August 6, 2013

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.