“Art poses problems. The artist’s job is to solve them, or try to. I tell my students to stop worrying about creativity and concentrate on the fundamentals. Discover how to turn ordinary pigments into frosting or fur or a flower. Above all, learn to draw. Draw until your hand aches, until you’re drawing in your sleep.”
This quote, from a long-ago interview with the artist Wayne Thiebaud, is faded from years of being taped to the front of the scissors drawer in my Anchorage workroom. When we moved here I saved it, along with a handful of other treasured operating principles.
Like handwriting, drawing is a skill we can learn, a functional tool for both transforming and remembering. From cave drawings to paintings made on an IPhone, the endeavor is a natural motion of hand and brain. But now that we can take photos as easy as pie – why bother? Because drawing is one way we make something individual.
In a radio interview once, the writer Alice McDermott said that artists “want the world ordered in a certain way” (maybe everybody does), and making something of our own is part of how we order the world.
It thrilled me to learn I could screen-print whatever I wanted on muslin and build a quilt from images of everyday things like hot water bottles or winter boots, but I couldn’t draw any better than when I quit as a child. Eventually “to order the world” my way, I needed to be able to draw. And I was curious. Drawing seemed like magic. It still does.
My painter friend recommended Mendelowitz’s “Guide to Drawing,” and I took it on a family trip. I remember the pencil, and the moment, when I looked carefully at my flip-flop and drew its outline. And then a greasy bottle of suntan lotion. Given how wooden and terrible those first drawings were, it seems a miracle I continued. But energy and drive accompany the fascination with learning something new.
For a few years when our younger son was at that age when kids draw all the time, we made “trip drawings” – usually on the airplane home. Now some hang on a wall here with a hodge-podge of family photos. Looking at a pineapple or new tennis shoe, one drawn by each of us, I recall the moments when we struggled with the problems of making an object out of marks of ink and paint.
The doing of drawing is transporting and engrossing, and if you come even close to a semblance of what you are after (just the outline of that bottle), drawing is a joy. Virginia Woolf said in another context (about writing), that it is in the attempt to capture very real things that one would find happiness.
To draw something for this post, I turned to the snowberry brought inside weeks ago – the native plant world’s mini-marshmallows, long-lasting berries of Styrofoam white. Looking up close, like you do when you draw, I see, as I tick my pen along the stem line, the happiness of new green leaves.