The Trouble with Hands

Hands are hard to draw. But you already knew that, right? I created the watercolor backgrounds for this journal page in just minutes, then spent hours (and a lot of my eraser) drawing the hands.

What I didn’t realize at the time–and what a visit to the library for a book on drawing techniques or a trip to a museum to look at the work of some masters could have taught me–was that it is sometimes ok to just suggest or imply instead of drawing every detail outright. As my pencil point became blunt as I worked (because I refused to come up for air, stop, and sharpen the darn thing), I found I liked the results better. Up close, it was not clear what those blunt marks referred to. But when I looked at the finished page as a whole, they fit in and led the eye to complete what was not “really” there.

The trouble with hands is: they can’t do it alone. The eye has to engage, participate, and share in the work. But then, I guess that is true of all art.

After creating an abstract piece, I expect a viewer to attach meaning or emotion to what they see–even if it is meaning that I didn’t intent to put there. Their view is their experience, after all.

Maybe figurative work isn’t so different. And so, with that thought, I am going back to my journal. My hands still need some work.

Watercoler abstract mounted on chocolate brown mat board.

Learning to be OK with Uncertainty

A recent journal page with watercolor and colored pencil.

If you lived with me, I might drive you crazy. I am one of those people who have to put their car keys away in the same place every time, otherwise I’ll never be able to find them when it’s time to leave for work. Really–the same exact place. Every single time.

It can be a bit much.

It’s not just the car keys, either. It’s my purse, my phone, my iPod, my ID badge for work, the TV remote. I was even that way about the speed and extent of my recovery from brain surgery until my neurosurgeon set me straight: “You’re not the only one in charge here,” he said kindly. Yet uncertainty is difficult to deal with, and I attempt to remove as much of it from my life as I can. I am sure I can seem like a control freak to my family.

Of course, it gets more complicated when it comes to art. If you look at my earliest collages, you get a sense that I am an artist exercising control. I’ve put each piece in it’s place; I remember one time that I spent about 20 minutes trying to decide if a certain paper would look better in the composition with a torn or cut edge.

But true art doesn’t flourish under the constraints of control alone, and I have made an effort to welcome unplanned and unpredictable elements into my work. As I work on my drawing exercises, I try to welcome unintended pencils marks instead of automatically reaching for the eraser. There is room for discipline, but there should be freedom, too.

I say that because I have learned that capturing spontaneity in artwork is what gives it meaning. It gives energy, emotion, and power to the finished piece. In my case, the finished piece may not have been what I intended–but then, was my intention just to make a pretty picture or was it to create something that makes someone think or feel when they look at it? And what about the fact that while looking for the camera battery charger last week (which was not put away in the right place) I found the iPod case I had been trying to find for months? Wasn’t that an unplanned and unpredicted bit of luck?

I am going to continue practicing giving up control in my art. Maybe, if I get the hang of it, I can start introducing that idea to the rest of my life.

More drawing exercises. Wherever the pencil went, I just tried to "make it work."

Those paint splatters were a bit more uncontrolled than I wanted!

Doing Exercises

The task was to draw with two pencils at once. When I tried it, I invented Cubism! (I am pretty sure this is NOT supposed to happen.)

Last month, I started working out at the gym again. I am finally past my “well, since I can’t run anymore, nothing else is worth it” sulking attitude. It’s taken five years, but I have convinced myself that any exercise is better than none, that running isn’t so great for my knees anyway, and besides, I really need to lose some weight!

Before my brain surgery, I liked going to the gym, working up a sweat, and pushing my body to the limit. But now that I find myself pushing my physical limits almost every day, the idea of spending 20 minutes on the elliptical machine has lost its charm. Still, I have started going to the gym and I am hopeful that the old thrill might come back.

I’m much more excited about the drawing exercises I’ve started. They come from a book I purchased a few weeks ago, “Drawing Projects,” and are assignments from an actual class the authors teach on drawing. The beginning projects seem to focus on getting you comfortable with the variety of marks you can make; one has you draw with two pencils taped together (with both points touching the paper); another has you find a way to attach your pencil to the end of a ruler and draw that way (with the ruler as an “extended arm”).

So far, my results are unpredictable but fun–not yet thrilling, but nothing at all like the elliptical machine. Thank goodness!

Trying to draw with any amount of control is hard when your pencil is at the end of a ruler!

This isn't from an actual exercise--I saw some examples towards the back of the book, got an idea, and just went with it.

Waiting for Works in Progress

A journal page from last week.

The artist and frame maker Robert Kulicke once said, “A painting is finished when you agree with it, no matter if it took one hour or four months.” And the older I get, the more I see the truth in that–and the more I realize what patience it sometimes takes to get to the point of agreement.

Back when I was in college, an old boyfriend first introduced me to this idea. I was taking an Introduction to Photography class and was frustrated that a recent contact sheet showed no potential. I didn’t like anything I saw, but I couldn’t explain why. “Put it away for six months and look at it again. I bet you’ll like it better,” he told me. I should have listened–he was a much more experienced photographer than I was–but I just grumbled about how that didn’t help me finish my current project.

