Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Getting Sketchy

I've always envied artists who carry sketch pads and charcoal with them wherever they go. Their world is completely foreign to me. In my mind they are the silent observers of life, peering through tortoise shell rimmed glasses in smokey coffee shop corners, watching . . . capturing. They buy unlined journals because their minds are not linear. They sketch multilayered stories of their communion with the world, and we the audience can only guess their meaning, so mystically personal is the world they see.

I often wish others could just see a child, a bird, a dusty old book, a worn out pair of shoes, a gesture . . . the way I see them. But I'm afraid that while my hands are comfortable on a piano keyboard, they are awkward adolescents with a pencil. Not only do they not know what motions to make, but I can't "see" the animal I'm trying to sketch before pencil touches paper. My most telling experience was in Japan, playing Pictionary with some students. I was drawing a cat, and in that moment forgot what a cat even looked like. My kids were puzzled.

"Eh? Nani? Rabbito deska?"

I've never had a knack for the visual arts. Music and words have usually served my expressive purposes. But I've always wanted to learn how to draw.

So that's what I'm doing.

I'd like to learn how to paint some day, too, and walk around town in my paint-drizzled bandanna and overalls smelling of lacquer and saw dust . . . but first things first. Learn how to draw, Suz. Hannah's learning animal names right now, so I thought animals would be a good place to start. Plus I want to improve my Pictionary game. I mean, this is where I'm starting:

Like how I labeled them, so you'd know what they were? No, these drawings are not from grade school. I'm ashamed to say I drew these animals three weeks ago. Yeah. It's that bad. Definitely not something that comes naturally to me. At. All.

So, after Hannah's story time at the library one Tuesday I decided to browse the art section to see if there was anything to help me get started. I was extremely self conscious, and more than once found myself looking around to make sure no one knew what I was up to. I got even MORE paranoid when my search led me to the children section of the library, where there was a whole series of "Draw 50 _____" books by Lee J. Ames. Cars, dinosaurs, people, flowers, foods, trees, dragons . . . I could learn to draw 50 anything! Crouched behind the bookshelf I thumbed through these little treasures with their torn pages and broken bindings. A lot of the pictures were traced over with crayon and colored pencil. I imagined some 7 year old kid turning each page, thinking, like I was, how great it would be to learn to draw all 50, and practicing every day until he returned the book to the library, a little more love written in its pages than before. I said a prayer for that little boy as I walked away with "Draw 50 animals" tucked under my arm. Maybe he was in college now, drawing comic strips for the university paper, or designing an urban layout for the future of this small town. I wondered if, for him, this book was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with art, and hoped that it might be for me, too. Still nervous, I checked over my shoulder at the check-out desk. I felt like I was buying a pregnancy test, afraid that anyone I might know might look at my wares and say "my my, what do we have here?" Nothing. Just a test. Just trying it out.

"Ok, this will be due on April 13th!"

Two weeks. That was how much time I'd give myself to learn how to draw not 50 but ONE recognizable animal. It was a test. Just a test.

I bought myself a sketch pad and a set of graphite pencils, took the bag home with my library books, and in my nervous excitement stuffed them in a corner of the living room where no one would see them. When I had a quiet moment to myself that didn't entail reading, writing or passing out from the exhausting work that is keeping a 2-year-old alive, I sat in that corner, admiring the textured drawing paper in my sketch pad, sharpening my new pencils while inhaling their woody scent, and pouring over "Draw 50 Animals" with all kinds of lofty ideas in my head. What if I learn how to draw the animals that live in my back yard . . . all those deer, squirrels and cardinals whose simple beauty take my breath away? What if I could finally capture my rolling Kansas hills, my delicate red buds, my dusty wooden barns, using nothing but these pencils? What if I could draw a portrait of my perfect daughter?

