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I have history with drawing

What exactly is going on when I decide to make a drawing I wonder, what is so complex about this apparently simple decision to make my mark? Drawing has waxed and waned as a significant part of my artistic life and I have often wondered why that is. This article is a personal tracing of my tracks. I want to look at how drawing has been present at different times in my life and absent at others and what it has meant to me. I suspect there’s an arc in my history from drawing for other people’s approval towards drawing for my own satisfaction – or dare I say – delight.

Winning skills

I have been drawing as long as I can remember, I got praised for it as a child so it often had positive associations for me. It was one of the very few things I could do better than my older brother, it was my winning skill, a precious super-power in my young brain. It was something I could do for hours, it rewarded my interest and attention, I could get involved in it and the stories I created with it and then I could show my family what I had made. I had precious evidence of my effort and ideas, of my interests and progress.

Then at about age seven or eight a new boy turned up in our class at school. He was better at drawing than me, it was really difficult, like suddenly getting a sibling where you had things all to yourself before. I am not sure how I recovered from this (or even if I am really still working on it) – I was always the ‘artistic one’ in our family – so when a rival for the title turned up at school I felt seriously insecure. I was surprised and disheartened – that is clear now. I felt I lost more than just the status of being the best in the class at drawing. I think echoes of that young trauma are still present in the background to this day when I draw.

So drawing in a group often has an edge of competition for me, I am always wondering how far up or down the ladder of skill I stand compared to others, its quite a distraction from the challenge of making the drawing which is hard enough in itself.

I started drawing again at the start of 2021, not just jotting down little working-out-scribbles, proper observational and composition drawing. I completed the 30works30days project this April and I finished the100daysproject ten days later. For both projects I decided to make a drawing every day so I had an intensive blast of charcoal, pencil or watercolour on paper to help me get back into the habit.

I use drawing a lot anyway, in an everyday way to work out how to make things, to design the shape of my ceramic artworks and sometimes just because I want to work something out in my sketchbook. When I was last in the habit of drawing I just wanted to feel the power of creating something by tracing a path with a pencil across the paper with my hand, guided by impulses, ideas, occasional grand intentions. It seems you have to have an idea to get started. It seems you have to have a plan or an intention, even if that plan is “I am going to make some random marks now”

Sculptors drawing space

This is one of the reasons why it has been such a pleasure to discover @SculptorsDrawingSpace run online through Zoom by sculptor Mark Richards. In this group – that varies in numbers but usually about 30-40 people – drawing for a solid one hour session every Monday evening you see peoples faces or backs and hear their pencils on the paper together with a few noises off, the occasional dog, cat or songbird joining in on the audio stream. At no point do you see each others drawings, there is no Show and Tell so you can’t make those comparisons and rankings that we automatically do in non lockdown drawing class situations. This is such a relief for me.

The other striking thing is how powerfully benevolent the near-silence is. It feels like you can hear the concentration, the collective effort to maintain this space for drawing only, not chatting, not watching, not getting distracted. The group has an energy that really supports the participants by working on something in each others presence but not physically with each other, it’s an extraordinary congregational quality that has to be experienced to be believed. I recommend it to anyone who wants to make space and time for drawing in their lives. For me it has been a really positive discovery born from the strictures of lockdown culture.

Drawing is free

Recently I have done some online portrait sessions with @drawingisfree  organised by Chloe Briggs. This involves a group of people taking it in turns to pose for the rest of the group who draw quick portraits of them lasting about 4 minutes (the duration of a song on Spotify). The session lasts for an hour and is very intense. Getting a likeness is a real challenge especially in such a short amount of time, there is only one chance to get it right or wrong so the hour has an urgent and immediate feel to it.
What I am noticing about this is how intimate drawing someone else’s face is. Learning to look at how anothers face is put together involves an intense and busy gaze, an examination that would be quite invasive and unsettling in any other context. After the sessions I was looking at peoples posts and comments on Instagram and feeling like I knew them quite well – despite never having spoken a word to them. This is another experience that is a new synthesis from the necessities of lockdown which would probably not have occurred in any other circumstances.

A new perspective on drawing

The Sculptors Drawing Space and Drawing is Free groups have given me a new understanding of drawing as an activity. While I will always strive to make each drawing the best I can, this meditative quality of shared energy makes me think more of the process, that the act of making time to draw is significant and that the time spent with my concentrating self (and others) is beneficial and the quality of any drawing I do is a bonus rather than the sole aim of the exercise.
I am quite amazed at the qualities of these Zoom experiences, I really did not expect relationships mediated by technology to have such subtlety and atmosphere and especially the energy of a collective presence or a sense of intimacy. I think this points to the generosity inherent in these exchanges and I note too that neither of these events involve an exchange of money which I think really allows the notion of goodwill and shared endeavour to develop.

