If you are the kind of person who has trouble drawing stick figures, you might want to stop reading now. Otherwise, you are probably going to find me very annoying.
My feelings about people who can’t draw are similar to my feeling about people who (like me) can’t run fast. Practice helps, of course, but in the end one must conclude that God doesn’t deal cards even-handedly. I know that I’ve already spent too much of my life wishing that I had someone else’s hand instead of my own, so that’s why I can’t decide whether I ought to be content that I’ve received a Realism trump card or whether I ought to keep shuffling things around and trying to find something a little more exciting at the bottom.
With few exceptions, my fall-back drawing style has always been photorealism. When I was growing up and scribbling little scenes in the margins of my notebook, my mantra was always realistic = good. Did the horse look like a ‘real’ horse? Did the face look like a ‘real’ person? If not, I’d better try and fix that.
I think that some of this comes from the way in which a child is naturally impressed by a display of technical competancy. If you show a room of six-year-olds a painting by a Dutch master and a painting by Picasso, they are going to be much more excited by the bowl of fruit. How did he make it look so real?, they will ask (and, in my case, pick up a box of crayons and try to do the same). I have found from experience that, when drawing for a child, it is best if all the lines connect and nothing is left to the imagination — woe to the babysitter who leaves the whiskers off the kitty drawing!
In my situation, this early tendency to prefer the straightforwardly realistic was also reinforced by the art training I received in school. I am not wanting to make a general critique of my very excellent private school, and I hope that anyone reading this will understand that I liked and respected my art teacher very much. However, my high school did not actually teach students how to draw or paint. It taught them how to copy. Owing in part to a philosophy of extreme reverence for tradition and in part (I’m afraid to say) to the fact that it is much easier to teach copying than creating, the students had very few opportunities to strike out on their own. I took an art elective just about every semester it was offered and only once did I have the opportunity to draw from life. All the other semesters, we were told to choose two “great paintings” and spend the entirety of the class reproducing them to the best of our abilities. This is not a bad exercise for improving technique and it is certainly very good for giving high school kids a proper view of their abilities (yes, Michelangelo was a lot better than you). However, it never teaches you anything about drawing a three-dimensional object and — due to the careful selection of artwork that was considered acceptable copying material — gives one a rather narrow sense of what is and is not good art. Representational = good, non-representational = bad.
It took a careful reading of My Name is Asher Lev when I was in college for me to start to re-think this approach to art. I will add that the book initially filled me with woe at all the ways in which I did not match the author’s description of the true Artiste and perhaps replaced one faulty paradigm with another, but in the end it was quite helpful. Perhaps my drawing did not need to look exactly like the subject matter for it to be good. Hmm.
Before I wandered too far into apostasy, however, I was yanked back to the world of realism by my courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating from college and teaching abroad for a year, I spent two years living in Providence and taking night classes to complete two certificates, one in Natural Science Illustration and one in Children’s Book Illustration. My scientific illustration classes were, initially, everything that I had hoped for and craved. I was given an object and a medium and told to make my paper look as much like that object as possible. After two hours, we tacked our results to the wall and had a group discussion about why the right side was too dark, the left side too light, and the pencil not quite soft enough. This was repeated with pen, watercolor, acrylic, apples, oranges, flowers, and stuffed birds, and I learned a tremendous amount.
After a semester or two of this, however, I began to feel pulled in several directions at once.
You need to look at the textbook examples more carefully, said my scientific illustration instructor. Did you see the one where every scale on the fish is counted? I’m not sure all your petals are quite right, and the whole piece looks a bit flat.
You are much too tight, said my children’s book illustration instructor. Why can’t your drawing be more whimsical? Children like looseness, you know. Maybe you could be more spontaneous instead of planning the whole piece out so carefully.
As the semesters progressed, I went from feeling “mildly pulled” to feeling as though I was in the middle of a war zone. I had to be different artists on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights and somehow produce a corresponding gradient of homework. I began to look with envy at the other students who had only one assignment and one style to deal with. Some instructors were sympathetic to my plight, but those with a very specific idea of what they wanted produced many tears as I trudged up the hill to my apartment after class.
My distress increased when it came time to put together a final portfolio, i.e. that which you show to publishers and hope to get hired. Mine was the portfolio of a dabbler, and I knew it: my big challenge was finding an even number of pieces in each style so that I could at least make a consistent two-page spread. It was somewhat demoralizing to find that, after two years of hard work, I still didn’t have a discernible Paula-look that I liked.
Friends and family will know that, after finishing my courses at RISD, I had some very good reasons not to pursue illustration as a career. These included moving to a small town in eastern Washington, finding a dependable job that paid the bills, and marrying a certain wonderful man. I turned to crafts and sewing and occasionally covered the dining room table with pencils and paper and paints, but I couldn’t really describe myself as an artist. This was not bad — there’s a time for everything (including art), and my first year of marriage was not it. As time progressed, however, I began to participate in a few Illustration Friday themes and one of them turned into the Alphabirdybet letters. And then those turned into an Etsy shop. And then that shop turned into…well, I’m still deciding.
Wow, I really got off track. How about a little history of my art career? I meant to describe my ongoing love/hate relationship with realism, and I guess it turned into something else. But you get the idea, right? I always thought I wanted to be a really photo-realistic artist, but then when I got my chance it turned out that this wasn’t what I was really looking for. Counting fish scales? Making precise stippling dots with a rapidograph pen? These only encourage my rather destructive natural tendency toward perfectionism and are kinda boring to boot.
As I have cast around in the last six months for a “style” to use in my Etsy shop, I can feel myself again being drawn toward realism and simultaneously wanting to fight against it. I keep trying to start and finish an abstract-ish painting, but every time I find that I can only maintain it for about twenty or thirty minutes. And then I have to add feathers and leaves, shadow and highlight, background and foreground. I am not unhappy with my recent work — I’ve really enjoyed the Day at the Beach series, and I’m glad that you have to. It’s just that it’s not what I originally envisioned for the project. I’m like a pinball that keeps rolling back toward the hole at the bottom of the realism maze, only occasionally managing to get stuck on one of the little ledges half-way down.
Okay, enough soul-searching for today. Any comments/suggestions will, of course, be appreciated as I try to figure out where to go from here. In the meantime, it’s back to the drawing/painting board for me…