My drawings hung for crit. The first thing I notice of course is that none of these is a masterpiece. The most important thing I notice is that I actually made them all. (Plus more.) And they look like things! Mostly. Okay some people asked me what they were and that confused me, because I am pretty sure that eucalyptus leaf is obviously a leaf, but I will accept the lessons user testing has always taught me: the maker is the least-good judge of obviousness there is.
Part 1: Feelings
A few weeks ago I had the final class and crit for Drawing Fundamentals at the Berkeley Extension. For the few days leading up to the farewell, I’ve gotten to spend some nice time with my work: spraying, pinning, reviewing, reflecting.
I know the cliche involved in saying something has changed our life, and even to remark on the cliche itself. But learning to make things in charcoal that sometimes look like other things –honestly it changed what I know & believe of myself if it didn’t actually change my life.
The original trauma happened when I was 8. Every childhood has, I think, the moment of total dislocation that shapes our lives. It’s the hydrophobic’s sink-or-swim gone wrong. It’s the shocked Santa truthers; they grow up and swear they will never lie to their kids. It is, in whatever form, the first time we encounter a personal terror, far removed from the witches and evil stepmothers we know to expect.
Me? I had to copy a Van Gogh. And I had no idea how to do it. This was a project in a my fourth-grade classroom, a large, group-created copy of “Starry Night” (which I still kinda hate). It surprises me how easily I can conjure up that classroom and the feeling. I remember staring at the image and staring at our painting and having absolutely no idea how one went from looking to painting. I’m sure the teacher said something about “Just look and paint line-by-line.” That’s why they picked Van Gogh, after all, right? That the lines are obvious. Just do that.
Just stand there staring like an idiot because you can’t even imagine where to begin and there are all these other kids daubing happily away. Just start refusing to work on it because it makes no sense at all in your brain. Well, you are so much better than they are at English, at math, at history. You just aren’t one of the artsy kids.
And for the next sixteen years, I wasn’t. But then things started happening.
To be fair, in the between-times, I wasn’t totally uncreative. In fact, I was a writer. I workshopped experimental fiction in college. I graduated and went off to work in publishing. I got a few essays published. I tattooed a semi-colon on my arm. But in my heart, I was always jealous of those visual arts kids. I was jealous of the RISD students I knew: even though they worked so much harder on color studies than I did at my essays, they made things that looked like other things, even abstracted other things. Out of media that was way more concrete and discrete than these stupid imprecise words we used for everything. Too bad I didn’t have the talent to do that.
And then I even got off the words for a while. I was young, had nothing to say yet, and figured typing is one of the last facilities to go. That was when art started to hunt me back down.
It began at work. First it was publishing. I was the managing editor at a small press, and sometimes it was useful for me to be able to lay out a book. “Just learn a little bit,” Art said. “You can make boxes and fill them with words, learn a few rules about space and typography. That’s not hard. The computer does it for you.”
When I was a project manager, Art was dressed up as Information Architecture. “Just draw a few boxes,” Art said. “You remember how to do that. Then put the words next to the boxes.” I could work next to the designers, help with the parts that didn’t need you to actually have art or design talent. It was the best I could hope for.
But year by year, project by project, Art stalked closer. I went to an agency that taught me to make my wireframes a little more compelling by adding some silhouette vectors, some flourishes. I moved to a studio with even higher expectations for deliverables. In terror of being found out to be the truly talentless person I was, I would take apart my colleagues’ files, grabbing tricks and information to stay a step ahead of exposure.
In the meantime, Art started popping up in my personal life. I made friends with artists. I dated men who could draw. I would confess my jealousy and without fail, they would encourage me. It didn’t have to be perfect. It could be terrible and in failure I would learn. I must be a very stubborn sort of person, to refuse the veracity of a truism until it happens to me, but there you are and there it went.
Stolen afternoon by brave evening, I would do a little sketch, a tiny watercolor. I would be assured it was not the most terrible thing ever. I would try an exercise from a book. I could make small filigrees, un-serious attempts. I could work around my artlessness and be cute. But maybe I was actually learning. Maybe I wasn’t totally hopeless. Maybe I ought to take a class.
iv: The Class
We would use charcoal. We would be realistic. What a lucky break: I didn’t even like charcoal. Realism wasn’t my bag. I could totally fail at this and it wouldn’t matter.
Assignments got harder. I got cleverer. I would spend Sundays finding subjects that could meet the assignment but would also be achievable for me. Week by week, frustration, cleverness, accomplishment — this was going to work out.
And then the paper bag assignment. I’d had a terrible day at work and had almost not gone to class at all but bucked up in the end. Now I had to pay: We were to draw a paper bag. We were to get all the shadows, all the variations in tone. It had to look real. Van Gogh all over again.
Everything went silent. My head swam. I “took a break” and walked around the halls, trying to make a plan of escape by means of cleverness. Wasn’t this my true talent?
If so, it failed me.
I went back to class. I stared at my paper. I gave up. I did the thing that never would have occurred to me before: I asked for help! And the instructor instead of saying “just X”, “just Y”, she picked up my charcoal and drew right on my piece. I said, “When I do that it isn’t dark enough, and she said, “Push harder.”
I said, “When I blend the vine, it all comes off.” She said, “Blend softer.”
Chop wood, carry water. Don’t just be fake brave. Spend hours with your nose against the sheet, laying down charcoal, taking it back up, going shape by shape till time dilates and at the end you step away and it kinda looks like a paper bag. And Van Gogh is thereby vanquished.
v: The Aftermath
Since class has ended, I can’t stop looking at things and imagining how I would draw them. At the museum, I can spend twenty minutes in front of one work when I used to be able to spend two or three. Just sit in front of a Rothko forever. I’ve signed up for pen & ink, which starts in September.
But really, I’ve taken the inventory of all the other things I can’t do and I’ve torn it up. What drawings, what paintings, what creations have I never made because I was afraid, because I was untalented, because I knew I couldn’t do it? I’ve always loved art. I went to museums with longing looks. I snuggled up against men with inky hands thinking that was the closest I was going to get.
I was wrong. I am famous for how much I hate being wrong, how much pleasure I take in being right, how hard I will battle you to not be wrong. This is the best, most delicious wrong I have ever been.
All of things I have avoided in service of ego protection: I don’t care anymore. I will ask for help. I will make something and it will be bad. I will be talentless if I must. But I am not missing out anymore.
When I go to yoga I don’t roll my eyes so much at softening my heart. I even write sappy essays without shame.
vi: Two Lessons
I am excited that there are many lessons and new vistas dragged up by this experience. Drawing-specific ones will come in part two. But the most important:
Friends & lovers who encourage you past your fears are precious, precious people who can be forgiven many sins. One of the first people to tell me I could do this, to just fail and persevere, is also the first person with whom I had a terrible, soul-sucking breakup. As I get more excited to make more things, I do forgive him a little more.
And never start children off copying Van Gogh. I know it looks easy, all those brush strokes and things, just sitting around being obvious, but no. See also: Seurat. (But that’s another essay.)