Learning to draw, learning to live

How do you feel when you’re asked to draw something? Embarrassed? Uncomfortable? Do you worry that you won’t be able to do it? Do you try everything you can to avoid putting pen to paper and risking making a fool of yourself?

When we’re kids, drawing comes naturally to us. We get an idea and we scribble away quite happily. We don’t worry if our lines are wobbly or our shapes are out of proportion. We’re not drawing to make a realistic representation, we’re drawing because it feels good.

But somewhere along the line the joy we get from drawing disappears. As adults we’re encouraged to focus on reading and writing, instead of using pictures to communicate. We’re taught that drawing has no value in the real world. Once we’re old enough to see that our lines are wobbly and our shapes are out of proportion, we stop.

But what is lost when we stop trying to visually express ourselves? Sculptor Frederick Frank said “What I have not drawn, I have never really seen.” Does our society’s narrow focus on language mean that we’re missing out on a whole new level of perception and understanding?

I consider myself an artist and a maker, but I’ve spent most of my adult life avoiding drawing.

I love the idea of slowing down and seeing the world more clearly. But I hate how fixated I get on drawing something that looks “just right” and how frustrated I feel when it doesn’t turn out.

Why is drawing so hard for me? Probably for the same reasons that it’s hard for you. A teacher criticized a drawing of a bicycle when I was in grade two. She told me that it didn’t look realistic. Friends made fun of my drawings and art teachers gave me low marks when my work wasn’t exactly how they thought it should be. Thanks to these responses, the thought of having to draw something always filled me with dread.

A couple years ago I decided that I didn’t want to be afraid of drawing anymore. I didn’t want it to be a struggle or a source of stress. I wanted it to be a source of joy. I wanted to develop a skill, but more importantly, I wanted to leave my inner critic in the dust and draw for fun. I knew I needed to do something drastic.

I decided to spend a year teaching myself to love drawing. I gave each month a theme and each week I created assignments that would force me to confront my fears but would also give me permission to learn at my own pace – without meeting someone else’s standards. The goal was experimentation and play, not rigid rules.

I can honestly say that this project changed my life. My sketchbook, which used to sit empty on the shelf, is now a source of relaxation. Now when I draw I’m not obsessing over making something look realistic. Just like when I was a kid, I’m drawing because it feels good.

So how did this simple practice change how I see the world and myself? First of all, it taught me how to embrace failure. You can’t ever get good at something without failing at it over and over again. And since there was no pressure to succeed, it didn’t matter if I failed. As long as I kept trying I was happy.

It taught me to take myself less seriously. Blind contour drawings, where you look only at your subject and not at your paper, always look really goofy and strange because you can’t see what you’re doing. But they’re a great way to practice basic skills and they force you to let go of your ego and see what happens. I did a ton of these and still do them for fun.

I learned how to look. Drawing requires you to pay close attention to your subject and see all the details that make it unique. I drew a series of fire hydrants around the city and was surprised by how unique and beautiful they all are. I had never looked at fire hydrants before.

I also grew more patient. When a drawing isn’t turning out, I no longer get frustrated and scribble over it or tear out the page. I take a deep breath and try again. I try new angles and approaches and I bring a newfound sense of curiosity. I’m more focused on the process than the result.

Finally, the most important thing that I learned from this project was how to manage my self-talk. While sketching, my mind used to be full of thoughts like “This looks stupid. It’s not turning out right. Why am I even bothering? I can’t do this.”

Instead, I tried to consciously change my thoughts from critical to practical. Now I try to focus on thoughts like “That circle isn’t quite wide enough, maybe I should change it.” or “Which of these two lines is longer?” or “How does this shape compare with the one right beside it?”

The difference in these two ways of thinking is that the first is judgmental, deciding that something is right or wrong, good or bad, has value or doesn’t. The second doesn’t make any of those judgments; it just helps to see things clearly, as they really are.

The second way of thinking is perfect for someone like me who struggles with anxiety in my everyday life. This mindful way of experiencing the world means that I’m less hard on myself, less critical and that I’m better able to focus and think clearly instead of being overwhelmed by worry or negative thoughts.

Through this process I learned that there is inherent value in all my drawings, simply because they’re mine. They record a learning process, a journey from fear to freedom and I find myself falling in love with every single one of them.

Stephanie is an artist, writer, and traveler. Her mission is to help people who have lost touch with their creativity find their way back to their creative selves. When she’s not creating paper maché sculptures of human organs, she blogs about creativity and mindfulness at stephaniemedford.com/blog. Stephanie also teaches workshops in printmaking, mindfulness and mixed media.

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