Drawing is the underpinning of the traditional ‘Visual Arts’ and draughtsmanship can make or break a painting. And, from what I hear, there are many who would love to be able to draw but feel they can’t, that it is a special talent that some possess but most don’t.
But if you can write your name with pen and paper, you are already drawing! What are those letters you write if not mini-drawings? And how did you come to be able to write your name? What ‘special talent’ did you need? None! You needed to have reached a certain stage in the development of your fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination – and then you needed to practice! You probably copied lines of letters, over and over until they gradually began to resemble the recognisable shapes of the letters of the alphabet.
Our cave-dwelling ancestors drew and small children draw without giving it too much thought. But somewhere along the line we decide that we can’t draw and we give up. Maybe later we decide to join a drawing class and learn about all the tips and tricks of drawing, such as perspective and negative space. And maybe we are taught that it is all about ‘learning to see’. Maybe that helps a little – maybe not. I believe that it is putting the cart before the horse.
The first step in ‘learning to draw’ is actually ‘unlearning’ what we have come to believe, for whatever reason, about our drawing ability, to remove the ‘mystique’, the idea that it is a special talent.
'When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college – that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, ‘You mean they forget?’ - Howard Ikemoto.
How to do this? Try writing your name on a large enough piece of paper to leave plenty of space around your writing. Then, without particularly trying to achieve anything amazing, start to embellish the letters with the kind of squiggles and doodles you might make whilst on the phone or listening to a lecture – or watching television! Banish all judgements about what you produce. Just play with the letters for the sake of doing it rather than for the end result. Do this often until you get to feel really comfortable with making marks on paper, which is all that drawing is really!
But what if I want to draw a flower, or a person, to make a REAL drawing? Surely this is a far cry from doodling? Not really, though it is a next step. What is drawing after all? Isn’t it simply copying what you see or what you imagine? Didn’t you manage to copy the letters of the alphabet as a small child? Didn’t it take practice? It’s part of the reason that art students copy famous paintings in galleries – something you might also like to try if you have access to somewhere suitable.
But first try this: find a reasonably simple image where the drawing is clearly defined. (you can probably find something from Google images to print out if all else fails). Turn it upside down and copy it as carefully as you can. You might be pleasantly surprised when you turn your paper back the right way! If not, you simply need more practice.
Why is this such a good exercise in drawing? It’s because it eliminates all our thoughts about making our drawing resemble a specific object, thoughts about getting it right! Those thoughts hold us back. They may be the reason we gave up drawing as we passed from our unselfconscious world of early childhood to a later, more inhibited phase.
'Try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape.' Monet
Drawing classes can be useful; but in the first instance, it’s all about ‘unlearning’ – in just the same way that the struggling readers I taught needed to unlearn the bad habits and, more importantly, the unhelpful attitudes, they had learned in a couple of years of school before we could start on the process of learning how reading works.
'The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.' —Gloria Steinem
Draw something every day. Keep a sketchbook or even a pad of used envelopes, as in Chris Fothergill's Guest Post. Don’t throw anything away and you will see progress over time. The final challenge, I think, is a Life class – you will soon see if you’re are copying what you see accurately as the human figure is unforgiving in that respect!
You may decide that you don’t want to bother with all this time and effort. That’s fine! Drawing is only one of many ways of communicating that are available to us.
'I found I could say things with colours and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.' Georgia O’Keefe
There are plenty of others that aren’t based on drawing – writing, speaking, photography, film, music, dance....
But please don’t ever say, ‘I can’t draw’.
'Believe it or not, I can actually draw!' Michelangelo
And so can you!
2 year-old Hamza, my youngest grandson