Tough Questions

If you browse through recent posts here on this blog, you’ll see a lot of bad drawings. Some are better than others, thank goodness, but overall, the drawings I’ve posted recently have not been very good. One reason for his is that these aren’t actual drawings. They are merely quick sketches, all done in a matter of minutes. Even when I’ve done objects, animals, and landscapes, my approach has been a bit gestural — merely trying to capture the essential lines, the basic shapes, the rhythm and movement, if any, of the subject.

It’s all part of my summer “crash course”, and at times, I certainly do feel that I’ve crashed. It’s not a pleasant feeling, and it’s caused me to think a lot about my relationship with art. I’ve found myself asking a lot of tough questions.

A few days ago, I wrote that sometimes art is hard. I don’t know if others experience those days, but I suspect that every new artist encounters moments when learning to draw or paint seems hopeless. Maybe those who are born with natural abilities in art don’t have those bad moments, but they come often for me. I have no natural talent for drawing. Every “good” mark I make has been made possible only through practice. Over the years since I began learning in 2015, the process of drawing has become a little easier, a little more natural, but that’s when I’m working with very simple illustrations.

This is progress, I think. But then, I quickly think again, and I wonder… am I really getting any better? Unfortunately the answer is, “Hmmm, I’m not sure. Maybe I’m only getting worse.”

What’s happening is that I’m discovering that learning to draw was a lot different from learning to draw better. When I first began learning, I approached it with an entirely different attitude. I was expecting to fail and was delighted when I succeeded. Now, the opposite seems true. With a few basic skills to my credit, I’m expecting to succeed, and feeling very disappointed when I seem to be failing time after time.

My approach to drawing in recent weeks has been to very quickly work my way through a sort of “remedial” drawing course. I started with basic exercises, then moved quickly on through drawings of various subjects. But, wait… let’s stop here for just a moment. I’m not making real drawings. I’m merely doing quick sketches. There’s a difference there, at least, there’s a big difference for me.

A drawing involves a considerable amount of time and the careful application of various drawing techniques. A drawing requires correct proportions, proper perspective, and lines in all the right places. A drawing makes use of shading techniques to turn shapes into three dimensional forms. A good drawing has a sense of reality about it.

A sketch, in contrast, is done quickly and uses only the most basic techniques. It’s good to get the proportions and perspective correct, but it doesn’t always happen when we’re making quick sketches. Our drawings are rough, with lines going this way and that. As one art instructor once said, “the more rough lines you put down on the page, the more likely it is that you’ll eventually find the right ones.” Even shading is elementary. It’s all loose, all scribbly, all part of a process.

So, let’s look back at gesture drawing, which rightly should be called gesture sketching, don’t you think? The human body was my subject for yesterday’s quick sketches, so I visited Quickposes, one of my favorite online drawing sites. I chose “Lying Distortions” for my series of sketches, and set the timer for 90 seconds per figure. In 90 seconds, there isn’t much time to think about where to begin, how to get started, how to do the sketch. All you can do is put the pencil to the page and go! Here are two of the figures I complete:

I was actually somewhat satisfied with these — and the other — sketches I made. I’m satisfied because they weren’t meant to be good drawings but only quick gestural sketches. It’s all right if I have lots of lines going in lots of directions. It’s all right if my proportions are off here and there. Whenever I can draw the human body in 90 seconds and have it turn out to be recognizable — as a body in a certain position — I figure I’ve done a good job.

But that’s gesture drawing. That’s the point. Loosen up. Capture the essentials. Keep moving. That’s how gesture drawing works.

What about the rest of art? What about landscapes? What about urban scenes? What about flowers and birds, and automobiles, farm houses, bridges, and all the other things an artist might want to draw someday? Sure, I can scribble “gestural” versions of all of these things, but is that helping me become a better artist?

I realize this post is meandering about from one idea to the next, but that’s the state of mind I’m in right now. I’m questioning everything, wondering if I’m doing the right things or if the approach I’m taking to art is actually setting me back and making it more difficult for me to learn. Recently, you see, I got out my old sketchbooks and looked through them. My art wasn’t great, but it was sure a lot better than I remembered. Back then, you see, I was taking my time. I was doing my best to learn each new technique. I was trying to create “good art”.

Now, I’m looking at a drawing assignment, rushing through it, and saying, “Well I could do better if I tried.” All the while, I’m doubting myself. I’m rushing through this “crash course”, you see, so that I can avoid a lot of disappointment. How would I feel if I worked for days on a scene and still came away with a bad drawing? Well, it would not be a good feeling. It’s much less painful to rush through, complete a “quick sketch” and use that to justify whatever’s wrong. This is where I am right now.

