Back to The Drawing Board … With A Clearer Sense of Purpose

While I’ve continued drawing since my last installment, I haven’t kept posting near as regularly as I intended when I launched this blog.  At that time, in fall 2014, I was participating in the Blogging 101 workshop; and I felt the buoyancy of a just-minted blogger. But, as the sense of “novelty” wore off, my initial drive really waned. Now, four months into the new year, I’m staring sheepishly at the date of my last posting—November 22, 2014—and wishing I hadn’t let so much time pass. I had really believed in this project upon launch; but, clearly, staying aloft requires more determination to overcome obstacles than I realized.

Graphite Drawing

Silver Pitcher, Partially Refracted Through Wineglass

Yeah, I way underestimated the commitment required to keep this up. Often, my days seem crammed with so many other obligations. When my free time finally surfaces—often after dinner cleanup and other sundry chores—I’m mentally done being productive. Come 8:30 or 9p.m., I typically give in to vegging out.

I’ve struggled, also, with what I’m actually trying to accomplish: What do I want to focus on? Just my “drawing process” and how I’m sharpening that skill? Do I want to write more about where I’m heading creatively, and who/what inspires me? Or, do I want to go even broader–and open the floodgates to still other concerns that arise (with my drawings perhaps providing visual counterpoint to my “musings”)?

Moreover, I remain intent on breaking free of just faithfully “copying” the subjects I draw. I’m increasingly tempted to “color outside the lines,” so to speak. I want to worry less about erasing and correcting “mistakes”; and to more fully express in my artwork the vision I see through my “mind’s eye” (as well as what comes in through my optical senses). In short, I want to overcome my perfectionism–so my artistry and creativity can shine through. That desire, and that problem, however, echo throughout my life. I can’t honestly restrict my writing narrowly to overcoming my artistic limitations—and leave out how perfectionism, and my desire for more authenticity, permeate the rest of my life.

Take, for example, my writing. That’s another venue where trying to be perfect obscures and drowns out what I might authentically express. Just as I’m compelled to erase and redraw my drawing “errors,” so too when I write I worry about and second guess my phrasing, and about whether my word choice is exactly right. Though I didn’t grasp it when I set out, I now realize this simple blogging project about “drawing” has illuminated for me a more universal theme: I’m really writing about growing me. My efforts to develop as a visual artist provides my metaphor for the challenges I face in my larger life.

Graphite Drawing

Onions, Etc. In Bowl

I do have a clearer sense of “what I’m trying to accomplish” in this blog: To capture an ongoing—and illustrated—chronicle of how I’m persisting through my psychic limits; how I’m steadily embracing imperfection; and how I’m striving to express myself more authentically.

Redemptive Reinforcement: A Lesson In “Staying The Course”

Recalling the conversation now, I realize I’d broken my news almost as an afterthought. That’s typical: my reluctance to call attention to myself or having others “make a fuss”  over me.  After we’d talked for more than a half hour, I casually mentioned to my therapist, “Oh, and I’ve begun a blog about my new drawings—you know, showing some of them and talking about how I’m feeling about drawing again.”

If I expected her to let my comment pass, I’d definitely misread the moment.  She had, after all, been the impetus behind my return to drawing in the first place. And each time she looked over my latest sketches, she seemed genuinely pleased—even delighted—to see my progress, “illustrated.” Now absorbing my news, she reflexively raised her hand toward her mouth. “Oh, this is huge—a really big step,” she remarked. “I’m getting a little misty just hearing about it. How do you feel about it?”

Well, I’d certainly been intrigued when I first considered the notion of pairing my “new habit of drawing” with a blog. I realized blogging offered the perfect forum to chart my progress; to talk about my inspirations; and to give readers insight into my creative journey. Further, I imagined others might pull for me and urge me to keep up the good work. Secretly, I even fantasized about attracting a small legion of “fans”—maybe an influential critic or two—who’d offer support and eagerly await my next post.

In answering her question, it seems I replied, “Well, I’m happy about it … ,” though I was still sifting my emotions. As I sat mulling this, my therapist opened my blog and began skimming my first few posts. She read random passages aloud, rhythmically checking invisible boxes with her index finger as she emphasized resonant phrases. I felt unsettled excitement, like I’d ace’d an important test I’d been unaware I’d taken. I also grew humbled, as she touted the potential payoffs my actions might yield.

