The other day, I sat on the couch next to Myla, sketchbook in hand. I sighed and said, “I’m in an art funk. I’m just not happy with anything I’ve been drawing lately.”
Immediately, our caring 7-year old girl jumped to comfort me, saying, “MOM! Don’t talk about yourself that way. You’re a great artist!” I thanked her, but told her I guess I’m just in an art funk, that I’ll just have to wait it out. It’s okay…it’ll pass.
“You know…” she said, thinking carefully. “You’re always looking on your phone at other people’s artwork. What you need to do is put that down for awhile, and just draw your OWN thing. Just draw what’s in your OWN head.”
She’s so smart.
It’s true, I spend hours each day scrolling through Instagram. It’s been an amazing source of inspiration for me. We’re often stationed in places that aren’t bustling centers of creativity, so Instagram has made me feel closer to the world of art and other artists. But when you catch yourself looking at other peoples’ work and comparing it to your own, and getting DISCOURAGED by it….it’s really time to take a break.
I put my phone down, and looked at my blank sketchbook, and an image came to mind. I’ve always loved the balance between cute and creepy, and this cute little pixie-girl floated to the surface of the page, holding a six-legged monster-kitty. And it made me smile.
The next day, I showed it to her. “See, mom? I told you you could do it! Just listen to your OWN voice.” I gave her a hug, because as she had done so many times in her little life, she had inspired me.
I looked through vintage photos to find references for some of the poses I wanted to use, but strongly avoided looking at Instagram (I nearly only follow artists) until I had seen the idea in my head float to the surface of the page and take shape.
I giggle at my happy awkwardness as a kid, and my love for my rainbow suspenders and E.T. t-shirts (a fashion combo I must’ve gotten from Mars). I had big owl glasses and skinned knees. My sister and I played dressup a lot, and made up characters in our rooms. (I did spare myself the horrible hairdo I had growing up, replacing it in the doodle with a cuter ‘do.) Add my beloved ballpoints, and I called it “Pens are Friends.”
I didn’t question my skills as a kid. Drawing was just a tool to get my ideas out, not a measure of how good or not-good I was. I did it without expecting pay, without attention, and without acknowledgement. I did it whether or not anyone “liked” it or commented on it, because I’m older and we didn’t have social media back then. I did it JUST for the love of doodling, just like my daughter does. Just like I need to remember how to do.
So sure, I’ll do portraits. Sure, I’ll do commissions. Sure, I’ll go back to looking on Instagram and being inspired by other artists. But I need to remind myself that I’m here, too. That I’m right where I’m at, and that’s okay. Sometimes (quite often, in my case) it takes a kid to remind you of something you should know as an adult.
Seven year olds give great advice.
Most of the time, our 6-year old is very happy with her art style. She draws as well as builds 3D sculpture creature things out of paper and tape. But the other day, she said, “I want to draw for REAL. Can you teach me?” I assumed she meant drawing realistically, since that’s what I was doing at the time she asked. “Can you show me step by step?” she asked. And so I did.
We started with the basics: simple football eyes, two comma shapes for the nostrils, and the bow of the top lip, the line of the mouth, and the curve of the bottom lip.
She added her own flairs, as she always does (like vampire teeth and a “knight’s helmet”), and then she stood back and took a look.
“It still doesn’t look real, like yours.”
I explained to her that it was a VERY good start, and better than a lot of people can do as an adult, but the details would come with time and with practice. The good news is, if you enjoy it, it doesn’t seem like hard work at all.
Anyone who draws will tell you that people often want to know the type of tool they use, the type of paper, the name brand of everything, they want to see a timelapse, they want detailed instructions on HOW you did it. Aside from general interest as an artist, I can tell you that stuff is NOT NEARLY as important as practice.
It sounds easy, doesn’t it? It takes time. Lots and lots of time. But if it’s something you enjoy doing, you’ll do it for the love of it, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get.
When you’re just starting as a kid, I think it’s perfectly okay to learn by copying a piece by another artist. Or copying a face from a magazine. Or by using the style of one of your favorite artists to make something of your own. As long as you don’t tell everyone it was YOUR original idea, it can be a good way to learn from people whose work you admire. From there, you can create your own work, your own drawings, and your own style.
