Coming Back to Como after My Accident: Become Students of Your Own Process

July 21, 2010

I go to the zoo to try to reconnect with my brain.

100712_1ZooStonehenge Left: the first sketch from my first sketch out after my light fixture encounter.

This post presents images from a 2-hour sketch out at Como Zoo with my bff Liz. (Who incidentally hasn't sent me a photo of herself with her new radical hairstyle!)

These sketches represent my first attempt to leave the house and focus on sketching for an extended period of time since experiencing what I like to call "the blow to the head." For someone used to sketching for 4 to 5 hours at a time, 2 hours seemed a drop in the bucket. Or so I thought.

To keep this post from being all-caption (red, bold italicized type) I've decided to do away with captions and just write the text, with some observations on what happened and what I see going on with my ability to draw. Click on any image to view an enlargement.

Liz and I watched the flamingos for a little bit on this sunny morning. We were there at 10 a.m. when the zoo opened, hoping to enjoy the cooler part of the day—so was everyone else in town it seems. It took us about 10 minutes of waiting before the entry line thinned! Anyway, those flamingos were on the move and looking interesting to draw, but I knew they were too curvy to even attempt in my current situation. We took some photos for use on a rainy day and moved on to the aquatic building.

I was working on cards of 8 x 8 inch white Stonehenge with Prismacolor Colored Pencils. I'm trying to get up to speed for the Paws on Grand event and wanted to see if I preferred regular wax pencils to watersoluble ones on this paper which I'll be using on the day. (The jury is still out on which pencils, but I'm leaning towards using watersoluble pencils dry.)

What's off about this first card? Everything is laboriously over thought. I'm using multiple colors (analogous ones) to make my drawings, but I might as well not be. With the first puffin, in the center I found that I couldn't get the pencil pressure correct. I'd want to bear down lightly and a dark line would appear. Also there is no smoothness of line. What isn't visible is the time this all took. I have always lived rather fast—work fast, talk fast, draw fast. These drawings made me feel as if I were swimming through molasses.

By the time I drew the top right puffin looking right at me, he was standing perfectly still about 2 feet from me (behind glass) and had fallen asleep. I had time to make lines and recheck and recheck. This isn't something that I typically need to do more than once. It was as if I was having brief, microsecond, memory failures, and I was, my visual memory was not kicking in at all. Because of the struggle I was experiencing I tried to release pressure by doing the quick gesture sketch at the bottom left: trying to find a line that wasn't stop and start, jittery.

100712_2ZooStonehenge We reached the Penguin enclosure, only a few minutes later, and I was already exhausted from the extreme mental concentration. A bird I love becomes a shape I can't even begin to grasp. I'm struggling to find a hold on any part of these birds' shape. I have no ability to make quick assessments on where one area of feather color changes and another begins. Processing time has screeched to a halt.

We walked outside at that point and stopped by the Polar Bears (see the next card). One bear was out near the fence, lying in the grass. We watched for a bit and I didn't think I would sketch, but something about his head made me ultimately take out the pencils. The placement of the head on the card still puzzles me because I had no intention of doing multiple sketches when I started. The lines are very tentative for me. I'm working smaller here to avoid getting lost in eye detail. It was a conscious choice to do this and something I can't remember having ever done before, certainly not at the zoo. I felt I was struggling to find an approach.

100712_3ZooStonehenge After we left the Polar Bears Liz and I walked around a bit, chatting, taking a pass on the animals we encountered. Liz expressed some interest in the Reindeer, but I convinced her that their muzzles were too oddly shaped to mess with—too cartoony. I had enough trouble with Reindeer before the conk on the head!

We ended up at the giraffe enclosure and I decided they were moving too much and I was too tired (after only an hour) that I would do loose gesture drawings. The end result was that the concentration of focusing on a constantly moving animal actually made me dizzy and I had to look away. It also was getting warmer in the sun.

100712_4ZooStonehenge I tried sketching one of the large flowers that grew between the retaining wall and the guest fence, but I couldn't capture a way to cope with negative space. Frustrated I talked for a bit while Liz sketched. Then a giraffe came and stood very close by, and raised its tail. It took a long slow dump and I was able to sketch that negative space!

We moved on to the Ostriches and this card (below) actually looks the most familiar to me. Instead of warming up with one drawing I could look back over the morning and see it as an extended warm up. It's not ideal to face longer warm up times when you've previously been able to jump right in to things, but it beats never getting to warm up speed. This drawing was a struggle because I had more than my normal spacial confusion over head bulges (on a moving animal, he kept dipping his head during his seated sand bath). Instead of looking mainly at my subject and sketching on the card without looking, I had to constantly look back at the card and then at the subject, and second guess my measurement judgments. Normally there is no struggle over this, but a flat, matter of fact approach, that "this goes here, no, there, OK." Something not even said, just a stream of happening. Without the silent dialog I'm forced to recheck and recheck and of course fuss.


Above: I'm breaking my "no caption plan" here and posting the Ostrich with a caption because the paragraphs weren't turning out in an agreeable manner to place the images!

100712_6ZooStonehenge The Spider Monkey sketch is a "I'm going to force myself to do this moment." I didn't take my sunglasses off when we went into the building and people were constantly standing in front of us as we sketched. After a few tentative lines were placed on the card I spent my time fiddling around his face, trying to work out that funky hairdo.

I was relieved when we moved on because of the constant line-of-sight interruptions.

The Orangutan (below) was our last stop of the day. It started out as a disaster, with my inability to capture the space of his face, but then I was able to use those early lines to build something that worked. This is normal for me, except it is not something that I am used to being conscious of.

100712_7ZooStonehenge Again, I fussed way too long on this sketch (Orangutan at the left), trying to work some additional color in with the red, and adding the dark tone at his "part" on his forehead. This fussing comes out of the second guessing and the need to focus on my page. Not only is my hand-eye-brain connection not working, but I seem to have difficulty recognizing that this is a 2-D piece of paper in my hand. I'm not describing it well—it's as if I can't focus on the paper at times and have to feel it with the pencil.

Liz made a great sketch of the Orangutan and we decided that since it was almost noon two-hours was a good amount of time and we could both end on a high note.

What did I learn from all this? Well, I'm working through a cloud of confusion. Simple acts like labeling cards become intensely focused, consuming more energy than they ever have before. There's that longer warm up time. There's no hitting the sweet spot (which is what I  love about sketching live animals—that moment when your pen mimics their movement exactly).

All the things I take as instinctual—color choice, line quality, placement on the card—now have to be rethought and reconsidered.

My internal checklists are all scrambled. Before I saw immediately where lines intersected and joined or didn't, or how they related to each other, and now I have to literally hunt or scan for those relationships.

What used to be exhilarating is now exhausting. And I see the unease in my results. My drawings used to remind me of moments when I seamlessly connected with the animal I sketched. These drawings from the zoo seem to me a screen between me and the animal—it's what I perceive and remember from the experience.

I don't think that's going to last. I say this because there were moments when I was drawing the Ostrich when I could sense the screen was gone, even as I struggled with a sketchy tentative line.

And, as with any physical and mental exercise, stamina can be built up.

I took the time to write about these images today because I have a sense that some of these obstacles and interactions, or others I'm not encountering, are what stop people just learning to draw. We all want something else. You can have it if you work through the discomfort. It might just not always be the same as it was the day before, or the year before, or as long lasting during a session.

Because it is more fleeting is it less desirable? Maybe more.

I know you can have more if you work through the discomfort, because I know my process, my checklists, my approach, my sense of timing and space, I have a baseline to bounce off of which helps me adjust. I know, knowing my process, how those parameters were put in place in the first place.

So I recommend again, as I have before, that you become students of your own process. In a worst case scenario your understanding of your process can become a map to help you navigate home. The entrance to the freeway may be blocked, but there are surface streets (not without potholes) that will get you back. Pack a lunch.

  1. Reply

    I’m so sorry about your accident – this must all be so frustrating. But I can see a lot of difference in the ostrich sketch, compared to the others – like you say, it’s more like your pre-bump drawings.

    I hope you recover quickly!

