Life Lessons Learned with a Drawing Pencil…

Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up (pencil drawing: Diane Mottl)The drawing on the left was so close to being crumpled and thrown in the garbage. I look at it now and can proudly see it for what it is and am grateful for what I learned.

Let me explain.

My drawings follow a predictable pattern. I start out with a light sketch to get the proportions right (I have a very well worn eraser – smile). When I think I have it, I pick one area (i.e. the child’s shorts) and start to fill, shade and smudge until it starts to take shape. Then I move on to another small area.

But then I hit the same wall, almost every time. Maybe it’s a trick of the eye that causes the elements I am working on to jump out compared to the unfinished areas, but I inevitably look at it and say “This is all wrong, it is not going to turn out”.

At this point I am tempted to crumple it up and start over. And it’s not a wee-temptation: it’s a sit-on-your-hands-so-you-don’t-do-it temptation. But I grit my teeth and tell myself “Keep going. If you don’t like it when it is finished, you can throw it out, but not now.”

And when I continue to grit my way through (often until my teeth hurt), it suddenly starts to take shape and I get a “Maybe this will turn out” moment. I start to have fun again and as I finish more and more, I may even move to “Wow, I think I’m going to like this.”

Then wham! I get stuck on another element (i.e. foot) that does not want to come together. I smudge, erase, shade, erase some more. No matter what I do, I just cannot get it to look right. I get so focused on the one area, that all I see is what I do not like about it and start to think “This part is awful.”

I put in a few more smudges, a swipe of an eraser to highlight and say,“Good enough.” But then I stand up, step back, and look at how all the pieces come together and I am surprised. Each and every time, when I look at it as a whole, I am hit with a “Wow, I like this” (or even a “Wow, I did this?!?”).

How easy it would have been to crumple up the paper and stop, with a “This isn’t working.” The so-called evidence was right in front of me that the drawing was not turning out. So why not stop, put it aside and try something different: something that I might be “better” at doing?

But if I had crumpled it up before I had put enough work into it, I never would have seen how the picture DID come together. If I had not torn my focus away from the part of it that did not look right, I would not have seen how the one “flaw” faded away when I looked at the whole picture.

It still amazes me how I can look at a finished drawing and can have too different reactions, depending on what I am looking at. I can see the beauty of the whole or I can zero in on the one part I don’t like and suddenly that is all I see.

So much like life is it not?  Shifting our focus when all we can see is what is not working. Persevering when it feels like all work and no results (or not the results we want). Finding that “something” during the mucky middle, to be able to keep going so we can find our perspective again and see the whole picture. Shutting out the “I can’t” voice and continuing to take one step after another until we can proudly say, “I did that.”

“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” — William James

“If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,” then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” — Vincent Van Gogh

“When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.”  ― Patrick Overton

“Nobody trips over mountains.  It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble.  Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find you have crossed the mountain.” — Unknown

“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.” — Eckhart Tolle

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” — Douglas Adams

PS: To my writing friends out there, I had an “Ah-ha” moment when I realized this process with my drawing was so much like my experience with writing (but with my writing I was crumpling). I am now seeing my first draft through much kinder, more patient eyes. Now, when that critical voice says “this sucks”  there is a stronger voice that says,“It’s a first draft, just get the story down.”

12 Responses to “Life Lessons Learned with a Drawing Pencil…”

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  1. Roopa Dudley says:

    Isn’t it fascinating to observe how we successfully create a wrought iron prison for ourselves and long to feel liberated by looking all the possibilities that lie just outside of those imposing bars and somehow forgetting that it is us who put those limitations on ourselves to begin with? Confidence comes with lots of practice. The main goal should not be to strive for ‘perfection’ but going beyond ‘perfection’… to create an experience for the viewer that makes them take notice — ‘feel’ or ‘think’ of the why this art was created in the first place. Otherwise any photograph can serve the purpose to capture what is… and can capture it quite accurately for that matter.

  2. Kim says:

    Well, I’m not a writer or an artist, but I can see how application of this approach in other areas of life would be helpful. The tricky question I’m going to pose to the group, however, is “how do you know when to give up?”. I do believe that there are times when the project/picture/story should be “crumpled” and either abandoned or started over.

    • Since I’m part of the group (smile) I get to join in this discussion. I think if I’m in the frame of mind that I’m “giving up” then it is too soon, for this usually means (for me) that I’m being guided more by insecurities, fears or frustrations. But if I’m in the frame of mind that I’m “moving on” then I think I’m being guided by that more solid place within me. The challenge (for me) is how to listen carefully enough to decipher where it’s coming from. Thanks for posing such an interesting question, Kim.

  3. Never ever take an art class… I am used to my writing being critiqued, because I know that will make it stronger. But the one time I took beginning drawing for an art credit, I sketched a beautiful wolf looking in the water at his rippled reflection. My kids were in awe and I was so proud of my finished project.

    The way the art class worked was our drawings were put up on an easel and discussed by the class as a whole. So up goes my pride and joy…and to my horror the first words out of the instructors mouth, “Can anyone tell me what is fundamentally wrong with this picture?” According to the class, I hadn’t drawn what I had seen. I cried. I still don’t understand. My artistry is in words. Keep sharing. :) Much Love and Light

    • Crystal, I think life is paradoxical in general. It hurts to be criticized (especially for an artist type) but the same sensibility that causes you to hurt also makes you a better artist.

      I had a student tell me once that I had made her cry from a critique. I hated that I did that, but then I thought, I’m just trying to make this person better at what they want to do, period. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it comes at a price. But the hurt makes the accomplishment that much sweeter I think.

      Great post Diane.

  4. Jocelyn says:

    Hi Diane, as one of your writing friends … I too connect with the crumpling of ideas. Love the quotes, and the encouragement to stick through it, get the story down on paper. Isn’t it strange, it is usually ourselves more than anyone else telling us we cannot write or paint/sketch … Thanks again, and keep writing and sketching, I do appreciate it.

  5. James says:

    Thanks for sharing this reminder that creativity can be meaningful and painful, if you let the “I can’t” voices overwhelm you. Sometimes, I have to put a manuscript in a drawer for a time and come back to it with a new fresh perspective. I have finally come to grips with the idea that I simply have to get the story out.

  6. Writing is like this too, Diane — I guess you’ve highlighted the bane of every artist. I love your work and always click in to see what new amazing gift you are sharing. Keep it up!

  7. Loreen says:

    I go through very similar things when learning a new song…or rather my part of the new song…on marimba. For me keeping the fun in playing the music is very important including the learning part. Thanks Diane for another great post (and life lesson)! much love..

  8. Amy says:

    It’s hard to believe that you could ever think that drawing wasn’t worth finishing; I am so glad that you pressed on, because it is an excellent piece of work. As a writer, I know the ways of that evil inner critic, and it is hard to remained focused when everything seems to be coming out all wrong. The thing is, others can see the beauty in our work much better than we can, and that goes for matters of creativity and for all other facets of life as well.

  9. Jan says:

    Your absolutely right – perseverance is key. You can’t let every moment of uncertainty stop you – you have to work through it. Great blog, Diane. Thanks.

    • Cathy says:

      Hi Diane–such a powerful analogy-thank you as always for sharing your wisdom, and so articulately sharing your personal learnings in life.
      As my grandson says with such emotions-“Awesome” job!