Last week I went on a work trip to Disney World, and in the midst of packing and planning, a little creeping anxiety popped up– was there a way to bring my brushes? My easel? What would happen if I went one day without painting, much less three? Ultimately, I decided that my best bet would be to use the trip as a reason to draw– something I’ve neglected lately. So I left my brushes and packed my sketchbook and one measly pencil.
My first painting professor told me that learning to paint before learning to draw was like learning to dive before learning to swim.
And yet, since I started painting every day back in April, I find little time to draw. Or, perhaps more accurately, I’ve not lately recognized its importance. If I thought drawing was supremely valuable I , of course, would find the time NOT to do it. That’s how these things work.
The one subject constantly available when you are within a thirty mile radius of anything Disney is people. They are everywhere in a variety of shapes, colors, and quantity of clothing. And while the model in my once-a-month figure drawing class is lovely, she is painfully still– I don’t have to think and respond quickly. People in the world make far worse models and far better teachers.
So in between Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream and conference luncheons, I did what I’ve preached to my students that they should do– I drew from life.
At first my drawings were awkward. I had trouble finding the rhythm in looking and then moving, but after a while it all fell into place. Like just about anything, the more you do it, the better you do it.
As I drew, I thought about how I would teach gesture drawing to someone else. I taught high school art classes for years, but the gesture drawing lessons always seemed to leave something wanting. A firm believer in art-can-be-taught, I often found gestures to be you-get-it-or-you-don’t. I’ve been rethinking them, and this list is the result of what I’d offer to someone looking to start making better gesture drawings of people as they exist out in the world.
1. You don’t need fancy tools (unless they make you feel better). What I love about drawing is the glorious ease of it. You can do it even if you don’t prepare for it. A pen, a pencil (I recently discovered an artist who uses cheetos), anything that makes or accepts a mark suffices. I like a sketchbook so that all the drawings end up in the same place, but conference schedules, maps, napkins and receipts work pretty well too. That being said, if buying some really nice “drawing” pencils gives you the motivation you need to draw, go ahead and splurge (they aren’t very expensive). I like graphite pencils in 6B (soft lead, very smudgy) like this one.
2. Drawing> Photography. Well, not always, but on vacation drawing is a great alternative to picture taking. We tend to think of photographs as reliable, accurate, completely truthful, raw documents and drawings as their less-than-perfect counterparts. But take five minutes looking through vacation photos of amateur photographers and you’ll see why cameras aren’t always the truth-tellers we believe them to be. Things that look stunning can look dark and indistinct when photographed. I went on my Disney trip with an avid and talented photographer. After a while, I wondered if he’d seen any of our many experiences without a lens between him and the subject. Photographs are fast, often effortless attempts to preserve a moment that we often miss because of our need to capture it for later. Drawing, however, brings you more intimately into a specific moment. You cannot draw without being fully present. Sketches are meditative, photographs often thought-less. I also tend to photograph subjects far more ostentatious than the ones I draw. The subtle, quiet human experiences are the ones we often miss. I’m not recommending drawing as a means of recording, let’s say, a very Disney experience, I’m recommending it as a means of thinking about the subtle beauty of existing in a world where people flock to a little mouse in red shorts and embroider his ears on their clothes and handbags.
3. The Great “Um”. In a linguistics class in graduate school I learned that every language has fillers. Think “um,” “like”, and, if you’re academic, “sort of”. In gesture drawing there is a very beautiful “um” of lines. The trick is to keep your hand moving even as your brain is processing it’s next movement, and the result is scribbles and scratches that breathe life into the drawing. You can tell a beginner drawer by their lack of movement– elongated gaps of time between seeing and doing, the absence of the “um.”
4. Everything is a shape. I tell this often to Hayli, a former student, to whom I give lessons. Shapes are less scary than subjects and forms. When something looks complicated (I am most frustrated by hands and feet) consider them as a collection of shapes. Find the most obvious (usually an odd-looking triangle) and go from there. When things become shapes they are far, far easier to represent.
5. Don’t erase. Erasing is a break in the meditation and a grand rejection of the “um”. And rarely does one frame their sketches– the beauty of them is their ability to be reflections, not finished pieces. A stray line or two often enhances rather than detracts from the overall drawing. Stopping to erase gets you inside your head. Drawing, the visual “ums”, and the constant movement get you outside of your head and onto your subject.
6. It’s not creepy unless you get caught. One of my biggest obstacles to drawing from life is my overwhelming fear that someone will watch me. Here’s the deal: people don’t care, and if they do it’s in a “ohhh and ahhh” way, not a “what do you think you’re doing?” kind of way. During one of my breaks on my trip, I made my way over to the resort pool, took a seat in a nice shaded corner and proceeded to draw people in their bathing suits. And although I’ll admit that that decision was, in fact, a little creepy, it was not, however, very remarkable. No one noticed me, and if they did, they didn’t seem to care. And when a “model” does notice you, it’s not actually that creepy. They usually just tell their friends to come take a look.
I’m making a commitment to draw more often, allow myself the pleasure that is making marks where there once were none even when the thought of it fills me with self consciousness. Which is part of the magic– the very thing that starts off as a self-conscious enterprise ends as means out of the self– a venture from inward to outward, self-absorbed to self-aware. If you draw from life or want to start, please, please send me some of your drawings, and I’ll add them to this post. And if you’d like to stay up to date on my art and be entered into a contest to win a 6×6 painting of your choosing, you can subscribe to my newsletter here.