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.


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 guidelines for public domain artworks)

Edward Hopper, 1930: “Early Sunday Morning,”
(Reproduced under 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.