Thursday, January 05, 2012

Pushing through

As I've said, Andrea told me before I started having surgeries that if I am on my feet then, I can start the cast drawing segment of the course when she gets back from Australia in April. Cast drawing in charcoal is the last step before actually starting painting in this painstaking and strictly laid-out formal course of study I've been doing at her studio. After that, I will do a grisaille painting of a cast, which is the last transition between drawing and painting, and then dive into colour.

Watch the video above for a minute. As you can see, it is a lot harder than it looks to draw or paint even something simple like an egg and make it come out looking like a real egg...let alone a beautiful egg.

I remember when I was little, my Grandma used to let me paint with her and she tried to teach me, though I was a rather unwilling student. She tried to instill in me the importance of starting from the beginning and started me on simple solid objects like flower vases (without flowers) and oranges and things. I was always unsatisfied with the results both because it was always much harder than it seemed it ought to be and because of the lack of glamour of painting such "simple" plain things. I complained bitterly that they were "boring" and that I wanted to do the sort of things that she did, arbutus trees and landscapes, maybe a sparkly seascape.

Knowing how enthusiastic I was about spreading things all over my clothes, she never let me do much with her oil pastels but charcoal washed out and off easily so I was allowed to muddle about with it. She really did try to teach me, but I was terribly intractable and so learned almost nothing.

I've since learned a very important lesson in drawing, that you have to keep pushing through. Many times I've started something and not liked the way it has gone. It could easily have frustrated me enough to make me stop trying after the first few passes, but I've learned that if you keep scrubbing away at a drawing, it will get better. The trick is to push past the first unsatisfactory bit and give it sufficient time. Push through the bad bits, keep pushing until you get there.

After a while you get used to having your drawing look odd or wrong for the first parts and it is almost fun to watch it grow more solid and "real looking" as you continue to jiggle it about and spot and solve the problems. Once you start looking at a drawing as a kind of puzzle to be solved, you are half way to the mindset that will succeed.

Most of my early efforts at copying, I now realise, could have been much more successful if I'd given them more time. But, like most people, I would find it wasn't working right away and assume that I just couldn't do it. That I didn't have "natural talent" (what a terrible toll that stupid phrase has taken on the world!). The one thing I can't do, even now, is draw fast, but as Ruskin says in his Elements of Drawing we are really totally unconcerned with time in drawing.
"What is usually so much sought after under the term "freedom: is the character of the drawing of a great master in a hurry, whose hand is so thoroughly disciplined that when pressed for time he can let it fly as it will, and it will not go far wrong. But the hand of a great master at real work is never free: its swiftest dash is under perfect government. Paul Veronese or Tintoret[to] could pause within a hair's-breadth of any appointed mark in their fastest touches and follow within a hair's- breadth the previously intended curve. You must never, therefore, aim at freedom. It is not required of your drawing that it should be free, but that it should be right; in time you will be able to do it right easily, and then your work will be free in the best sense. But there is no merit in doing wrong easily."
Emphases in the original.

Probably the hardest thing we modern grown-ups have to face when learning to draw is the fact that it is difficult. It really is. It is very hard to learn as an adult how to do the mental acrobatics of "detranslating," learning to actually see the thing you are looking at as it really is, visually, without imposing labels on it. This labelling thing that we have spent our whole lives perfecting and using to understand the world that comes through our vision, has to be completely undone, and you have to learn to turn it on and off at will. An object you are looking at, say an armchair, to our eyes alone is really not an armchair at all. It is an integrated system of relationships of darks and lights and colour. Shadows and light grading down from shiny highlights to dark shade, little nubbly parts where the shade and light are close together in little bits, big patches of dark next to a section of complicated shadows that make up drapery. It is hard to explain, but what our eyes see really, really is only this. Darks and lights and colour. Not even depth...especially not depth.

The label, "armchair" has all kinds of implications. It has to be soft and curvy and to sit with it's cushion horizontal in relation to the floor. It has to be a certain kind of object and to fulfill a certain kind of function. It has to sit cradled in three-dimensional space. All of this kind of labeling, that we have done since learning it in infancy, has to be shut off if you are going to draw an armchair that looks like an armchair. The three-Dness of the thing is most especially important to turn off. Flatten it, look at it as a system of darks and lights and colours, and you will be able to draw it.

This trick is the hardest thing to learn in drawing. Really, it has nothing at all to do with how you hold a pencil. And it is so difficult, and so rarely taught, that most people assume that drawing is some kind of magic trick that requires "natural talent" (faugh!). The frustration of not getting it (and there are a lot of pages in my sketchbooks that don't get onto the blog, believe me!) is the thing you have to push through. The fact that it is difficult, and that we live in a culture that insists everything has to be easy, painless and instant, is our biggest problem. It is why I think drawing is so important to teach young people. Teach them that this hard thing is worth struggling over, and spending time on, pushing through the many obstacles and set-backs.

Here is something that can be learned about life in general from learning this difficult thing, drawing; that the rule of "pushing through" applies to everything you want to do in life. I remember when I was out there in the world, more or less raising myself after I was 15, I assumed that nearly everyone knew more about how to get on in life than I did. That there was some secret to doing things right that I didn't know and thought I could never learn on my own. I was, and still am, quite frightened about "doing things wrong" and so a great deal of my difficulties in life have surrounded fears of trying things.

If I'd been raised by grown-ups, I might have been taught that when you start something, you will have to be bad at it at first. You have to push through that part to get good, to learn how to live. I suppose I have pushed through now and finally figured it out. I do hope it's not too late to enjoy the fruits of this discovery.

* ~ * ~ *

I've been fearsomely tested lately in my ability to keep pushing through, and of course, have had a lot of help. At the moment, I'm mostly resting of course, but still pushing through and the obstacle is a most unexpected one. Right now, I'm struggling over what to write to my father. I have his email address. He has sent me a couple of emails showing an obvious desire to mend things, but what do you say? It's been a lifetime, and we might discover in the next week or so that it has in fact been my whole life and there is now no more time. How do you figure out what to say? Or even whether it is worth saying.