Once upon a time, like every little boy and at least 85% of little girls, I used to draw. I doodled, drew pictures, sketched and scribbled. Mostly what I drew was people’s faces, but now and then I’d attempt a sketch of Snoopy or some other stream-of-consciousness scribbling. I remember that for Christmas one year someone gave me a little flip book of stencils that had various themes in it—animals, letters, plants, etc. The one page I got the most use out of, though, was stencils of various science lab equipment—beakers and flasks and distillers and burners and the like. I actually went through a phase were I made a series of drawings that were ALL science equipment that was floating in midair under the general title of “Ghost Labs”. It saved on having to draw people and all those bits I wasn’t good at—I was never good at drawing hands or noses, and I’m STILL not good at putting people in ¾ perspective or shading.
I took art classes with other students in elementary school and in my school’s art room I saw a life sized drawing of a skeleton that the art teacher had done when SHE was training in art school. It was a magnificent thing that somehow always filled me with a sense of sadness: DAMN that was a GOOOD drawing!! 6’ tall and shaded impeccably, you could have taught a class of medical students with her drawing. No doubt it was probably some sort of thesis-level project and took her MONTHS to complete, but as a kid I used to stand in awe of that.
Other kids could draw and cartoon and, if absolutely nothing else, TRACE existing drawings, and I too attempted to draw some stuff but my attempts always came out looking somehow off—especially if there was any sense of symmetry in it. Still, I wasn’t the WORST artist in the classroom and I DID enjoy my scribbling and even felt that a few things weren’t so goddamned bad after all.
THEN I bought Brian Froud’s book FAERIES and that was the end of that.
Literally, I stopped drawing overnight. Which was a shame because, if memory serves, I was moving out of my blocky, hesitating sketch stages into more confidant lines and drawing OTHER things and even attempting to draw random objects I saw as a way of trying to capture what I saw every day. But Froud’s drawings were magnificent (and still are). Even his pencil sketches of strange creatures made EVERYTHING I drew look childish, like a 4 year old who was missing a few fingers and had a bad nervous disorder had attempted to draw it.
I have always been drawn to art in all of it’s forms—I’m simply amazed when I look at sculpture to think that someone banged this out with a chisel and made a block of marble come to life; same thing with clay--three dimensional art confounds me and anything *I* made in art always wound up with two grooves cut in it so I could turn it into an ashtray (no one in my family smoked). I loved art museums even as a kid and was fascinated not only by suits of armour, but also the oil paintings of men in funny hats and big, ridiculous-looking collars. To think that someone could take PAINT and make a 2D surface come alive to the point you could just reach out and take their hand astounded me. I longed for such talent.
My friend Dave was an art major in high school, dabbling in all medium including drawing, paint, clay, photography, wire, ceramics and everything else. I was rather intimidated by him, actually, and because HIS stuff looked so damned good and MY stuff would have looked just plain stupid, I never attempted to draw anything else, but rather put MY energies into writing and then, late in high school, into acting.
I remember a time he asked me to model for him and I actually got out of a hated math class so I could go to the art room and just sit still. I loved that: the art room was COMPLETELY different than any other place—no desks to speak of, music playing, art supplies and pieces of student art in all states of accomplishment all over the place. I seriously longed to BE an art major so I too could come down here and have a place all to my own (I eventually found my own place in band, though I was a pathetically mediocre musician and always 3rd [or even 4th] section).
Fast forward practically 20 years and I’m living in Pittsburgh, PA, and have some friends who are patrons of the arts and have artistic streaks themselves. Oh, they may not have studios themselves or paint, but they certainly appreciate and support the arts and will go out to concerts or weekends at the museums and were on mailing lists for galleries that were opening. There was also a Center for the Arts less than 10 miles from my house and on a complete whim I bought a drawing pad, pencils, conte crayons and a sharpener and drove off once a week to attempt to learn how to draw the human figure.
THAT in itself is an entirely different blogcake, for if you’ve never sat in an almost silent semi-circle intently studying a totally nude person under strong lights trying to render what they look like on paper with graphite or charcoal, it’s an Experience: especially when LOTS of other people have already BEEN figure drawing for YEARS before they got there and they can whip out an amazingly life-like drawing complete with shading and muscle tone while YOU sit there and barely have an outline and what you DO have makes the mode look like an early Cathy cartoon. I felt embarrassed when the model would put on a robe and quietly walk around and see what we’ve drawn: here I was staring at her and what I was able TO put on the paper was embarrassingly amateurish.
“Hey, that’s a good start,” she said in an encouraging way, “is this your first live figure drawing class?”
“Yeah,” says I, “is it that obvious?”
She laughed. “Oh, I’ve seen MUCH worse than that, trust me,” she said. “It’s all a matter of practice. Remember that.”
Somewhere ‘round that time something struck me: no one ever explained to me that for most of the world, ANY art takes practice. Oh, sure, some are born savants who can HEAR a piece of music and then play it exactly on the piano, but MOST of us spend YEARS banging away at our craft until we can finally pull it off and make it look easy. No one had explained to me, as I sat examining and admiring Brian Froud’s work, that this was the best-of-the-best of a professional artist who A) had an inherent talent for drawing B) was TRAINED as an artist and C) spent HOURS a day drawing, painting and examining what he’s already done. No one explained to me that you gotta have a fair amount of self-confidence to be an artist—it’s not going to come out right the first time and you’ve got to have the strength to cross it out and try it again AND to show what you’ve done to someone more skilled than you and ask, “how can I improve this?”
I had neither inherent talent NOR self-confidence NOR a mentor to guide me NOR (apparently) anyone to point out to me that Rome ‘twasn’t built in a day and that to improve meant that I’d have to WORK at my drawing and—perhaps even more importantly—challenge myself: drawing the same thing over and over again isn’t challenging yourself.
What’s more, though, is after those figure drawing classes Life just sort of rolled over me and I stopped drawing AGAIN. The classes were expensive, I NEEDED and instructor and didn’t feel that going to a art “class” where a model just posed and you just drew (generally $5 at the door to cover the model’s fees) would help me in any meaningful way. I did get a few books of models out of the library, but lets face it, it’s easier to learn to draw something that’s 3D than trying to sketch a copy of a 2D picture. Try it: sketch a real egg or a real coffee mug on a table and then try to sketch an egg from a PHOTO of an egg. Of course you CAN do it, but it’s not at all the same thing. Extra-double-plus-so with the human body; clothed, nude or draped, it’s better to have a live person than to be looking at a photo of a person. For starters, the lighting and the sizing are all wrong. At the time I not only didn’t know anyone who would pose for me, I didn’t know anyone who had the time to just SIT for 20 minutes in one position, so I gave it up AGAIN.
That is, until recently...