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.



Anonymous said...

A famous Australian used to say " do yourself a favor " a lot , he knew that none of us really know what is around the corner , so just make the most of everything embrace all things good and you will have given life a go . You could start by asking Dad " how are you , you silly old bugger ! " [ Australians use the this reference to sodomy as a term of endearment ] That might break the ice . Good luck
Anonymous Australian

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Anonymous posts are not allowed. Please read the commbox rules posted to the sidebar before posting again.

healthily sanguine said...

What are your favorite colours?

Steve T. said...

Miss White, from your description of yourself, I can see that we share a similar disposition and outlook. If I may, I would like to share with you an epiphany I had that absolutely liberated me.

It took place shortly before the birth of my first son, though it had been years in the making. Throughout my entire life, I have been told by many different women that by the mere fact that I am a man, I am inherently unsuited to parenting infants. This has been both active and passive: as a boy, I was not allowed to hold the baby, while my sister was. I had often stood by while biddies harshly critique any man who is interacting with an infant in any way. I still remember the time I told my then-girlfriend and her mother about how my brother-in-law, an accomplished neurosurgeon, was playing with his three-month-old son by rolling him back and forth on a bed. Their reaction: the baby's neck will snap. Men are just too stupid to be trusted with babies. When I protested that my brother-in-law might have enough medical knowledge to inform him whether or not this was a dangerous form of play, I was told that men lack the common sense required for the care of an infant.

Flash forward several years. throughout my wife's pregnancy, I heard an incessant barrage of more of the same from my Irish peasant of a mother-in-law, which depressed my spirits considerably.

And then it came to me. I realized that no matter what I did or how I did it, whether I followed instructions to the letter or improvised freely, I would do something wrong. There would be no case, no instance, that would be above criticism. I was condemned to always, without exception, to f*** something up. And once I realized that, it came to me that I might as well proceed as I saw fit, as I would be criticized no matter the case. "Fortune favors the bold." I have been repeatedly lauded by women and men for my hands-on parenting. I've had a number of women say to me wistfully, "I wish my husband would be like that towards our kids."

Steve T. said...

"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."

Yeah, and you might not. What does that have to do it?

"How do you figure out what to say?"

You don't. In fact, you can't. Stop being so Spockian. "Figure out" is a term from mathematics or logic, and misapplied here. This is not 12 raised to the power of 43 divided by 2.67, nor is it S equals P, P equals Q, ergo Q equals S. This is about two human hearts, both bruised and battered, but both formed by God, and both intended to love one another.

"Or even whether it is worth saying."

Oh, stop it. Just stop it. Are you a child of God? Are you precious in His sight? What is on your heart is intrinsically worth saying.

And stop worrying that if you say something picayune, you'll be saying the "wrong" thing. Please have a little more faith in your father. (I know that he has not given you much reason to have faith in him.) I am the father of four young children. I hear all sorts of childish nonsense about Pokémon, about horsies, about SpongeBob Squarepants. And I (mostly) hang on every word, because mixed into the babble I hear about their pain, their sadness, their joys, their aspirations, their fears.

"What do you say?" Whatever you need to. Whatever's on your heart. And pray to the Holy Ghost. After all, you might be sent to assist in your father's salvation. and he made be sent to assist in your salvation.

Oh, and this: "I do hope it's not too late to enjoy the fruits of this discovery." I thought you were a traditionalist Catholic. Do you believe in life everlasting? Do you look forward to the resurrection of the body? Then stop talking, and more importantly, stop thinking like an atheist.

You love the True and the Real. Then listen, and listen good, to this truth and this reality: it's not all up to you. I know that having to raise yourself, after having backs turned on you, you must have developed that erroneous belief.

But your father has a mortal soul and the law written on his heart by God. You have a lot of real people in your lives that love you. You have a lot of disembodied Internet fans like me that you have won over through your writing. You have the Holy Ghost to advise you.

Dear, dear Miss Hillary, please don't think you're alone. Please stop thinking that if you fall backwards, there will be no one there to catch you. Even if we mere humans fail, you will find yourself in the arms of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Teresa B. said...

You may not have had your father during a good portion of your life but you do have a father now - that has provided you with an olive branch.
Just take it!
You may find a rainbow.
You mentioned Ruskin saying something about being 'totally unconcerned with time in drawing.'
Maybe you need to be totally unconcerned with time in your relationship with your father.

Send him your art.
He can put it on his fridge.

Seraphic said...

Dear Hilary, on the one hand, I think your father is an ass for getting in touch with you only when you both are in treatment for cancer, he for old man cancer. On the other hand, I think it is wonderful that he is finally facing up to the fact that he has a daughter and has some very serious fences to mend. Your dad is finally acting like a dad, and thank God for that.

I can't for the life of me advise what you might say to him. The mind boggles. Since you don't really know him, I wouldn't trust him with tons of personal information or even a sketch of your post-him history. I'd be concerned that it was curiosity, more than conversion, that had made him phone around at what could have been the last freaking moment. Write to him, by all means, but be smart with your heart.

Felix said...

I suggest that the gesture is more important than the content. And, while agreeing with Seraphic's advice to be prudently circumspect, I suggest such a gesture of charity/forgiveness.

Actually, my dad and I didn't have any physical contact but, a few days before he died, I decided to give him a hug. Then astonishingly he rallied and said he respected my conversion to the Faith (which had occurred decades earlier and been bitterly opposed by both my parents).

Anyhow, you're in my prayers.

DP said...

What Seraphic said.

You have an opportunity to say *something,* which is not given to all. I bitterly regret not taking advantage of an opportunity to speak to a friend with whom I'd been out of touch before he died in a car accident.

Don't miss it.