Why Drawing Practice Matters and What Your Line Can Tell You

January 4, 2018
My sketch of Dick when I was in the emergency. I can see by the line that it is less fluid than normal, stopping almost artificially and turning at various points in a way I don’t usually do, many more pauses. Additionally there are restatements that I’ve obviously zoned out in—making more and more marks in one area instead of balancing marks across the surface as I typically do. And there are several places where I can see and remember that I made marks even though I was telling myself, “Don’t.” I just couldn’t hear myself through the pain. We talked the whole time, and typically I don’t find that distracting when I’m sketching as I’m accustomed to talking while I do teaching demos.

Readers of my blog know that I love observing my process. I can’t help myself. Even during emergencies. I think you can learn a lot about yourself and find ways to always sketch.

On November 19 I fell in a friend’s foyer. I was rushing across the foyer to my fanny pack to change my glasses and missed a 2-inch step down. Dick came rushing toward me as I was writhing on the floor screaming in pain. (It was not fun, but I was also having flashbacks to a fall 30 years earlier.) He tripped over the same step and almost landed on top of me. This all would have been really funny if I hadn’t been in so much pain—especially because I was visiting a friend who had just had hip surgery! She was pacing back and forth two floors above us and getting ice bags. Dick helped me upstairs where we iced my foot and then off we went to the emergency room.

I think Siri is pretty stupid. On the drive to emergency I asked Siri for “URGENT CARE” in our location. She threw up 3 emergency rooms. We went to the hospital we favored (yes we have a favorite) since it wasn’t going to take that much more time and we were headed home and the ride home from emergency would be quick. BUT the next day we confirmed for ourselves that we passed EIGHT urgent care facilities including one connected to the orthopedic surgeon I eventually went to. Evidently Siri doesn’t do too well in an emergency.

By the time we arrived at the emergency room I was doing a good job of keeping the pain back, but I needed help focusing my mind so I got out my sketchbook and started to sketch Dick.

The visit went well, I was issued a boot to immobilize my foot and ankle, and sent home with instructions to follow up with the orthopedic surgeon when the swelling went down a bit—since it was Thanksgiving week, that meant I saw the orthopedic surgeon the following Monday.

Waiting in the lobby of the orthopedic surgeon’s for my check up. I warmed up with the guy on the left and then drew the camo guy when my first model was called in. This is my normal working line and my pain level is low and I’m alert.

While waiting in the lobby for my appointment I sat at a table in a “cafe” area and sketched. I was rested, not in active pain (because my foot and ankle were immobilized), and in the second page spread in today’s post I can see that my warm up lines are as they should be—especially after I warm up and get to quick sketching the man in camo. 

What I find really interesting is that after spending an hour in a treatment room waiting for the doctor I was in a lot of discomfort. I had not sat up for that long in a week. I could feel my foot throbbing in the boot. I’d been talking to Dick to keep my mind off things, but I couldn’t stand it any more. I pulled a short stool over and sat on it with my foot elevated on the patient chair. I wasn’t comfortable, but I knew I could cope for awhile in this position. I sat and sketched Dick. 

After an hour in the treatment room waiting for the doctor my foot is killing me (it’s in the boot). I have no place to put it up. I try to sketch to distract myself. I can’t focus my lines and am circling. I’m hunting for lines rather than just hitting them as I did with the camo guy.

In this third image, which is unfinished because the doctor finally arrived, I can see how I’m pretty much at my wit’s end to keep the pain levels out of my mind. My line there is mostly a scribble, but not a searching-for-a-line scribble. I’m just attempting to keep the pen moving and taking guesstimates all about on the surface.

What do I learn from all this?

Well from the doctor we learned that the still black bruising of the foot was normal and I had both torn ligaments and a stress fracture.

That was hard news to take because I’m not one to sit still, and confirmation that there were weeks more to wear the boot and not cycle was difficult for me to absorb. I’d just recovered from bronchitis and missed the spectacular fall weather for cycling. I was anxious to at least cycle inside on the trainer. 

But worrying over it isn’t going to change it. You just live through some things. Drawing helps me do that.

In the meantime I confirmed something that I already knew about myself, but which is always good to reaffirm—I can sketch in less than ideal situations.

I routinely with vertigo; I’ve sketched through bronchitis and other illnesses. If I have a spare moment when something else doesn’t need to be done sketching is my default. 

I always tell my students to sketch even if they don’t feel like it and I’m glad to know I can still follow my own advice in emergency situations.  

One of the things we have to do as artists if were going to take any moment and use it as a time to practice is to focus and limit our expectations—we aren’t trying to sketch a masterpiece in these less than ideal times. We are simply showing up and doing our work. And that’s vital. Because when we stop showing up that’s when we stop looking and stop exploring. For some students with difficulties dealing with the internal critics these no-show times begin to establish a pattern that undercuts their drawing practice. I’ve even seen it stop people. 