Years later I found that contact sheet and wondered why I had hated it so much.

Now I often go back to collages or journal pages that I was never totally happy with–ones that are months or even years old–to see if I can find a way to agree with them. I sometimes find that although I was stuck before, I now have enough experience to get past whatever was stopping me. I see right away what I need to do to “fix” the piece. Other times I need to have enough distance from my initial expectations so that what I once stubbornly considered “wrong” becomes something that doesn’t have to be fixed at all. And then there are the times when I realize that the piece will never be something I can agree with. Then I paint over it without any regrets. I clear my head and start over.

That’s one of the reason why I keep a handful of journals going at the same time. If one frustrates, me I can easily move to another. This keeps me from getting too anxious while I wait to realize what the “disagreement” is really about.

And every once in a while, I work on a page when just a few lines or three torn pieces result in a collage or journal page that seems “done.” I realize that, at times, agreement comes quickly and easily, without waiting.

Thank goodness!

(P.S. That old boyfriend… that was the only thing he was right about!)

I started this drawing two months ago. I am not in agreement with it yet--abstracts are especially hard for me to finish!

Deserving to Draw

Keeping the pencil, pen, or paintbrush in motion is key.

Something quick and simple I did last week.

That little black voice is at it again–you know, the one that asks, “Who do you think you are?” and “What do you think you’re doing?” every time I sit down with my art journal. Yeah, that one.

I don’t know about your inner critic, but when mine is fed a large dose of exhaustion and stress, it grows from a small voice to a deafening roar. It no longer asks snarky questions; instead it demands to know, “Why are you bothering to draw!”

After all, it reminds me: you’ve never been to a drawing class; you haven’t paid your dues at an art school; you’ve had brain surgery and now your right hand is messed up; you have few technical skills; and also, the boys probably need a snack so you should put your pencil down and go be a good mom.

But the thing about giving in and putting the pencil down is this–it doesn’t quiet the voice. The voice never says, “Ok, you’ve done the laundry, read to your sons, paid your dues and been a good girl. Now you are allowed to make art. You’ve earned it”

The only way to stop the verbal raging is to do exactly the opposite: pick up the pencil or pen or paintbrush and keep it moving. As soon as I stop, the voice comes back again and asks, “What is that? Whatever it is, it’s not drawing and it’s not art.”

For now, my answer comes from the introductory pages of the Drawing Projects book I just started, which defines drawings as a record in marks of your emotional response to the situation. I love this definition. It doesn’t say that your drawing has to look a certain way or show a certain level of ability. It doesn’t say that if you aren’t good enough, you are disqualified.

It says all you need to be able to do is feel and then want to translate that to a page. And that, I can do. Besides, doing it keeps the voice quiet.

Drawing Out The Demons

How did he get here?

Maybe it was because I was reading Linda Barry’s book, 100 Hundred Demons!, for the fifth or sixth time. (A great book that I would recommend to just about anyone.) Maybe it was because I had been flipping through the pages of a biography of Remedios Varo and admiring her Aquiline nose. (She’s one of my favorite artists.) Or maybe it was because I had promised myself that for my next journal pages, I would think less and just do more. And maybe it was a bit of all of those.

I’m not sure why last weekend, after I not-too-carefully created a background for my next journal page (thinking less, doing more), I immediately felt that the page “needed” the head of a Roman statue in the lower left. It was the simply the first thought that entered my head, and I was so confident that it was right, I went with it without question.

Since I had no idea how to draw the head of an ancient Roman statue, I pulled out some art history books to look at some examples and get some ideas. After that, I sat down and drew some basic attempts. So far, so good. I still liked the idea, and I was still confident the composition of the page would turn out nicely. (And no, I had no clue what it meant that I wanted to draw a Roman statue in my journal. Remember, I was trying to think less. It didn’t even occur to me that I do not have the skills needed to copy the work of some of the greatest artists of all time.)

Next, I got my journal out, turned to the page, and drew the head of the statue with my very creamy, very black, Derwent drawing pencil. I looked at the finished page. And my first thought was, “How did he get here?”

Because in my attempt to draw a Roman, I had really draw an ex-boyfriend. The one I dated through most of high school. The one I lived with for three years after graduating college. The long nose and small mouth, with that same expression he would get when he’d close his eyes and tell me exactly why my behavior was so disappointing to his upscale, uptight family–yep, that was him.

Looking at the page, I felt a little weird. How could he still be haunting my mind? How dare he show up in my artwork, uninvited? I put the journal away and didn’t work in it again for three days.

But three days later, I felt better. I decided that since he had been reduced to a two-dimensional piece of paper, he would no longer hurt me. And I thought about how my journals should be a place where I resolve issues–not re-live them. But most of all–I am not about to let an old boyfriend keep me from creating in my journal.

So I promise to be more accepting of other demons who make an appearance on my journal pages. If I’m going to draw, I need to be willing to see what gets drawn out.