Do you know how much you could help other people through this?” she asked, a note of wonder infusing her tone. I’d not really considered that; I’ve never though of myself as inspiring or as a self-help resource. To the contrary, I suffer from a sort of low-grade, “functional depression.” I’m also very critical and rigid toward myself. And my experience over the last decade—during which I’ve been chronically un- or under-employed—has left me feeling generally inadequate. (My earlier reference to being embarrassed when others “make a fuss” over my accomplishments surely relates to this negative self-image.)

Still, lately I’ve remained more disciplined and persistent about drawing than perhaps at any other time in my life. I’ve actually felt proud of several pieces I’ve drawn; and I’ve been excited both to reveal them to my therapist and publish them in my blog. Most significant, I’ve felt more emotionally buoyed and hopeful, despite the increased time and energy this work requires. Having personally experienced these brief successes (continuing to draw, to publish my blog–and even to gain “followers”) I realize I’m more positive and hopeful.  And, I’ve gained a higher regard for my abilities along with a new sense of purpose.

In resuming drawing, I’ve strayed into a realm I really care about. I feel a sense of belonging to this endeavor, like I’m on my spiritual home turf. That awareness of “coming back to” a treasured part of myself has also left me somewhat scared and humbled. To be sure, I’ve only been at this for a brief time (and sporadically at that; I can still go days without drawing.) But, before, I’d held fast to my shame and inadequacy, criticized myself unmercifully, and internalized the judgmental messages I heard (or believed I’d heard) from others. Now, by taking positive steps forward, in a field about which I am so passionate, I’m actually replacing some of my victimized, reactive behavior with stretching, encouraging and risking.

So, having my therapist gently emphasize that I’m doing good—with the supporting evidence laid out before me—penetrated my leathery emotional hide. But it was the suggestion that others might benefit that broke my dam. The next moment, I cried big, heaving sobs. Along with feeling grief, however, I realized I was experiencing a kind of redemption. If only briefly, I’d peered beyond the sense of inadequacy that so distorts my outlook. And I’d arrived at this moment of clarity by consciously treading a series of scary steps along a path that offered me no guarantees I’d succeed (though I’d certainly received ample encouragement).

After several minutes, I recovered my composure. In our last few minutes, my therapist gently summed up our session.  She reminded me how recently I’d become very preoccupied with my adult daughter’s mental illness and erratic behavior.  She suggested that, perhaps, this circumstance actually offered a kind of diversion from recognizing the pain I’d finally confronted.  Still gathering my wits, I shook my head in assent.

After other such “breakthrough moments,” I’ve tended to hope, unrealistically, that “now everything will be different.” I’ve come to realize, however, few miracle arise from even the most transcendent moments. It seems something inside changed that afternoon; or maybe I just received particularly memorable “reinforcement” for being on the right track. I do recall that the following day I made a special point to go out and do some drawing.

(I remember another rather ironic detail about my mindset leading up to the above meeting with my therapist: I’d nearly cancelled the appointment for fear I just wasn’t “up to” discussing heavy, emotional stuff that day. I’m glad, now, I made the effort to show up.)

 

Creative Growth Is A Long and Winding Road

Recently, I’ve taken a pretty “circuitous” route along my drawing path. I’ve struggled with the sketches I’ve begun, as well as with drawing as regularly as I’d like. What’s more, I’ve produced few coherent results to show for my efforts. I’m coming to realize that artistic growth is simply not a “linear” process. Occasionally, I might “luck out” by producing a more or less complete sketch on my first take. But, more often, my first (and sometimes second or third) try simply reveals the direction I “should” have gone.

For instance, I kept trying to freehand-draw a forlorn, defunct gas station that sits anonymously downtown. Visually, this subject really appeals to me; its run-down, solitary appearance evokes a sense of an entity “left behind” by progress.

This old ARCO gas station sits forlornly along El Sobrante's main drag

This old ARCO gas station sits forlornly along El Sobrante’s main drag

 

... and one of my initial "freehand" drawings. I really struggled to produce even a semblance of an accurate perspective view.

