Finding myself: 3 reasons why we can all learn to draw

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration 12 Comments

I just took a drawing workshop that changed my life. Oh sure, I’ve sketched before. But sitting very, very quietly with pencil and paper was a new level of intimacy with myself and the world. If you’ve ever fantasized about being more art-y, read on, because we are all capable of drawing — and accessing the confidence and creativity it brings.

Last week’s blog post was about my excitement in taking a workshop on drawing hands and feet, appendages that can baffle even the most talented artists. This is how I had been been dealing with them:

I’ve never been much for drawing; it was too time-consuming. But now I see its value as a life skill — and work skill. As the photo on your right says, “Drawing teaches that mistakes leads to solutions.” This process is beautifully explained in a YouTube TED talk by California art teacher Brent Noel Eviston. He says that the ability to observe and draw what you see is as important a skill as literacy and numeracy.

Before I take you to my actual workshop experience, a few words from his 5-minute video. Eviston’s viewpoint really spoke to my personal struggles in figuring out my life. You can watch the full video here or just check out these quotes that I’ve lifted from it:

The ability to innovate is essential in a global economy where almost anything can be commoditized except the process of innovation. In fact, new ideas only occur when we take risks and our failures become productive. Drawing habituates that process.

This means that drawing trains our minds to view our mistakes as as an essential part of a process. Too often, people experience a sense of shame regarding their mistakes. But imagine what might have been different in your life had your mistakes in any area had been viewed as normal, temporary and holding vital clues to your eventual success! In addition to being fundamental to drawing, this is also the mindset crucial for innovation to occur.

Amen, my brother! He goes on to address the fear factor in learning to draw. How many times have you heard someone wistfully say they wished they could draw? Or wish they were artistic? Wish no more. We need to be brave! Here’s another quote from the TED talk:

Limiting ourselves to words and numbers leaves a gap in our problem-solving skill set.

Human beings have a powerful imagination that, when tempered with the design process, can solve almost any problem. Drawing is a tool that allows us to tap into that imagination and extract ideas so that they can be developed. Drawing, when combined with language and mathematics, offers a complete set of tools for solving and exploring creative challenges as well as communicating those solutions to others…

Researchers are proving that mastery of any field depends more on passion and practice than innate ability…and when you’re learning to draw, you might begin to wonder what else you’re capable of that you used to  assume required talent.

So true! All of these ideas ran through my head during the week-long, $400 drawing workshop I took with award-winning artist Edmond Rochat. It was held in Manhattan at the Art Students League of New York on West 57th Street,  from Monday to Friday, 9:00-12:30 p.m.

Eddie, who is a superb teacher, opened each class with a demonstration and talk. We looked at skeletons of the hand and foot. He explained the need to eyeball our subject to find its general shape and figure out how it reflected light. Then he went around to each of us and offered individual instruction with critiques: 

In this new world where “mistakes” are simply part of the process, I was constantly erasing and readjusting. It was exciting to decode complicated human form as elegant, easy-to-read geometric shapes. This is where I started in the workshop as we drew the hands and feet of a live model who held the same pose for the entire week:

Hands are amazing. Did you ever notice that they are composed of three peaks of varying steepness? The steepest pitch runs along the fingertips, from pinky up to the middle fingertip, then down to the tip of the thumb. Then there’s a softer peak from each fingers’s big knuckle. The softest peak, more of a mound really, follows along the knuckles of the fist. Nature is full of repeating shapes and patterns.

In the above photo, the middle drawing was where I was by mid-week. Even though the fingertips are crooked and the shading is off, I was very happy! On the fifth day, by the last hour of our final class, I sketched out the hand in the drawing to your right — a well-shaped hand. I could see, I could see — at last!

I also went from defeat with feet to feeling totally blissed. The breakthrough for me was taking shading to new levels. Like all art teachers, Eddie talked about the contrasts between a picture’s lightest light and darkest darks. With those two extreme values deciphered, the shades of gray that make up the actual picture are much easier to translate onto the page or canvas.

