Learn to draw in 30 days

We all have different ways of coping with the crazy times we find ourselves in. This summer is a strange one in so many ways. It’s been beautiful and hot and precious here in New England, but as we tip into fall all of us are bracing for a school year far from normal, and the possibility of another winter trapped inside our homes. I’ve tried to be extra diligent lately with self care – doing things to build up my strength and nourish my spirit. And during a run a few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to draw.

My desk of joy – as opposed to my desk of work

It’s been interesting to discover my learning style. Lately, the trend has been towards video education. I hate hate hate and loathe learning things by video. I’m not sure why. I pretty much never go to Youtube for anything but workout videos (which are for some reason an exception). I know that there are probably infinite channels dedicated to this very task, as well as the entire video footage of Bob Ross. But I learned how to learn from books, and the written word is still 100% my preferred method. So I bought myself:

1) “You Can Draw in 30 Days” by Mark Kistler
2) A crazy complicated set of drawing pencils which did not come with any sort of guide on what to use when, or even what things are
3) A sketchpad. If I’d realized how BFFs you become with your sketch pad I would’ve bought a nicer one, but here we are

The first thing we drew was a pretest. We were supposed to draw a house, a plane and a bagel in five minutes each. I hesitate deeply to show you mine. You see, in my school, you either did art or you did music. And I definitely and 100% did music. And then some extra music. So I think my last formal education in art might have been … 3rd grade. And I wasn’t very good even in 3rd grade. Since then, I have improved not at all due to never trying to. So what you see below is not sandbagging – it’s actually my best attempt. DON’T MOCK ME. (Or, you know, only mock me behind my back.)

I’m really this bad

Obviously, any skills at all will be a vast improvement on the impressively-retained 3rd grade drawing level I started with. Since then, it’s been a real joy. The book is canny in showing you how to do something that looks and feels like a real accomplishment, and only sneaking a little theory or technique in along the way. It has those things, but the overall tone of the books is one of joyful experimentation on basics being taught. Here was my first real success, a measly three lessons in:

I’m a particular fan of the “alien jumping out of a hole” technique, which is recurring in my opus.

Then we moved onto squares. There are a few places where I could stand a little more explanation (like how do you get the length of the squares right? But my architectural friends better watch out – I’m not only doing open boxes, I’m doing treasure chests!

Boxes, treasure chests and foreshortening

Then yesterday’s lesson was wild! Out of left field! After 7 days of circles and squares we suddenly went to …. koalas.

Brenda’s first bear

Then last night, from the giddy heights of Lesson 8, I thought …. what if I put all these things together in one crazy, overlapping circle, open box with pedestal, koala-combining extravaganza. Could I do it? Such a complicated piece? How do people not smudge their drawings when they do this? But I sat down and didn’t stop until I had … this.

With bonus bopping alien

I mean, compare to my pretest. Pretty amazing, right? There’s plenty of problems with it – probably more problems than drawing. But it was super fun! And it made me feel really good and accomplished and like I’d learned things. And that was a great feeling to have during this crazy time.

Here are my key takeaways so far:

1) Erasing is a tremendously important part of drawing – by intent. No artist is “so good” they don’t need the eraser. The eraser is a key tool.
1.5) I wish I had an eraser as precise as a pencil
2) I like to sketch in a high-hardness pencil (like 4H) and then texture in a high smudge pencil (like 4B). It’s somehow much easier to erase the Hs. I had to experiment a lot with the pencils to figure out what they did, and why you would use one over the other.
3) How DO people avoid smudging their drawings with their hands? Do they always move left to right (or non-dominant to dominant) in their drawings?
4) Someday I will not have to actually draw (and then erase) the sun to get the angles right. That day is a long time from now.
5) I still can’t tell with boxes whether I should shade in alignment with the angle of the box or the sun. Is the answer “it depends?” (Narrator: the answer is ALWAYS “it depends”)
6) It’s useful to redraw (in the bolder pencil) lines you want to have visible, so they really pop from the page
7) I’ve started thinking about drawing when I’m not drawing and noticing things in drawings I’ve never seen before.
8) This is fun.

I’m sure that if I power through to the end of the 30 days, I’ll inflict updates on you (or at my Instagram account – look for fairoriana).

The power of going from 0 to 1 in a skill you totally lack is intoxicating, especially when you get immediate rewards from the efforts. I’m looking forward to high powered doodles in my notebooks from here on out! Have you ever picked up a skill like this – where you could do nothing and then got to do something? Has that been a part of your COVID journey too? What have you always wished you could do, but never actually had the time and space to learn?

Downright architectural!

Daydream believer

A while back, Grey begged to start guitar lessons. After lots of “blah blah blah” about commitment, fortitude, perseverance and a lot of other highly unpopular and multisyllabic attributes, I bought him a guitar and started guitar lessons and nightly practice sessions.

