This week, while we waited for night to set in and the fireworks to start, Myla (she’s 8 years old now) asked if she could draw in my sketchbook. Along with the other doodles she found, she saw a portrait I had started of our Boston Terrier, Adie, and asked if she could finish it.
Dang. I was having fun drawing Adie! But I don’t mind, obviously. She asked if I was using my imagination to draw, and I told her I had started by looking at a photo of Adie. She was very interested in that. “Can I finish the drawing, and use the photo to look at, too?”
And very carefully, she looked at the photo, doing her 8-year old best to copy what she saw. I mean, look at that little chest wrinkle!! EEE, it’s so cute!
I told her that when you look at a picture to draw from it, it was called a “reference,” and that nearly EVERY artist uses references. She was hooked, and asked if she could draw our boxer, Scout.
So cute! She was fascinated to know that things don’t always look like what you THINK they look like–dog noses aren’t always little triangles, for example. We talked about how that’s part of the fun of drawing from a reference, is to follow the photo to get it to look like what you see rather than what you THINK you see.
Several times, people will ask me if I use references in my artwork, or if I draw it all from my imagination, and I tell them all the same thing: I don’t think I know a single artist that doesn’t at least START with references. The fun part after that, is changing things around to make it your own.
She took this little pug, and made him waving his paw…
She drew a tiger from a photo, and then added her own rabbit (without a reference) who is saying, “I don’t want any of your nonsense.” 🙂
References have always been a jumping-off point for artists, and while some artists strive to make their artwork photorealistic and EXACTLY like their reference, most only use them to piece together an idea they already have in their head.
Myla even gave that a try, asking if I could show her the Alien she had seen somewhere (she’s never seen the movie of course, but I think they reference the queen alien in one of her goat simulator Ipad games).
She asked if I’d show her references for the queen alien, and then drew the alien having lunch, while I told her the story of the entire movie. She asked if there were other aliens, and then added the Facehugger sitting across the table, and the Chestburster popping out of someone nearby (how embarrassing!).
Humor is definitely a driving factor in this kid.
If you were to browse the photos on my phone at any given time, you’d find tons and TONS of references–everything from movie characters, artists, animals, plants, flowers, and of course, TONS of photos of my favorite person to draw: Myla (thankfully, this doesn’t embarrass her yet, and she actually likes it. She said the other day, “I really love that you love to draw me.”). I have folders in my photos of beasties (animals to draw from), movie characters, Twilight Zone screenshots, plants, faces, you name it. Whenever I want to draw, I just scroll through my phone, and I’m never at a loss for something to play around with.
I use references to draw from ALL the time, and it’s perfectly okay to do. I swear, when I was younger, I thought it was considered cheating. But how else would you learn how to draw without looking at something?
The tricky part is that of course there are some rules–if you straight up copy someone else’s photograph, it’s perfectly fine, and a great way to learn; you just need to acknowledge the reference source, or tag the person if you post it. But if it’s YOUR photo, or you only use the photo as your jumping off point and change it up a lot to become your own new thing, it’s absolutely fine! (You could go into a LOT more detail on this, of course, but those are the basics, because that’s a whole other discussion.)
On our long drive home the other day, I wanted to draw, and fought the bumpy road to doodle a photo I had of Myla, and turned her into a little mossy fairy forest sprite creature.
Later, I painted her in watercolors, all mossy and brown. I’m not done with her yet, but it’s a start.
Myla, still on a reference kick, was excited to know that so many of the books on my bookshelves are actually (gasp!) REFERENCE BOOKS! And now the whole world’s opened up to her, it seems. She has been taking bits and pieces from creatures, and making new ones up herself (see the “hammerhead” in the center? bahahah!)
One time during a live stream, a person saw me using a rubbing stick to blend my lines with my graphite pencil and asked me, “but isn’t that cheating?” And I always found that funny, because…cheating? It’s a tool, a technique, the same way using oil to smooth fingerprints out of your sculptures is a technique. Whatever you have to do to get your idea or whatever’s in your head OUT. That’s the fun part!
And that’s why it’s so much fun to see my own daughter find new and exciting ways to create. She’s exploring and trying new things, and isn’t that what creating is all about? ❤
Have you ever looked at other artists’ media feeds, and just assumed that everything they touch turns out perfectly?
I have. And aside from a few magical unicorns for which that may be true, I am pretty sure that all artists suffer from bad starts, and art block.
Mine has been going on a while now….I’m not sure if it’s related to the fact that I’ve had a massive headcold that later turned into a sinus infection for the past three weeks, and has been totally clogging up my brain, but it sure shows in my sketchbooks, which are FULL of bad starts.
The thing about bad starts, is that sometimes all it takes is the beginning of an eyeball for me to realize it’s not worth holding onto. And then I get discouraged about the bad start. And feel bad for wasting paper in my awesome sketchbook. And then I feel like nothing I draw has been turning out right lately. And I start completely re-thinking my whole style and technique, and everything that has made sense to me in the known universe up until that particular moment, because WHAT AM I DOING I TOTALLY FORGOT HOW TO DRAW.
…And then a decent doodle will show up. It’s not GREAT, but it at least gets the idea out.
Sometimes I go back to my comfortable spaces, where I feel the best, to try to pull something out from there. I always let Myla join me, because she always makes it better, and reminds me that it’s not that serious.
And sometimes strange things make for decent doodles…
Sometimes, I re-work an older idea for some inspiration, and try to update it…
And sometimes, outside prompts (like this month’s Inktober suggestions) help get me out of my regular mindset…
And it takes some time, but then things start coming back around eventually.
And soon, it’s not as much of a constant struggle, and starts to come out in an easier, more enjoyable way…
The thing to remember is that it’s part of who you are, when you have a passion like drawing. Whatever your passion is, you’d still do it if no one ever saw it, right? You do it because it makes you feel good. You almost NEED to do it. It’s not this yearning for a title, it’s not a status, but drawing is like skin to me, it’s just there, and I’m grateful for it.
…So why does my confidence in it waver so much? If you struggle with the same things, try to remember what I keep telling myself: It’s not gone forever. It will come back, and you will be better for it when it does. If it takes a hundred bad drawings to get back to your groove, then by all means, start sketching!
I’m telling myself that right now. Hopefully when this stupid flu leaves, it’ll take my art block with it. Until then, I’ll keep making my bad starts and pushing forward! 🙂
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?