I signed up for an art course in November, to start in January. I’d been looking for a course for a while. I didn’t want to study painting. Or life-drawing. Or flower-arranging. So, I settled on an illustration course offered by the city of Ottawa. I bought my supplies the weekend before. I was excited. I was pumped. Then someone from the city called me a couple of hours before I had to leave for my first class. The course was cancelled; only one person had signed up. Me. At first I was disappointed. Then I began to think I might have dodged a bullet, so to speak. I mean, I hadn’t even picked up a pencil, except to correct English papers in how long? Since… ah…1974… at least.
I used to love art. You might even say I was passionate about it. Drawing in particular. All my projects in elementary school and many in high school were illustrated, the drawings matted with contrasting paper; even the lettering was usually drawn on construction paper and carefully cut out and pasted on elaborate covers that had taken longer to prepare than the rest of the assignment. Sigh. I loved school in those days. At home I was always sketching. I haunted the art supply department at Zeller’s; imagine Zeller’s even having an art supply department, but they did. I spent my money on sketch pads, charcoal, oil pastels, books on how to draw cartoons, how to draw children, how to understand and appreciate abstract art. I dreamed of doing something artistic when I grew up. Not necessarily being a painter, painting had never interested me much, but maybe a fashion designer, an illustrator, or a graphic artist.
|Some of my early “art.” Lots of girls in “outfits.”|
This is some of the “art” I did in junior high. Girls, girls, girls, lots of girls in outfits. Some of them inspired by the Sears catalog, or by fashion lay-outs in Miss Chatelaine. A few portraits of historical figures like Pauline Johnson and Samuel de Champlain for school projects, and an attempt to render our Prime Minister when, as a twelve year old, I was deeply into Trudeau-mania. That’s my step-brother in the bottom right. I tried to copy his grade seven school photo, not entirely successfully, if you know what he really looked like.
Then in high school things changed.
I began to feel self-conscious that my work wasn’t good enough, and embarrassed, even, by the effort I put into it. I backed off… it was much more cool to NOT try so hard. I started getting lazy. In high school art class I really didn’t learn much. If I couldn’t master a skill quickly, I’d get frustrated, overly critical. I just wasn’t as good at art as I thought. And I gave up. Then other interests crowded in, and then university, and work, and life. Teaching was an engrossing career; I didn’t have time to resurrect old hobbies, even if I’d wanted to do so.
Then I retired. And started trying to rekindle old passions that I had let fall by the wayside. Like art. So in early January when my course was cancelled, I was, as I said, disappointed at first. I began to look for another course I might like. But how to decide which one would be best for me? Gad! I slapped my forehead. I walk or skate most weeks with two friends who are… d’uh… retired art teachers!
So, later that morning I spent over an hour on the phone with my lovely and generous friend Margaret, sipping tea and talking about art. Margaret studied illustration and commercial art, and created and taught the graphic arts course at my old school. I learned from her that illustration is much more complex than I thought, that I should probably work on drawing itself first. I had already begun to doubt whether I was ready to take the illustration course. Phew. Now I was relieved that the course had been cancelled. Margaret recommended a book for me to read. And then she volunteered to give me some art classes. See… I told you she’s lovely and generous.
This is the book Margaret recommended. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. I ordered it from our library and right away started reading and doing the exercises as Margaret suggested.
Edwards’ book works on the premise that anyone can be taught to draw competently. That learning to draw is really a matter of learning to see. And that seeing as the artist sees involves learning to consciously use our observant right brain, while at the same time learning to ignore our critical left brain. Some of what Edwards talks about in the first chapters of her book with respect to left-brain right-brain theory has been debunked since its publication. Creative, artsy types are not “necessarily right-brain dominant”, nor are “logical, analytical people left-brain dominant.” Neuroscientists at the University of Utah have since figured out that there is much more constant communication between both halves of our brains, and that there is no such thing as a predominantly right-brained or left-brained person. The new research does not deny, though, that certain functions we perform occur in one side of the brain or the other. You can read about that study here and here, if you’re interested. So Edwards’ claims that language and naming things is a left-brain activity, while seeing, observing, what the scientists call “attention,” is a right-brain activity are still correct. And the fact that we probably can’t “turn off” our left brain as she says, is really irrelevant. We can learn to focus, to observe, and train ourselves “to see” in order to be able to draw. Or at least I hope so.
I’ve already been to one class at Margaret’s house. We were joined by Ron another former teaching colleague who, after a long career teaching History and Outdoor Education, wants to explore his more creative side, and by Brian, Margaret’s husband, a retired psychologist. Margaret was really organized, with a slide show and handouts. We had coffee and muffins and lots of interesting chat about drawing… and we even did some work. We’re scheduled to meet again this week.
|Margaret’s introduction to drawing class|
Meanwhile, I’ve been doing my homework. Hubby helped me set up a spot in a corner of our sun room as my “art space.” From the basement, we dragged an old desk that Hubby had refinished and which I had used for crafts, making grape-vine wreaths and the like. I’ve stocked the drawers with my supplies, my pencils and charcoal, and I use my homemade lectern to work on. Hubby built it for me years ago when I started having back problems from too many years bending over my marking.
|My “new” artist’s desk. Ssssssh, genius at work. Ha.|
|The view from my desk today.
I’m determined to give this a good go. I try to set aside a couple of hours in the morning every few days, take my tea and my i-pod out to the sun room, and get stuck in, as they say. I try not to feel silly, that I should be doing something useful, like vacuuming or cleaning the bathroom. I’ve started listening to music as I work, as Betty Edwards’ book suggests. And if I can force myself to focus, to slow down, and concentrate, then, like Edwards promises, I become engrossed in my task. It’s amazing when that happens. The very embodiment of what psychologists call “mindfulness.”
I’ve done some weirdly interesting activities. Like upside down drawing. Trying to replicate an upside down line drawing, when although you can see what the drawing is overall, when you start to replicate the detail, you can’t really tell what parts are what. I mean even though you know it’s a horse, and you know what a horse is supposed to look like, you’ve never drawn one upside down, and that, my friends is a ‘whole nother thing.’ So you just focus on recreating the lines and spaces exactly as you see them. Or as best you can.
It has not been easy to slow my mind down, to concentrate only on the task at hand. Usually only reading, or writing can achieve that for me. But if I set aside the time, and think… I’m just here to do this, and nothing else, it helps. The hardest thing by far has been to shut down that critical part of my brain, that judges, and sneers, and grows impatient, and tells me to just give up. My drawing skills are very, very rusty. Creaky, even. It helps to be just doing “exercises” and not “drawing” or, heaven forbid, creating art. I tell myself I’m just practicing, it’s not supposed to be any good.
As I work my way through Betty Edwards’ book, I’m reminded quite frequently of activities I did with my creative writing students. Games to get them to explore ideas, to practice playing with form. Activities to encourage them to be more observant, and to see and then try to describe the world around them. Drawing pictures with words, as it were. And I remember my admonishments to struggling students to focus on improving their skills, no matter how much or how little skill they had to begin with. Huh. The shoe is most definitely on the other foot now, isn’t it?
This morning after I’d finished my drawing exercise, and sat at my desk, finishing my cup of tea, and gazing out the window at the river, I was reminded of my post last week on happiness and gratitude. Yep. I sure felt both of those. So even if I never recapture my youthful artistic fervor I will still have gained much from my artistic endeavours. Even if it’s only learning to tell my inner critic to shut it… occasionally.
How about you? Do you find your inner critic ever gets in the way of doing what you’d like to do… or try? Do you try to tell it to mind its own business? And as Dr. Phil used to say on Oprah… “How’s that working for you?”