Sketching in Family Situations: Creating New Family Contracts

July 24, 2019
Sketch of CR as he chats with his son. (Brush pen in a Hahnemühle Travel Book.)

If you desire to sketch at family gatherings and visits but it seems impossible this post is for you.

If you already have sketching integrated into your life I suggest you stop reading and go sketch.

Recently a blog reader wrote the following to me

I love your posts and your portraits! How do you do this work while visiting? Without feeling embarrassed or rude? I guess It would be ok it that’s what you always did and the result was a true depiction of the person, but what about when you’ve never done this before? My grown children would balk at my drawing.

I would be constantly interrupted by things that needed to be done. I can’t even fathom myself relaxed with my pencil and sketchbook out in the presence of others. How did you get to the place where it doesn’t bother you? You don’t seem the least bit self conscious about. And yet I can’t see any other way to gain confidence in my drawing ability but to just do it. Your writing is so filled with love, care and humor. I love your portraits, full of life.

I discuss this “goal” with students in my “Drawing Practice” class. It might seem impossible to get to a point where you are simply doing what you’re doing and that doing is sketching in public—or in family situations, but it begins with taking small steps, making choices, and then practicing.

The first thing you need to do is ask yourself “Is this is something I want to do? If it is then you will be willing to sit in the discomfort of making it a habit.

Next you need to make a realistic assessment of your skill level. Are you going to be able to sketch at a speed level that will not disrupt the flow of a family function? You want to be “invisible” in many respects as the action continues around you.

If you don’t think you’re there with your skill level the next step will help you with that…

Setting New Contracts with Your Family

Once you have identified your goal and clearly assessed your skill level it’s time to take an assessment of your family. Are you the family caretaker—do you cook, clean, work to pay the bills, bandage scrapes, and über everyone to their various destinations? Do you do any of that or all of that?

If you do you might find it difficult as the reader above does, to sit still in a family group and not jump up and do things for others. But that situation can change.

First make a realistic assessment of the make up your family. There are some members, like babies or the elderly, who will need specific care that you might be responsible for providing. There are teenagers who are now able to take on their own care more completely. You need to assess all that.

Talk with your significant other to outline what you feel is a creative goal—drawing at family gatherings. Discuss how you need the support of your significant other to do some of the things that you normally do at those occasions. In other words get that significant other on board. 

Next talk with any dependents who live with you, children or the elderly. Discuss what your goals are and why it’s important for your sense of self and your creativity (or whatever reasons matter to you) that you start sketching at family get togethers. Explain to them what this will mean. Explain what your expectations of them are. Explain what you will still be able to do for them. 

This hashing it out with your family is important if you are going to let go of the nervous feeling that you should be doing X for person Y instead of sketching.

Hashing it out with the family will also help prevent anger and resentment from bubbling up either in you or other family members.

Train Your Family Not to Interrupt You

If you live in a family where you do everything for everyone and they are constantly interrupting you that is a situation you can and really need to change. Everyone in a family needs to respect each other. Constant interruptions, especially over things they can do themselves, is not healthy.

Will it be uncomfortable to retrain them? Yes. It absolutely may be excruciating. But this is where you remember your goal of sketching at family gatherings. Is that goal worth it? 

This is again where communication is key. If you make clear the new boundaries you are setting your family can adjust.

Last year I was at the LA Zoo with SketchKon attendees. It was a crowded Sunday afternoon. As I stood sketching a young girl came up to my side. She obviously couldn’t see the bird I was sketching. I stepped back and encouraged her to step forward.  I told her information about the bird. She looked at me with wide bright eyes.

I don’t know that she understood me. Her mother only spoke Spanish. But we got along. The father watched from a few steps back. Then the mother and child moved off. Other people crowded in and a tall man moved to step in front of me. I was ready to step away. Interrupted sketches are the norm when you sketch at the zoo.

But immediately the little girl’s father was back, at my side. He motioned the tall man aside. “She’s sketching,” he said, as his energy made the other man move aside. I smiled and kept working.

Look if I can win over a complete stranger, with no discussion and only simple kindness to his child, to the point where he steps in to help me in my sketching goal you can win over your family. They need to see you are serious about it. They need to know you’re there for them. Energetically they will make space for you.

I Don’t Have That Kind of Family

It’s hard to change family patterns. If you’re saying “I don’t have that kind of family” I think you need to step back and ask yourself why. Also ask if you are comfortable and happy with that. If not, you need to start changing that situation. You do that through communication as mentioned above.

But I also want to point out that part of the situation is your internal critic telling you that you don’t have that kind of family, telling you it isn’t possible, telling you that you are defined by all that you do for the family and that if you don’t keep doing all that you do you will be nothing.

The internal critic is also where ideas that you’ll never be relaxed sketching in front of others comes from.

The first few times or even the first 100 times you might not be relaxed. But if you keep doing it, if you keep practicing in the situation you want to master—sketching in front of others—it will be “normal” and you won’t feel anxious, you’ll just be involved in the effort of sketching.

