CONFESSIONS OF A DAILY DRAWING ADDICT
(An extended illustrated version of this piece was published in New Directions: BCATA Journal for Art Teachers, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2011, British Columbia Art Teachers’ Association, pp. 4-11).
Why draw every day?
Why would anyone want to draw every day? That is one of those unanswerable questions – or rather a question with many possible responses. It is probably best framed as “why do I draw every day?” and “why do I encourage my students to draw every day?” The response to the first is the classic, cocky “because I can”! It is a challenge I made to myself and a commitment I am so far into, it would be a shame to break. I have been drawing every day since January 1st, 1988. In effect, making a drawing every day in a particular kind of sketchbook and dating the drawing, is a conceptual art piece, maybe even performance art, albeit a private performance. While each drawing is done with intent, it is the accumulation of sketchbooks filled with drawings, rather than any individual drawing, that constitutes the work of art – hence the decision in 2008 by the Art Gallery of Alberta Assistant Curator to exhibit the then 67 books as a stacked tower. On the wall beside the tower were reproductions of selected pages as a kind of vertical time line or core sample, a concession to the fact that the books did indeed contain drawings. While some gallery goers expressed frustration at not being able to browse through the books, the curator nailed the concept – it was essentially about the process of drawing every day with the filled books being the evidence. So I draw every day because it is a major part of my art practice.
Daily drawing is like daily jogging, swimming or piano playing. Not only does the routine and discipline of a daily ritual focus, calm or relax the mind, it can strengthen and condition parts of the physical body, in this case the “drawing muscles” – eye, hand and brain. With devotion and persistence, increased skill in rendering as well as confidence and fluency in visual thinking and media manipulation can develop. In addition to its physical and psychological benefits, daily drawing makes me a better drawer.
As for the second question, why do I encourage my students to draw every day? The response relates to the seemly forgotten, and these days not often articulated, teacher education truism – never ask your students to do anything you would not do yourself. The other old adage of course is that teachers should “practice what they preach”. Or as I remember Ted Aoki saying, “educators should exemplify what they explicate”!1 So it is circular. I see benefits of daily drawing for my own drawing and art making, so I think it will be beneficial for my students.
Practice, practice, practice
We talk about the pursuit of art (and other professions) as being a practice. We also practice to improve our technique. Practice can be both a noun and a verb. There is some truth to the phrase, “practice makes perfect”. Yet I am suspicious of the notion of “perfection”, especially when applied to art making and drawing where considerations of creativity, individuality and process are inherent and the practice is filled with contingency and contestation. Perfection implies a universally agreed upon, attainable end point or completion. I have witnessed too many pre-service elementary education students being afraid to take creative risks and leaps because they claim to be “perfectionists”. As educators we are constantly urged to pursue “excellence” as a goal for both ourselves and our students. Like perfection, excellence, while admirable as a goal, is difficult to define and articulate, and even in those specific instances when it can be, is rarely achieved. Even though I strive for excellence, I would be happy with “pretty good”! However, as a slogan, “practice makes pretty good” does not quite have the same cachet. Nevertheless, I concede that practice (deliberate, focused, intentional repetition) can lead to improvements in skill level, fluency and confidence.
As Malcolm Galdwell proclaims in his book Outliers, “achievement is talent plus preparation”, with talent, an innate aptitude or proclivity, playing a minor role and preparation, a major one (Gladwell, 2008, p. 38). He talks about “the ten thousand hour rule”, the amount of time required to achieve mastery at a “world class” level in any field. As exemplars of people who excelled in their fields, he cites Mozart, Bill Gates and the Beatles. Yes, they had innate ability (talent) and opportunity (often random or circumstantial), but most importantly, they put in the hours and hours of practice before achieving the significant accomplishments for which they are known. Ten thousand hours is roughly three hours every day for ten years, a lot of time by any measure. If one begins to draw daily for fifteen minutes to half an hour, it will take several decades to reach the ten thousand hour mark. However, if general improvement and achieving a “pretty good” skill and confidence level is our goal rather than world dominance, then that kind of practice will yield noticeable results much sooner.
Obviously, one can start daily drawing at any time – it is a matter of deciding to begin, making the commitment, and doing it. A good way to start is to mark or launch a special time in one’s life such as the beginning of summer holidays, a new school year, a new calendar year, a birthday or an anniversary. Once started, the key is to make daily drawing an integral part of one’s day – not just a routine or habit, but a ritual. However, like any ritual that is built into one’s life and daily schedule (yoga, exercising, meditating, teeth brushing, vitamin pill taking, dog walking), it will tend to stick better if it happens at a certain time each day – for example, first thing in the morning or last thing at night – whatever works for you. Remember, since you set the rules, you can change them. It is important that each page be dated. If your sketchbook is too large to fill a page daily, then draw more than one on a page and date each drawing. If you miss a day, then do two pages the next day.
I started daily sketchbook drawing on January 1, 1988. My son gave me a black, hard covered sketch book for Christmas. Both the book and the occasion had special meaning. Being recently separated, beginning a new relationship, living alone in a small apartment and surrounded by my collection of RCMP artefacts, souvenirs and images, drawing in the sketchbook gave my days a focus. I started drawing things I saw from my Halifax windows – bridges, smoke stacks, towers, light houses and buildings – but soon turned my attention inside, to my Mountie collection. I drew plastic figures from every imaginable pose and angle. I imagined and drew them in various settings and landscapes. I drew Mountie images from newspaper and magazine clippings, books and post cards – especially postcards. Even when my living circumstances changed, for almost ten years the Mounties, in many variations and permutations, remained the constant subject.
