exhibition book to take home and look over carefully again. When I got home, I also pulled out all my other O'Keeffe books, including the two biographies I have, and have been re-reading through them.

At the present time, as I teach myself to draw, I find O'Keeffe a role-model who validates and affirms what I am pursuing with both my drawings and my more abstract photography. There are times when figure-ground relationships are ambiguous or reversible. There are elements of a quasi-representational style already emerging, that hover on the edge of abstraction, because I am playing with forms that emerge without pre-planning. I am learning that I have more control when I move the pencil in small counter-clockwise circles than when I move it in clockwise circles. I am learning that I have a good eye for shading and gradients already, but that perspective is still beyond me. Actually, since my artistic goals are not about becoming just another realistic artist (in the same way that I have never been interested in becoming just another guitar player among millions of others), I'm not thinking about realism at all, especially at this point. Perspective-drawing may or may not ever interest me as much as the cave paintings at Lascaux interest me. I have no goals along those lines, either way, at this time. Ask me again after a year of drawing practice.

Another thing I find validating about O'Keeffe is her independence. She once joked that art critics had tried to fit her into every -ism and style that had come along in her lifetime of painting, and finally gave up after pop art. It goes without saying that those critics trying to shoehorn her work into those categories—which always had an element of being fashionable rather than true—inevitably failed, and that she was never fully categorizable. I have had numerous similar experiences in my own various creative careers. O'Keeffe continued to pursue what interested her, following her own ideas and interests, and that serves me well as a model for my own various interests and pursuits. O'Keeffe's independence of artistic spirit affirms my own.

Teaching myself to draw is like exploring a brand new world. It's exciting even when it's overwhelming. If I have learned anything about handling huge learning tasks, though, it's to break them down into smaller pieces, and tackle one or two elements at a time. You can do this without losing the overall perspective. So for now I focus on basic drawing techniques such as shading, gradients, space-filling methods such as hatching and pointillism. Making actual "art" is still down the road. If I accidentally happen to make a drawing while I'm doing practice exercises, that's fine. But it's way too early in the process to expect that to happen. You might get a sudden, unexpected first taste; a drawing may just tumble out of you, finished and surprisingly good; but then a lot of practice and self-discipline is required to develop the mental muscles necessary for bringing that first taste back into being at a more predictable rate. Without that first taste, we would probably never pursue the practice: I am not the only impatient practitioner out there in the world, nor am I even the worst. So, for now, the discipline is all about mastering the techniques and tools; actually making art with these new tools is something that will happen later. For now, I'm content to just do études, and I feel no pressure about having to Make Art.

If I can teach myself a new artistic skill, so can you.

Making art—creativity itself—is about participating with the Creator in continuous creation. It is a human birthright available to all who wish to pursue it. It is life-affirming rather than life-denying or life-destroying. The day you stop exploring new ways of being, new ways of making art, new ways of interacting with the constant inspiration the world brings to your doorstep, is the day you will have died.

Labels: , , ,


Blogger resumedocket said...

Many thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I really feel strongly about it and adore learning far more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your weblog with more details? It can be really very helpful for me.

6:16 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home