Daily Practice for the Mind and the Body: Staying in the Game

August 10, 2016


Above: Aviary residents sketched with a hard solid felt tipped brush point “calligraphy” pen from Tomboy. I stopped on this day between visit with Phyl and CR, to take a mental break and refresh myself, and simply move the pen across the paper (Seawhite journal) and see how amenable the tip is to the quick twists and turns of sketching live finches as they flutter around. Even working quickly and making a mess, I'm able to get down some essential "bits" that help me recognize what it is I want to say about birds; what I want to get into my paintings later.

I always have trouble deciding which season I love the most. Spring is gorgeous, often unexpected, and always revelatory in Minnesota. Fall is gorgeous, comforting with cooling temperatures, and dazzling with the change of light. Winter is gorgeous in a blazing way that pricks all the physical senses and delivers a series of lessons, a new one everyday, and most of which are humbling.

But this, right now, is the best time of the year in Minnesota. Even though it was still 74 degrees when I got up, and humid—this is the time of year when I can wake at 5 a.m., get in my 18 mile bike ride before traffic picks up, complete a round of physical therapy, take a shower, eat breakfast, and be at my desk by 8 a.m. ready to have a solid 3-hour block of work, walk, PT, lunch, work, and continue until it’s time for bed.

I feel very productive.

And when it’s muggy and hazy like this morning I also feel confident I made the right choice on when to cycle! The light was beautiful as the sun tried to peek through the haze and rise over the treetops on River Road. I rode my bike in a dark “canyon” of leaves while shafts of light pieced through. (I'm sure the numerous flashing lights I employ on my gear and bike made me look like a giant firefly.) I greeted regular riders and runners and some doggie friends as our paths intersected.

Despite the high humidity and warm temperature I had a great route time. It wasn't as fast as I can go when the cool temps of fall creep in, but it was fast enough to prove to myself that the past several days were an anomaly and not a norm and it wasn’t time to hang the helmut up yet.

And as I pushed hard the last 4 miles, anxious to see if I could keep the pace up, not aggravate my shoulder, not stress my back, and allow my knees some comfort, I smiled and thought about sketching—I passed some wild turkeys but I couldn’t stop because I was on a “mission” to log that good course time.

Readers of this blog, and anyone who has ever taken a class from me, know that I think about my daily drawing practice in almost exactly the same way as I do my exercise routine. It keeps me sane, it keeps me healthy and moving. The movement daily drawing brings is both physical and mental. It’s physical movement because sketching takes you out into the world to find subjects, and even if you can’t get out sketching creates a dance between you, the paper, and the still life (or posing portrait candidate) you’re engaged with. The movements might be more subtle and relegated to the arm and torso, but they are movements nonetheless.

And it’s mental movement because it keeps your thoughts engaged in the present moment with the subject in front of you, and clears the way for healthy rumination on what’s next, or what the narrative of how you feel in that moment and those slightly preceding it might be.

But sketching daily is also like a daily exercise program because you have good days and bad days. In cycling sometimes your times drag down so slow that you wonder if you have entered an alternate universe where the rules of physics are different.

Somedays sketching each attempt at rendering a subject’s likeness (any subject still or living) flops on the page—there’s something wrong about the angles, the proportions, the line quality. Your hand feels disconnected from your shoulder, your boot feels too tight on your left little toe, and your eyes are insisting that they do not recognize the prescription Dr. Bob has formulated for your trifocals. (Since realistically I know the issue is not with Dr. Bob’s efforts, I often take off my glasses and give up my insistence on “crispy.")

Readers of this blog and all my students also know that days like this don’t bother me. I embrace them and the messy pages that they generate.

Why? Because I’m staying in the game. I’m keeping my hand in. I’m showing up. I telling my mind and my body that drawing and observing is what I need to be doing right now. I’m honoring all the days that came before. And most important I’m laying the ground work for all the days to come.

This doesn’t mean I can mindlessly move pen or pencil over the page—I must show up. I must be present. I must take it seriously, even as I am having the time of my life making a mess.

I run through the litany of check points in my brain, what’s working, how does this tool feel on the paper, what is the humidity doing to my paper, what happens if I check the negative space over there, or here, or under there? 

It’s funny, those are exactly the types of check in questions I ask as I ride my bike. Although the negative space question becomes only about three-dimensional space and movement and the avoidance of runners who do not recognize the sanctity of the "shared path," not translation to two-dimensional space. And of course the concern about humidity is, “Do I need to drink more water now?”

I’m grateful every day that I have both practices in my life. They feed each other, support each other, make the next day and the next day after that possible, and remind me that for now I’m doing what I need to be doing.

Daily practice, of both the physical and artistic, provides daily proof that life is full of anomalies but that we all have some great days and great pages ahead. A daily practice lets you see the big picture with the patterns returning and interweaving. It allows you to ratchet back and protect yourself from soreness and injury in a supportive way that isn't retreat, but a recognition of the reality of what is changing (and aging).

A daily practice spread out over the course of a lifetime gives you courage that your choices are trending to sound.

This is the best time of the year. For now.

Below: My second page of quick sketches of aviary birds. I've started to focus on individuals and settle on some specifics. I'm out of time. But the quick refreshment this short sketching break brought to my mind and body allowed me to move easily and positively through the rest of the day, through tasks difficult and easy. I look at these pages and am reminded that they are my foundation.


    • Pat Wafer
    • August 10, 2016

    For well over a year I have been committed to a daily swimming practice. I was recovering from 2 broken legs and the only exercise I could do was lap swimming. Many times in the beginning I just wanted to stay home and paint or draw but I kept reminding myself if I wasn’t healthy physically that as a plein air painter I wasn’t gonna be up to making much art anyway so I made swimming, not my art work, my number one priority. Now I am in better shape than I have been in 20 years and I think I am more disciplined about getting art work done even when I don’t “feel like it”. It is still a struggle some days as I am a naturally lazy person who would rather lay in a comfy chair and read than just about anything. But I know I am happier when I am physically and artistically active. Then I can really enjoy the good book and the comfy chair! Thanks for writing about the importance of showing up everyday and for setting such a great example of doing just that!!

  1. Reply

    Pat, I’m so glad that you’ve been able to swim daily and that it has helped you so much! Dick is a lifetime swimmer and he’ll love to hear this too. (I haven’t been in the pool since graduate school and a nasty ear infection. I should go just to watch him swim.) Keep on pushing!

  2. Reply

    Julana, I’ve only been driven through Ohio as a child so I don’t have great memories of it. I’m sure it is lovely in Oct. People argue that’s the best time in MN too, and I’m sure I’ll feel that way when fall arrives.

    I’m so glad I could be a part of helping your mindset get you through that work shop! I hope you had a lot of fun. I’m glad you stretched and went and showed up!

    • bilby
    • August 11, 2016

    I love the little bird drawings. So much life. So much personality, Lovely.

  3. Reply

    Thanks so much bilby, they are special to me. I’m grateful for the presence of birds in the world in general, but so happy I can spend time with these birds.

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