And once you REALLY learn the basics, and really understand them well, you can unlearn them and create your own style! People ask me why the people I draw are so wonky-looking (I assume they mean that respectfully–haha!). They assume the variation in proportion is a choice I intentionally make while I draw. Like, “okay, now I’m going to make this eye bigger…” Actually, when I was in college, I took countless classes on proportion, and facial structure. We studied live models, and had to measure out the proportions of the face and body correctly. For me, there is something pleasant in perfected proportion, but once I learned it, I found I had much more fun when I just drew things as I saw them.
I often start with an eye, and then sort of guess-measure where everything goes from there, based on a reference photo I’m looking at. And because I’m not a computer, my proportions wind up a bit…askew. And I’ve learned that I enjoy that! It’s not an intentional distortion, it’s just me, and what happens when I don’t walk directly down the center of the road. And I enjoy it!
I’m often impressed at the technical perfection of people who can draw hyperrealism (where it looks EXACTLY like a photograph), but that style doesn’t sing to me nearly as much as wonky imperfection does.
And no matter WHAT tool you use, the only way you’ll get better at it is practicing, practicing, practicing, practicing, practicing, practicing, and PRACTICING. As I told our daughter, I’m STILL learning. There’s a ton out there for me to STILL learn. And I’ve got TONS of practice left to go. So as frustrating as it may be for our girl to not be able to draw “for real” after one lesson, I’ve reminded her that you can have all the lessons in the world and have the finest (or least expensive) art supplies, but it just takes practice. And the great thing is that if it’s something you’re into, practice is FUN.
This weekend found Myla scribbling on her paper in agonizing frustration. “I can’t draw foxes anymore!” she cried. She told me that she had been thinking of a new way to draw a fox face, and it just wasn’t coming out right, no matter what she did. She even tried going back to her old way of drawing foxes, and even THAT didn’t work. It brought her to absolute tears, and all I could do was hold her as she sobbed uncontrollably, pen clenched in her hand. It was the first time in her life she WANTED to create something that just didn’t work out. It was a new frustration that she had never experienced before.
Luckily, I’ve had this problem myself. Most artists have. I’ve written blog posts in the past about art block, but this is the first time it had ever happened to her.
“You’ve got a wonderful, creative mind,” I told her as she cried in my arms. “But the down side is that sometimes you’ll have a block. It’s usually when you’re trying something new. And you try and you try and it just doesn’t look right. So you try your old way, but your mind is already trying to figure out the new way, so you can’t go back. But as hard as it is, it’s actually a GOOD thing, because it means you’re getting ready for something new. And I promise you EVERY artist I know has had a block before.”
After talking to my friend Lori Nelson, who is a Brooklyn painter (who reassured Myla that it does, in fact, happen to every artist), I started thinking of what I do that works for me when I have an art block. But this time, I sort of gathered up a list to fit a kid’s speed. Maybe it’ll help someone you know. Maybe it’ll even give you some ideas for when art blocks hit you…
1. TAKE A STEP AWAY. Get out of the house for a bit. Go outside, take a walk around the block. Go to the zoo. Pet an animal. Get lost in the woods. Take a hike. Spend some time in nature to clear your head. Sometimes reconnecting with the world around you can settle a restless mind.
2. TRY A DIFFERENT MEDIUM. Whatever you usually do, switch it up a bit. Get some chalk out and chalk a sidewalk. Bake some cookies. Play an instrument. Sew something. This is a good time to try learning something new, like embroidery or sculpting. Mixing up your medium might give you a fresh perspective.
3. DO SOMETHING PHYSICAL. I cannot tell you how good physical activity is for a stressed-out mind. Go for a jog, take a long fast walk. Skate. Sweat. Take an aerobics class. Focus on something other than your art for awhile.
4. LOOK AT YOUR OLDER WORK. I keep a scrapbook full of my past work, and I take it out sometimes and look at what I’ve done in the past. It’s a good reminder when you’re beating yourself up and doubting your skills, that you’re NOT horrible. Remind yourself that you’re awesome.