If you find yourself in a stressful situation try limiting your focus and your expectations—say to yourself “I want to truly see one thing” and then look for and get that thing down on paper as best you can.

Next build on that one thing with another thing. That’s really what drawing is about anyway, building.

When I sketched the camo guy all I wanted was the hat (billed caps are an issue for me) and the gesture of his body. And then because that was all I wanted, when I got that I thought “OK, I can get the paints out.” And when I did that it was just about keeping things quick and simple because we might be called in at any time. And then it was just about getting something about that camo pant on paper. And then…there was a nurse who came over and wanted to talk about sketching. So because I had only one small focus on which I built another focus and then added something else, I could easily stop and chat with the nurse because she wasn’t interrupting anything. This isn’t a finished sketch because it was never planned as such, and I’m thrilled by every bit of it.

For me there was an additional bit of information—this is how my sketching mind responds to pain. I can see that in the three pieces. I’ve had chronic pain issues my entire adult life. They haven’t stopped me doing my work. But acute pain is just sifted off norm enough, just unknown enough, that it’s helpful for me to know my reaction to it.

I can go forward in all situations knowing I have this practice to hold me up, to engage me. Drawing isn’t something that takes me out of my mind. Drawing brings me into the present moment. That’s exactly where I want to be regardless of my physical circumstances.

Images in today’s post were done in a Hahnemühle Watercolor Sketchbook. I have a review post coming up soon.

    • Tina Koyama
    • January 4, 2018

    I’m so sorry, Roz, about your accident and all the pain you are going through. But I have to say I find your process and analysis of sketching during these hard times really, really fascinating! Though I believe I could do it, I’m fortunate that I have not had to endure anything like an injury to “test” myself on my ability to sketch through it. Hope you’re on the mend, and I appreciate your self-analysis about what you are learning.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Tina. I’m missing all the sketch outs! I hope you remain injury free!! Thanks for the good wishes. I’m not patient about things like this because I want to be moving, moving, moving. But it’s one more thing to learn.

  1. Reply

    What a bummer! I can relate. I broke my leg this past summer and spent most of the summer on my couch, waiting for it to heal. Interestingly, although I normally draw in my sketchbook at least once a day, the first couple of weeks, I had no desire to draw at all, all my energy was expended on figuring out how to move around all the level changes in and around our old farmhouse with my leg straight in a brace and no weight bearing. Then, once that became more normal, I found that what I really wanted to do was hand embroidery. (Inspiration from Alabama Chanin) Sketching for me requires the excitement of seeing and thinking new things, and I felt very static, so small repetitive actions were somehow just right. So I hand stitched some fingerless gloves, and a skirt. Once I became more mobile, I went back to daily drawing. It’s very interesting to see how your body and its moods affect your creative activities. I hope you’ll be as good as new soon!

    1. Reply

      We all use our different practices for different reasons. If you had no desire to draw but found something else to do I think it’s yourself telling yourself what you need. It would be fun to keep track of over time if you had other similar circumstances.

      Since I draw every day, it becomes very noticeable to me in time and temperament when I don’t draw. And so when I am injured or ill it makes sense to keep sketching because it brings normalcy. But that’s not the only way to bring normalcy.

      For me also, I gave up my other activities like beading, which used to be something I did most days, a number of years ago as I wanted to spare my hands the wear and tear.

      For me, even being at home (I work at home) I find that there are new things to see and notice. And of course I can draw Dick when he gets back. So temperamentally I’m set up to see and draw.

      But even on some days when vertigo might mean I can’t draw a straight line let alone get proportions correctly down, sometimes playing with the paint and creating backgrounds for future paintings is what I find myself doing. It all keeps my mind going.

      It sounds like that’s what stitching does for you so hold on to that essential practice.

    • Frank Bettendorf
    • January 5, 2018

    Roz, Great post and a wonderful reminder that we can do if we want to do. I love the expression, “we are showing up and doing our work!” That is great truth. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Frank, thanks for staying in touch.

    • Connie
    • January 7, 2018

    Wow! I needed that read today. Going through the boot experience myself, and now the pain is returning due to another fall, and now a cold on top of it, but your information will focus me. I appreciate your help and kindness in always expressing your process as artists don’t always do that . Will focus on my drawing and forge forth today, using this practice as meditation, pain relief and calm. Thanks so much for the reminder. Peace to you in your recovery.

    1. Reply

      I’m glad you found this helpful. I hope you were able to forge forward. Doing a little bit of drawing everyday, as long as we aren’t expecting a masterpiece, is a great way to have all the benefits from our drawing practice to help us in stressful times. I hope that you can heal and get out of that boot soon.

  2. Reply

    Great post, Roz! Not only inspirational, but I’m happy to hear that I’m not the only one that has issues with sketching billed caps…

    1. Reply

      I don’t understand why billed caps give me such drawing hiccups. I just don’t seem to hold the angles in my mind so I was really happy with this piece. And I make a point each Fair to sketch as many as I can. We’ll get there if we keep at it. You are not alone!

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