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.)




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.

Drawing My New Path

During my childhood, until about the time I finished high school, I was constantly drawing pictures. Realizing I possessed talent for drawing–and being recognized for that–I strived with paper and pencil to capture my world as realistically as possible. I admired and studied the work of well-known illustrators as M.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, as well as lesser-known personal favorites: aerospace artist Paul Calle, automotive illustrator Werner Buhrer and sports artist Bob Peak. Art teachers encouraged me to develop my talent further and experiment in other media. And, sometimes, I even fantasized about becoming a professional artist.

I really enjoyed drawing, and felt excited when I realistically depicted a subject or when I noticed my technique improving. When I was immersed in a drawing, I could lose track of time. Moreover, beyond simply making a drawing “look like” a particular person or object, I sometimes sensed a deeper intuition about my subject–as if I were “seeing” it more acutely. Many of my most contented memories from adolescence echo moments when I was listening to my favorite music while absorbed in a new drawing.

While I appreciated art in an immature way, “doing art” was personally more a means of imaginatively injecting myself into typical adolescent male fantasies: sports, automobiles and motor racing, and, especially for me, space exploration. Consequently, I most often drew from my imagination or copied photographs from magazines and newspapers–while disregarding the advice of a well-meaning high school art teacher, who implored me to draw more from real life. Venturing out to depict the larger world seemed like too much effort. And, for the introverted teen I was, drawing offered a socially acceptable mode of keeping a low profile.

Sadly, as I grew older and my interests shifted, I also lost much of the impetus for my creativity. Adult concerns increasingly monopolized my attention and free time. Eventually I all but abandoned my interest in drawing and illustration. By my late-twenties, however, I discovered photography. “Making photos” seemed to fill some of the visual-creative void left when I gave up drawing. Certainly, the gratification from making a good photograph came quicker than from painstakingly drawing an image.

Taking pictures also relieved me of a discomfort that increasingly undermined my creative efforts: namely, persistent and pointed self-criticism. In my perfectionism, I unrealistically compared my every result to the achievements of seasoned professional artists. This nagging doubt and internal fault-finding led me to mostly avoid drawing. (They certainly undermined any interest I harbored about formally pursuing art.)

More than a generation has passed since I last completed an art course. I’m now approaching my 60th year. But, in the last few years I’ve woken to recall vivid dreams in which not only was I again drawing, but also now painting. I also find myself particularly interested in media profiles of people creating various types of art. And I enjoy pondering the wonder of the creative process–and whether some vestige of it remains latent in me. Late last year, I mentioned to my therapist how I’d “just been thinking” about resuming drawing. Being alert to such telltale psychic hints, she promptly suggested an ongoing “homework” assignment: to practice drawing at least four times a week.

For the last few months I’ve been gradually practicing and reviving some of my drawing skill. Especially at the start, I struggled to sit and draw for even 15 minutes at a time. And I was very “rusty” and out of practice. But enough of my old ability surfaced amidst the discomfort–and outright strangeness–I felt to encourage me. For sure, drawing no longer centers on teen fantasies; I now draw exclusively from objects and scenes I find in “real life.”  Moreover, I’ve yet to really feel as absorbed by drawing as I recall. Mainly, it seems like I’m mentally hacking through a tangle of weeds that for decades gradually enveloped my creative potential.

Up to this point, I’ve mostly succeeded in keeping my expectations in check (including occasionally “forcing myself” to draw more spontaneously–and not erasing “mistakes!”). But my old perfectionist side doesn’t succumb easily. I’m still resistant to–if not outright scared of–beginning a new drawing. And I know I rarely hit the “four times a week” target. But, recently, I felt inspired and reassured by reading two passages that offered perspective on my creative commitment. The first reminds me of the importance of being attentive and mindful–which are both key to working creatively:

“We have these brief lives, and our only real choice is how we will fill them. Your attention is precious. Don’t squander it. Don’t throw it away. Don’t let companies and products steal it from you. Don’t let advertisers trick you into lusting after things you don’t need. Don’t let the media convince you to covet the lives of celebrities. Own your attention — it’s all you really have.” -Jonathan Harris

The second passage is perhaps even more pertinent to me. I daily fight for the discipline–and outright courage–to simply sit and draw. I really need the reassurance that it’s okay when my motivation wanes–or when I get irritated and frustrated with the drawing process:

“Passion is such a key ingredient to living life truly alive. … The root of the word “passion” is found in the Latin word “passio” which means “suffering.” On the surface, the word “passion” can stir emotions in us that inspire, motivate, and elevate us to live life at a higher, more exciting, fulfilling level. But … “suffering” is always at the core of passion. We cannot have one without the other.” –Barb Elyett

So I’ve decided it’s okay for me to keep chipping away at this drawing thing–even if it’s not always fun. Feeling “unmotivated” is part and parcel of any worthwhile pursuit. What’s most important is that I keep “suiting up” and following through, especially as I develop a long-term habit for drawing.