Recently a student wrote to my Drawing Practice group that she wasn’t sketching daily and wasn’t having fun when she did draw. Despite the fact that what she was drawing looked great and showed that all her hard work was paying off, she couldn’t see the value in it. This can happen to anyone at any time.
When something like this happens I think it’s important to not only think about why we draw, but to think about whether we should even be drawing. I know that regular readers of my blog will be gasping in disbelief, but yes, I believe that not everyone should be drawing. We all get to decide what we want to do creatively. I encourage my students to always keep the channels of self-examination open.
This student’s situation caused me to write the following to the larger student group. I’ve edited it a bit to make sense to a more general audience.
I think with all “skills” there are times when we plateau and for me, the way to find balance in life has always been to work regardless of how I feel and to enjoy the process (which you all already know because that’s what I teach).
But I am also aware that everyone has to find balance in his/her own life. Things that happen for us in childhood set us up to have certain patterns of behavior. For me, those things included meeting certain people in my life and certain reading that I did as a child. And those things made drawing daily a crucial part of my life.
But it isn’t so for other people and that doesn’t make those other people inferior or people who don’t “get it.” It just means that they process things differently.
People are too quick to take judgement on themselves when they don’t do something the same way that it is being done by someone else, and working for that someone else.
The trick in life is to find out how you process things and make it work for you so that you are enabled to do all that you were meant to do while you were here.
I happen to think that drawing is a way to achieve this and interface with the world, but I also spend a lot of time simply watching and writing.
I have seen a lot of students come into drawing and journaling classes simply because it’s the fad to keep visual journals and they want to be involved in that fad. A few months or a couple years later they are no longer involved in sketching because they really do need to be doing something else.
Since 2000 there has been a very strong fad of keeping visual journals. Some people keep visual journals because of this fad, and they think that they will get “likes” or “wows” or some sort of prestige when they post their work as part of this fad. Then when they don’t get that recognition they lose interest in the activity.
I like to remind myself that no one has seen the bulk of my work as an artist. Yes I’ve worked professionally as an artist for decades, but in that time the bulk of my work has not been seen—the work that really matters to me, that is driven by me and my interior dialogs and not the stuff that clients need me to create. Yet despite the fact that the bulk of my work has not been seen I continue to create more of it because I know that’s what I’m supposed to do.
This is not something that everyone can do. (It doesn’t make me special or better than other people that I can do this, it makes me at best focused and at worse obsessive-compulsive.) Humans like to get feedback, they often don’t learn to judge things without the feedback of others. I could go on.
My point is that none of that matters to me. I am happier about some of my journal pages which no one has ever seen (even Dick) than I am about paintings I’ve won awards for, or illustrations I’ve been paid a lot of money for.
I mention all this because I have found that thing which makes it possible for me to balance. I work at it every day because it is fun.
I’ve been working at it everyday, even in the past few months when it has been increasingly difficult to draw (physically) because my eyes are so bad. Drawing is still fun because I love the process, the smell of the paper, and the movement of the pen and the brush—the result is unimportant to me. So as soon as I sit down and draw something everything in the moment is smooth and even. I can reach balance. I can work on my writing, do more drawing, or—whatever.
But it doesn’t work that way for everyone and some people shouldn’t bother with drawing if it doesn’t feed them. If a creative activity isn’t feeding you then it should be discontinued in favor of another.
What I do hope is that all my students [and blog readers], faced with the choice of giving up drawing for a different creative habit think hard about what they are giving up.
I think that every individual needs to ask “Why do I draw?” Remember how key that is? Remember how much I stressed it in class? (And if you haven’t taken a class from me you’ve certainly seen me stress it time and time again on my blog.)
If you aren’t drawing in your journal and sketchbook for yourself you’re going to hit glitches. If you haven’t got to the point where the process itself is fun you’ll have trouble finding the balance and the focus.
Remember, though, that it takes everyone some real work to get to the point where the drawing and painting process is fun. You need to remind yourself of that as you consider whether it’s time to give it up or not. Have you put in the time? Have you given it a good faith effort? Have you shown up to do the work?
And if you find that you draw because you want to have a skill that others will be amazed at that’s great, but it’s a really hard hill to climb.
Ruskin wrote: “If you desire to draw, that you may represent something you care for, you will advance swiftly and safely. If you desire to draw, that you make a beautiful drawing, you will never make one.”
What I think is important for every person considering drawing as a creative habit is that they assess what drawing means in their lives and then give it the amount of attention it deserves for that meaning.
Think about that for a minute.
If you believe drawing is important to you, yet you have made no consistent effort to put drawing into your life in some significant way what is at the base of this mixed message you are sending yourself? This is the first thing you have to untangle before you decide whether or not it’s time to give up drawing.
You might give drawing minimal time because you’re still dealing with the myths people told you in childhood that you were without talent or not artistic. You might give drawing minimal time in your life because you are a caretaker doing everything for everyone around you instead of letting them own their own energy and become independent people. You might give drawing minimal time because you exist at a dire subsistence level which requires that you work four jobs to support your family. You might give drawing minimal time because other creative activities come easily to you, fit into your schedule, and get you all the gratifying attention that you crave. You might give drawing minimal attention because you really need to spend your time doing something else…
For some people the amount of attention they give a drawing and painting habit will be minimal because there are other things that they really need to be doing. A part of them already realizes the truth of that; their actions already acknowledge the truth of that. They simply haven’t sat down yet to face that their real creative habit lies somewhere else.
