There comes a time when you have to admit that you’ve gone through a phase-change. A time when you can no longer hide it, even from yourself. The mirror may not show it, and you can usually conceal it from friends if you don’t let them into the house, but it is more of a metaphysical thing anyway: a liberation of the forever-pacing prisoner within, a forced release of someone trapped in darkness all these years.
I’ve decided to take up sketching. I had something of a reputation for my stick figures in grade one, so I figured I could build on that -maybe flesh them out a bit, draw more realistic noses on them, add a few bulges here and there, then presto, Stick’s your aunt.
The instruction book I bought was a disappointment, however. First of all, it’s too heavy for anything but a coffee-table, and I definitely had trouble taking it home with me on the bus. But even if I couldn’t skim through the pages on a sketching walk, I’m not at all sure that I’d be missing anything –at least, nothing I’ve tried so far in any way resembles what the book shows.
Of course, I should have known -I’m terrible at colouring. My father used to get upset when I couldn’t keep the crayon marks inside the pre-drawn shapes even with his help. And I inevitably chose the wrong colours. I’ve always been partial to green, and it seemed a natural thing to use it on the sky when I was doing a forest. White above a building, grey above a mountain… Like Alan Watts, the Buddhist-leaning philosopher of the 60ies, I saw boundaries more as things that joined items, rather than separated them. My father, alas, was Baptist.
The book I bought did not cover philosophy though, and was stoutly agnostic about colours. It seemed more into smudging and shading –‘values’ as it insisted on calling them- and I’m fine with that. I got quite good at smudging my homework in elementary school and I figure that’s almost the same thing. And yet, drawing is more than smudging –it’s not meant to obscure mistakes, or make it so the teacher might award you the benefit of the doubt. It is an enhancing, not an accidental technique. And it assumes some mastery of the underlying methodology before its profligate display. There are some fundamentals you just have to conquer. Some items you have to face.
Take the basic shapes –which I gather from the pictures, are things like rectangles, cones, cylinders, cubes… Oh yes, and circles. I don’t know why I have such difficulties with circles. Maybe it’s because of what the book recommended –warming up by drawing from the shoulder, the whole arm in other words, not the wrist. I mean, even drawing from the wrist is difficult, but from the shoulder? Come on! Especially underhanded. None of the lines ever meet. But then again, I suppose that’s why it’s called a sketch –supposedly from the Latin, schedia meaning something like extemporaneous and temporary. Incomplete.
And yet, I accept that lines can be squiggly –Nature is squiggly. In fact, I’ve realized that there are really very few straight lines out there, except maybe telephone poles… trees, too, I guess… Oh, and buildings… Okay, well, I suppose I could use a ruler for those, although I didn’t buy one.
But I have to admit that I’m from the squeeze-the-pencil-tightly-and-make-indentations-in-the-paper school of drawing, and I find that the requisite alternation between biting my lip and compressing my tongue distracts me from precise linear modulation. Myoclonic jerks in my arm also upset the steady transfer of graphite to paper when I follow instructions and hold the pencil like a conductor’s baton.
Maybe it could be the pencils I bought, and their different degrees of hardness. Although I had the clerk pre-sharpen them in the store for me, some of them were already broken by the time I got off the bus.
He warned me you have to keep some of the ends blunt, though –for the effect, I suppose- but what he neglected to tell me is that it is physically impossible to keep the soft ones sharp for more than one press, even underhanding or, especially, shouldering. And the idea of a blunt pencil is anathema to me anyway. Miss Delula, my stick figure teacher, would roll in her grave if she thought I’d gone apostate.
So many things about the mating of pencil and paper –as the Book, is wont to describe the adventure- escape me still, and yet I think I’m getting a bit better at it. I drew a circle yesterday that could hang in a gallery, and my cross-hatching is to die for on occasion. I suspect it’s all a matter of persistence and practice. And I’ve realized that it is always a big mistake to try to draw something that’s actually out there –it’s far better to sketch something you see inside, something behind the cover of your eyes, so you can disavow any resemblance to nameable objects. True art doesn’t specify –phone cameras do that. No, art merely suggests. It’s a metaphor, like poetry. I remember Miss Delula whispering something like that to me when the class laughed at one of my more abstract interpretations of her. “And remember,” she added with a wicked smile, “with pencil drawings, you can always rub them out…”
I did remember, and bought a few erasers in her memory –just in case- even though the book glossed over the need to erase stuff. The clerk didn’t, however, and slipped one of those extra-big pink eraser into the box when I told him about my stick figures.