… and one of my first “freehand” drawings. I really struggled to produce even a semblance of an accurate perspective view.

So I keep returning to try and draw it. Twice, I worked for nearly two hours at a stretch, but I produced little more than rough outlines of this deceptively “simple” structure. Those four frustrating hours just reinforced for me a couple hard-won truths: I simply could not “freehand” the building and achieve some semblance of perspective (at least not to my satisfaction). Moreover, if I wanted to render it realistically, I’d need to re-acquaint myself with the fundamentals of perspective drawing.

So, I “went back to the books” (actually, some helpful Web tutorials) to relearn how to set up multiple “vanishing points,” and use them to outline geometric objects in perspective. This process proved decidedly “mechanical” —not exactly the “freed-up” drawing style I’m aiming for. But I simply haven’t overcome my desire to achieve a general realism in my work. Even if I ultimately do develop a freer, more spontaneous drawing style, I simply prefer realism; it’s “my thing.” And really, at this stage of restoring my drawing skill, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the fundamentals.

My latest, more successful effort at depicting the old 'station. I began by determining the approximate location of two "vanishing points," toward which the structure's horizontal lines converge in receding space. (From this start, I can now more confidently add details.)

My latest, more successful effort at depicting the old ‘station. I began by determining the approximate location of two “vanishing points,” toward which the structure’s horizontal lines converge in receding space. (From this start, I can now more confidently add details.)

Once I’d familiarized myself with the basics of perspective drawing, I went back to the old gas station. This time, I came equipped with an oversized sheet of illustration board clipped to my drawing surface. That extra surface gave me room to establish those key “vanishing points” outside the frame where I’d actually draw. Using a ruler, I then fairly quickly drew the general outlines of the structure (with the perspective lines converging much more convincingly). Now with my perspective established, I’ll be able to freehand-draw most of fine details.

Along with beginning that project, I’ve still been intermittently sketching subjects I select from everyday objects and scenes:

Securing regular time for this basic but essential practice remains a surprisingly thorny challenge. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, since drawing vies for my time (and attention) with many daily responsibilities. But, I’m going to keep tweaking this time-management thing–and get back to my original four days-per-week commitment to drawing practice.

 

Learning To Get Out More

An action I’ve taken more regularly to revive and improve my drawing ability (and develop my personal artistic vision) is trying to get out more. By that, I mean to take my sketchbook outside and draw scenes, landscapes and other subjects on-site. Painters who set up their French easels outdoors refer to their practice as plein air painting. I guess I’ve set out to be a plein air … er, drafts-person.

As I earlier mentioned, I once had a kindly high school art teacher, Mr. George Crocker, who encouraged my artistic growth. In his gentle,  just-making-a-suggestion manner, he tried to guide me away from habitually drawing from magazine and newspaper photos. Occasionally, he’d show me examples of work other students had completed on location: drawings of distinctive old buildings and scenes that evoked genuine character. I could see what he meant; I could imagine how I might grow creatively by broadening range the range of subjects I depicted. But, constrained by adolescence, I rarely followed through as Mr. Crocker suggested.

Today, I regret not pursuing his advice more. Dwelling on how I “clung to my habits” can throw me into a spiral of self-criticism. Fortunately, I realize ruminating over old regrets offers no help in reviving my creativity and developing new, more promising artistic habits. Thus, I’ve begun getting out, with my sketchbook and pencil-case in tow. (As well as a camp chair, drawing board, water bottle, headphones and, occasionally, a snack. I like being comfortable and prepared.)

Drawing in a public place does evoke for me a sense of exposure. That fear contributed to my reluctance to take my sketching kit outside in the first place. After being so long out of practice, I’m self-conscious enough viewing my results in private. So I’m wary of having someone looking over my shoulder as I draw a scene (and having them witness my frequent erasing and “do-overs”). In the handful of occasions I’ve recently worked outside, however, I’ve begun to feel more anonymous and at ease. It seems most people are more concerned with their own business. In the few instances when strangers have approached they’ve been politely inquisitive and approving. (And I’ve encountered no hint of my “worst-case-scenario”: being run off like a trespasser.) Whew.

