Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Essays on Learning to Draw

I originally wrote these essay about a week apart and published them on another site, while I was stuck on the couch with my severely fractured ankle (trimalleolar fracture, which required surgery). I had decided to spend part of my recover time learning to draw, since it is a skill I covet in others. I did make some progress over the weeks but then as I healed, returned to work, and got up on my feet again I lost steam on the project. That does seem to be how my life goes; always more things to do than time to do them in. I decided these essays didn't fit well on the original publication site and so I decided to republish them here, along with the accompanying art work. Rereading them, I do feel inspired to get the textbook and sketchbook back out and start working again. It really is fun. I particularly like my koala sketch. If I do follow through I will publish it here to share it. Now, if I can just find some time without breaking any bones.

Feeding My Inner Artist (originally published 2/3/2013) 

I have always wanted to be able to draw. I remember being a child, in second grade or so, and having the art teacher come in once a week. And I loved these lessons, but around this time I became aware that I wasn’t good at drawing. I could follow instructions that the teacher gave me, but nothing came out the way I wanted it to look. My pictures didn’t look like those of my more talented classmates. They weren’t what I had envisioned in my mind’s eye. And I didn’t know how to fix it. Over the years, I heard all the same advice – draw what you see. Draw the space around the object. But somehow it never quite worked for me. My pictures were lopsided, askew, unrealistic and, in my mind, ugly. Eventually I gave up. I learned to excel in English and Math and Science and I stopped taking classes in art. But the craving has always been there, suppressed, but popping out in unexpected ways here and there.

In college, during the final semester of my senior year, I decided to take a class in drawing. I had completed all my graduation requirements, I had been accepted to medical school, and I decided to do something just for fun. The class was based on the book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards and the premise of the book is that drawing is a skill anyone can learn. The challenge is to turn off the left hemisphere of the brain, with its analysis and labels, and be guided by the right hemisphere, which is better at visual perception. There were a number of exercises designed to help you manage this shift and to my surprise I did actually improve. I wasn’t exactly good at drawing, but I was much better. But then I graduated, and started medical school, and I stopped practicing. And the skill I had learned gradually faded, until I was back to stick figures and lollipop trees.  

My inner artist keeps peeking out though. Once while on vacation visiting my sister she took me with her to her pottery class, and tried to teach me to throw a clay pot on a wheel. I didn’t manage it, of course, but it was wonderful fun. My mother-in-law and a friend from church together taught me to knit, and for a long time this has satisfied my creative longings. Working with soft, colorful yarn to build new objects stitch by stitch is intriguing. My strong left-brain capabilities are a huge bonus in this endeavor, since reading and following a pattern comes very easily. I started with simpler two-dimensional objects like scarves, shawls and blankets and over time I’ve shifted into more intricate creations like toys or multicolored Christmas ornaments. I love knitting, but I also recognize I am always following someone else’s patterns. I am creating in the sense of making the object, but I am not designing. It isn’t coming out of my imagination, and the artist inside me is still aching and unsatisfied.

I still long to be able to draw. This morning my daughter made a comment about “pumpkining a cat” (she was waving her pumpkin flashlight at our cat) and I had this image of a “pumpkin cat” – a pumpkin with feline ears, eyes, whiskers and a tail – that I would dearly love to bring to life. I live my life in a logical, analytical world. As a doctor I am focused on calm reason, on evidence, seriousness and science. I crave a space to be intuitive, artistic, whimsical, and emotional.

So I am going to do it. I am going to learn to draw. I purchased the book “You Can Draw in 30 Days” by Mark Kistler, which has thirty step-by-step lessons in drawing realistic objects. I downloaded a powerful drawing and painting program onto my tablet so that I can work there and always have my tools with me. I’m going to post the work I am doing from time to time, so that I stay accountable to myself in doing this. It is amazing to draw something and have it look the way I intended it to look. So far it’s only simple spheres, but it’s exciting. It feels full of promise – and full of keeping a promise to myself.

Mastering The Tools (originally published 2/9/2013)

I’ve continued to work on my goal of learning to draw over the past week. The book I am working from suggests doing an exercise a day. I’ve modified that somewhat; I am drawing every day but I am spending more than one day per exercise. I am trying to really master this and repetition generally helps me build skills.