If your internal critic is strong he will dog you the entire time you sketch, tell you it’s awful, tell you your sketch looks nothing like the subject, and so on.

This is a separate issue. You need to work on shutting your internal critic down. I write a lot about that on the blog because every class I teach includes students who need help with silencing their internal critics. Use the blog’s search engine and the category list to look up those posts.

Start thinking about how you want to think and talk about your creativity, without the interference of your internal critic.

Again, it will probably be incredibly painful to start, but with practice it will become easier. And you’ll be interrupted by your internal critic less and less. 

What About Being Thought Rude?

Look, you can be embarrassed when you sketch or you can enjoy the process of sketching. I recommend the latter. Someone is always going to pipe in about how their Aunt Jill can draw anything from photos, or paints florals on plates, or does “fill in the blank creatively.”

Smile like the Mona Lisa and work on. Nod if you feel like it. 

Extended family members (with whom you haven’t chatted) may criticize your sketch just as strangers might. Smile and say, “Thanks, I’m practicing.”

That’s all anyone can expect of you, but most important, that’s all that you can expect of yourself—to show up and be in practice.

Those same family members might even upbraid you for seeking attention or slowing the day’s progress, or suggesting that you’re being rude by sitting and sketching when the table needs to be set or Grandma needs help in the bathroom, or Uncle Johnny needs more attention while he tells his old football injury tale.

Your actions in life are never going to please everyone. Someone is always going to be annoyed that you aren’t doing what they want you to be doing. Other people are going to be angry at you because you are doing something that deep down they might want to do. There are a lot of people in the world who have stuffed their creative impulses way down into their gut and you’ll be a likely target for them to vent on because they don’t have the discipline and courage to take action and use that creativity.

You are never going to please those people so stop trying.

But if the table needs to be set and there aren’t already 10 people helping out to do that, put the sketch book down and set the damn table. Help Grandma in the toilet. But sketch Uncle Johnny. That’s just common sense!

Just an aside, but when I visit CR I don’t just sketch. I sort all his soiled clothes and hang and fold all his clean clothes. I tidy all his bookshelves, clear the recycling out, and do an inventory of everything that he needs from toothpaste to sweaters to socks to paper clips to… There are a lot of things you can get done in addition to sketching at a family visit or gathering. Use sketching as a time to relax and sink into the family feeling.

Why Is It Important to Sketch at Family Gatherings and Get Togethers?

Frankly for some people it isn’t important to sketch their family during visits and gatherings. But for people who have such sketching as a goal it is important for a ton of reasons specific to their situation and family.

I can only speak to my situation. I sit and sketch because it helps me focus, and because I have affection for the people I’m sketching. With Dick’s parents over the past 25 years there has been a sense that they could be gone at any time, “so let’s stay in the present moment, not think of that, and enjoy our time together.” Sketching is just part of what I do. If I was over at their house spending the day with them, sitting to the side of a conversation and sketching was simply a way to recharge my batteries.

Later it was a great way to pass the time when either of them was in the hospital. They knew I was there with them. We could chat. But the very act of me sketching helped calm them—it was normal.

How Do You Get Sketching Integrated into Your Life as Normal?

It’s practice, communication, goals, and expectations (yours and others).

The folks had expectations that I would be there for them, visit, drive them to doctors appointments, simply chat with them. But they knew that I worked, for a time had dogs to take care of, and of course, sketched. We never needed to have a conversation about sketching because it was already normal in my life when I met them.

So when asked how I sketch while visiting I have to admit that I have had a lifetime of practicing journaling in just about any situation possible. So I was always writing, note taking, and sketching. I came into this family that way and they accepted me in that way.

How do I do it without feeling embarrassed or rude? 

I’m not embarrassed about doing what interests me and sparks my creative mind. Why would I be embarrassed by that?

I’m not rude about the execution of my practice in these situations. I don’t arrange people into “tableaux” or ask them to hold a pose for 20 minutes. I watch and get down what I can without being intrusive.

If you moderate your actions so that they are not intrusive you aren’t going to be rude. 

Just because you’ve never done this before doesn’t mean you can’t change the arrangement of your life. You need to communicate with your family about that change, and you need to make choices about what is important to you.

Through practice you get to a point where you are relaxed and comfortable in these situations.

I’m not self-conscious about sketches that “go bad” or are unfinished because for the most part I’m not sharing them immediately with everyone (which I think would be intrusive).

My expectation in these situations is not to get a perfect sketch.

For me a sketch that doesn’t quite work out is nothing more than a reason to start another sketch and keep practicing.

Think about how you talk to yourself about your art—think about what it means to be in practice. Being comfortable that you are in practice will make you comfortable in any setting.

It is through that comfort with where your skill level actually is and how you are making choices about your sketching practice that will allow you to keep practicing.

Practice in turn will give you opportunities to gain confidence in your drawing ability. 

If you make the choice to sketch at family visits and gatherings think about the steps you need to take to make that goal happen, and then address those steps one at a time.