Town Garage, El Sobrante, CA

Town Garage, El Sobrante, CA (a work in progress)

As I grow more accustomed to working in public, the issues I’ve mostly confronted have been on paper, as I puzzle over some drawing problem. Over and over, I’m reminded it’s not easy to capture life with a pencil and paper. No handy guide marks arise. Simply laying a new drawing’s basic foundations—determining relative proportion between elements, gauging perspective or even establishing where my drawing’s borders and center lie—often eludes me. Gradually, I’ve had to accept achieving “close enough” likenesses of my subjects. I also try to remind myself I’m practicing, I’m gradually gathering experience. And, I cling fast to an eraser—like it’s my life-preserver.

I am making slow, inexorable progress. I do sometimes fret, why can’t I do this faster?  I’m particularly aware how readily I grow dissatisfied with minor misfires: when my perspective veers off point; or when elements in my composition appear disproportionate. Such perceptions typically spur me into time-consuming “rework.” Subconsciously at least, I realize I’d be better off aiming for progress rather than perfection. But aiming at—no, expecting—perfection of myself is a compulsion; and likely I’ll overcome it only by allowing myself “a mistake-or-two at a time.”

In some sense, I also regard this initiative I’ve taken as helping me recognize the subtle line separating compulsive perfectionism from realistically aiming for improvement. I get very excited when I pause amidst a sketch and realize I’ve done well. I’m really motivated by such gratifying little “unveiling” moments. My ability to draw realistically–not perfectly, but sometimes with excellence–seems like part of who I am. And, despite my struggles with unrealistic expectations, I truly enjoy the process of improving, which for me includes drawing more accurately.

The “trick” to striking the right balance, I think, lies in better managing the amount of time and energy I devote to my work, based on what I’m trying to achieve. If I am “drawing for practice,” I can focus on informally sketching the image’s rough outlines, and fill in “realistic” detail work in a few representative areas. On the other hand, if I’m striving for a finished piece (i.e. creating an actual artwork), I’ll certainly allow wider latitude to “sweat the details,” including discarding first attempts and starting over. (Also, if I’m working toward a finished piece, I’ll use illustration board, rather than drawing in my sketchbook.)

 

 

Octoberfest, Chico, CA-Style

I took a break from drawing (and Blogging 101 assignments) this past weekend for Octoberfest 2014 at the Sierra Nevada Brewery. This marked the northern California brewer’s fifth annual event. My friend, Frank, has attended the previous three ‘fests, and he’s returned each time raving about the fun (and the beer). So, this year when he asked if I wanted tickets, I jumped out of my leiderhosen at the chance.

This annual event has become very popular. Tickets (this year, $47.50 for those who imbibed, $30 for their non-drinking designated drivers) became available for this year’s Octoberfest on August 14. They sold-out by noon that same day. Surprising, perhaps, for an outdoor party held during still-toasty, early October in a hop field in remote Chico, CA. Apparently, fans of Sierra Nevada Brewery’s products are that devoted!

And they do know how to party–with many on hand in full Bavarian garb. (I’m not sure if actual Münchner—residents of Munichwould proclaim Sierra Nevada’s offbeat event an “authentic” Octoberfest; but they’d have to commend its attendees’ enthusiasm.) My friends, Frank and Marianne Berghuis, and I dressed lightly in shorts and sport shirts, heeding the low-90-degree temps accompanying the event’s late-afternoon start. But I was surprised at the large number of partiers dressed in in full leiderhosen and dirndls.

The brewery parked a column of beer wagons (several of them converted semi-trailers) along one border of the festival grounds. Several lines 20–30 partiers-long queued up to where servers pulled a selection of six different taps. Along with the brewery’s popular Pale Ale, we chose from a traditional dark brown “Octoberfest” ale, a Pilsner, Flipside India Pale Ale, and a couple other brews. (The event’s admission included a 500ml commemorative beer mug and one free fillup. The brewery offered refills for $4relatively bargain-priced for a half-liter of Sierra Nevada draught beer.)