Yeah. That didn’t go well.

I wanted him to play for several months, knowing well that in music you don’t get a sense of accomplishment and fun until you’ve put in some significant grunt work without any real psychic kickbacks. You don’t sound good for a while, and you can’t really play songs for a while. It turns out this is even truer on guitar than, say, piano. Two months later we were having nightly bitter “discussions” about practicing (in which there was a lot of “how little effort can I put in and still get my parents off my back”), he wasn’t playing anything that he found fun, and his behavior in lessons was execrable. I probably should’ve called uncle, but I was all like Commitment! Perseverance! Fortitude! When what I was really teaching him was to hate it, while severely impinging our domestic tranquility.

It came to a head last week. For the second time in a row he refused to play during his lesson when his teacher asked him to play. Now, I’d already expended considerable parenting creativity on guitar. I created my first ever sticker chart. After one appalling lesson I stopped the lesson halfway through and dragged Grey out to a rock in the middle of the woods with night falling until he and I could see eye to eye about how we Treat Other People Especially Teachers. But this night I just didn’t have any shots left in my parenting pistol. I guess some times it’s good to know when to give up.

I’d been sitting in every lesson for the last several weeks (at his teachers request), and so in a fit of inspiration, I told Grey to have a seat in my chair, I sat in his chair, picked up the guitar, and resumed his lesson – asking all the questions I’d been sitting on because it was his lesson not mine and I was going to shut up and be the background already. (A hard thing for me to do.) So the teacher taught me four chords, answered some of my questions (Is the intonation different depending on where your finger is in the fret? How do you read guitar notation? Which string is which? What chords are these?) When I left, the tips of my fingers tingled for days. I practiced a few times.

This week, I went back (carting Grey). The admin and I simultaneously told each other this wasn’t working out, but I have two more lessons paid for… so I went in. And I learned how to tune the guitar (kind of) and two more chords. And you know what? I’m totally digging it.

One of the prices you pay for living the life you want to live is a paucity of daydreams. Almost every big change that could happen to me would be worse than what I have. I have found the love of my life. I have a great job. I live in a neat house with fantastic neighbors. I have just the right number of awesome kids. So daydreams about, oh, being a firespotter in the mountains, or becoming a professional musician or author, being *noticed* (somehow) and transformed into someone rich famous and fabulous… the kinds of things I dreamed about as a kid. Well, they’re all hollow, unsatisfying and ungrateful daydreams to me now. I don’t really want any of those things anymore (mostly. It would be cool to be an author). So I’m really happy with my life, but I miss the fun of daydreaming.

Guitar has given me some daydreams. I probably started off on the wrong parenting foot, daydreaming for my kids. This is natural, understandable and dangerous. These daydreams are how we end up with parents who try to make their children into people they’re not, and it can end unhappily. (Of course, the flip side is that this is the only way we get Olympic gymnasts and violinists who’ve been playing since they were three.) The person who should be daydreaming about what Grey will be and do is Grey. My daydreaming on his behalf was likely inaccurate. I was imagining a Paul Simon type guitar player. He’s imagining a, well, let’s just say the he’s currently *totally into* KISS 108, which they play at afterschool. He has opinions about Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez.*

Anyway, back to me. I’ve been having fun imagining becoming an adequate guitar player. I mean, I’m never going to be on stage playing Concierto Aranjuez. But maybe I could become accomplished enough to accompany myself in Kathy’s Song, or play the (pretty darn simple) accompaniments to most youth group songs. Maybe I could play guitar around the campfire while we’re camping. Or maybe in some late-night hangout, after the games have finished, I could be sitting on the couch picking an accompaniment to our conversation. I mean, trumpet is the most antisocial of instruments. If you’re playing it, you’re doing nothing else. But guitar eases itself into company and makes itself welcome. It’s not too late, and I am not too old.

It’s also been extremely refreshing to learn something so new. Yes, I have a musical background, but it’s an extremely different musical background. Mine is linear, melodic and strictly conforms to written music. Guitar is so not linear. The guitar teacher had no music at all in the lesson room. It is terribly exciting to me, at the entrance to my middle age, to be doing something I have not done before.

So who knows. Maybe I just have one more lesson and we put the guitar away and I opened my mind a little. Or maybe someday, well, who knows.

*And to all you parents of five year olds who are thinking I would never let my child listen to Lady Gaga!, JUST YOU WAIT. You will be driving in the car in some foreign state flipping through channels on the radio. Your child will pitch a fit because they want you to stop because they love that song. And then they will sing along to it, with most of the words correct. And you will never have heard this song before in your life. And then you will find yourself confronted with the choice to either ban all rock and roll as the music of the devil, or accept that your child prefers Pokerface to Prokofiev.