5. DO SOMETHING FOR SOMEONE ELSE. Give someone a gift. Make them something. Draw them something. Help someone with their yard, or offer to watch their kid or pet for an evening. Focusing your energy outward is one way to avoid that internal downward spiral.
6. CREATE SOMETHING WITH SOMEONE ELSE. Lori told me the way she gets out of a rut is to ask someone to “assign” her something. Working with another person or with someone else’s ideas helps your mind go places you wouldn’t normally go on your own. Nothing’s helped me more with that than the collaborations I’ve done with our daughter.
7. MAKE A MESS. Gasp! “WHAT?!? But messes are so…MESSY!” Messes are an awesome way to just let go of control for a bit. Just get the fingerpaints out, and go outside. Baking soda, vinegar, and food coloring are also good mess combos. Splash in the water. Splash in the mud. Do you realize how often we DON’T do that, now that we’re adults? Kids know that messes cleanse the soul. If messes freak you out, you should REALLY consider doing it. Get towels, get yukky clothes, and just prepare yourself to make a mess. Like my mom always said, “You’re washable.”
If ACTUAL messes are too much to bear, maybe try a little project Myla and I do, where we take turns messing up eachothers’ drawings. You each start out by drawing something simple, like a mouse. When it’s your turn, you draw something silly on the other person’s drawing. When it’s their turn, they draw something silly on yours. It’s a lot of fun, and good practice in letting go of control and expectations in your artwork.
8. DRAW ON YOURSELF. Grab those non-toxic, washable kid markers, and just doodle away. Or use a pen. Once in awhile isn’t going to kill you. Draw on eachother. Sometimes, the idea of drawing on something “forbidden” sparks something in your creative mind and makes it happy.
9. KEEP TRYING AND DON’T GIVE UP. Every now and then, test it out and see if it’s passed yet. If it hasn’t, keep going. Keep trying over and over, keep pounding your head against that sketchbook. If you have to make 100 bad drawings before the good one comes out, then you’d better get started now. When I told Myla this, she asked me, “But isn’t that a waste?” But nothing is a waste if you’re learning from it.
10. KEEP A SENSE OF HUMOR. You have to trust that if you can push through this art block, it’ll come back to you. It’s scary at first. You start to question your skills and abilities. But if it’s something that drives you, you can push through it. Keep your chin up, and don’t take it too seriously. Your art skill’ll come back when it’s good and ready, and it’ll probably bring you stories of the road, and some new souvenirs. And that’s a good thing.
So here’s to hoping the foxes come back.
Have you or your kids ever had a big block? What do you do when art blocks hit?
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how Myla wanted to be a “real artist” and make people happy with artwork. Although I assured her that she already WAS a “real artist,” we took on ten commissions, and I thought I’d post on how they were going.
First off, I start by drawing a head from the pictures that were sent. I keep it pretty straightforward, and try to keep it fairly simple. Next, when she’s looking for a fun project to work on, I’ll ask if she’d like to start on some of the custom portraits…two words she had previously not known, but is now quite familiar with.
From the emails the client sent, I would tell her a little about the person. “they call him a wiggle-worm, they love garden scenes, and his favorite toy is rainbow-colored.” So she drew the little baby as a rainbow-colored caterpillar, watering his garden, with an ant peeking in on him…
Or: “they call her ‘Princess Batman,” and her favorite animal is a fox.” She drew the girl as a fox with bat-wings and a crown, carrying a space helmet in her hand. Maybe a little literal, but fun nonetheless…
Or: “He had a pirate wedding, and he loves Star Wars and space.” So she drew him as a space pirate, with a light saber and Solo’s blaster, in a great battle with an alien on Jupiter, who’s chucking knives at him…
And there was this one, who loved magical creatures, like unicorns, mermaids, and whales…so she drew her as a whale-hugging merm-i-corn. (That’s a word, right?) If you look carefully, you’ll notice her torso is actually made of unicorn hair…because she wanted to make sure the unicorn had a bit of the spotlight, as well…
With this one, I said, “she loves magical things, like fairies and moths, and she collects coffee cups.” …So she drew her as a luna moth fairy–with teensy weensy itty bitty coffee cups in her hand, and decorating her hair…
Thankfully, so many people were up for letting us use our creativity, and being open to whatever came out. Myla LOVED the “portrait assignments.” She loved having a little prompt. And having someone list an idea of what they have in mind for their portrait has actually become a GOOD exercise for her in limitations.
