Not too long ago, I started drawing again. I say again because, let’s face it, as children, pretty much all of us drew. I wish I had my old childhood drawings but they are long gone, tossed out with the contents of a cluttered garage in Missouri where more than a couple of mouse families had taken up residence. I don’t blame anyone for throwing away stacks of dirty, old, rodent-shredded paper and I don’t want to make my parents feel bad by saying this, but I do really, really wish I had my childhood art because it might remind the inner critic in me to ignore all the things I get compulsive about.
It’s a complete cliché, but nevertheless must be said: children draw with a freeness and fearlessness that any working artist envies and covets. In the ubiquitous words of Pablo Picasso, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Whenever I visit schools, I get at least a half-dozen drawings slipped to me by the end of the day. It’s such a kid-way of telling someone you like them… draw something for them and add a little note. I can see the urgency they are feeling as they give it to me, usually later on in the day, hours after their assembly with me. I imagine them working at their desk to finish it and then trying to explain to their teacher why they need to leave the classroom, maybe missing part of a lesson, to wander the halls looking for Dar Hosta. If I remember back to how important these small moments were when I was a child, it sorta breaks my heart a little–but in a good way.
Often these folded up papers they give me are relevant to my presentation– a picture of my dogs, a drawing of one of my book covers or animal illustrations. But sometimes, they are random bits from the mind of a child and resemble more of an artist’s journal page. These are the ones I almost feel guilty about taking because they are so personal and I wonder if they will become the grownup who, forty years later, will try to imagine what on earth they could have possibly wanted to draw as a kid. One of my favorite drawings came from a second grader named Lydia who was obviously very intrigued with the recent ballet film, Black Swan. I find it both odd and wonderful that this was what she decided to give me.
I never went to art school and, so, I have no professional training when it comes to technique or materials and did not start off with a foundation of drawing as many art students do. When I began doing art it was much more the crafty type stuff–dried flowers and ribbon, glue-guns, beads and then paper, which led me to a life of collage, my first, true art-love. Over the years, I learned so much about adhesives, paints and papers that my collage work became wonderfully intricate but woefully time consuming. By the time I was working on my third book, Mavis & Her Marvelous Mooncakes, the majority of art I made was not at all spontaneous but instead served a specific purpose and making it was something very structured as well as something solely meant for public consumption. I now believe it’s possible that, as the people who saw my art expressed amazement at the details and the skill that my collages took to create, I may have unconsciously added more steps to making them. The work made me feel proud, however, each book spread took many hours and, ironically, where I once retreated to my studio to play with paper and make “stuff,” the time out of my studio had now become my retreat. Like, someone, please, take away these scissors, find me a toilet to scrub, some laundry to fold or a list of groceries to shop for! I was clamping up.
So, about three years ago, I started painting on canvas. My thinking was that I could make paintings in order to produce art that was faster and freer than the collage work. I was familiar with acrylics already and just needed to teach myself to use a soft, bouncy canvas as a place to paint, rather than cut, my mostly nature-inspired motifs. Trees… this is where I began. My inner critic showed up right away and many of my first paintings met a bottle of Gesso almost the same day they were born. I even gave a small 8×10 canvas to my father because I was certain it was cursed after attempting to paint over it about four times.
After a few months I hit my stride and actually started selling them. OK, so now I am a painter, I thought! Cool! I can make a painting faster than I can make a collage and I don’t have to think about it too much, especially if I just stick to the tree theme that people seem to love. The problem was, though, that a similar dynamic began to take place: as soon as the public began liking and buying these paintings, the pressure was on. I began feeling like I was going to have to make them extra good and probably keep getting better at this. So, I added more detail. The leaves got smaller. The canvases got bigger. There was more space to fill now. I began embellishing them with the dot-work and ink of my collages. I painted the deep canvases on all four sides, even the bottom, and added decorative text and more details to these small, narrow strips.
Now, the paintings were taking as long as the collages. Stacks of new canvases sat in my studio next to those that remained “unfinished” and I got to the point where didn’t want to go in there and see them unless, of course, I had a show. I was clamping up. Again.