I have found that students who have had the most reluctance and feared the most resistance from their family were greeted instead by “Sure, yeah, it’s about time you had something enjoyable to do,” and started pitching in to make their own lunch, do YOUR laundry, and so on.

It’s not all easy. Some of us come from families where people are vain and won’t be happy with whatever likeness we turn out. Some of us come from families that are ruled by negativity and the parental external and internal critics. Some families are so bound by tradition that they don’t want any members to step outside of societal “norms.” Some families are filled with narcissists who want the focus on them. Many families are ruled by victims who want to wallow in pain and control you with that pain. Other families are filled with angry, damaged people who inflict damage on those they supposedly love.

If you’re in a family like any of those (or others I haven’t listed) it isn’t going to be easy. 

It is, however, probably essential that you do something about it. Being my own creative person saved my life. 

It all starts with a choice about how you want to be in your life. Who do you want around you, making up the supportive family?

Small steps add up, just as practice does.

    • Lorell Girard
    • July 24, 2019

    Good morning Roz, (from Oregon),
    Can’t thank you enough for this post this morning! Timely advice as I am working through my sketchbook practice recently deciding that my interests lie more with drawing people and animals rather than inanimate objects and how to fit that into my life despite the discomfort of having to listen to that inner critic each time I am out ‘in public’! Or thinking that I can’t even go into my studio for 15 minutes because my husband is commuting long distance and only home for two days a week! The monkey tries so hard to ‘help’ us be safe!
    At any rate, grateful for your art, for this blog, for today’s post in particular, and already have it on my calendar to sign up for the Drawing Live class coming up soon.
    Best regards,
    Lorell Girard, Bend, OR

    1. Reply

      Lorell, thanks for both your comments today and your understanding about the class canceling. I hated to do it, but I’m still not back to full work after eye surgery and there was just too much on me. We need time to process grief. (Esp. when your favorite life model dies.)

      I’m so glad, however that you have come to the realization that sketching people and animals is what moves you more than inanimate objects. It is a great gift from the universe to receive those insights and then it is important that you follow up with them.

      Don’t let the inner critic tell you that “it wasn’t meant to be” or something worse! Keep pushing forward with your goal of drawing live subjects whether animal or people. Find a local life drawing co-op and sign up so you can start thinking about form and gesture in humans (it will help you with animals too).

      Check out this post where I talk about my favorite figure drawing book. You can read it and do exercises and approaches from it when you go to the co-op.

      Check out John Busby’s, “Drawing Birds” it’s so fantastic!

      Here’s a post on Portrait Painting books and DVDS

      Check out these two books from Cathy Johnson which are classics–johnson/1727409/#isbn=0871569345&idiq=7537399 (I think this has been reissued, but it is the first link that came up)

      Set up your own daily drawing month and read a little from these works each day, show up and draw every day, repeat. You will get there. It’s the only real way to be safe!

      Don’t let the inner critic say that you can’t move forward because class is cancelled. You can move forward. You are going to move forward.

      Sometimes we just have to take a different path.

    • Lorell Girard
    • July 24, 2019

    Dear Roz,
    After re checking your class schedule just now, I’m so sorry to read about the death in your family and understand the need to cancel classes in September. Apologies for not being aware of this in my previous comment and wish you and your remaining family peace and healing.. and of course know that (for you) drawing will be a big part of that process.
    Kind regards, Lorell

  1. Reply

    Having taken your class you’ve already told me these things but reminders are always good. It made me realize my fear in drawing people I know isn’t what they will say about it but fear they’ll silently have hurt feelings. Thinking something like “Is that how I look?” Or “Is that how you see me?” Maybe the solution is to voice my concern and reassure them I’m practicing and not drawing an exact likeness. Must be why I like drawing my dogs. No worries there.

    1. Reply

      Maery, everyone is different and I don’t know your relatives. Most people I draw are simply happy that I drew them, whether the sketch turns out as a likeness or not.

      But there are people who see being sketched as intrusive and you’ll need to develop a sense about this and look for other subjects. Sometimes it’s their vanity, sometimes it’s shyness, sometimes it’s something about the way they were raised, and in some situations it’s cultural. So developing a sensitivity to all that will help you think more about drawing subjects that are OK about the process.

      I don’t think one should ever be in a position to make excuses or apologize about one’s art, but it hurts the artist and the viewer ultimately. But if you are self-conscious about the result having a good laugh or chuckle about it usually sets people at ease because they know you don’t think they look as misshapen as you drew them. And you can always turn to them when they look at your work and say, “I’m in practice so I can see it’s all not there yet, but this time I really liked how I did X” and call out and own something in the drawing that you really liked. Then thank them, even if they didn’t know when you were drawing them that you were, but only came up afterwards.

      In that way you engage them in your learning process and if they are so inclined, over time they can be supportive of you and your efforts.

      You’re also training yourself and them to look for the things that work, and over time they will understand and value those things, even point some out when you do them.

      Dogs make wonderful models, but in my experience they are more interesting in pointing out rabbits and birds.

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