I’m part of the “baby boomer” generation. In the 1960s we were “coming of age”, discovering ourselves, and setting out to change the world — which we ultimately succeeded in doing. One of my personal favorite books from that time of my life was an adaptation of Bill Naughton’s play, Alfie. You might be familiar with one of the two film versions that have been produced. Michael Caine starred in the first, produced in 1966, and Jude Law played the title character in a 2004 version. I’ve seen the former, not the latter, and with the 1966 film, I’d say “read the book instead”. As for the 2004 remake, I can only wonder how the story could possibly seem relevant to filmmakers in the 21st century.
I know, you’re wondering what any of this has to do with art and learning to draw. Actually, quite a lot, and I’ll be getting to that. First, I want to share one of the most memorable lines from Alfie. It’s been years since I’ve read it, so my quote might not be accurate, but it’s close.
To set the stage, Alfie is a young British fellow with a lust for the ladies — birds, as he calls them — and at one point he’s spending a lot of time with a little sparrow named Gilda. Alfie tells us how during that time, he often remarked:
Blimey, gal, you ain’t as ugly as I thought.
I hated Alfie at that moment in the story. How could any man say something so awful to any young woman?
That line, however, has become one of many from the play that I quote time and again. Here’s where the play connects with art. My reaction, you see, to a drawing I’ve completed often parallels Alfie’s:
Blimey, gal, it’s not nearly as awful as I’d thought.
The first time I remember having that reaction was with “The Cat”. I’m almost embarrassed to post this picture, and if I were going to do the drawing over today, I’d do a lot of things differently.
Please excuse the reflection of my camera flash. I haven’t yet learned how to take decent photographs of drawings. This one, as you can probably tell, was photographed after I’d framed it. Yes, “The Cat” became the first drawing I’d done which I felt worthy of framing and hanging on the wall.
For what it’s worth, “The Cat” is no longer hanging in my living room, but for a time, walking into the room and seeing my artwork on the wall gave me a boost of artistic confidence. Look, I drew that! It’s not all that bad, really.
Well, during the drawing process, it was all that bad, so bad, in fact, I didn’t even want to complete it. “The Cat”, you see, was a measurement of my progress. Self-taught artists like me need to examine ourselves from time to time, make critical assessments of where we are in our studies. When I drew “The Cat”, I was at a turning point in my journey, a sort of fork in the road. I’d completed all the “Beginner” lessons in Matt Fussell’s “Secrets to Drawing” video course, but was I ready to move on to “Intermediate” level?
To answer that question, I decided to test myself with a series of drawings. I would do one drawing of a living creature, one drawing of a place, and one drawing of an inanimate object. Sort of an artist’s version of “person, place, thing”.
I found a photo reference, made a grid, and set to work with my pencils. Soon I was discouraged. I’d bitten off a bit more than I knew how to chew. I had no idea how to draw the cat’s fur, no idea how to portray a white cat on white paper. And what about those whiskers?
The temptation to give up was strong. But this was a test. I had to finish the drawing, no matter how awful it turned out. So, I kept moving that pencil over the page. And I grew more and more discouraged. Finally, I put it down and walked away.
Later, as I passed the table, I glanced over and saw the beginnings of a cat — a real cat — looking back up at me. Words from the past echoed through my brain. “Blimey, gal, maybe it’s not as bad as you think.”
Long story short, I finished “The Cat” — and two other drawings, as well — decided that I was ready to move a step beyond the beginner’s rank, and began working with the intermediate level drawing lessons at The Virtual Instructor.
Since that time, I’ve had that same “not-as-bad-as-I-thought” reaction to many of my drawings. I had that reaction when I tried Victor Perard’s “Fundamental Outline” drawing exercise. I had that reaction again yesterday when I opened my sketchbook and saw the first sketches I’d made following Barbara Bradley’s drapery tutorial. Both of these were “hard things” for me to attempt.
Again, I apologize for the poor photography. I’m grabbing these pictures with my cell phone, and I haven’t yet figured out how to best make photos of drawings and paintings. Maybe someone reading this will give me a few pointers.
The “not-as-bad-as-I-thought” effect has often surprised me, and it’s made me realize that I must never be too quick to judge what I’m working on. It’s only after I put a work down, step away from it, and then come back to it later — usually viewing it from another perspective and another state of mind — that I realize what I’ve done isn’t all bad. When I can see even the slightest hope within a drawing or painting, it encourages me. It shows me that I am making progress. I’m getting better each day. I remind myself often that I’ve only been drawing for a few months and I wonder where I’ll be as a few more months go by.
My message for other aspiring artists who struggle with doubts is simply this. Keep going. Keep drawing. Keep believing in yourself. Chances are when your drawing is finished and you look back at it as a whole, you’ll see that it’s not awful, not ugly. It might actually be very good.