Ask yourself, “Can I work independently?” “What do I have to say?” “What do I want to say?” “What matters to me?”
How do you sort this out? How do you sort out what your creative activity needs to be?
You don’t ask, “What can I do for a creative activity?” but instead ask, “What can only I do?”
The reason the phrasing of your self-examination question is important is because we all have such limited time on earth that we have to use it to our best advantage.
We can’t do everything so it is a foolish waste of time to spend time trying to do something because other people are doing it or someone else told us to do. Especially if we don’t enjoy it.
There are days when drawing is particularly difficult (for me and for many others—though I do know a couple people for whom drawing is never difficult but they have other issues), but it is always FUN for me.
I never finish a drawing and think, “Well, I’ll never get that time back again.” I always finish a drawing, no matter how badly done, and think, “Well, I’m on my way now…” or some other aspect of understanding that it is all part of a continuum.
In order to judge what’s going on in your creative life you have to look at the obvious things—are you getting enough sleep, exercise, good nutrition? Do you have the other stresses in your life dealt with, or if they are on-going do you have emotional support for them? Do you have problems with an internal critic that need addressing?
Only once you’ve answered all those things can you look at drawing and how it fits into your life and whether the way it fits causes more stress than it removes. Then based on the information you gather from that, you can make adjustments.
Because life is about looking at a situation, breaking it down to what is really going on, and then addressing that, which for some of my students ends up not being about drawing at all but about something else entirely.
Then once all of that has been done it’s important to ask “How can I have balance?”
It’s important also to understand that there will always be plateaux in skill improvement or idea generation, but that it’s a way for you to prepare for the next stage, whatever that next stage might be.
Sometimes that means doing something else, finding some other way to be creative, and not judging yourself against other people who continue drawing. They may be drawing mindlessly (and we all know people who do). Why would you want to do that?
They are drawing without self-evaluation and reflection—Why would you want to do that?
They may be drawing because they are seeking validation? Why would you want to do that?
Validation has to come from within and a knowledge of one’s self, one’s value system and world view if one is to derive any comfort; or make any progress.
There are more reasons to not draw than there are to draw. There is only one reason to draw, but YOUR one reason for drawing may be different from my one reason for drawing.
But we each have to live with our specific reason.
My point is to encourage you to take moments like this when drawing ceases to be interesting and fun and ask yourself why it isn’t interesting and fun.
Use the questions and directions of inquiry mentioned above. Take your time. Listen for the REAL answers, not the first answer that comes up.
OWN your choices and decisions in life. Those choices that are made are made, now how are you going to get drawing to fit in that world of choices if that’s what you really need? This is not about what someone else is making you do.
Then based on that self-examination go forward with drawing or away from drawing, as your individual needs require.
But take these steps seriously, with clear thought. Have you really shown up?
Sometimes the best way to deal with a stalled drawing habit is to realize that your drawing habit will never be what drawing is to someone else (fill in the blank as to who) because 1. you shouldn’t be comparing your drawing abilities to someone else’s drawing abilities, and 2. you have other things to do in your life that only you can do.
One way to help get over a plateau is of course to plan your sketch time. Fill your day planner with appointments and keep them. Putting in the time whether you “feel” it or not will help you keep the habit, and put you on the ground working, ready for serendipity to strike in the guise of a fun outing, a successful session, and so on.
At the very least, the regular habit keeps you prepared for when it is time to break off from the plateau.
But remember that such work is never drudgery that you do mindlessly. Chose carefully how you talk and think about your drawing habit. Words we use to label things matter. Don’t label drawing dull, don’t jokingly say that you’re off to do your “drudgery.”
You must engage every time you pick up a pen or brush. Mentally engage, being aware of the issues in your skill level and addressing them, not mindlessly and halfheartedly doing something the same as you did it the day before.
Having a topic or theme that you want to explore will help. Something you love to draw as Ruskin says will help as well.
I think the most helpful thing to get off a plateau is to keep listening. What activities do you enjoy? enjoy more? do more? Are they things that allow you to fit a bit of drawing in while you do them? In that way drawing gets piggy-backed onto an already fun activity and takes up some of that fun. (Or if drawing dilutes the fun of that activity you now have more information to make a decision on how you spend your time.)
Whatever you do or think about this current situation I think it is important to remember that change is constant. Things will change. But also you evolve. You might evolve into a person who draws less than writes, or cooks, or sews, sculpts, knits, bakes bread, models with clay, plays the piano…
And it’s important not to judge yourself, but to remind yourself that you’ve done your interior work (if indeed you have done it, and if you haven’t, you’re going to do it when you finish reading this), you’ve set your dates, and now you are going to accept that for NOW this is where you are.
It seems to me that when students start thinking about things like this, as long as they are doing their interior work, they end up breaking through the plateau to a new place. And once you get to the new place you have to look around and see what it’s like before you judge it. Sort of feel around.
For some, self-examination leads you to the realization that you need more study or a class to help you work through the issues you face. See my recent post on studying other artists and dealing with artistic plateaux here.
Oh, and it never, ever hurts to go to a museum and look at the work of your favorite artist—to rediscover what it looks like to love paint, or paper, or line, or whatever.
Whether you go home and draw isn’t important. You’ll go home and think about new and creative ways to do other things in your life.
And that’s the balance part.