My greatest concern is that maybe I can’t improve my drawing. Maybe I’ve reached the limits on what I can do. Although drawing is a “learned skill”, we can only learn so much. Anyone can learn to play tennis, but not everyone can be Martina Navratilova. Anyone can learn to play the piano, but few will become Van Cliburn or Evgeny Kissin. We have limits beyond which we simply can’t go. At least in sports and music, but what about art?

So maybe I’ve gone about as far as I can go. Maybe my efforts are destined to fail. Maybe I should just give it up, accept that I’m all the artist I’m ever going to be, and simply be glad that I’ve learned as much as I have. Maybe it’s time for me to give up on art.

Tough questions, yes. I don’t have the answers. What I do have is a sketchbook filled with hurried drawings, gestural looks at a variety of different subject matter, and pages that are so awful I cringe to look at them.

Where do I go from here? How far can I go?

Again, tough questions, and again, I don’t have the answers.

7 Comments

  1. Please don’t give up! Perhaps adjust your goals, but don’t stop learning or creating.
    I am pretty sure I will never sell my art. I will never be able to win a ribbon. I will never get juried into an exhibition.
    I will never play the piano well either.
    Yet, the processes of drawing, painting, making quilts, playing music are satisfying and good for my mental health. Studying and learning are good for my aging brain.

    I think your quick gestural look fine. They show that you are doing the right thing, learning a foundational skill for figure drawing.
    I wonder if this discomfort and frustration you feel now is just the last step before a major breakthrough. It would be a shame to give it up now.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree with sienablue. You could be experiencing growing pains and on the verge of a breakthrough. Or, maybe you need to try a different approach. I do believe like exercise, we need to shake things up a bit to work different muscles to become stronger.

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  2. Take a deep breath, Judith. I’ve been drawing for a good forty years, and there are still things I feel like I “can’t” draw “properly.” This is coming from someone most people consider to have a natural aptitude for drawing. You’re just in a slump right now, and that is a normal stage – in fact, I’d say it’s the stage where most people “wash out,” or give up. Find an aspect of drawing or painting that gives you joy, and focus on that while you push through the slump. As my husband loves to say, “If it was easy then everyone would do it.”

    Liked by 4 people

  3. This is a wonderful blog. It touches on what we all fear. Sharing. Not being good. Not improving. Going in the wrong direction. THIS is what being creative is all about. When I get home after this weekend I want to share this blog with others so they won’t think it’s only them. Thank you.

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  4. You sound very, very discouraged! Understand that everyone gets frustrated with their progress and has bad days, even months. I agree with the previous comments – you’re in a slump. It’s very natural.

    But know that just because your progress is not as fast as you think it ought to be, does not mean you are not making progress! What it means is your expectations are too high and may be unrealistic. You don’t need to beat yourself up about your progress, or apologize about your work. In fact, stop putting yourself down! You’re right where you need to be, making the progress that is right for you. Everyone is different!!! Please give yourself a break.

    I think you are probably doing some things that are holding you back, however. You are expecting to draw (or paint) poorly, and in some ways you then sabotage your efforts. You seem to work hard at that. In expecting to fail, you then begin to rush and tend not to work as carefully as you might, and you even stop trying instead of taking a break then continuing to work patiently. You thus are creating the perfect explanations for your expected failing. It’s an excuse for poor results (which you have actually made an effort to create, to prove yourself right).

    You also negate any efforts you do make (“not making real drawings”, “only a quick sketch”, “just practice”, etc.). Instead, practice giving yourself credit for trying, putting in the time, learning, etc. Focus on the good, to create more good. Build yourself up – pick one thing you like about every single drawing or painting. It doesn’t matter if you believe it; the more you focus on the positive, the better everything looks. And over time, it gets better.

    We all want good results, but to focus only on results ignores the process. In many ways, it’s the process that really matters! Are you enjoying the process? Focused on learning something new? On having a bit of fun? Trying a new color combination, perhaps? Are you concentrating on the moment, with the process.Or ignoring the process and really rushing to get to the end of the process, get it over with?

    Try to stop expecting so much. (There is a mindset, attitude shift that needs to happen if you are going to really enjoy making art.) If your results don’t look terrific, SO WHAT? Accept that, and make more art. Try to stop worrying and putting pressure on yourself to prove you’re a ‘good’ artist. You don’t need to prove anything; you make art, so you’re an artist.

    No one has the right to think you’re not an artist, even you!

    I honestly believe there are NO limits to learning! We, all of us, can always improve. You only fail when you give up!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Finding credibility ca be tough. So I would suggest you appeal more to your peer artist experts in a separate forum who might have a greater feel for your art competency. I often expect too much that Word Press or even Facebook commenters will provide me the constructive feedback I need.

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