Drawing Even When Everything Seems “Mundane”

October 1, 2015


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.

150928_Des-BLeft: 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.”

That’s bogus.

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.)

    • Nancy
    • October 1, 2015

    Roz, it reminds me of something you said in class that really keeps speaking to me, “If you focus on anything long enough, it becomes interesting”
    SO true.

    • Elaine Gongora
    • October 1, 2015

    Roz I have become addicted to your posts and I love your artwork. I found you through Sketchbook Skool and actually went to the zoo to draw animals. Then I went to the park and had fun drawing the ducks. Last time I did that was in art school 50 years ago!
    Been using the Pentel Pocket Pen recently. It’s a learning curve after drawing with the Micron for years. But it is the change in technique that I need now.
    Keep up the good work.

  1. Reply

    Very well put Ms. Roz. You are definitely the queen positive thinking and I love it.

    Every negative thought, excuse to not draw can and must be re-framed if we are to grow and enjoy life!

    Hope you are having a productive week!

  2. Reply

    Yes, Nancy, thanks for remembering—I have the tick drawings to prove my statement! (But it took a LOT of tick drawings. And a lot of queasy moments!)

  3. Reply

    Carmel, sometimes it’s as simple as changing a tool to get a new take on something, and to work up an new visual vocabulary of lines. Other times it’s necessary to take an 1/2 day in a great museum and look at all the ways masters captured people and their faces (if that interests you) or people at work (if that’s the focus) and then take that inspiration out into the world and try to capture something along those lines.

    Obvious (not from this, but if you were looking in my current journal at the other pages) I’m really interested in funny ears and noses!!!!

    Sometimes it’s as simple as just changing our vantage point, lower or higher.

    If you’re getting tired of drawing people but you keep coming back to them it means you’re looking for something else and you’re going to have to push yourself. Maybe in 2 or 3 ways before you know what’s really going to be the direction.

    It will be exciting.

  4. Reply

    Elaine, thanks. I love that I’ve created an addict. (Just kidding, thank you for reading!) I’m so happy that my class helped you go to the zoo and draw animals and then the park for ducks! That’s so great to know.

    The learning curve on the PPBP is steep, but keep at it. I hated it at first but then loved it.

    Do you normally do watercolor? If so, drop the PPBP for a couple weeks and work with the Pentel Colorbrush (don’t worry that the dye-based ink is fugitive). See this post

    Use a fun color like sepia, or magenta (Like the llama in that post).

    It’s a “gateway” brush pen if you get my drift!!!

  5. Reply

    Thanks Sharon, it’s going full steam here but it was a great day today with time to sit and paint with Phyllis who has taken to it like crazy. I love watching her concentrate. She is obviously going to a zen place.

  6. Reply

    Thanks for the reading tip! I found Dow´s book on Gutenberg and downloaded it onto the Kindle. Sounds really interesting, I haven´t heard about notan before.

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