This book is different from the approach I learned previously, in my college drawing class. Instead of focusing on how we see things and then drawing what is seen, this book is teaching principles. So far we have covered the ideas of placement, shading, overlap, size and reference directions to make spheres and boxes that look three dimensional on the page. I’m only on lesson 5 or so and it’s a lot of fun. In some ways I think this book appeals to my left brained self, because it is teaching clear rules and giving simple exercises that can be followed step-by-step. I’ll be interested to see if by the end of the book I am able to translate those rules into drawing things I see around me or things that I imagine, which is my ultimate goal.

One place I find myself struggling is with my choice of tools. I decided to work in an electronic sketchpad on my Kindle Fire instead of with plain paper and pencil. I made that choice for several reasons. One is that I generally always have the Kindle with me, so using it as a sketchpad saves me from having to carry around another object. As someone who chronically struggles with an overfull purse, that is a blessing. I also want to be able to use my drawings easily on hubpages, which means that generating them digitally saves me a step of scanning them. I can just email the file as a JPEG from the application. I have been using two different applications so far, along with the Amazon version of a stylus for touchscreen. One is “Drawing Pad” by Darren Murtha and the other is “Sketchbook Pro” by Autodesk Inc. They are both good applications for the Kindle. “Drawing Pad” is a little easier to use. The design is simpler and more intuitive and I feel like it is easier to place lines where I want them. “Sketchbook Pro” is more sophisticated, with many more features and options and works better for shading objects. However it feels harder to use in terms of placing lines where I want them. There is also an annoying radial wheel feature that I can’t figure out how to turn off completely. Which is probably user error, but it gets in the way of what I am trying to work on since it is located bottom center of my work space. I think the biggest issue with both is that I need more practice. The stylus is rounded and I need to develop a better “feel” for it and for where my lines will end up when I am working.

There are electronic sketchpads that you can buy for your computer. The reviews indicate that they behave more like pen and paper sketchpads. However they are somewhat expensive (at least in contrast to the price of an app for a device I already own) and would still be an additional device to carry around. So for now, I think I will continue to work on mastering the tools I have in addition to mastering the skills I want. They say practice makes perfect, after all. This is something I enjoy practicing.

Ongoing Adventures in Learning to Draw: Koalas and Roses (originally published 2/16/2013)

I’ve continued this week on my journey towards learning to draw. This week’s lessons contained instructions for drawing koalas and roses. I found myself pretty intimidated before I got started, since the drawings were significantly more realistic looking than the cubes and spheres of the first lessons. It took me a day or two of reading the lessons before I actually had the courage to give it a try. However once I got started I was pleasantly surprised that I could manage to follow these lessons as well. I’m glad I didn’t give up. I enjoyed creating something that I think is pretty, since the desire to create beautiful things is part of my original impetus to learn to draw.
It’s interesting to me that I would be so anxious about something that is a self-appointed task. I do want to learn to draw well and it is a process that means something to me. But no one else is going to judge my work. I know that I am posting it publicly here, but I trust that anyone kind enough to read my words will not harshly criticize the efforts of a beginner. No money rides on my successful completion of these lessons. My job doesn’t depend on it, my family doesn’t require me to do it, and my friends will still love me even if I don’t manage to draw well. So it’s strange to me that I would have been so nervous. Ghosts of lingering frustrating efforts, perhaps. I’m glad I faced them and exorcised them.
I have realized over the past few weeks that part of drawing is slowing down. As I learn to carefully draw my lines and shade the pictures to create the illusion of a three dimensional object on a two dimensional page, one of the most helpful things is to go slowly. The work comes out better when I take my time to get the angles right, to erase and try again when it looks wrong. Working on my kindle it’s not easy to blend or smudge the lines so I have to shade carefully, in gradual steps. Taking several extra minutes at the end to clean up lines and erase stray marks makes a big difference to the overall quality of the finished drawing. Perhaps part of the difficulty I have experienced in the past is being in too much of a hurry, wanting to arrive at the destination without taking the journey first.
This past week I’ve worked mostly with the Sketchbook Pro application from autodesk. I found the Drawing Pad application by Darren Murtha easier to use but it doesn’t have the same range of tools available. With the Sketchbook Pro application I have to work harder to get the lines placed where I mean for them to go, but perhaps that’s good practice for me anyway. I did learn this week how to zoom in on my picture while I’m working, which has been very helpful. I’m looking forward to continuing through the rest of the book, although I suspect it will take me much more than the 30 days advertised in the title. It looks like houses are coming up in the next lessons and I think that will be fun.