She really loves to tell little stories with her drawings, (as with the space pirate above, and the gnome fairy below), but I have to remind her that they still want it to be a portrait of someone they love, so maybe hold back a smidge of the wildness a little, so that everyone’s happy.
At first, it feels like I’m limiting her creativity, which is something I was very wary of, and worried about early on…But actually, I’m finding it to be a very GOOD practice for her–to be able to work on something for someone else within certain parameters and still have fun with it. I think this is something that will come in handy in whatever job field she chooses, and is especially helpful if she chooses to be a working artist.
It feels like she’s kind of like a pinball in a pinball machine–she gets to bounce around a bit, but she still has a basic path. And that’s good.
So we’re waiting to finish the last three…in the meantime, we may have more in the future; I’ll be sure to post if we do! I don’t want to overwhelm her. I have asked her every step of the way if it’s fun…if it’s a challenge…if it’s something she enjoys…and so far, it’s been a resounding yes. She is six going on 36, and she is excited to be making people smile. She wants to do lots of things, and she wants to make people happy with her art.
For now, I guess I’m pretty okay with that. 🙂
People ask me sometimes about ballpoint pen and how I use it in my drawings. They’ll say that when they use it, it smears or gets discolored. And I say, “that’s because no one in their right mind should be using ballpoint pen.” But I can’t help it–that’s what I like. It’s what I’ve ALWAYS liked, and what I’m most comfortable with. It’s cheap, portable, easy to find, easy to carry.
But it does have a couple of issues.
Don’t be scared, though! When I was younger, information was a lot harder to find, and I was about the only one I ever knew that drew with a PEN. Nowadays, there are TONS of fine artists that use ballpoint (sometimes they call it “biro”), and do some AMAZING work. I don’t know what they go through, but here are some things I’ve learned…
THE PEN ITSELF
I’ve learned that I like ballpoints. Not gels, not rollerballs, not ink pens. BALLPOINTS. Believe it or not, there’s a difference. Nothing fancy, either–I’ve tried the expensive ones, and they’re nice, but for my work, they’re not gritty enough. Plain ol’ Bics work best for me…but I’ll use anything in a pinch.
I call it “glurping” or “glumping,” or whatever. It’s that blob of ink that sometimes comes out when you’re drawing, that can smear up your whole picture. Early on, I’d be happily drawing and OH NO MY WHOLE DRAWING IS RUINED!!! I know of one artist who uses his finger to wipe the pen every few strokes. I use my shirt….or whatever dark fabric thing is closest. Which is why, if you look all over my house, and on every shirt I own, you will most likely see little constellations of pen dots on my right front shoulders. As I draw, every couple of minutes, I instinctively wipe my pen on my shirt in a little twist. Sure, there is absolutely a better way to do this that was not so messy on my clothes. I could use a napkin. But I don’t.
PENS TURN FREAKY COLORS
I use ballpoint sketches as sort of a skeleton, because I like the pen marks to show through a little. If I watercolor on top, I get this nice blend of ink and pen. If I use acrylics, you still get to see the great lines, but with painting more on top. BUT IF YOU VARNISH, no matter HOW MUCH acrylic paint I have on top of my pen lines, the pen will SHOW THROUGH. And it turns sort of a purplish color. I’ve tried different varnishes, and I always get the same result. I usually like the look, but if it’s TOO discolored, I wait for the varnish to dry and paint in acrylic back on top of it. Varnish THAT, and you’re good to go. Waste of time? Yes. Draw my undercoat in pencil instead, then? NEVER EVER EVER. Don’t know why.
So here’s a typical project: Awhile back, my art friend Aaron McMillan (@mcmillankid on Instagram) and I challenged each other to draw Meryl Streep. I wanted to draw both versions of her witch from “Into The Woods.”