Practice makes perfect

Sometimes in my life I have drawn a lot and improved my technique and confidence. The start of 2021 is one such interlude. But it has happened before, when I did my GCSE’s (then known as O Levels ) as a teenager for instance. It also happened when I attended weekly classes with June Collier in my thirties and again when I ‘rediscovered’ drawing for it’s own sake about 15 years ago and made quite a long series of A1 size drawings over about four years. But the main pattern is that drawing comes into my life and then later disappears. I hope I am now disrupting that tendency.

Like most tacit skills (skills that rely on a combination of muscle memory and learning) drawing improves with practice, the more you do the better you get, as with playing a musical instrument. What I am now questioning is why I have allowed drawing to be neglected for long periods in my life when it is clearly something I can do and also something productive that I can enjoy if I don’t get too hung up on the results.

Even when I was a professional freelance illustrator, I chose to make my name as a photomontage artist rather than drawing – although I did also build up a secondary brush drawing style. This might be a result of being taught on my foundation course that photography was the new drawing and thus drawing was more part of the past than the future. Photography has a lot to recommend it of course but I do feel drawing is being rediscovered partly in reaction to the ubiquity of digitally manipulated photographic images, which are becoming increasingly hard to believe are true accounts of anyones actual experience. Drawing can now be seen as something handmade, something less contrived and more likely to be free of interference or artifice.

Drawing is difficult

I do think drawing is technically difficult, you have to really concentrate to make it work at all – it’s not something you can do half heartedly. So many of us give up on drawing entirely around the age of ten when the balance of reward versus effort becomes too negative and our drawings start to look too naive and child-like to bear as we start to negotiate the transition out of childhood.

I am beginning to think that drawing also has certain elements for me that are charged with things I have felt a need to avoid. Here’s what I can identify :

  • Competition
    – I fear that I might not be the best and the emotional burden of that could discourage me.
  • My own Judgements
    – I fear that my drawing skills are inadequate, that my work will look amateurish or insufficiently photographic or up to the expectations of others.
    – I worry I may have insufficient talent – that I may not have sufficient aptitude to make drawings that are good enough, so it might be best to let my internal judge shut me down before I embarrass myself in front of others.
  • Impatience
    – Drawing takes time and practice, you have to do it regularly and frequently to build up and maintain your skills, it takes patience to let them grow.
    – Drawing takes concentration, energy and time. If you are short of any of these it gets harder to do. In observational drawing just placing the shapes and size of the elements of any image in the right place, at the right angle and scale is very hard and can be shown as inaccurate at any moment as you review the components of your artwork.

Drawing is risky

I feel I should put the other side of the story here. I originally wrote that ‘drawing is fun’ but that just doesn’t adequately describe the complexity of the whole sequence of events and feelings. The process of making marks on a page to form either a recognisable version of the scene in front of you or an original composition from your imagination is exciting, mysterious, challenging and can be rewarding or frustrating. There is definitely something that keeps me trying, something that makes me continue but fun is not quite it. Something is driving me back to drawing repeatedly just as some of the difficulties I have identified tend to drive me away again. I don’t think I understand what that drive is yet. I do want to draw, in order to draw I have to risk drawing badly sometimes, it seems to be worth the risk most of the time.

A drawing complex?

What is going on each time I decide to make a drawing is a series of complex thoughts and related feelings based on my personal history with the medium. I imagine most people have an equally complex set of experiences to deal with. Continuing drawing after childhood is seriously challenging and the vast majority of people decide to let it go. Those of us that continue must have somehow managed to extract more pleasure than pain from the drawing process or we would not persevere with it. There seems to be a lot to learn about why so many people decide to persevere with drawing in the face of the technical and emotional complexity of the medium.

Relaxed concentration

Drawing also has the potential to transcend these issues and emotions, if you can find the balance between release and control, being relaxed while concentrating, which you could describe as ‘being at one’ with the drawing. Drawing uses different parts of the brain than most of the things we do, it is particularly different from operating a computer and offers a change from those kinds of logic based tasks to the extent that people use it as a way to relax and lose themselves in a different way of thinking and being. Is this special atmosphere what keeps me and everyone else who persists with drawing coming back for more perhaps?

I don’t know yet – I will keep looking and keep drawing. What do you think and feel when you draw? What motivates you to draw if you still manage to?

Reference and inspiration:

June Collier “I try to get the charcoal or paint to become the thing it is describing…”

Art & Fear by Ted Orland and David Bayles

Drawing on the right side of the brain by Betty Edwards:

@sculptorsdrawingspace on Instagram

@drawingisfree on Instagram

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