overcoming fear

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.

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.)



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.