During the recent Sketchbook Revival 2021 program, I learned more about the concept of “slow drawing.” This is akin to Zen doodling or working with Zentangles, except that it’s not quite so deliberate. Hmmm… I’m not sure if that’s the right word or not. What I’m getting at is that with Zentangles, you have specific instructions on how to begin, and you’re usually working to create a specific pattern, such as the ones shown below. And if you’d like to learn how to create these patterns, just click on the image. It should take you to a YouTube tutorial.
I played with Zen doodles and Zentangles a bit last year with somewhat mixed feelings. At first I enjoyed the process a lot. Doodling is a wonderful way to kick back and relax, to get lost in the meditative aspects of mark-making. After a while, though, I lost interest in doodling, at least with the Zentangle aspects of it. I began to feel as though I were just repeating the same patterns over and over again. I got a bit bored with the confines of 4-inch squares. I found that concentrating on intricate patterns was not restful and relaxing, but quite the opposite. I tensed up, worried about getting the pattern right, and often felt disappointed with my finished piece. At that point, I knew it was time to put the doodling aside and move on to other art activities.
Slow drawing is a similar process in that it focuses on mark-making, not visual representation of any specific objects. It is a repetitive process, designed to help quiet the mind. It’s another form of meditative art. As with Zen doodling, I have somewhat mixed feelings about it, but since I’ve recently been engaged in a number of “slow drawing” exercises, I decided to share my experiences here.
My first go at slow drawing came through Amy Maricle’s workshop during Sketchbook Revival. We drew “holes” — and at the time, it was exactly what I needed. Since then I have visited Mindful Art — her website — twice to take part in her Slow Drawing Wednesday sessions. Each Wednesday at noon (Central Time) she goes online and leads viewers through a drawing exercise.
My first visit didn’t last long. I no sooner joined the video presentation when I was interrupted, so I logged out again. Although she offers a replay — available for a limited time each week — I chose not to go back but to wait instead for the next week’s exercise.
The title for the drawing the following week was frond — making marks that are (or which could be) similar to the fronds of a plant. I followed along, slowly but surely, as we made four rows of fronds. Later I used my gansai to color them in.
Some participants remarked that their lines looked like a picket fence. They reminded me of a fine-tooth comb. The odd thing for me, however, was that doing this was not relaxing in the least. It did not soothe me or make me feel peaceful and calm. As with some of my earlier Zen doodling experiences, each mark I made seemed to make me more tense. Unlike my experience with drawing and painting “holes”, this exercise seemed to provoke anxiety.
I felt, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare,, “cabined, cribbed, confined”. The quote is from Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 4, and it continues, “bound in to saucy doubts and fears.” An apt description of the emotions I felt as I worked on this slow drawing.
But why? I think this particular exercise disturbed me because I didn’t grasp any meaning or purpose behind what I was creating. This, by the way, is on a small piece of watercolor paper, only a few inches wide. So, what to do with it? How to use it? I don’t know. I might just paste it into one of my journals.. but again, why?
One thing I’m learning about myself and art is that I can’t fully enjoy it unless it has some personal meaning for me.
Another time, I attempted to re-create the restful feelings of drawing and painting “holes”, but this time using squares. Again, the results were not what I hoped. You can see how awkwardly these squares were drawn and painted. The experience made me nervous and anxious.
Drawings like these are based on the premise that if you repeat a single element over and over, it will become interesting. Yes, I can see that. Repetition is an important principle in art and in design, and true enough, we can create attractive pieces by this method.
A design or drawing like this might fit in well with an art journal as an interesting background or as part of a collage. I say this all with a shrug. It comes back again to the idea of finding meaning in what we’re drawing, and maybe this is why I grew tired of the more mindless doodling I was doing.
After completing the “slow-drawing squares”, I was feeling especially restless. I had to do something! My gansai set was still close at hand, so I began doing my own sort of “slow-painting” exercise, just making swipes of color across the page. I let some of the colors blend together, and I began to see a landscape — of sorts — emerging. My intent was to use all the colors in my small set, and the result was a magnificent, imaginative sky in a fanciful landscape.
This, I liked. I can’t say that painting helped calm me in any way, but maybe that wasn’t the point here. Maybe this is just more of a pure expression of how I was feeling.
For the most part, I can say that slow drawing and I don’t seem to be a very good fit. Other than that first experience when I so desperately needed the simplicity of sitting down and making meaningless circles on a sheet of paper, the process of repeating patterns or shapes seems to increase my anxiety level. Not a good thing. Is it the act of sitting still for such a long time? That’s part of it, I think, but more to the point it’s a nagging feeling of wasting time. When I invest time in art — even in simple exercises — I need to feel that I’m doing something constructive, something purposeful.
And thus it was that I didn’t bat an eye when I picked up one of my fashion illustration books which presented a series of basic drawing exercises, a way of warming up for more detailed work. Fashion illustration requires familiarity with drawing, an understanding of simple mark-making, and above all, an appreciation for shapes. So, along with exercises for making straight lines of all sorts, there were instructions for filling sketchbook pages with shapes. Yep. Squares. Circles. Triangles.
I found this process enjoyable, not nerve-wracking. This, you see, had purpose behind it, not a purpose of creating art itself, but a purpose in helping me improve my drawing skills. Much of the exercise is intended to help beginning artists become comfortable with holding a pencil, comfortable with putting marks on the page.
Another reason why I fared well with this set of exercises is that I chose to do it at a most opportune time — while my husband and I were driving to visit his parents on Sunday. The drive takes almost an hour, so I was able to use that time in a very productive way.
Two additional exercises were included. In the first — those of shape-making — the idea was to create repeated shapes that didn’t touch or intersect in any way. The next exercise was to make shapes that touch or which are connected in some way.
I didn’t use an entire sheet of paper for this one. It was interesting to put these shapes together.
The final exercise involved overlapping shapes. This was a very small drawing in my sketchbook. At this point we were nearing our destination, and I was nearing my point of… yep, boredom. Enough is enough.
I felt I had accomplished all I’d set out to do. I’d completed the entire series of exercises, and I’d grasped the basic principles. Yes, I’m comfortable with a pencil or pen in my hand. Yes, I can make basic shapes. Yes, I understand how shapes can stand alone, touch others, or even overlap. And, most importantly of all, I saw that these simple exercises are good practice for learning fashion illustration or for any other sort of drawing.
Now, let’s go back to Amy Maricle and her slow-drawing practices, back to her weekly Wednesday workshops. Will I attend again? Or will I write off slow drawing as something that doesn’t quite work for me? You might think this is odd, but I do plan to take part in future slow drawing sessions. Because I seem to have such a negative reaction, I think maybe there’s something in the process that I need to examine more closely. I need to understand why making simple, repetitive patterns can sometimes throw me off kilter, make me nervous, anxious, and irrationally upset. I know the sense of purpose is one thing, but is there something more? I don’t know, so this is why I’m choosing to EXPLORE — that’s my 2021 word, you know — a little more, dig down a little deeper and see what thoughts and feelings I might uncover.
And there’s more to this story, too.
Our world sometimes seems to be speeding up. There’s often a sense that “faster is better”, but do we really have a “need for speed”? I’ll invite you to ponder this question a bit, and I’ll be sharing additional thoughts about slowing down in the world of art, and in other areas of life, too. Be watching! And please, share your own thoughts and opinions on this topic! I’d love to know how you feel.