When Every Fear Comes True

We tried everything. Prepared. Inspired by our own pep talk. All that work to push our fears to the side. The time comes. We fail spectacularly. Every fear comes true.

Last Saturday I attended a drawing event on the East side of Manhattan, in a highschool cafeteria with a few hundred strangers. The sixth annual Portrait Party.

What’s a portrait party?

  • Artists assigned to separate groups
  • There are twelve, ten minute rounds
  • Each team member sits once for their portrait
  • The group finishes when everyone has sat for their portrait
  • Set drawings from each team into a grid
  • All attendees walk around viewing portraits and socializing

I had prepared. I gave myself a pep talk. I warmed up at home. I warmed up on the train. I arrived early and warmed up sketching attendees as they walked into the caffeteria.

Two things about warming up

  1. I warm up every day for ten to twenty minutes
  2. As I warm up I notice any tendencies that need correcting

I ignored what I was seeing. Everything was a little off. Gestures, straight line and ellipse drills. But I pushed through without adjustment. Convinced I would do well and those kinks would magically melt away.

Don’t confuse arrogance for confidence

  • Confidence draws on attention to planning, preperation and familiarity.
  • Arrogance is misguided and blind to gathered information

I decide maybe an extra cup of coffee that I didn’t need would help give me more energy and focus. That extra cup had my hands go from slightly unsteady to nervous breakdown. The organizers called on everyone to get to their groups. The event was starting in the minutes.

We sat down and prepared to begin. With one of the “rules” being to use big, bold lines and colors, I decided on using markers. While I keep markers for quick sketches, they’re always thumbnails, not full drawings. But I had a plan. Create a background of fun shapes with limited bright colors. A bold, black line drawing would take up the rest of the ten minutes.

For this to work the lines, contours, proportions had to be perfect. The first try was the only try. Anything after that would just show the mistake as the lines were equal in weight. At best the drawing would look like a ball of yarn among creative kittens.

Most of the attendees painted their portraits. Forms and layered shapes allowed for softer, elegant mistakes. It was a smarter approach allowing a forgiving process during ten unforgiving minutes. In contrast, I compounded an unforgiving bold, black line with an unnegotiable, ten-minute time limit. My arrogance to set me up to fail.

Yes, I was unhappy with the drawings I made. Embarrassed, I set them down in our group’s grid. I walked away, taking the sour ball of self-consciousness with me. I made this day solely about every portrait turning out terrific, patting myself on the shoulder before the day even started. Was it all about the end product? Is it ever?

Our group’s final grid. I was amazed at what attendees accomplished in short time

I’ve always held the idea that growth, self-discovery, needs uncomfortable moments along the way. Something alien, new. Something known. A deep fear.

Planned or unplanned, we need these moments. Not to make us better. To reach an understanding. Yes, it can lead to improvement. Sometimes dramatic. Improvements are great. Understanding is why we want to improve.

While we’re deeply embedded. Our moment of crisis, unsettling confusion exposes the worst. Every fear, humiliation and mistake we’ve ever made swell from this one moment. Our thoughts overwhelmed. We go from what was a bad afternoon to a full blown crisis.

It isn’t. The waters will recede in the following days. Revealed will be the lessons we weren’t seeking. Answers from our undiscovered selves.

I unpack and make a full inventory. What went wrong that will end up being right?

I know that afternoon had roughly half a dozen variables of fear and discomfort. Collected, what do they tell me? I went when I wasn’t up for it. I stayed when I wanted to tear up everything and walk away.

I finished. Gathered everything. Said my goodbyes and thanked the organizers.

Sometimes experiences don’t mean anything. There are no deep answers. Accepting that the time spent had it’s own unique value that lived and died that afternoon. Accepting that sometimes understanding what failure is and isn’t has value. Once in a while we need a bad afternoon to remind us of that.

24 Ways to Improve Our Drawing

I wanted to share my personal list. Most I have incorporated in practice in some form. Others are aspirational. All are ongoing efforts. They have all helped me improve since I started drawing again regularly six months almost to the day before this post.

Each item could and likely will become their own post but for now – Let’s get to it!

