Five months ago I embarked on an adventure to learn more about drawing, to practice and build skills and, most importantly, to tame my inner critic and learn to have fun with drawing. So far, it has been quite the ride. I haven’t always been able to keep up with my two assignments per week, but I’m drawing more than I ever have before and I’m learning so much.
January’s theme was ‘people’ and one of the assignments was to draw 100 faces quickly on sticky notes. This assignment started slowly for me. I drew ten imaginary faces at work, fighting resistance the whole time. Then I decided to draw my Facebook friends’ profile pictures and it suddenly became a lot more fun. It was tricky to find the right pen – a Sharpie was a little too thick, and made the faces too simple, and a micron was a little too thin, which had me trying to add too much detail and being too fussy. I finally found that a Faber Castell brush pen was juuuuuuust right because it forced me to simplify the features but didn’t obscure them completely. So far I’ve drawn 60 faces and this has by far been one of the most interesting assignments that I’ve done.
What happens when I draw the faces? I look at the person and draw what I see. Sometimes the drawings look like the person. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, I keep drawing.
It doesn’t sound very revolutionary does it? But for someone who has always butted heads with drawing, who has had to fight to start and finish most drawings in the past, and who usually has a litany of negative thoughts overwhelming the drawing process, it really was. The fact that I could just keep drawing, despite how I felt about the results, means I must have learned something in the past five months.
The exercise was also interesting because of how simple it was. I’ve done other assignments during this project where I ended up drawing something in great detail that did look fairly realistic, but felt nowhere near the same sense of joy that this exercise brought. And I would look at those finished assignments and wonder what I had learned from it. The exact shape of a tiger’s ear? The difference in size between one bottle of liquor and another? Interesting, but not very functional.
In this assignment, however, the goal was to move quickly. To capture the face in just a few lines. To break it down to its essential parts and – though I didn’t understand this until I had actually done it – find the magical essence of the person. Again, sometimes I found it and sometimes I didn’t. But the small, cheap format gave me permission to keep going and going and going. The way my boyfriend, Matt, put it was, “The less it matters the more meaning it has.”
I said in my Instagram post that I finally ‘get’ drawing, by which I mean that I finally understand the wonder and the joy of it, and the magical abilities it has, not from the perspective of someone looking at a drawing (which I’ve understood for a long time) but for someone creating a drawing. I’m not a pro yet by any means, but I feel like I’ve glimpsed what it’s like to be an illustrator or someone who can convey complex ideas in a few lines.
Liking and not liking
This brings me to an idea that I first started thinking about at the beginning of the project, but wasn’t really sure how to put into practice. In her book Syllabus, Lynda Barry explores the idea of not liking or disliking, but just paying attention. As she puts it:
“The trick seems to be this: consider the drawing as a side effect of something else: a certain state of mind that comes about when we gaze with open attention. When we are in the groove, we are not thinking about liking or not liking what is taking shape, and it isn’t thinking about us either. Yet something shows up… The practice is to keep our hand in motion and to stay open to the image it is leaving for us: a message fragment we may not recognize until we have enough of them to understand.”
Somehow, I got to that place. I did that. I was in the groove, I wasn’t thinking about what was taking shape. And yet, something showed up, some message fragment that is being added in with all the other fragments that I’ve created. What is it telling me? That I can draw? That anyone can draw? That making lines feels good and I want to do it more?
The thing about not liking or disliking is that, as a practice, it can not only teach us how to draw, but also how to live. This could be a simple definition of mindfulness: not judging, not deciding if something is good or bad, not liking or disliking. Just paying attention.
This is how we can deal with anxiety and other tough emotions: “Oh look, my brain is doing something. Gee, that feels a bit weird. What does it feel like?”
If we fight the feelings, they get worse. If we tell ourselves that these feelings are bad, then we just heap bad feelings on top of bad feelings.
This is how we can deal with learning to make art: “Huh. That didn’t turn out quite as I expected. I wonder what I could do differently?”
If we fight the art, the art gets harder. The more we pressure ourselves to make something “good” the harder it is and the less we will enjoy the process and the product.
This is how we can deal with the people we love: “Okay so you just did something that I completely don’t agree with but I love you and you’re allowed to make mistakes too.”
If we fight against the person when they do something we don’t like, they get defensive and fight back. Then we end up arguing and probably saying hurtful things that we don’t really mean.
According to Toni Bernhard of Tiny Buddha, there’s ” a distinction between judgment and discernment. Discernment means perceiving the way things are, period. Judgment is what we add to discernment when we make a comparison (implicit or explicit) between how things or people are and how we think they ought to be. So, in judgment, there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be.”
Buddhist tradition tells us that one of the sources of suffering is wanting things to be different than they are, and it emphasizes that the way out of suffering is to see things as they really are. Not liking or disliking, just paying attention.
Deepak Chopra has some wise words about this ideas as well, “When you are evaluating a piece of work aesthetically, you are not determining if it is good or bad as such, you are determining if the expression is successful in expressing the story or message you are trying to convey or not. You are looking for what works, not trying to pass judgment whether it is good or bad, right or wrong. You can be objective about evaluating how successful a piece of art accomplishes what you need it for in your work without saying it is good or bad in itself.”
This is the goal of the project. To make, consistently, constantly, without tearing my hair out and crying that I’m a failure. Without judging the work to be good or bad. Without liking or not liking. I’m not a failure, and I’m not good or bad. I’m just me, learning and growing, in every moment of every day
Taking off the blinders
Lynda Barry goes on to say that “Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there. In spite of how we feel about it, it is making its way from the unseen world to the visible world, one line after the next bringing with it a kind of aliveness that I live for.”
When you pass judgement, you don’t learn. You can’t learn because you can’t see clearly. There is no careful examination, there is just throwing it out. I think “I don’t like this” and somehow the whole effort is wasted.
But when the liking or not liking isn’t getting in our way we can keep working. We’re not blinded by our insecurity or our confidence. Our ego doesn’t have a say. We just do the work and we watch. We pay close attention. Why does that bother me? How does this emotion feel in my body? What isn’t sitting well with me? What would I like to change? Can I change it? We want things to be the way we want them to be. But they aren’t. We can fight it and make ourselves angry, or upset, and hurt the people around us. Or we can carefully observe what is happening, do what we can to change it, and let the rest go.
This is an illuminating quote by Ira Glass that photographer Daniel Sax has interpreted in a beautiful way.
In this way, learning to love drawing is teaching me to love life. I’m learning, slowly, to set aside my judgement and just let whatever comes forth happen.
In what ways can you practice not liking or disliking? How does this change your perceptions and your behaviors? Leave a comment below!
It’s never too late to sign up for the project. Find all the details and the sign up form here.