personal growth

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.)



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.