  1. Dexterity Exercises
    Drawing is a dexterity exercise in and of itself but there are other fun, proven ways to improve our hands
    • [ ] Origami
    • [ ] Learn to use chopsticks more often
    • [ ] Studies with plasticine
  2. Draughtsmanship Drills
    • [ ] Learn what angle we naturally create the straightest lines
    • [ ] Mirror the angle of our best straight lines
    • [ ] Rows and columns of straight lines
    • [ ] Ellipses, ellipses, and ellipses
    • [ ] S and C curves
    • [ ] Set various points on paper and draw lines through them from every angle
  3. Don’t Get Hung Up…
    • [ ] if you didn’t get everything done on your task list (See #9)
    • [ ] on that first blank page of a sketchbook (See #13)
    • [ ] on the impossibly good masterpieces on social media (See #12)
    • [ ] on a bad drawing, session or day
    • [ ] on our seeming lack of progress (We’re wrong!)
  4. Blind Contour Drawing
    We hate it. We stink at it. But it’s the exercise that can be done anywhere with any subject and nothing improves our ability to see more than this slow, steady, study.
  5. Try a Big Round Brush and Bottle of Ink
    Another frustrating (at first) practice. This could have been included in #1 Dexterity Exercises but really deserves its own place. Few things improve a heavy, tense hand than drawing thin and varied lines like a big (try a size 10) round brush.
  6. Gestures
    The perfect compliment to #4 Blind Contour Drawing, gestures are fast, fun and loose. They are the lines (Note, many lines. Not a single action line) that give life to our drawings. Try starting from the belly button out to help with correct proportions.
  7. Time and Log Sessions
    It’s done in pretty much every drawing class. Use the Pomodoro or simply increase the increments from five to twenty-five minutes. Keep a record of these timed sessions to look back on later.
  8. Study Dead Artists and Very Much Alive Teachers
    We’ve probably heard the advice of studying the work of the past masters. There is something oddly less intimidating in studying our favorite artists from history in comparison to the latest Instagram star. However, we should find a few instructors who inspire with their great lessons. Either from a local drawing group, an instructor who recently releases a book (last 10 years) or who runs a favorite YouTube channel. Let’s maybe even send them a thank you note.
  9. Create a Schedule
    This pairs with #7 (Time and Log Sessions). Create a schedule every six weeks. Decide on a progression of exercises, sketchbook work, and/or projects to work through over a six week period. It’s a good way to stay focused and you can be sure after six weeks to see improvement.
  10. Work with a Variety of Mediums and Tools
    We’ll always gravitate towards a favorite medium but let’s set aside time each week to play with other tools. There’s something to learn in each tool about line, mass or both that we can bring back to our preferred pen/pencil/brush/paper/etc.
  11. Get Uncomfortable
    • [ ] Eat the Frog in the morning
    • [ ] Take our weaknesses head on
    • [ ] Work on our strengths within the medium we’re weakest using
    • [ ] Tackle our weakness in our favorite medium
    • [ ] Sketch in a public place we’ve never been to before
    • [ ] Draw in a favorite spot we never dared to bring a sketchbook to before
    • [ ] Sign up for a challenging, intimidating workshop
  12. Ditch Social Media and Start a Journal
    Where to begin… The unproductive sapping of our time, attention and carefully nurtured self-confidence? Yes. The greatest infraction of all these networks is how they guilt us into feeling the necessary, best and, only true way to promote ourselves (is that really our goal? See #21) or source of inspiration. It is inevitable that we fall into the trap of comparing our B reel to an Instagram star’s A reel. By all means we should show and share our work with others. However, we can and should do this on our own terms and turf. Set up a blog, have fun with a blank stack of postcards that we send to friends with a personal note to each. The responses from both will be more sincere, informing and meaningful.
  13. Keep Two Sketchbooks
    • [ ] A-Reel
      The one we show. The one where all our hard work comes together. The one that follows a theme or concept in a nice neat (Not perfect. See #14) package.
    • [ ] B-Reel
      Where we encourage mistakes. Where we experiment. Where we try new things. A safe space to be uncomfortable (See #11)
  14. Our Sketchbook is Precious, not Pristine
