“Our Christmas cactus has predictably bloomed each December for three decades and some years when it has been colder for longer, as is the case this year, it often blooms more than once a year. Our Christmas cactus is alive and growing 365 days of the year, most of which it is rarely seen by me but only looked at.”
In his drawing of the cactus, he includes a quote which sent me immediately dashing for my commonplace book (which is to say, this blog).
“While drawing grasses I learn nothing ‘about’ grass, but wake to the wonder of this grass and its growing, to the wonder that there is grass at all.”
That. Yes. Exactly. Or at least, I suppose I would say I learn something about grass when I’m drawing it, I learn something about everything I look at closely. But that kind of learning is implied in the quote. I get what he means by ‘about.’ And yes, the waking to the wonder of a thing by observing it quietly, moving your pen along its paths, or by writing a poem about it (“This grasshopper, I mean—/ the one who has flung herself out of the grass,/ the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—/ who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes…”)*; even, I daresay, by blogging about it—the combined act of observing, pondering, and then expressing, in word or line—these endeavors shift your relationship with the humble object; they awaken you to the wonder the thing actually is.
The drawing lessons taught her to really look at people, and when she did, she saw beauty everywhere.
I know I’m going all over the place here, but in my mind these things are all connected: this way of really looking, really seeing, noticing what is interesting and important and even beautiful about things many people whisk by without noticing. And what I can do for my children is refuse to fill up their lives with things they must patiently endure until a better moment comes. I can savor the moments as they happen, and give them the time and space to find what’s interesting and beautiful in every face the world shows them.
As I was writing that last sentence, Beanie appeared in front of me with a big smile and a present: a bracelet made of safety pins linked together, each pin shining with green and blue beads. “It’s for you, Mommy,” she breathed, so proud and excited. “Jane showed me how.” How patiently (the good kind of patience) she must have worked to slide all those beads in place.
I never noticed before what a work of art a safety pin is!
I’ve written so many times on this blog about how my approach to education is to keep the focus on the process, not the product. The lesson is renewed for me every time I take pencil in hand and try to capture the lines of a thing on my page. In the end, it doesn’t matter at all how my drawing ‘turns out.’ The magic is in the doing.
Rilla and I have been trying to work in our sketchbooks daily. I feel brave when I tackle a subject like my stapler or a piece of fruit, and then I watch her casually sit down and commence drawing something massive and complicated with utter confidence. She is dauntless. I am inspired.
(Added the shadow color before the cookie was dry, and the yellow bled. Whoops!)
Saturday night, as I’ve mentioned, is one of the best parts of my week. My boys go to bed early these days—7:30, ever since the time change. (Ahhh…) Rose and Beanie watched S.H.I.E.L.D. with Scott. And Rilla and I cozy up on my bed to listening to our current audiobook—right now we’re midway through Matilda, having had such a delightful time with The BFG—and our sketchbooks.
Sometimes we start off with a few short art videos on YouTube for warmups. Lately we’ve had some of our most fun bouts of clip-watching yet, because we have discovered Koosje Koene’sDraw Tip Tuesday. Koosje is a Dutch artist who teaches online art classes at Sketchbook Skool and via her own site. Her clips are clear, fun, and super helpful. Rilla and I are having the best time making our way through all of them. I’m learning a lot!
I’ll share only a few here. It was hard to choose which ones! You can click through to see the whole series. We have subscribed to Koosje’s Youtube channel so we won’t miss anything.
The Basic Line Drawing class at Creativebug led me to the blog of its instructor, illustrator Lisa Congdon. Lisa and her work have galvanized our artistic pursuits around here, especially Rilla’s and mine. Something she said in one of her videos really grabbed me: a while back, she decided she needed to improve her hand-lettering skills and decided to practice lettering every day for a year. Now her illustrated quote prints seem to be among her most popular creations. Her work is quite wonderful, and I love the idea that an already accomplished artist challenged herself to develop new talents by committing to practice every day for a year. This ties in perfectly to the habits posts I’ve been working on. Daily practice, even if some days what you produce falls flat.
