Learning to draw, again

One of the things I had in the back of my mind when I started LI6 was that possibly I could take up drawing again — that maybe I could manage to make something that would qualify as ‘original art’ to put on these products I was hoping to sell.

I always describe myself as a designer, not an illustrator or an artist. I haven’t tried to sketch anything at all for twenty years or so. But once upon a time, I knew … well, something about it, anyway.

My drawing skills were, as with almost everything I learned, entirely self-taught. My parents didn’t have many books around the house, just one small shelf in the living room, which pretty much dictated what I became expert on. (I obtained a near-encyclopedic knowledge of Texas birds and bugs, for example, because my dad had a pair of field guides.) That shelf included three thin books about drawing that I think belonged to my mother — even though I only once, in sixteen years, saw her draw anything at all. One book was on perspective drawing, one on human figure drawing, and one on drawing animals (both realistic and cartoon). I practiced and practiced every page of those books as a kid, especially the animals.

I kept drawing a little bit on my own in high school and college, as a hobby. I was neither brilliant nor terrible. I liked pencils and colored pencils, because I was both an intransigent perfectionist and persistently imperfect, and I liked the ability to lightly try something out and erase it if I needed to. So I stayed away from charcoal and pastel, and had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of paint.

I eventually stopped trying to draw, mostly because I wasn’t awesome at it, and my younger self didn’t see much use at doing anything that wasn’t spectacular. Looking back, though, I see it through a different lens … more like ‘hey, I didn’t completely suck!’

With all this in mind, about a week and a half ago, I started ordering ‘how to draw animals’ books from the library and practicing. Nothing fancy, just a mechanical pencil (and eraser) on scrap paper. I really didn’t know what to expect, and I was more than a little afraid that I was going to suck at it after all. Well, some of my attempts were certainly serious fail, and the majority were ‘meh’. But a few of them were pretty decent. And I thought I could see myself getting better.

Then a few days ago, while looking for something completely different, I ran across a photo on Flickr (I’d link it, but I can’t find it again now) of someone’s dachshund sticking her nose into the camera. It was so incredibly cute I laughed out loud, and immediately tried drawing it on my current sketch scrap (which was otherwise filled with cat attempts). It took me a while to get it right, but the drawing ended up being pretty darned cute, too.

I kept thinking that a big-nosed foreshortened dog head would make a sweet ‘hello’ greeting card. I needed to redraw, though, because the original photo only showed half the head; it was truncated halfway through the nose. So I searched for other photo references — which by the way is how I found out that there’s a word for animal-nose-in-camera-lens photos: “orking” — and started drawing a new one. I kept to the dachshund head because I decided much of the cuteness came from the slim round skull and the low, hanging ears.

I stayed up all night with it — first working to get a sketch that I liked, then figuring out how to get a usable digital photo into the computer (I haven’t owned a scanner in a decade), and finally, redrawing and coloring in Illustrator. A whole series of new skills needed there …

Around five in the morning, I had an illustration that I actually, truly liked. I mean, it’s not fine art by any stretch, but it pretty well matches the picture in my head, so I called it a win. And then the next day (after a brief nap) I made that greeting card.

I still don’t know a damned thing about painting, and in fact the whole idea intimidates me. But: I can imagine maybe teaching myself to ‘paint’ in software. I’ve seen digital art that imitates traditional media very closely, and I wouldn’t have to give up the safety net of the ‘undo’ command. Or spend hundreds of dollars on equipment. (I do still have a large set of Prismacolor pencils that I’ve carried around, unused, for two decades now. If all goes well, maybe I’ll break them out at some point. Maybe.)

But anyway, baby steps. First I’m focusing on my basic drawing skills. I like inhabiting the space that’s sort of halfway between realism and cartooning — animals that, like the nosy dog, are somewhat simplified but not anthropomorphized. I’d like to do fully realistic drawings as well, but that’s going to take a lot more practice first.

After I showed my finished dog to Claire (my 12-year-old stepdaughter), she apparently got inspired; she spent most of a day last weekend using some of my library books to practice drawing herself. Jak mentioned being surprised by this, particularly because her mother is a good artist who — unlike me — displays those skills regularly. We decided that the difference is likely that Claire suddenly saw art not just as an inherent talent that exists fully-blown (or doesn’t), but as a skill that one can learn and practice and acquire. She is also painfully perfectionistic, and has no patience with herself for failed attempts — she scribbles through her mistakes, tears them off, wads them up. I’ve been trying to model more gentle behavior by showing her all my practice papers, where one good drawing might be encircled by a bunch of mediocre ones and a couple of laughable failures. With luck, she’ll learn to be kinder to herself over the next decade or two than I was, at a similar age.

Leave a comment: