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