One of the things I like to do when I am feeling all clamped up is to look at the work of other artists. I actually find it relaxing to seek out the work of artists whose style is playful and loose and I keep lists of their web sites so that I can go back to them whenever the vibe in my head is off. It was last year, during one of these surf sessions, that I discovered a whole bunch of artists who are doing Art Journaling. When you google “art journaling,” the second site on the results is Tammy’s site at Daisy Yellow. Tammy has become an online acquaintance of mine and she has a terrific page called “Art Journaling 101” that I think really gets to the heart of what this is all about.
“Art journaling is about the creative process of pulling together color, words and images as you wish on a page. Unlike many other forms of art, it is not about the outcome.”
Once you jump into the idea of art journaling, you realize that it’s really also about drawing and keeping a sketchbook. I think “sketchbook” sounds a little scary at first, though, because it implies (especially to my inner critic) that there is some sort of prerequisite sketching skill involved, but I have been trying really hard to keep this notion out of my head. Now I was on my way to exploring all sorts of blogs that featured drawing and sketching. And, best of all, there is no shortage of creative people out there who can help you be inspired or provide you with a prompt that you can run with. In fact, there is even a big online group that began the first of this year called The Sketchbook Challenge where you can go for inspiration, sharing and more.
I decided I would begin to draw again.
So, I signed up for some online drawing classes. First, however, I bought a whole bunch of beautiful, new materials–paper, pens, watercolors, more pens, two Moleskines, watercolor pencils, even more pens, binders and loose paper, kneaded erasers, and a nice carrying case for all my tools. I was the kid whose best memories of school include the trip to buy school supplies and the feeling of utter joy at looking at them all stacked up, clean and unused. So, I began my drawing adventure by doing some goofy drawings for Carla Sonheim’s Art of Silliness class. Carla took away the fear of starting something on a blank sheet of paper by providing a “worksheet” that already had some stuff on it–a great strategy for those of us who are terrified of “ruining” a brand new Moleskine.
Then I took another class with Alisa Burke and this is where I could feel the old, compulsive and critical me coming out. Alisa is about the breeziest sketcher you can imagine and her Sketchbook Delight class is all about looking around you, being inspired and drawing every day. I love her stuff. She works fast, all on camera, but she is more methodical than Carla and I think that spoke to that part of my artist’s brain that was too easily seduced into working and reworking a drawing. Now, instead of doing quick and silly drawings and studies, I was spending hours on very intricate drawings, adding more layers, going back in with my old ink dots and starting to clamp up again. And, I still hadn’t touched my pretty Moleskines even though I had purchased a third one.
So, I went back to Carla’s blog one day and did a series of funny bunnies that got me loosened up again.
Lately, I have been learning from Jane LaFazio who talks a lot about loose techniques and tools. She also speaks to finding subject matter by just drawing your own life and verbalizes the liberties she takes with rendering this “real life” which I appreciate. I am also reading a book by Danny Gregory called An Illustrated Life, a beautiful collection of photographs from the illustrated, art journals of many different kinds of people, and not all of whom are artists. Danny and these others write about the way that drawing in a sketchbook has changed them, made them more focused on their lives, on a moment and the world around them and how it has calmed the clatter of their minds. Rick Beerhorst, an artist who lives in Grand Rapids describes what a sketchbook and drawing habit can be rather nicely.
“My sketchbooks serve me as a place to draw any time, anywhere. They help me stay free and, at the same time, help me get connected to the world around me in a deeper way. I think of the sketchbook more as a place to play–not for sale, not for exhibition, just a private place to be a kid again and stay curious about everything.”
I read these words late last night, exhausted after the weekend and getting ready for the Monday ahead. The ridiculousness of having three beautiful sketchbooks that I hadn’t touched hit me… at this rate, my nice new pens would be dried up before they ever marked the pages. For all my talk about playfulness, I was making all this drawing business way too much work. As for the problem of what to draw, how about the stuff I was cleaning up in the kitchen? I went downstairs and brought up my very pretty and neat “sketch box.” I opened up my medium sized Molskine and, admittedly, skipped a few pages just to appease my inner critic a little. I told myself I would only spend 20 minutes on a drawing and then leave it alone, forever. (Gasp.)
Tomatoes out on the counter. And, I’m not even going to talk about what I would change. Then, this morning I woke up about 15 minutes before everyone else. It was still pretty dark but the birds were chirping their heads off. Everything is exploding in green around here and spring is so very much happening. I love it. I also love my coffee and often dream about it during the very first moments as I am waking up.
TRY THIS WEEK: Draw something! Just try it.