I usually start with the eyes and work my way out. I’ve mentioned before that there are many ways to measure faces to get proper proportions, and while I did my time with that in art school, I prefer to just wing it, because I like the wonky look.
My drawings are made up of very soft lines using varied pressure and crosshatching. I noticed once, while drawing, that I sort of blur my eyes to see the values and tones as I’m shading…which might explain my terrible eyesight. (Thankfully I’m near-sighted, so I’d still be able to draw in a post-apocalyptic world if I broke my glasses…but I’d be useless spotting anyone more than 10 feet away. …I have to think about these things.)
Once the sketch is done, I usually use watercolor or acrylic, but for this one, I challenged myself to use markers (since Aaron uses them a lot). Several people use Copics, but I prefer Prismacolor Premiere Brush Tips for no real reason, other than that I’m comfortable with them, and I love them.
Now this is where people who try this often get freaked out, because pens do freaky things…
AAAUUUGH it’s PURPLE!! Yeah, using markers on top of ballpoint pen is a little freaky because it instantly turns purple. This can weird you out at first, and make you think you’ve ruined the whole thing. But be patient! All is not lost! Keep going…
I get my darker markers out to shade, and the purple discoloration is already starting to settle down a bit as it soaks into the page…
And now by the time I’ve blended my darks with my lights, the purple tone is almost as faded as a bad dream in the daytime.
So here’s what it looks like, flat without much highlights. I have the ballpoint skeleton underneath, and I like the quickness of the markers–you can blend solid colors very quickly with darker shadows, and the marker soaking into the page does the rest. So here it is all flat, and ready for the next step…
Highlights! Here I like to use white acrylic paint (although I’ve used white colored pencil in a pinch) to add highlights to everything to make it pop a little more.
I like to find the “hot spots” of white, and blend them into the background color.
And there ya go!
The main point is not to get freaked out. I teach our daughter that there’s no real way to “mess up.” If you can’t fix it with ink or paint, you can always pretend you did it on purpose. 🙂
Don’t be afraid to mess up. Just open that sketchbook and DO IT. The worse that could happen is that you learn something. So good luck with all your artistic experiments!
Pssst! Hey, you! Do you want to see some horrible artwork?
…Well, neither do I. But unfortunately, my sketchbooks have been filling themselves up lately with really bad starts.
Usually, these make for perfect doodle starters for Myla…but lately, they’ve barely been good for even that…
They’re badly started before they’ve even begun.
Some people have said, “Oh, they’re fine! They look great!” But really they aren’t. Not when I know I can do better.
So what do you do when everything you doodle comes out wrong? I usually do one of two things:
1. Distract myself with other hobbies. This is usually when I have to try and change it up a little. I sew for awhile. I sculpt. I play Legos with the kid, or let her lead drawing games with me.
2. Keep bashing my head against that very same wall, in that very same spot. Photographers take TONS of bad shots before catching “the one shot” that works. Sometimes, trying, and trying, and trying again is a helpful way to get out of a rut. This requires lots of disposable supply stock, and patience. It will be frustrating. You will fill up many pages with many bad sketches. But one day, something halfway decent might come out, and you will be a little relieved.
But it’s like revving up an engine that won’t turn: once there’s a spark, you have to keep it up, or it’ll falter again.
For now, my engine’s still trying to turn, and that’s when I have to remind myself of the most important step of all:
3. ALWAYS keep a sense of humor about it all, and don’t take it so stinkin’ SERIOUSLY!!!
Really, it’s art. Calm down. It’ll come back. And it’s that confidence that it WILL come back that has kept you going for years and years, and that you need to be comfortable with. That you need to relax around. If you’re really into it, it’ll come back.
Remind yourself how much you DON’T suck by looking at some of your favorite pieces you’ve made. Keep a little scrapbook of your best work, and pull it out on occasion and look at it. I like to look at mine and remind myself, “oh LOOK! I’m not THAT totally horrible!”
So, I know about artist’s block, and I know about writer’s block. Are there others? What sorts of things do you enjoy doing, and does the skill to do it ever leave you for awhile? And if so, what do YOU do about it?