Hellooooo…do y’all hear a life lesson in that? Not easy sometimes, to dwell on life’s darkest darkness. But doing so makes it possible to see the full range of light.

It took me most of the week to see drawing in terms of darkest darks and lightest lights. The process was one epiphany after another as I struggled to see exactly how light bounced off toes, toenails, arches.

The foot to your left below was my first attempt at shading, or what Eddie called “modeling,” a term used by sculptors. The lighting isn’t right yet because this modeling makes it look like the foot was lit from below when in fact, light was pouring in from a studio skylight above us. Still, I was thrilled with my progress, especially compared to where I started with feet, in the drawing on the right:

Comparing my pre-workshop foot with the workshop foot, there’s a huge difference in understanding light, toenails and more!

To figure out what was going on with light values, Eddie showed us how to make small, thumbnail drawings of our subject before going for the full drawing. In both of my foot thumbnails, Eddie said I didn’t go dark enough. I wasn’t clearly seeing the darkest dark — is that a metaphor for my life or what? But once I could really see the dark, I could contrast it with the light.

In the final hours of our five-day workshop, I drew the foot on the right:

Eureka! In this final drawing, the light source is clearly coming from above. And it felt good to get the initial hang of modeling. Toenails were a revelation. All I needed to define the nail of the big toe was a streak of light that ended up being my lightest light, and a gentle line or two. Nuance. There wasn’t time to finish the foot. But still, I am thrilled:

If you want to give drawing a try, I highly recommend Eddie’s classes. Watch for his future workshops at the League. He is also on the faculty of the Janus Collaborative School of Art, which is located in East Harlem on 117th Street.

And for exploring on your own, there are some good books around…


Click here for my post about my holistic eye doctor, Marc Grossman, who started me on the path to drawing as a way to improve my eyesight. He recommended a great book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. It has terrific exercises and is an easy read, fascinating read.

I also recently discovered Michael Nobbs, an artist, blogger and podcaster from Wales who has a charming workbook, “Drawing Your Life: Learn to See, Record, and Appreciate Life’s Small Joys.” This color-illustrated paperback doesn’t offer instruction but functions as a journal. He gives you prompts on what to sketch from your surroundings and you do it right in the blank pages he provides.

During Eddie’s workshop, he shared one of his favorite books,“Artistic Anatomy,” a 1986 classic by Paul Richer. This is a reference manual filled with descriptions of bones, muscles and drawings. Lots of fun to peruse. I can’t wait to read up on the skull section!

This post is for anyone who feeling frustrated by daily life, or needs to develop creatively. There’s a wonderful invitation waiting in the world of drawing. These are the three reasons for learning to draw: It builds our confidence by teaching us to accept our mistakes, helps us see the beauty in the world around us, and makes us better communicators. A fourth reason: It’s lots of fun!

At the very least, I hope you’ll consider sharing this post as a reminder to us all to slow down and follow our eyes. They take in so much. Now it’s about figuring out how to process the information for ourselves and communicate it to those we love.  xo.


Comments 12

  1. THIS IS TERRIFIC, BETTY! Even though, to be honest, it doesn’t particularly make me want to run out and take a drawing class. (When it comes to art, I’m very happy being a passionate admirer/consumer, and don’t feel a particular yearning to be a producer, though I did draw nonstop as a child.) But exercising creativity, taking artistic risks, striving for mastery, working at doing the thing you can’t do – it breeds more of the same, in other arenas. And those “epiphanies!” Many assume that epiphanies are the domain of the young. But to KEEP ON HAVING THEM, even after you’ve been around the block a bunch of times – that’s the fountain of youth! Speaking of which: your hands and feet look mighty impressive… but YOU look THE BOMB, girl. xo

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    Viv, thank you! What, no drawing classes for you?! Well, I will say one thing…it has taken me YEARS to surrender to the drawing process. Been fighting it forever. I went through this with yoga too. Couldn’t stand the quiet pace; it always made me fidgety. But now I need those stretches for my old bones and aching muscles — haha. And you’re right, the ability to make mistakes and learn is NOT the realm of the young. The rest of us have to keep growing too. xoxoxoxo.