This Octoberfest’s admission cost also included a dinner of hearty German fare: tossed green salad, steamed bratwurst, pork, brisket, warm German potato salad and sauerkraut. After piling my plate with helpings of each, I never got close to finishing my dinner. (Did I mention that German food is hearty? Fine with me, considering the event charged extra for soft pretzels and dessert.) Along with dinner, Sierra Nevada offered several non-alcoholic beverages, such as iced tea and lemonade. Thankfully, given the heat, organizers also placed several water stations throughout the venue.

I also noted, with some relief, a regiment of port-o-pottieswhich appeared nearly as popular as the beer wagonsextending nearly the length of the venue. (And, despite the event’s sizable attendance and accent on lubricant, attendees I encountered appeared very good-natured, even polite: twice when I inadvertently jostled against others, we each offered immediate, “oh-I’m-sorries.”)

Along with plenty of food, an ample flow of suds and an agreeable crowd, Sierra Nevada’s Octoberfest offered entertainment. First and foremost, three successively boisterous, irreverent and zany costumed bands rocked the front stage throughout the evening. Organizers cleared an area between the guests’ tables and the stage for dancing; during the night, small groups of partiers improvised their own waltzes and polka-swings. Elsewhere, among the rows of tables spread beneath the festival’s main tent, individual dancers spontaneously sprang to their feet as the music or mood moved them.

Meanwhile, in marked contrast at the tent’s opposite end, glassblowers held onlookers’ attention as they gracefully twisted and shaped blobs of molten glass. The craftspeople–most also costumed for the occasiondelicately performed their glassmaking artistry on a platform crowded with glowing furnaces, assorted stands and worktables. Alongside this cordoned-off glassworks, partiersa few holding ironic “scoring cards”whooped appreciatively from bleachers.

Perhaps only in Chico, CA, under the influence of a slightly off-kilter Autumn festival, will you find glassblowing elevated to a spectator sport.

 

 

 

 

 

A Cognitive Scientist’s Take On Writing Well

I enjoyed listening today to an interview during the NPR Radio program, Here and Now. The show’s co-host, Robin Young, spoke to scientist Steven Pinker about his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Perhaps surprisingly, Pinker isn’t a linguist or professional grammarian; rather, he’s a Harvard-based psychologist and cognitive scientist.

That perspective, however, lent an interesting wrinkle to the interview (in which he introduces unfamiliar terms like “zeugma” and “anapest” to the linguistic lexicon). Pinker approaches the topic of writing well informed by traditional linguistics as well as armed with insights into how the brain takes in and processes information.  Among his observations: good writing is visually stimulating.

Or, as Pinker explained to Young, “Good writing is actually written for the eye, it’s not just that vowels and consonants just pour into your ear, but as you understand language, you should be able to imagine what it is the writer is experiencing.”

Personally, I tend to regard good writing as more a common sense than “rule-based” practice. I know it when I see (or hear) it. And I usually write with that “principle” in mind. I realize as a writer, however, it’s also good to be technically well-grounded in grammar basics. So I was very interested to hear Pinker talk about his blending of traditional grammar and cognitive science. And I came away from listening to the interview eager to read, “The Sense of Style.”

Link to the entire interview below:

http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/10/02/writing-science-pinker

Sometimes, I Just Think Too Much

Prompt: To be, to have, to think, to move; which of these verbs do I feel most connected to? 

Most definitely, I relate to that verb, “to think” over more action-oriented or “experiential” verbs.  Being a “strong introvert,” I’m most content when quietly reading, working on my computer, drawing and doing “crafty” things. I do like getting together for good conversation with close friends. I also love chatting with someone while we enjoy a hike or bike ride. But, eventually I gotta get away for solitude. That adds up to my spending lots of time in my head, contemplating and thinking.

Sometimes, even I know I spend too much time in my head; that I remain in that virtual domain when I’d be better off standing on terra firma. Clearly, if our prevailing “information culture” is a reliable indicator, society prizes and rewards high-quality thought. (And sometimes we reward it when it’s not so high quality, as The Hangover and Twilight films prove!). Having the ability to think clearly and analytically is integral to living effectively. Or, considered from another perspective, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

In that spirit, I like to think–that verb again!–I am an intelligent person who’s reasonably perceptive and insightful; who possesses a great memory; and who’s able to work out “what’s going on here?”–and come up with an explanation.