  2. Reply

    Sarah you can also see a lot of difference if you compare these sketches to the last sketch I did before the conk, which was the French Bull Dog.

    There the line is easy—hard or soft depending on what I want. And I can look at it and see a better relationship with negative space.

    Fingers crossed. No drawing yet today.

  3. Reply

    Oh Melly, you have a lot of catching up to do then. I’ve been posting almost daily since I put up that opening post (or it’s longer predecessor—sometime around the beginning of June). I was worried people would miss the new posts so I put that “Skip this and go to the current post” note at the top. I’m sorry you missed it. I should have made it an odd color or something. Thanks for checking back in. And thanks for your kind wishes.

  4. Reply

    So sorry to hear of your accident, and your difficult recovery.

    A few months ago, I cracked my head on a kitchen cabinet door (there was so much blood that the kitchen looked like an abattoir!), and gave myself a mild concussion. I had about two weeks of what you’re describing (except my eyesight got worse), plus exhaustion like I’d never known. The doc said, “Of course you’re having trouble. Your brain is bruised. You need to rest.” I finally had to admit she was right.

    I’m fine now-I think the brain has a miraculous ability to heal. I’m wishing the same for you.

    I also wonder what you’re going to discover during this period.


  5. Reply

    Maggie, I’m so sorry to hear about your accident in the kitchen! It sounds horrible! I know what you mean about exhaustion so it is great for me to hear about your experience and recovery.

    Has your eyesight returned to normal, or pre-accident condition?

    Over the last couple of days my sight improvement has evaporated and I’m back to pre-accident vision when watching TV, and reading. The good thing is that the headaches are less so I can actually use the sight I have!

    I know one thing I’ve discovered all ceiling lights should be recessed behind heavy metal grills! Oh, and another thing the skull isn’t as hard as it’s cracked up to be. I really envy Woodpeckers with their shock-absorber system!

    Thanks for writing.

    • Linda
    • July 21, 2010

    Hey Roz, How are you feeling today? I’m so glad you got out with your friend tosketch. Our bodies heal in there do time so it really hasnot been solong it will come back its a part of you this sketching. For me Im teaching myself and Im not even where your at even with a bumbon her head.
    Have a wonderful day and thank you for posting it means alot

  6. Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful post, Roz!

    I was thinking even before you said it that your experience does indeed sound like what someone goes through as they’re learning to draw. I’ve never really heard anyone talk about the discomfort that can be so off-putting, but it’s so much a part of early drawing. I wonder if that’s especially so if you’re learning to draw as an adult. It’s good to be reminded that I’m not the only one who deals with the awkwardness and that it’s manageable, part of that process you’re so good at encouraging us to pay attention to. 🙂

    You are such an inspiration. Thank you again for all you do and for sharing this journey with us.


    • Janine
    • July 21, 2010

    Please try to rest. This is not a time to just “push through it.” Your health is the most important thing.

  7. Reply

    Roz, I’ve been trolling around your blog for weeks, learning and delighting in your work and your process. Already, I feel like I know you, or at least some of the best parts of you. I was so sorry to read about the blow to your head; I’ve thought alot over the last couple of days about what you must be going through. I wish I could help in some way.

    I have spent a lot of time with people who have had accidents or strokes and I’ve marvelled at the ways the brain repairs itself when the injured person does exactly what you’re doing: insisting that they will regain their abilities.

    So, instead of telling you to rest, to take care of yourself and not to worry about what’s happened, I say: Keep working hard, even when you’re tired. Your brain does know how to interpret what it sees. Your hand does know how to describe what you want to sketch. Brain and hand will soon reconnect fully because you’re paving the way for them. Good on you!


  8. Reply

    Roz-I have been reading (and looking through the past posts) for about a month now. I have enjoyed the wealth of information and wanted to say thank you for that. I like having lots of stuff in one spot.

    The last two paragraphs of this post caught my attention. Learning as a process in general can be frustrating and produce an uncomfortable physical response. Knowing yourself is even more difficult than learning something new I think. Put the two things together and no wonder people put the pencil and paper down quickly or don’t even start. Your comments there just about summed up how to proceed so I just wanted to thank you for the encouragement.

