Teaching People To Draw

I can’t. I’ve tried, even making “educational” videos to demonstrate the process, but nothing has ever succeeded in teaching anyone to draw. I couldn’t teach the kids (though they would draw if we played the drawing game — an important message about how to draw which is forget you’re drawing but never mind). I haven’t been able to teach anyone else. These efforts and these failures led me to remember my college drawing classes — probably the only formal drawing classes in my life. We did everything; blind contour drawing where you look at an object and draw it without looking at your paper to see if you’re getting it “right.” Value drawings where you only draw the shadows, no lines (which is valid since stuff isn’t made of lines). All this was just unfathomable to me, but I did it. The classes I liked best were the timed gesture drawing in life drawing classes which were just a naked person on a stage and me with a giant news print pad and a timer. The goal was to capture the motion and the life of the figure without getting every line in each eyebrow. These are normally used as warm-ups but for me they were the whole point. BUT there was ONE class where I learned something about how to draw. I can share this method, but did it “teach” me to draw? I can’t say it did, it just made me a better human being.

I was standing very close to a piece of drawing paper using a number 3 pencil to draw a couple of tiny figures. My teacher stood behind me and watched, then, utterly frustrated, she ripped the pencil out of my hand and said, “Wait!” She returned with a little can of black tempera and a can of white tempera and a 1 inch brush. “Now DRAW!!!” She didn’t say anything about how, she just told me to do it. Then she said, “Get some decent paper.”

That was a life changing moment. Everything I needed to learn as an artist happened right then and there. Risk it. Risk something. Risk certainty. Risk control. Risk. I felt a sense of freedom I had never felt before and I never lost it. In that moment, even though I could draw already, I had the key.

I’ve thought about why it’s so hard — impossible? — to teach. Now I think it’s inside each person, talent, maybe (I don’t know what that is) and the drive to represent the world in images (I believe it’s a drive), but more; the willingness to pick up a large brush and risk. In my teaching attempts that’s what I’ve seen. I think a teacher can teach technique and the use of materials, but somewhere in there a person has to be ready to risk something. I can’t even explain WHAT a person risks because I’m not ever risking anything. To me the danger has always been not doing it. That’s the risk. I WILL get stuff wrong. I have told my “students” “Don’t worry about making mistakes. Just draw. Look at what you’re drawing and draw.”

Completely useless, unconvincing instruction.

I look at the work of some artists and see they are not risking much. I can see that in the fact that their paintings — beautiful paintings — are feats of technique. They know how to do what they want to do, and they do it over and over and over. I respect that. Other artists push against something and I hope I’m one of those. Is it better? No. It’s just…

The other day Ancestry informed me that based on my DNA I’m 60% more likely to take risks than other people. My first thought was, “That’s fucked up. Risk taking isn’t a DNA thing,” but then I thought, “Martha, what do you know? Maybe it is.” There are people who are reckless risk takers (my brother) and there are people like me who take different risks, more measured risks. One thing I could never understand about my immensely talented artist brother is why he would risk himSELF and sacrifice the possibility of making art. Pondering the differences between us I make a division between recklessness and risk; counting the cost.

I choose. One day in the mountains of San Diego County with two dogs a couple of women stopped me on the trail and asked if I wasn’t afraid to hike alone. “There are mountain lions up here.” I knew that but I figured the greater risk was missing out on a beautiful autumn afternoon hike. We all die, anyway. In my mind, solo hiking was not dangerous, but it was. I also figured my dogs were decent insurance against a cougar; at least they’d warn me. Here are the dogs who were with me that day. Ariel, my wolf dog, and her little Aussie/Chow sidekick, Matilda.

So teaching drawing. I tell my “students”, “Don’t be worried about getting it wrong. You will get it wrong.” I think for many of them it’s a risk they don’t want to take. They might take risks in other places, but not there.

I’ve been working on the Rainbow Girls in Wheatland Wyoming for more than year now and I still don’t have it right, but what difference does it make? It will matter when I start the real deal because I’m not using a forgiving medium like oil paint, and everything I’ve had to buy for the project has been expensive for me. Money is probably the biggest risk here.

In art, what you get from making mistakes is knowledge. To draw, a person has to fuck up. There’s no other way to learn. It is a risk.

I’m kind of happy to know that there is a DNA contribution to this, though I’m sure environment has a lot to do with it, too. Do I think it’s a good thing? I don’t think it’s good or bad, but it is informative.

17 thoughts on “Teaching People To Draw

    • I thought that too when I looked for this photo. Mathilda was a menace to life on this planet. I had to find a home for her where she could be an only dog, but she was a really fun dog. I had five dogs at the time and the only one Mathilda respected was Ariel.

      • The smile on Mathilda’s face…or is that the beginning of a roaring laugh. Poor girl. She is so cute, though.

        • She was a happy dog like Teddy, but she had aspirations of pack leadership. She even tried to take on my male dog, Lupo, who was as big as Bear and the undisputed leader of the pack. That was the last straw for me. Too dangerous. She got a GREAT home.

  1. When working w my 3-5 year old classes I teach them to try things in art, take risks. See h what happens . All about the process for them

    • It’s always about the process and thinking about that, it seems a lot of times we lose that as adults, the wonderment that makes us want to see where the process takes us.

      • I so agree and I explain this to parents at the beginning of the year, but I always have someone who still gets upset their child doesn’t have a ‘craft item’ where they all look the same

        • Technique is important but not until there is an inspiration to work toward. “How do I do this, teacher?” Then? anything is possible. I think then anyone will learn. I had problems during my teaching career because of this philosophy. There’s so much teaching from the outside-in but it doesn’t get in. What comes from the inside never goes wrong. I learned to write because I had stories to tell. I wrote them before I knew letters. Since I only taught skills this seemed a particularly valid philosophy. OH well.

  2. Jon Gnagy failed to teach me to draw. I don’t think of myself as a risk-taker, but folks who apply the brakes while I ride down a hill at 45-50 mph seem to disagree. For me, the degree of risk I am willing to take is related to the number of factors for which I am responsible.

    • Jon Gnagy didn’t teach me to draw, either, but his methods were pretty effective with my brother. As I read what Ancestry had to say, I thought of a lot of things I’d done that were risky — like helping my dad walk to the bathroom and use the toilet when he couldn’t barely walk. It was stupid, but I was willing to try and of course he didn’t ask until all the sane people had left the house. I’ve done a lot of things that smarter people wouldn’t have done. He, of course, ran away from home when he was 12 by hopping a train to Canada…

      I think you riding down the hill at 40-50 mph is intelligent; brakes at such a speed can (in my experience) lead to some serious injury — besides risk, I think that’s skill related and a matter of knowing yourself and abilities. The drawing thing struck me, though, because I’ve sat with my “students” while they’ve completed a successful project (in their own opinion!) and I’ve wondered why they never did more. Sometimes I’ve asked them and often the answer has been “I’ll never do well that again.” Success killed their willingness to risk…

Comments are closed.