However, my experience also suggests that thinking has its drawbacks. In some instances I’ve overdone it. When faced with a decision, I’ll unearth all possible pros and cons and carefully try them on for comfort. That prompts me, in turn, to delay, defer or outright procrastinate deciding. People sometimes become irritated with me over this behavior. (I’ve lost patience with myself over it. I actually passed up responding to the earlier prompt because I literally couldn’t decide between “fiction” or “non-fiction”!)

I’ve also escaped to my intellect when painful feelings come up. Just recently, I unconsciously “mischanneled” my anxiety over a new drawing that wasn’t shaping up. Instead of hashing through that frustrating problem, I ruminated and fumed about a daughter’s questionable (but, by me, uncontrollable) behavior. Repeatedly I’m reminded it often seems easier to control the uncontrollable than proactively focusing my mental and physical energy on problems within my personal sphere. And consider another twist on misplaced thinking: I’ve played out entire scenarios between others and myself, safely in my head, instead of directly confronting and working through them with those others. (That thinking habit, in particular, usually spares me short-term discomfort, but later unleashes out-of-proportion misunderstanding and hurt feelings.)

It’s these negative aspects of “to think” that initially arose for me when I read the prompt. My occasional “overthinking” (and indecisiveness), thinking as a refuge, or thinking substituted for actually relating (and working through stuff) with other people have each backfired on me, painfully. Thinking, for all its potential, also has its negative aspects.

Charting My Limits With Pencil And Paper

When I began drawing again late last year, my goal was simply to get back in the habit of using a skill I realized I still valued. Before then, my attempts to draw left me worried I’d lost the necessary patience and concentration. I felt little of my former desire to “work the magic” of reflecting life in strokes of graphite. Nor did I receive the same tactile pleasure from working carefully with a pencil. In the few recent instances I had plopped down with a drawing pad, I sketched mechanically until my preordained, self-enforced time elapsed.

My problem was that, even if I hopefully envisioned some exciting final result, drawing from life is a commitment to sustained work. It requires making a conscious decision to delay one’s gratification. If offered the option to sit quietly and focus intently, however, I’m still much more inclined to go ride my bike in the sunshine, surf the internet or take a nap. Choosing instead to study an inanimate object, then reproduce it on paper, became in my imagination akin to voluntarily pulling weeds in the hot sun: it loomed for me as potentially uncomfortable. (And, as I’ve previously admitted, fear of failure also contributed to my hesitancy.)

I’m happy to report, however, I’ve succeeded in overcoming much of my initial resistance to drawing. Many times times over the last few months I’ve endured the initial anxiety that accompanies starting a new work. Further, as I’ve grown more comfortable, I’ve come to view my progress with each drawing project like gradually accumulating and linking together all a subject’s individual details (while hoping I’ve worked carefully enough that they align into a semblance of the thing).

At times when I’m “assembling” another drawing, my step-by-step approach reminds me more of a being a brickmason than a prospective visual artist; it seems I’m laying on details like laying masonry. Certainly, drawing is teaching me again how to see more acutely. It’s a basic skill artists continue practicing throughout their lives. But artistically it’s more a mode of travel, rather than the actual destination. And, even at this early stage in resurrecting my skill, I’m beginning to wrestle with how “faithful” to reality I want to adhere in my work. Wouldn’t it be more fun to “color outside the lines” … even a little?

Well, that’s a territory into which I seldom venture–in any of my various walks of life. But I feel increasingly impatient with my own rigid insistence on just “copying the details.” Even as another drawing takes shape, I feel slightly ill-at-ease sense–like I’m unconsciously wondering, “is that all there is?” to this drawing thing. Now that I’m getting over my initial anxiety with drawing, however, perhaps my new tension is a positive sign. Maybe it signals my increasing desire for more creative flexibility and the freedom to make up my limits, artistically-speaking.

