A Lesson On Drawing

During the second year of my undergrad, I took a figure drawing class.  The teacher had the most stale breath I've ever smelled and he would sometimes fall asleep at the back of the room in his chair and forget to give the model a break.  He hated my work.  He took me out in the hall a few times and not so gently suggested that I change my major, or really think about what I was getting myself into.  At one point in the class, I was relegated to the corner to draw things like spheres and cubes while everyone else worked on the figure because he said, "I just wasn't getting it."  It's true.   I wasn't getting it.  The teacher wanted me to use all of these mathematical methods to measure the figure, then somehow transpose that from my head, through my hand and onto the paper.  I hated it.  My figures were noticeably terrible, as in, they had triangles in places where triangles shouldn't have been.  I was pretty discouraged, and so was the professor.

One day, after another measuring lecture in which he once more demonstrated how to hold your thumb out just so, than translate the proportions, he was fed up.  He realized that what he was trying to teach me was simply not working.  He said, "why don't you just forget everything I've tried to teach you and just draw what you see."  It was the most wonderful thing anyone had ever said to me.  I did draw what I saw.  Thick rounding lines in some places, soft thin ones in others.  But it was more than that for me.  I imagine if I had wings and could fly around the room, it would have felt similar.  My drawings didn't look realistic, at all.  They were delicious to me though, not because they were the best drawings, but because something I had always been afraid to do because I couldn't do it like everyone else, had awoken in me.  You may recall this post about self-handicapping, and displacement activities.  I was the queen of both when it came to drawing.  I wanted to draw well so badly, but I couldn't bring myself to make terrible things first.  I was always so nervous that my drawings would be strange and that people would want to correct me.  I found a million reasons not to draw, even though I was in a college art program.

That day though, in the old, upstairs figure drawing room, with all of the plastic anatomy skeletons hanging limply on the walls; the kid with headphones who smacked his gum way to loudly; the dingy, charcoal-smeared floors; and a giant pad of sketch paper across my lap, I felt like I finally was seeing.

I don't remember where or when I heard a concept that has helped me, maybe I just made it up, but I think of it a lot.  Here it is: Think if you were to stand in front of a horse and someone asked you to draw it.  Would you try to illustrate what you think in your mind a horse should look like without even really looking at what is in front of you?  Or could you stop, even for a few moments, worrying about what you think a horse should look like, and savor the lines, shapes, and movement in front of you.  Could you follow them with your eyes and let your hand guide you without looking down at your paper? Could you allow yourself to draw something absurd, something that fits outside the bounds of what you have pictured in your head.  If you've never done this, I think you should this weekend.  You don't have to draw a horse, but find something to draw.  For some minutes, try to erase, or at least ignore all of your pre-conceived notions about what that object is supposed to be or to look like. Don't even bring an eraser.  Get a big piece of paper and follow the lines with your eyes, and let your hand do the work.  I think you'll be surprised at what happens.

Don't do lots of short little movements or marks.  Let your lines be long, ebbing and continuous.  When it comes to drawing, it is easy to spend more effort trying to cram what we 'think' something should be into the space where we should just let something happen.  We worry so much about illustrating the notion we have in our head that we forget about the real lines in front of us.  Drawing is so often taught as if there is a formula for it, a tree always looks like this, a face looks like this, etc... but for me, un-doing the things I thought I had learned, was most helpful. I talk to so many people who say, "I couldn't even draw a stick figure."  I don't buy it.  I think you could do much better than a stick figure.  Drawing is a vulnerable and therefore wonderful.  We surrender for a few moments not to what everyone else has told us things have to be, but to what we actually see in front of us.

I won't wax to melodramatic, but I will say that I think drawing is an excellent metaphor for life in general.  I believe we far too often live under the pressure of what we assume things have to look like or be.  We don't though.   Probably what we are capable of creating with the tools right in front of us is much better.  Our drawing, or our lives may not look like what we had imagined they would when we set out, and thank goodness.  An actual unraveling of creation is much more beautiful and interesting than a illustration of something we've built up in our minds.  The Irish poet, John O'Donohue wrote, "I would love to live/ Like a river flows/ Carried by the surprise/ Of its own unfolding." Bless him for those words, and bless my grouchy old professor who insisted that I just draw what I see.

I would love to hear how your drawings turn out.   

Here is an artist I love, Maira Kalman.


Heather said...

Excellent post! And you know I love watching you paint, and especially outline your portraits first! You never, ever look at the paper! It's amazing! Cousin
Luv 4 eva

Racher said...

Ashley, I so love everything you write. Was that the German professor? I remember being a model for your class a couple of times!

Heather said...

Love love this post! You have such a beautiful way of expressing yourself (both in words and in visual art!) You are so real and inspiring -- which is amazing considering how talented you are! Thanks for encouraging a few "mistakes" as we play around with creating. You're great!

aubry. said...

i loooove maira kalman! i was looking for a print i saw of hers on design sponge a few weeks back. i emailed her and she just wrote back! someone that popular has no business replying to meeeee!

also - i was an art major for three days. i quit because i couldn't "draw". hmmph.

melimba said...

Okay, I love this post (as I do with ALL of your posts)---but I totally remember the moment when I felt like I really had learned to make the lines how I felt they should go. And, I remember being so critical of myself in figure drawing too---and finally, it clicked and I realized I captured the model differently than the awesome people surrounding me, and that was okay.

And, I loved the stuff about the line work you talked about---and advice to skip the sketchy/hatched lines and to just go for it. Once I learned that tidbit, I was so happy and it was so freeing! Right?!

Ahhh... I love that you tapped into all of this fun stuff. You, my dear, need to teach classes again someday. And, really, in this blogging world, you are teaching. So, keep on keeping on. And, we, your fans, will be right here cheering for you!

p.s. no! I'd never heard of Maira Kalman!? Where have I been? I love her work now and she's a new favorite. THANK YOU for introducing her to me.

p.p.s. can't wait to see your letter you did! wish I could have been there to see them all too.

p.p.p.s. I just wanted to add another post script because I could. the end. happy wednesday.

Rachel Hunt said...

Ashley, this is fortuitous, because I have a new goal to remember how to draw. Or just to draw. It has been since childhood since I have really tried. One day when I was sick I sat in front of my mirror for hours and just drew what I saw. It never looked like me, but I (sometimes) liked what it looked like.

Shelly said...

Oh, ASHLEY!!! I just DID it! Hahaha! I've been afraid to draw since I was in 1st grade. I'm serious. And you know how old I am... I've been thinking about your drawing lesson ever since I saw it and I've been almost trying to ignore it but I couldn't! Every time I go back and read it though my heart skipped a beat. Really!

Anyway, I thought I'd be brave and give it a try. It worked! Anyone else would think a 5 yr. old drew these pictures, but I really did put pencil to paper and DREW! A lamp, and then Curtis -- the cat. I can't believe it. Oh, my gosh, I'm so excited about this.

If you taught online classes I'd be your most faithful student...THANK YOU for even thinking about sharing your talents and especially for actually sharing! Who would think it would be your old aunt that would be this happy about it?!

ashmae said...

Rachel, yes! It was that professor, and I think you did model for our class.

You guys, I love hearing about your drawing experience. I'm glad I'm not the only one who struggles to get going!

Shelly, I'm emailing you write now!