The book wasn't in any particular order - no beginning, intermediate or advanced drawings. So I chose a cow. I knew it was something Hannah would like (and I'm always looking for her praise - the extra encouragement is a real boost), and my cow was probably my worst drawing, looking like a mix between a capybara and a throw pillow. Now, I'm aware that my cat also looks like a bowling pin, my dog like a transvestite centaur and my bird like a flying peanut, but I also really liked the drawing in the book - the lines of this particular cow caught my eye and made me think, "Wow. This really is a beautiful creature." So here is my first attempt at a non-throw-pillow-looking cow:

Unless you know more about cows than I (and you most likely do), you might be thinking "wait, female cows can't have horns!" Yes they most certainly can. And do. So there.

Here's what I learned:
1. To avoid making nasty grooves in the paper and using up an entire eraser on one drawing, use a lighter touch with the pencil, especially in the first few strokes of your drawing.
2. That everything you draw, no matter how complex, can be broken into very simple shapes, and that it's good to figure out what shapes your subject contains before beginning your sketch. This cow started as a rectangle and a sort of cone - something I can wrap my art-handicapped mind around.
3. That hooves are unbelievably difficult to draw, especially when there are four of them that must look like they are all from the same animal. I still haven't figured them out, as you can probably see. What a beautiful complexity is the cow hoof! Needless to say, I did NOT choose a hoofed animal as my second subject.
4. That female cows can have horns.

I knew the ultimate test would be whether or not Hannah recognized my drawing. Children are wildly astute when it comes to facial recognition! In fact, that's how they are able tell animals apart - cows from horses and capybaras, cats from dogs and bowling pins . . . it's also how they make connections between cartoons and coloring pages and real, live animals. A few times Hannah has mixed up cows and horses in her coloring books, and I didn't really blame her because the drawings weren't very good. But she knows when a cow is clearly a cow, so I was actually a little nervous when I showed her my sketch. I held my breath while opening my sketch book to the cow . . .

"Cow! Moo!"


. . . and then I drew a snail, because hello? How cool are snails? Sketching this snail was surprisingly soothing - not at all the stress of hoof-drawing. Something about the pattern of lines and shading on the shell calmed my nerves that night. I was a little sad to say goodbye to this little guy when I finished him. He definitely won't be my last snail.

Stay tuned for more sketches. I'm going to try to post some every Tuesday. Oh, and I like comments. Just in case anyone was wondering . . . :D


J said...

You like comments, I love drawings!

One of my favourite types of drawing books when I was a kid were sea creatures. In fact, when we went back to PA in August, one of the younger siblings had this book:
I snuck an hour or two by myself to draw sharks and rays and octopi. It was very...therapeutic.

Your cow and snail are really cute, and definitely identifiable. You couldn't have picked cooler animals to start with. Yeah, definitely start with lighter lines first, as you and your paper discovered! ;)

One of my books suggested learning to draw not just the distinguishable features of things, but trying:
-drawing just the outline of objects and shapes you see, and in just one continuous line
-drawing the directions of movement of different things, sans outline
-drawing objects as a series of increasingly darkened shapes, from front to back, as an exercise in depth (ie. which parts of this figure are the closest to me? Which are furthest away?)

The most important thing is that drawing can be learned. It's not an innate "You have it or you don't" thing. If you draw a little each day, you'll grow better. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time too. I'm envious that you have an appreciative audience in Hannah!

More snails please. <3

Suzie said...

Weird, it says "0 comments," but here yours is! Did you do something fancy?

Anonymous said...

I flipping loved those "how to draw" books when I was a kid. They taught to draw. And, apperantly they are teaching you. Very cool, woman. That cow is SWELL. I compliment you heartily, even though you wouldn't let me join the cool quote club. That is an alliteration.

Tenessa said...

simply stunning

courtney*adele said...

love your snail. he's super cute... now, get some fabric, draw him on with a fabric pencil and you've got an embroidery pattern! :) too much fun! share more pics when you do them!!

Suzie said...

*Sniff* Thanks guys!

Samantha said...

You totally have a knack for that! People who just can't draw can't do that!

Suzie said...

But Samantha, I totally didn't fake those first four drawings!!