At times in my life, I’ve realized (usually in hindsight) that I grown beyond some previously perceived boundary. That imperceptibly, almost unconsciously, I’d been testing the limits, developing my abilities and increasing my confidence–until the moment I burst through. In that same way, I wonder if I’m in the midst of another quiet “psychic revolution” (which maybe I shouldn’t be musing about now; I’ll “jinx” myself!); and that soon enough, without being aware of the process, I’ll discover I’ve broadened the boundaries of my own creative comfort zone.

Well, that is a nice thought.

 

A Little More “Free and Easy”?

 

It’s ironic: the arduous way I originally began this post perfectly illustrates the theme I sought to discuss: that because of my fear of making mistakes, my drawing process had become too painstaking and constrained; and, in resuming drawing, I intend to adapt a “freer and easier” approach. I retreated from drawing for years because my inner standards had climbed to a level I no longer cared to sustain. I’d worn myself out with my perfectionism. I remained as capable as ever; but drawing had become nerve-racking and exhausting for me.

My perfectionist traits, however, aren’t limited to that one corner of my life. I’m prone to “overdo it” in whichever pursuit I begin. Take for instance, writing: I worry over each word and agonizingly massage each phrase. (And don’t get me started on the effort I put into a whole paragraph!) I began this particular post intending to highlight the freed-up drawing style of figurative artist, Richard Diebenkorn, as a touchstone for how I want to approach my work. But, before I even realized it, I was halfway through an entire report on a recent Diebenkorn exhibit!

So, as you might imagine, I also feel wary approaching a new writing project or blog post. Rather than “letting it happen” in a more organic way (because I recognize I naturally write pretty well), I’m hyper-vigilant about making mistakes. That tends to lead me off on all sorts of tangents; and I end up missing–if not entirely forgetting–my original point.

Which remains a clear and present danger with this very post …  so I’ll return to my original theme: my goal to loosen up how I practice drawing.

As I mentioned, I attended a Diebenkorn exhibit at the Richmond Art Center, a longtime East San Francisco Bay Area institution.  During Diebenkorn’s life (he died in 1993), the Center maintained an ongoing, and mutually beneficial, relationship with the Berkeley-based artist. Its new exhibit, ” Closely Considered – Diebenkorn in Berkeley,” focuses on that long association. ‘Nuff said: if you care to learn more about the exhibit, follow the preceding link (where you can also learn about the Richmond Art Center’s prominent role in promoting Bay Area arts). For more on Diebenkorn, click here.

As an abstract expressionist, Diebenkorn lent his figurative drawings and paintings varying degrees of recognizability (though none of his figurative drawings or paintings approach “realistic”). In many works he created between the mid-1950s to ’60s, Diebenkorn rendered his subjects in loose outline and bright hues applied with rapid brushstrokes; the effect is more suggestive than overtly descriptive of familiar details. To me, Diebenkorn’s art from this period–whether the work is a figure study or landscape–appears lively and spontaneous.

 

Take for example, Diebenkorn’s abstract landscape, “Yellow Porch,” and his study, “Seated Woman Drinking From A Cup.” When I study these images, I feel inspired to adopt a freer, more spontaneous approach toward creating my own artwork. From such non-traditional but creatively convincing works of art, I infer a powerful message: Don’t get hung up on the details. Focus on one’s overall creative vision.

That’s my goal in this personal artistic journey I’ve begun: to gradually bring into focus and reflect my creative vision; and allow the fine details to remain a little messy.

 

My Serendipitous Re-Start

It seems I planted the seeds for my eventual return to drawing more than 30 years ago, when I last seriously applied pencils-to-paper. Then in my mid-twenties, I took a junior college drawing class led by an enthusiastic instructor, Norm Looney. Along with warmly encouraging my efforts, Looney insisted my classmates and I visit galleries and view current artists’ work. He also introduced me to artists from the mid- and late-twentieth-century whose works reflected the more representational style I favored.

Following that brief resumption in activity, I drifted for nearly three decades away from traditional art. Save for occasional museum visits, I rarely paid heed to my earlier artistic “influences.” I’d occasionally spot a familiar painting or style and think, “Oh, that’s by … er (what’s that name?)” But, having subsequently discovered the instant gratification of photography, I lent scant attention to what traditional artists were up to.

