Phil’s Rants—Who gets to draw?
These days, our culture is moving more and more toward the attitude that one only gets to participate in the expressive arts if one is expert, that is, you only get to sing if you have a great voice, you only get to dance if you are graceful, etc. Our culture didn’t used to be that way and shouldn’t be that way now. I believe that drawing is enriching for anyone interested in it, regardless of whether or not they ever make a drawing that is impressive to anyone else. The study of expressive drawing will change how you see, radically change how you look at art, and will introduce a vehicle for emotional expression and a means of profound escape from day to day concerns however you rank as a drawer relative to anyone else. I have taught many students who have gone on to become professional artists, but I am just as proud of the hundreds of students I have taught who just draw for their own personal discovery and never intend to show their work. Over the years, I have become a respected drawer, but had that not happened, had I turned out to be a hopelessly clumsy drawer or stayed an amateur drawer, I would still draw every day because of the transformative impact it has had on my life.
ONE CULTURAL PRECONCEPTION that really screws up people’s drawing development is the idea that one has to learn to do it the right way first, before moving on to more expressive forms of drawing. The fact is, any form of drawing from observation involves all the fundamentals of drawing; shape, value, composition, proportion, line, mark, etc.. These conditions are unavoidable. So whether a student is working on wild expressionist versions of the subject, or conventional academic versions of the subject, the same issues of form are involved, and the student’s sophistication at their resolution develops with practice. However, if the student spends years only thinking about getting it literally “right”, the connection between drawing and expression is actually weakened rather than forged over time. Great drawings are never literally “right”. They always express a point of view—a sensibility. Understanding one’s sensibility and developing the means to get it on paper is a lifetime enterprise. So is the full understanding of seeing and characterizing visual structure. Both must be developed simultaneously, not only because we don’t live forever, but also because the real challenge is understanding the relationship between our literal source material and expression.
OVER THE YEARS I have often considered what distinguishes the students who take off in drawing from those who do not. My first conclusion is that talent has nothing, I said nothing to do with it. I have seen many students who had huge initial difficulties with both seeing and making become absolutely extraordinary drawers over time. I have also seen many students with buckets of initial talent stall out, unable to turn that talent into a growing, changing enthusiasm for drawing. What I find does matter is threefold. First, the student has to have curiosity. If a student is curious, she/he always has questions. The questions are the basis of action and exploration in drawing. If you have questions, then you always have things to try. However, if the student is the kind of person who is simply waiting to be told what to do, an exploratory, creative discipline like drawing just ain’t gonna work.
The answers to the questions curiosity poses can only be found if the student is willing to look everywhere, not simply where the student expects the solution to be in advance. Thus, the second necessary quality for a drawer is flexibility of mind, the willingness to come up with and try anything, not just the first reasonable possibility. The great thing about flexibility of mind is that it can be cultivated. One has only to desire it and be willing to work toward it. I have seen many students who had very rigid mind sets when they began studying drawing, actually use drawing as a tool to challenge and break down that inflexibility over time. These students have achieved stunning flexibility of mind, at least as drawers. The flip side is that flexibility of mind is inexhaustible. There is always more ground to cover. That’s part of what keeps drawing interesting.
Finally, the most essential quality is tenacity. Whatever your level of curiosity, flexibility of mind, talent, or experience, intractable problems constantly arise in drawing. If you’re willing to hang in there, keep at it, with no time table for how quickly the problem should be solved, and no apologies for the steps you personally have to take to solve the problem, the solution (or at least a step toward the solution), eventually comes. At every stage there are plenty of really good reasons to quit drawing. The tenacious drawer doesn’t care. He/she just keeps working. Michelangelo was quoted as saying, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.
(A draft copy of Phil’s book, Introduction to Drawing, is available for $15 per copy.)