  9. Reply

    Thanks to everyone who has written a comment since I last responded to comments. I’m sorry for the group blanket response, but typing is difficult and I have to save most of it for work-related tasks (I am back at the computer and I do have projects that have to be pushed out).

    I do want to tell you all that I deeply appreciate your encouragement and your stories.

    I working as hard as I can to use the window of time when recovery is best achieved, with mixed results.

    I’m glad that taking time to share what went on is helpful to folks in getting people to think about drawing and their own process.

    I’ve always had good hand-eye coordination and while I learned to draw long ago I do remember various stages in the process because I have always, since the age of 2 and 1/2, been someone who examines her own process (and the process of those around her).

    I never had difficulty in the drawing process itself, because of the hand-eye-brain coordination. This doesn’t mean I always got what I liked or wanted, it just means that the drawing process was always a process and as such not horribly frustrating. It could be intense, but I kept at it. My only issues and frustrations came afterwards, in the time of looking at the drawing and deciding what I needed to do better.

    In part this was possible because I had early on put my internal critic to silent mode. When you are looking at your process in a constructive manner there really isn’t anything he can join in about.

    I’ve dealt with hundreds of students to help them with silencing that inner critic and then they go on to have a happier relationship with pencil and paper. They still having to push through the stress if you will of coordinating the hand and eye and brain, but I think it is easier at that point because the internal critic isn’t adding to the mix and their upset.

    And for beginnners in anything any skill can cause some struggle in the beginnning that can have physical manifestations that aren’t fun.

    What I find most frustrating now, however, is not that I have an inner critic on the loose (I don’t), but that everything is so slow, and so out of step. It would be perhaps like a dancer trying to get steps of a familiar dance all wrong. I have to pick it all apart and start over with repetition of the simplest of things.

    And also frustrating is that the concentration brings on the headaches.

    But I’ll keep working on it. I don’t know what is going to happen but I do know if I don’t do something right now it will never happen.

    • Molly R
    • April 18, 2019

    I really resonate with your last 3 paragraphs of your ‘blanket’ response. In 2006 someone pushed my car into oncoming traffic & I was hit head on 3 times at 55+ mph. Neck broke & I had TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). Plate & screws from C2-T1 now in my neck after it was, thankfully, put back together. By the grace of God, I can still use my arms & legs – an unknown before I went into surgery. Many surgeries afterwards repaired multiple injuries over several years. But, the biggest residual effect has been the relearning & rerouting many skill processes. How I see & interpret what I see has changed as well as how (or what) signals are sent to my hand. 13 years later, I still process things differently. I lost all my years since grade school of guitar skills. Ability to do long math equations in my head. The technical training I had in photography. Many left brain skills (I hit my head against my window on the left side.) were compromised or lost. Some I have intentionally worked at recovering but the battles had to be chosen as there were many of them. I am eternally thankful for superb digital cameras that have auto modes that are surprisingly good. The right brain skills were affected some, also, as my brain was shaken up all over. Gratefully, I can still draw & paint, & my hand relearned its responsiveness as I pushed through to find the memories I knew were there. I still have problems with some of the ‘technical’ more left brained art skills but have learned to do most things in new ways. It is still a journey all these years later but, if you decide to move forward & pursue recovery, it is amazing how the brain can heal & rewire. I take art courses & study other ways to find where I can reestablish different aspects. I know I don’t process information as fast as I did pre-wreck & often have to reread several times if there’s a lot if information to glean. But that’s okay (albeit sometimes very frustrating). Now with recovering from a 2017 back break & new heart issues, I continue to press forward. Never giving up & trusting I was given abilities to use, not just for my own enjoyment, but to share with others. Seeing you work now after the years have gone by since you wrote this post, I rejoice with you that you are, once again, drawing at ‘Roz-Speed’ fully enjoying your passion. Your hard work pushing through the ‘bump event’ shows. I know you will continue to do the same as your eyes heal & you once again adapt & press through. – Molly aka mmr in classes (& klass)

    1. Reply

      Molly, I’m sorry that you’ve had to deal with all this. I’m glad that you’re working to keep art in your life.

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