As described in my previous post, in the last few years I’ve sensed inviting urges–memories arising at odd moments and even dreams–from my artistic past. About a year ago, a seemingly offhand conversation with my eldest daughter prompted a Google search to retrieve an artist’s name. The information I unearthed triggered in me a serendipitous cascade of realizations and connection-making–and pointed me toward the creative steps I’m again taking.

This sequence of events began simply enough. I attempted to recall the name of a popular artist whose best-known paintings feature cakes, pies and other treats rendered in thick pastel textures. The only name I could think of at the time: “Diebenkorn.” I keyed that search term into Google. And the returned results led me, in turn, to a Wikipedia entry for painter Richard Diebenkorn.

Diebenkorn, I soon recalled from my previous exposure to his work, was an acclaimed abstract-impressionist who came to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s. Based at The University of California, Berkeley (where he was a faculty member), Diebenkorn was a leading member of a mid-century resurgence in representational art known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Now as I reviewed examples of Diebenkorn’s work, I remembered some of his better-known paintings. His characteristic style–particularly from the middle of his career–reflects real life scenes and people, but captured in boldly abstract, impressionist form.

Most interesting, I was startled to realize the abstract, somewhat ambiguous appearance Diebenkorn achieved was the look I was going for in much of my landscape photography. I’d had no conscious memory of Diebenkorn’s imagery. But I’d absorbed his influence; and, unconsciously, that continued informing my own artistic work in a wholly different medium.

Diebenkorn, however, wasn’t the painter of pastel pastry compositions I’d originally searched out. But his Wikipedia entry provided a clue. Among its reference to other artists associated with Diebenkorn, I quickly recognized another name, Wayne Thiebaud,  as the pastry artist. Along with being associated with the Bay Area Figurative school, Thiebaud is often considered a so-called “Pop” artist. His sometimes whimsical but critically praised paintings further buoyed my creative enthusiasm and interest in art.

I also noticed a personal connected to a key influence on Diebenkorn’s artistic development, namely, his passion for the realist painter Edward Hopper. I’d first discovered Hopper, an American artist most active in the first half of the twentieth century, when I was still in grade school. He’d become my first serious artistic crush: a modern artist who painted in a realistic, representational style.

Edward Hopper, 1930:  "Early Sunday Morning," (Reproduced under WikiArt.org guidelines for public domain artworks)

Edward Hopper, 1930: “Early Sunday Morning,”
(Reproduced under WikiArt.org guidelines for public domain artworks)

His paintings’ starkness and moral ambiguity stand in marked contrast to the sentimentality and easy accessibility of my earlier favorite artist, Norman Rockwell. Significantly for my maturing point of view, Hopper’s work echoed more adult themes of ambiguity, cultural decline and social isolation.

Naturally, while enrolled in that drawing class in my early adulthood, I chose Hopper’s iconic Early Sunday Morning when an assignment arose to create a personal variation on a favorite masterwork.

Steve Cox, 1983: "Collage Based On Edward Hopper's 'Early Sunday Morning'" (Graphite pencil on paper, mounted on board stock)

Steve Cox, 1983: “Collage Based On Edward Hopper’s ‘Early Sunday Morning'”
(Graphite pencil on paper, mounted on board stock)

Somewhere amidst this sequence of events (or right after—I’ve forgotten their chronology) I found a September, 2013 Time magazine article, “When Age Produces Beauty.” This story presented a pictorial of artists who remain creatively vital well into their 80s and beyond. Included among these venerable masters’ images was a shot of the now-93-year old Wayne Thiebaud, intently hunched over his easel. He describes his nearly continual devotion to his craft as a “kind of madness.”

Absorbing that “final” (which I’m hesitant to conclude) discovery, I mulled the key “takeaways” seemingly directed my way by some unseen-but-determined fate. I realized anew I love being immersed in the art world and associating with creative people; I miss learning about art and its progression; and, most important, I recognize my latent passion for working with my hands to create my own art. Oh, and apparent from Thiebaud’s example, it’s never too late to get back to it.

After that, it merely took a chance remark to my therapist to bring me to decisive critical mass, and set my creative process back in motion.