    We take our sketchbooks everywhere. They have our notes, show progress, failings, insecurities, triumphs and… well, they are that and more. But one thing we should never consider them is a pristine object to be encased in glass with special overhead spotlights. We can aim for perfection in our A reel sketchbook but never let that paralyze us into inaction. Otherwise, we risk keeping a pristine BLANK sketchbook for months until it’s forgotten altogether.
  15. Make Use of Our Local Library
    Drawing and art history books get expensive. In one year I borrowed over a dozen drawing books that were all helpful. I renewed the loans on at least half of them. I ended up ordering two for my bookshelf. Also, librarians are awesome and arguably our best resource. Become friends with our local librarian, we won’t regret it.
  16. Make use of the Produce Aisle
    • [ ] The cheapest available subjects that have been used by artists for centuries to gain and show mastery in our craft. We can make it interesting by pairing items that would never be seen or eaten together (eg. a black radish and plums).
  17. Draw Peppers
    The real kind. Not the ones that are “perfect”. The twisted, collapsed and bulging peppers. The ones that look alien but still immediately recognizable as a pepper. They’re a great source for perspective, volume, and vitamin c.
  18. Stretch and Jump
    Nothing and everything to do with drawing. Drawing is as physical an activity as it is analytical. While drawing we often suffer from tension, tightness and sitting hunched over the table into a ball of nerves. Some simple stretching, jumping jacks or throwing up our hands and dancing to a favorite song provide the looseness that can bring more life to our lines while not letting us take ourselves too seriously. It’s a few minutes that remind us the process is fun.
  19. Silence Our Biggest Critic
    • [ ] Focus on the process, not the end result
    • [ ] Meditate, learn to push out yesterday, tomorrow, later this evening or earlier this morning. We gain nothing in burdening ourselves with what already happened or what we think is to come.
    • [ ] Our biggest critic will use social media to exploit our insecurities (See #12)
  20. Draw Confidence from the Process
    • [ ] #7 Time Ourselves and Log It
    • [ ] #9 Create a Schedule
    • [ ] Find comfort and joy in whichever routines we develop over time
    • [ ] There is no destination without the journey and the best journeys are never a straight line.
  21. Mix and Match a Wet with a Dry Medium
    • [ ] Wet with dry watercolor crayons
    • [ ] Brush and ink with graphite
    • [ ] A dry brush with watercolor straight out of the tube
    • [ ] Gesso with pretty much every one of our materials
  22. Make Our Own Tools and Kits
    • [ ] Art supplies get expensive
    • [ ] Learn and support our process in a much more personalized way
    • [ ] Helps us to better know our tools
  23. Take Our Kit Everywhere, All the Time
    • [ ] Leave a sketchbook in our bag, car, nightstand or leave it in the same place we keep our keys
    • [ ] Take our sketchbook even when we are sure there won’t be an opportunity to draw
  24. How Important is Drawing to Us?
    Yes, this could (maybe should) have been the first item. It is last intentionally to instill the habit of regularly asking ourselves this question. The answer will evolve, maybe change entirely. Being aware of this will make sure that what we do each day has greater meaning and supports us on days we aren’t at our best. Deciding and understanding how drawing is important to us provides the inspirational foundation for everything we do.

I wish you the joy of discovery and satisfaction from your dedication to drawing.

Do you have a #26, #27 or #28 way to improve our drawing skills?

Making a Big Splash on a Rainy Day

Last week on a dark and rainy morning I took a small dish of leftover water I had soaked the tip of a lovely Prussian blue crayon. I opened my sketchbook to a blank spread, held the dish of bright blue water above it and let it spill out across the two pages. I set it aside to dry while I moved on to other tasks.

In the afternoon I went back and stared at the arrangement of stains. The day needed some fun color. After doodling away a Koi out of the bottom larger stain I brought out a handful of companions to swim along.

I like creating sketchbook prompts like this to store away for a later time. I ended up giving in to impatience and playing with this spread on the same day but I try to set random backgrounds for myself in my sketchbook then forget about them. It’s a good way to break up a rut, create a creative challenge and have some impulsive fun.