  3. So about art: I LIKE having an arena where I feel content to be an appreciative audience – marveling at wonderful work, being inspired and uplifted and challenged by it. (And CALMED. Nothing more calming to me than going to the Met. Which is where I just decided, while typing this, I am going today, for my birthday. I need it.) I enter a Barnes & Noble and my heart hammers the entire time with longing, guilt, envy. I should be doing, I should be better, I should be this, why aren’t I that? At Bway shows, I yearn to be onstage and dance and sing; I want to be a girl drummer with sinewy arms, in a scruffy rock band. I wanna surf. Garden. (I can hear my kids laugh about THAT.) Cook and bake effortlessly. Art? It’s a place I bask and exult. Uncomplicated. Everybody needs a place like that. It doesn’t make me feel the least bit anxious about anything I’m not.

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    Oh, Viv, that’s sweet. I’m glad Art is your quiet place. For me, looking at paintings and beautiful work makes me want to get out paints and the easel. That’s why I go to Broadway shows and wander book stores — those are MY places to relax. I guess this all depends on how we’re wired! But I still like the points made by the art teacher in the YouTube video. Drawing, even in a beginner class, is an absolutely uplifting experience.

    And, best wishes to the birthday girl! Hope you have a wonderful time at the Met. xo

  5. Learning to draw certainly can involve life lessons. The house I grew up in had a huge library but not much of it post-dated World War I. My favorite books as a small boy were the bound copies of St. Nicholas Magazine for Young People, 1880-1899. I loved the illustrations and was determined to learn to master pen & ink to the extent necessary to duplicate the same intense perfection of line and detail. Between the ages of around ten and seventeen I used gallons of India ink and every sort of pen ever devised (the rapidograph almost actually got me there too!) Shortly after I turned 17, someone casually mentioned that those old illustrations weren’t pen and ink drawings at all. They were steel engravings! What I had been trying to do all those years was about as possible as free hand drawing a dollar bill good enough to pass it off at the bank. It was, of course, a dreadful shock but it did leave me with a very detailed drawing style. It was about the same time I read an account of a man in New Jersey in the 1880s who ACTUALLY DID free hand draw currency that was accepted at banks. He was eventually hired by the Bureau of Printing & Engraving (when he got out of jail.) So there’s the lesson – one’s dreams and ambitions only become impossible when someone tells you they are and you believe them. I still can’t wield a pen with the absolute precision of a steel engraving but hey – I’m not dead yet either, so who knows…?

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    Toby, didn’t know that you draw — excellent! What a sweet story. So you have a super detailed style. Now I can appreciate what that means: incredible patience. Thanks for sharing. :)

  7. What I love most about drawing is that the more you do it, the more drastically it alters the way you see the world, and absolutely for the better. My last drawing workshop was the figure for 6 hours a day for 5 days. By the end, my brain was so habituated to going after the tiniest detail, visual relationship, light & dark, etc. I got on a crowded subway and just GAPED at every rider and how mind-blowingly beautiful every single face looked. Sounds nuts if you haven’t experienced it, but the act of drawing eliminates social judgements and all the other tricks your mind plays for survival. It all becomes landscape.. unique forms in space. The whole world was gorgeous. Now I’m surprised I didn’t get mugged. The effect wears off, obviously. But knowing you can get yourself there is powerful!

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    Well said, Jean! I’m not at your level yet…it’s enough for me to see the miracle of a toe nail. And yes, these are all beautiful moments. I finally get it. Thanks for stating the experience so, so clearly. xo

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      Haha! Thanks, Jean. Btw, now that I understand a little more about drawing, I also understand why your paintings are so good. You are literally light years ahead of most of us in understanding the whole light/dark object stuff. :)

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