I’ve been taking a drawing class at the museum for several weeks. On the first day, our instructor asked us to draw a self-portrait. I started with the obvious—trying to capture the shape of my head, the size and slant of my eyes, the fullness of my lips, adding in cheekbones and topping the image off with hair, or enough swirls and poufs to make it look like hair.
The finished drawing looked nothing like me. Maybe there were a few aspects that resembled what I had seen in the mirror, but my drawing could have just as easily been a picture of someone else.
The takeaway for the day was to learn how to look and then sketch what I saw, rather than what I thought should be there. Next, I had to copy and draw a photo that was placed upside down, which forced me to look at lines, edges, and shapes to complete the picture. Instead of thinking, well, this is the arm, I know what an arm looks like, so I’ll draw an arm, I drew from sight, not expectation.
Guess what happened? My upside-down drawing was far more accurate than I thought it would be, because I made myself focus on what I noticed as I went along, rather than what I know.
Learning how to draw has been rewarding because the initial progress has been swift, hastened by learning some basic rules. My pictures look considerably more accurate than they would have weeks ago. There are basic principles and with practice I am learning how to employ them, observing shapes and shadows, how to measure and adjusting on the page.
I see parallels between my writing and my new drawing practice. When I write an essay, I often start out with an idea, not fully formed, just a sense of what I want to write about. As I keep going, noticing small details, or where my interest picks up, I make decisions about incorporating them into the work.
My drawing instructor recently said, “You have to bound your composition, you cannot fill everything in.” I decide which elements serve the final drawing, much as choosing the right words serves an essay or story. Drawing has taught me to look more closely at the world around me, and reinforces the truth that practice is essential to improvement. My goal is not to hang my work in a gallery or museum, although I share each week’s work as eagerly as a first-grader, excited that my hands and mind have tried to work in concert to create something. Like my writing, the process is as importance as the outcome, and the process and the practice are the two components I can control. The more I draw, the more I want to write, because they complement each other.
Writing will always come before drawing for me, but I’ll keep up with my sketches, if only because they are fun to make and use a different part of my brain. Practice does not have to make perfect, making progress is reason enough to keep on.