Iguanas, Battling Fear and Adventures with Blue Ink

Dipping dead of winter temperatures. A creative freeze. Going into a new year I had all this great momentum, ideas and projects ready to go. Then it snuck up on me. Second-guessing, doubts, and perfectionism blocking all my progress and plans.

All the planned studies and finished drawings of birds came to a stop. Not even a feather found in any of my sketchbooks. Perfectionism and self-doubt always dance together, ripping oxygen from the room.

I spent most of the week focusing on small, confidence-building draughtsmanship exercises. I attended a weekly figure drawing group I enjoy. In the evenings I looked through my favorite work of dead artists. While enriching and practical, these efforts hadn’t vanquished the creative malaise.

Going through old sketchbooks and journal entries reminded me of an idea I had for these hard moments. To get through a slump we could sketch the opposite of whatever we find ourselves stuck on. Tough block sketching subjects we love? Draw what we show indifference towards. Sketch what shakes us with irrational fear.

In my case, reptiles, crocodiles and the like. They chill the marrow in my bones. Even after living for a stretch of years in Florida, I never did get comfortable around reptiles.

Breaking a creative block drawing birds by turning to reptiles

Why draw something we fear? To remind us that in our sketchbook, we are in charge. That empowerment turns something we fear into an opportunity to develop courage and discover something new, unexpected. Second-guessing and perfectionism have little chance to survive these revelations.

How did this lead to my blue ink iguana? I spent a short while looking through videos and images. Began thinking about my experiences with the reptiles. Easily, I remembered the biggest iguana I may ever see in my life.

I had just dropped off my parents at the airport. Driving back, I spotted it. Making its way out of the Intracoastal waters to intimidate the cars passing by, was an iguana the size of a couch. My Jetta doesn’t exactly elicit fear. Thankfully the big ole’ curmudgeon agreed. The massive iguana lifted its head high, triumphant. Satisfied, it turned back and moved slowly to the water. The impression forever cemented.

Lounging iguanas under bridges and docks solidified in my head. Pictures maybe even clearer than of my favorite birds. Is it easier to remember and draw the things we fear than those we love?

Invested, my visual search continued. Little effort lead to upsetting stories. Over the past year, the University of Florida had a grant to exterminate iguanas in an awful, violent way. Invested became determined inspiration. I went right into the sketch.

I’ve been handwriting journal entries in fountain pen. The ritual inspires focused intentional expression. The jump from writing to sketching in fountain pen can be difficult. I find the benefits to both acts similar. This challenge to break through my slump was about finding inspiration and facing fears. Fountain pen and ink reinforce this idea.

I have two fountain pens I use. One filled with black ink the other with blue. I thought the blue would make a nice statement for the head of an iguana. The flow of this blue ink feels rich and velvety on paper. Unlike the black ink from the same line, it does take longer to dry and is not exactly waterproof. Both attributes welcome to a wet brush for a lovely wash. For such a permanent medium, ink actually provides a surprising amount of options.

Fancy pen in hand. Barrel full of ink. I meditated over this small study. I thought about all these different fears and doubts I had. It focused me on why I draw. Why did I start drawing after years away from a sketchbook? Reconciliation.

I should draw reptiles more often.

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?

Two Sketchbooks One Commitment

National Library of Colombia

It had been years since I did any kind of regular drawing. It had been much longer since I had considered myself a full-time creative. But at the end of this past Spring, a series of mishaps that resulted in the loss of old work I had forgotten woke me up. I was upset and angry. I decided to take a hiatus from keyboards and screens.

Fortunately, we had some traveling planned. I left all my technology home. I decided to just bring a small sketchbook to carry around the entire trip. That was the only commitment I made. No concept, theme or grand visions of a perfectly executed small masterpiece of travel drawings. I actually decided to make a point of not marking a single page.

It would be an extensive exercise on observation. I had spent a few years as a street photographer looking for unique moments lasting a fraction of a second. This was similar but I paid as much attention to lines, shapes, and tone. Holding the sketchbook was like a taut string around my finger reminding me to marry observation and interpretation at every step.

The city I walked for the next ten days happened to be Barcelona. I walked through every single neighborhood of that incredibly inspiring and welcoming city. Street after street, in shops, markets, food stands, and cafes. I listened to music, learned enough Catalan to make out sandwich boards and signage. I spoke Spanish the rest of the time. We met wonderful people. Ate well and were constantly taking in all different views of this city. I observed and interpreted.

I came home and went right into experimenting with materials. Going out to coffee shops and public spaces. I took every opportunity to draw without hangups, expectations or judgment (and no erasers!)

I filled a sketchbook with all kinds of color and medium tests. I set it aside. I then picked up another sketchbook just in time for our second trip to Bogota.

Same self-directive in Bogota: Unplug, carry a sketchbook everywhere and walk every day with it in hand. This time, however, I would stop and sketch, draw. I brought a few inspiring drawing books from our local library that were incredibly helpful to keep me from suffering creative block which admittedly is hard in a brand new city.

I came home and after this second trip decided I would get back to creating. I would return to the reason I started studying art, to begin with: I love to draw.