Above: My first sketch of my new triceratops Des. He’s on the shelf above my head, with Carl. I used a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen on Nideggen paper in an 7 x 7 inch square book I’d made. The background is Montana Marker. I decided not to finish drawing Carl because I liked the negative space between Des’ legs. Some people might think sketching replica dinosaurs is “mundane.” Not me. I know it’s all practice that will help me in the field. On this day I couldn’t get out because of vertigo and I needed to sketch something. It was perfect to have Des as a model for the first time in such a situation.
The other day a student from my “Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public” wrote to me explaining that things were going well (after the intensive first 30 days of class) but that he was finding it difficult to discover something that energizes him to sketch when viewing the mundane that surrounds him.
First I think I should have pointed out that language is very potent and when we start labeling something with a word like “mundane” we’ve already set quite a task for ourselves.
Better to approach something with the constant, questing eye and say, “Well, what can I discover about this today?”
But I talked to them a lot about that in class so I decided what this student needed was a kick in the pants to get out and sketch and explained how and why.
I think sometimes the best thing any artist can do, when his attention doesn’t seem focused on drawing, is to carry the materials around with him all the time. Next he needs to go somewhere he’ll be likely to encounter subject matter he enjoys sketching.
For me that’s a park, a zoo, a farm, or a train/public transport. At any of those locations I can have my pick of animals or people to sketch.
Left: Second image of Des. I had a page early in my current journal—which is almost filled—that had a prepainted (stencil) texture, but hadn’t been used yet. I went to it, sketched Des, despite the vertigo, had a ton of fun, and then colored in the background with a green Montana Acrylic Marker. I find that sketching and painting while I have vertigo is actually a positive thing. Sure everything is swimming around in front of me and I feel I’m going to keel over, but by focusing on fixed points on a subject I find that my mind starts thinking about other things. I can’t control the vertigo, so I refuse to let it control me. And because I consider my drawing life “practice” it’s a great time to practice. Practice isn’t about coming out of a session with a “perfect” piece. Practice is about showing up and doing the work.
Next I think it’s important that you start sketching as soon as you get to your destination. You need to start sketching immediately, whether or not you feel like sketching.
There are all sorts of reasons you might not feel like sketching. Your allergies might be acting up. You might be tired from staying up and watching all the episodes of “Game of Thrones” over the weekend. You might be coming down with a cold. Your desk might be covered with 12 projects that are due tomorrow. Or your shoes might be too tight.
This is the standard default “negative” that Dick and I laugh about in our household, ever since we first started dating. Back then he would accompany me to the shoe store to buy new running shoes, in an age when running shoes made for women weren’t available and I had to find really small men’s sizes. We have been joking about my complete dependence on comfortable shoes ever since. (He doesn’t realize it’s something I have insisted on since I was 3! But we don’t need to go into that.)
So whether or not you feel like sketching you need to jump right in. Usually two sketches into your sketching session something else happens—something clicks, and you’ll get back into the flow of drawing.
Maybe it will take you five drawings. Well keep drawing. Maybe you’ll have to stop drawing and go out the next day again. You need to do that anyway…
It helps also to have a goal when you are trying to jumpstart yourself in this way. You might say, “Hey, I want to go to the park and draw five different squirrels.” Then you go to the park, sit in a likely place, and do just that.
Whether you feel like it or not.
I think that sometimes the internal critic in people gripes and complains and fusses. He blames the “lack” of subject matter as the reason for not sketching. He encourages people not to draw because he convinces them that there is nothing suitable to sketch. He convinces them not to draw because everything available to sketch is “so mundane.”
Even if there is nothing that we would all agree would make a stunning sketch subject right in front of us, there is SOMETHING to sketch. That something will turn into a valuable sketch because we are putting in our practice time. And because we are bringing our interpretation and our understanding to it. Most important, we are bringing our curiosity and wonder into the examination of that “mundane” subject.
If you think the resultant drawing is boring or uninteresting, don’t worry. It’s actually sort of good if you think that. Then you will have to raise your goals for the day, to find new ways to look at that subject.
The fact that something is mundane isn’t a negative, it’s a positive. It’s a challenge.
A master can make even the most mundane items look miraculous, lovely, and engaging.
Evidence: JMW Turner’s paintings of the kippers he was about to eat for lunch.
The other part of this “just go out and sketch whether you feel like it or not” approach is that the more we do it, the less the thought, “Nothing catches my eye,” ever enters our mind. (I’ve been at this for a long time and believe me there is no lack of subject matter. You’ve always got something to learn about something. It’s humbling.)
In the off chance you have taken my advice and you’re in the midst of a situation where you might be likely to find suitable subject matter and YOU STILL DON’T SEE anything:
look for negative space,
if you don’t see interesting negative space, go for Notan,
no interesting Notan (and no way you can see to make it interesting?),
go for gesture, etc.,
or, the big picture isn’t suiting you? Then look at some part of it or something way smaller. Then you get to blow through thumbnails.
It’s all useful! There is always something to draw. And the practice time we expend on it all, comes back to us in the moments when we need to call on our skills to sketch something we have never sketched before, take a new vantage point, or even work faster than we’ve ever had to.
Don’t be fooled by a common internal critic ploy—the use of judgmental language.
Get out and sketch every day.
(See the captions for what you can do if you can’t get out for any reason.)