Choosing a Theme
If an artist were to wait each day for that lightning bolt of inspiration in response to the question “what should I draw today?” very little would be accomplished. Art teachers know that the best way to drive a student into a catatonic state of indecision is to say “draw whatever you want!” If however, one has a pre-chosen, preferred subject, topic or theme, the question of “what to draw” is already partly answered. In both my own art and my teaching, I distinguish between a subject or topic and a theme (Pearse 2011. p. 61). Topics or subjects are those myriad and diverse animate and inanimate things that exist in the world. Themes are broad ideas or questions through which a topic or subject and its relationship to the world can be explored and examined. Drawing in a persistent way is a good means for undertaking that kind of examination.
Getting a Jump Start
A predetermined subject can be both a vehicle and excuse for making art. For decades the Italian artist, Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964), drew and painted the same collection of bottles, boxes, jugs and vases, ordinary things he found in his domestic environment. He chose the most banal, generic objects which he painted a flat grey to serve as ready-made forms which he arranged and rearranged in order to examine their abstract qualities and formal relationships under different lighting and spatial conditions. Morandi was not interested in the subject of bottles or other still life objects per se. His theme was the exploration of visual phenomena and their graphic representation by means of these generic forms.
When one has chosen a theme, the question of “what should I draw today” shifts to “what variation on the theme do I tackle?” The answer is likely “a slight variation on what I drew yesterday”. It could involve a change of medium – a felt tip pen instead of a 2B pencil or perhaps some colour. If your theme is still life, the change could mean altering the angle of a vase of flowers, making a new arrangement or starting on a new bouquet. If your theme involves animals or people and you are drawing from a live model, then the subject will have some input as to the pose. Most of my drawings of my two dogs are from life. Dogs move, so often the drawings are quick gestures or a partial contour to capture the fleeting movements or a jumble of scratchy lines or blobs of ink to depict the fur ball that is a curled up dog. I seem to have a lot of drawings of sleeping and lying dogs. Sometimes I draw more than one view. Sometimes a drawing is incomplete, or rather is complete when the animal gets up and walks away.
Keeping Going/Staying Focussed
One of the saddest things to encounter is a partially filled sketch book. Most of us have several of these on our studio, office or classroom shelves. One of the main reasons for these false starts or creative stalls is the “every page a masterpiece” mentality, a close relative of the “I am a perfectionist” syndrome. We get bogged down in unrealistic expectations. However, if the focus is on the practice and process of drawing every day, rather than what is produced, the pages start rapidly filling.
One can stay focused by changing focus or even changing themes. A theme may get tired (give it a rest) or dried up. My theme changed from Mountie as Icon to something quite unexpected. One day in August 1995 my wife came home with a dog from the pound. I had never considered myself a “dog person”, but I soon became fascinated (and enamoured) of our dog Paddington – his behaviour, appearance and movements. I began to draw him, exploring his always changing but somehow constant shape, lines, colours, tonalities, body language and attitudes. Before long, the Mounties had faded to the background (to reappear from time to time) and Paddy the dog became the subject of the daily drawings. Six years later, when Paddy’s dog life had run its course, the subject changed to Bella the cat, who along with Mounties already had a recurring and supportive role. The following years brought two more dogs (Orrie and Sophie) who have been drawn every day since they arrived. I guess the theme is now the graphic representation of those animals who share the house with my wife and me. However, I like to think of my pets less as subjects and more as collaborators.
Drawing is more than drawing
When I am teaching drawing, whether to beginners or more advanced students, I constantly remind them that drawing is essentially just mark making – making a mark or series of marks with some kind of tool on a surface. Drawing is both less than what is commonly thought of as drawing and much more. A drawing is not necessarily a work of art but it could be. A drawing is not just an exercise or a plan but it could be. It could be a “finished”, detailed study or a quick gesture. It could feature a sensitive or expressive use of line or tonality. Lines could be used to create shape, mass, volume, texture, movement or directionality. Drawings come from memory, observation and imagination. Since drawing is essentially the process of image making, drawings can be created not only with traditional tools and media (pencil, pen, charcoal, ink, paper etc.) but also with collage materials (found objects, papers, magazine clippings, stickers, transferred images etc). I even sometimes use and advocate the use of stencils, found or hand made, as a way to “jump start” image making. Drawings could include or be photographs or be produced digitally. The drawing could be or contain written text. The criterion is that the ideas and images be thoughtfully selected and intentionally arranged with a sense of visual organization and impact. Whether we call it a sketchbook or a visual journal, whether it is used for one’s own art making or teaching, whether it is used daily or less frequently, what is important is that it is used regularly and used as a visual record of personal experience and growth.
- The quote is from notes I took during a graduate seminar in curriculum theory with Dr. Ted Aoki at the University of Alberta in 1979. Ted Aoki is internationally regarded as an innovative and influential curriculum theorist, scholar and teacher. Following his retirement from the U of A in1985 he moved to Vancouver and continued his scholarly and inspirational work as an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Pearse, H. (2004). Praxis in perspective, in A/r/tography: Rendering self through arts-based living inquiry. R.L. Irwin and A. de Cosson (Eds.), Vancouver BC: Pacific Educational Press.
Pearse, H. (2007). Sketchbooks, workbooks, visual journals – All in a day’s work, in Re-Visions: Readings in Canadian Art Teacher Education, 3rd Edition. R.L. Irwin, K. Grauer, & M.J. Emme (Eds.), Thunder Bay, ON: Canadian Society for Education through Art.
Pearse, H. (2011). Themes, cross-curricular connections and daily drawing, in StArting with … , 3rd Edition. K. Grauer, R.L. Irwin, & M.J. Emme (Eds.), Victoria, BC: Canadian Society for Education through Art.