First, let me say this. Despite the title, yes, this is actually a post about art. Before I can get to the art, however, I want to share a few thoughts and tell you a little more about our “rescue kitty”, Flower Child. There is a connection here between our experience with her and my drawing studies, so bear with me as I tell her story — at least, what we know of her story.
Flower Child was found wandering the streets in September 2020. The “good Samaritan” who found her tried to locate an owner, but no one came forward to claim the kitty. Unable to keep her himself, the Samaritan took her to a nearby shelter. Thank goodness it was a true “no-kill” shelter, otherwise I doubt that Flower Child would be here now.
She was, you see, a “problem child” in the shelter. Maybe not quite on the level of the cats you see on “My Cat from Hell“, but definitely not a loving, gentle kitty. At the shelter she was, of course, spayed and vaccinated, and in December 2020 she was adopted out.
Within days, however, she was returned. The family said she was “too rough”, “too mean”, and so it was she once more became a shelter cat. Other shelters would likely have “put her down” at that point, but thankfully HELP Humane does not euthanize “bad cats”.
When we came in to the shelter in late May, we had never met Flower Child. We had seen her photo on the shelter’s website. She was a young calico. Exactly what my husband wanted. This cat, you see, was going to be his cat.
The adoption process took much longer than we’d anticipated. The shelter was concerned that Flower Child might go to a “forever home” only to be brought back once again. They wanted us to visit with her several times so that we would be fully aware of her “difficult” personality. The shelter director wanted to be sure we understood that we weren’t getting a snuggly little lap-cat.
Even when we visited her in the shelter to get acquainted, she wanted nothing to do with us — or anyone else. She didn’t want to be held. She didn’t even want to be touched. She hissed. She growled. She kicked, she bit, she latched on with her claws. No, she was not a friendly cat.
But neither was she an aggressive, dangerous cat. She was a frightened cat, and most of all, she was a highly-sensitive cat. The shelter was quite relieved when I told them we truly believed Flower Child was at the shelter waiting for us, that we felt we could give her the care she needed. It took twenty minutes for three adults to catch her and get her in the carrier, but finally on June 2, Flower Child came home with us.
After four months, she is still not a lap-cat — unless I have treats in my hand. Yes, she’s happy to sit on my lap while eating Kittles, and when we take her for drives, she’ll get in my lap so she can look out the passenger side window.
Yes, she will let us pet her, and she loves to be groomed. She has her own “grooming table” that she’s claimed, and she looks forward to being combed — especially her head and chin. When combing her or petting her, however, we have to be aware that she is highly-sensitive and easily over-stimulated.
Now that my husband has retired, he has more time to spend with Flower Child. He was actually a bit upset that she didn’t want him touching her, especially since I was able to pet her. She’s grown accustomed to being home with me. I’ve learned how to approach her, how to avoid those “trigger spots” that can set her off.
And so it was that I found myself having to teach my husband how to pet our cat. It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Even a young child knows how to pet a cat, right? Yes, that’s true. But a greater truth is that cats are not all the same. Some like certain things; others don’t. For some cats, light, patting touches suffice; others crave those long, slow, luxurious head to tail strokes.
I had to teach my husband to stroke Flower Child’s head, to rub her chin, to massage her shoulders. I had to explain that too much touching was too stimulating for her nervous-system to handle. I had to point out that she’s extremely sensitive on her belly, so don’t put pressure there when picking her up. And again, all the while, I’m thinking to myself, “How crazy is it to teach someone how to pet a cat?” Of course, what I was really teaching him was how to pet our cat, how to give Flower Child the love she needs in a way that she can enjoy.
Now, what does all of this have to do with art? The connection here is that sometimes the things that seem obvious — like how to pet a cat — really aren’t all that obvious at all. Sometimes, in order to get the results we desire, we have to learn things that sound absurd. Like… how to hold a pencil.
Yep. That’s how I spent much of my morning yesterday. Of course, in some respects, I shouldn’t have been surprised by having to learn how to hold a pencil. This is something I’ve been fussed at about since I was four or five years old. If you’ve been reading here for a while, you already know that I was one of those “switched” kids — forced to learn to use my right hand instead of my naturally-dominant left. So, no, I’ve never held my pencil “correctly” in the eyes of many. OK, so I have this weird grip. It works for me, all right?
Just as Flower Child is a bit sensitive and “touchy” in certain areas, so am I, and this is one of them. Please, stop telling me I’m holding my pencil wrong. Please, just back off and let me hold the pencil however I want. If you want me to use my right hand, then let me do it in a way that I can! (I’m addressing all of these comments to people from my past, you understand.)
Sorry for the emotional upset there. Yes, even now, all the hurt remains, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s actually about my frustration with “messy” drawing, or more accurately, “messy” shading. Take a look for yourself at yesterday morning’s drawing practice.
It’s not much to look at, and the scan doesn’t really show my messy shading very well. This exercise was about seeing and drawing “enrichment shapes” — highlights, reflections, shadows, and details. The subject was a colored glass bottle. I looked in my pantry, but even my olive oil was in a clear bottle, so I browsed online for a reference photo:
The assignment was to spend a minimum of twenty minutes on this drawing, so I took my time and carefully observed the different “shapes” formed by the different values. Although you can’t see it in the scanned illustration, I did mimic those dark areas on the sides, the long “reflected light” shapes and the various other value changes. But everything I did looked sloppy and messy. My shading is never even, and after getting out a blending stomp and attempting to smooth my shading a bit, I only had a bigger mess.
Back to basics. Back to browsing online for instructions on proper shading. That’s where I began, and I’m certainly not the only online searcher who is seeking that information. There are dozens of articles and video tutorials on “how to shade”. I watched a few, but they weren’t helpful. They explained a lot about “where” to shade to create realistic forms, but I’m not interested in “where”. Before I can shade anywhere, I have to know how. And that led me finally to a video titled “How to Hold and Control Your Pencil” by artist and instructor Stan Prokopenko.
Has it really come to this? Am I really watching a video lesson on how to hold a pencil? Yes, I was, and while I can’t say that I learned anything new, I do understand that practice would be helpful.
Essentially there are two basic grips for holding a pencil while drawing. There is the “tripod” grip, which is what most people use for writing or for fine, detailed drawing. Of course, there are always weird people like me who have developed our own version of a tripod grip, and no, don’t expect me to change!
When it comes to shading, of course, this “controlled” tripod grip isn’t the best choice. Using a tripod grip means that we’re essentially moving from our wrist, making short strokes with our pencil or pen. Shading requires a longer, more fluid motion. That means moving from (a) the elbow, or (b) from the shoulder, which is what Prokopenko teaches in his video. It also means using an “overhand” grip. Unfortunately for clumsy people like me, that grip means less control.
“Proko” suggests practicing by filling entire pages of a sketchbook with curved lines, loops, and shading. I’m going to follow his advice. If I keep practicing, hopefully my ability to shade with graphite will eventually improve.
For what it’s worth, there are other pencil grips, too — more or less variations on these first two. If you feel you could benefit from learning (or re-learning) these basics, you might find this article helpful:
Here’s a quick look at four pencil grips.
Basic Tripod Grip
Extended Tripod Grip
And, just out of curiosity, I did an online search on “How to Pet a Cat“. Indeed, there’s information out there. So maybe it’s not such a silly question, and when it comes to art, there’s nothing silly about learning how to hold a pencil. Just don’t try to make me change my writing grip, please. I do the best I can, and it works for me.