Just like the actor who yearns to be in a band, I’m a writer who wishes I could draw. Draw really well, I mean. I have so many artist friends whose work knocks my socks off. Watching them at work—oh, that’s the best, witnessing their command of line, the rapid unfolding of story on the page. My own work is so internal. All the color and life it possesses comes from within, from a store of words, ideas, memories, experiences—like Frederick the Mouse in winter, calling up the colors and stories and sun-warmth he stored away during the rich seasons. I love this process, I wouldn’t be me without it; but there are times I yearn to grab those colors and pour them directly onto the page without having to first simmer them in the crucible of my own mind for so long.
Not that I don’t think visual artists transfigure experience in crucibles of their own—I don’t mean that at all, and perhaps my metaphor is running away from me. What I mean is, there can be an immediacy in drawing and painting—you see it, you sketch it, you have it—that is wholly unlike the way writing happens for me. I suppose the place I find immediacy in writing is right here, on the blog, where, as I’ve said, I try to write more rapidly, in what I’ve come to think of as a kind of mental freehand. And the thing I love about drawing, clumsy as my skills are, is that the words part of my mind is actually silenced for a time. I think drawing may be the only thing I do where that is the case. I think in words, I see them scrolling across the screen of my mind always, always—when you speak to me, I see the transcript of our conversation. While things are happening, I’m searching for the words to recount the experience—it happens automatically, I can’t not do it. I first became aware of it on a plane headed for Germany when I was fourteen years old. I was frustrated that I couldn’t just be IN that moment, living it—I was already writing it up in my head.
I remember once telling another writer friend, as she described a similar experience: Oh, you’re like me, you think in narrative. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a mind that doesn’t work this way—except for those brief flashes of silence that come while I’m sketching. And yet I’ll go years without drawing. My skills are elementary (I can go a bit beyond the stick figures I was joking about the other day, but not far) but I know that, like all skills, regular practice would improve them. And so (to come back to my point at last) I was charmed by Lisa Congdon’s determination to hone an aspect of her work by doggedly doing it every day for a year. It’s a simple and even obvious notion, but how rarely such persistence occurs to us! Or occurs in practice, even after we’ve made the resolution.
…I decided to do a painting a day for the month. I didn’t put any restrictions on myself and I ended up spending hours each day on them. I finished out the month, but it was stressful. In May I did it again but my rules were that I would limit it to 1 hour and I would only paint food. I finished that challenge as well but I felt too tied down to that theme and I didn’t experiment enough. I picked up the sketchbook I’m using now last October and I started painting in it. Something clicked and I really liked how the paint went onto the paper, its size, the fact that it wasn’t a gorgeous sketchbook. I kept painting in it so when January came it just flowed that this would be my daily project. I decided to post them all on Instagram to hold myself accountable to painting everyday.
When I went to Jennifer’s Instagram account (@augustwren), I was blown away. I think what I like best is that she posts a snapshot of the day’s painting alongside the paints and brushes she used to make it.
Kotor Montenegro by Jennifer Orkin Lewis. Image source: Instagram.
“I’m in Venice, these are some things I saw in shop windows.” Image source: Instagram.
Scottish Sheep by Jennifer Orkin Lewis. Image source: Instagram.
“I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly disciplined, so I have surprised myself. I have loads of 1/2 finished sketchbooks on my shelves. A great result from the practice is I now have hundreds of pages of personal reference material. I’ve gone into it to look for color combinations for projects, for the shape of a flower, a technique.”
The obvious conclusion to this post is a resolution to work in my art journal every day for a year, but do you know, I’m terrified to make such an avowal? I always feel like announcing a plan on the blog is a surefire way to stall it. 🙂 So no public declarations. Just a tiny, quiet—resolve is too binding a word. A notion. A hope. Last night after the boys were in bed, while Scott and the girls were watching a movie, Rilla and I worked in our journals. We used the Lisa Congdon piece at the top of this page as our inspiration. I’ve got Lisa’s 20 Ways to Draw a Tulip book and right now I’m in the copying stage, just trying to improve my own command of line. Got a long way to go. I added a fern to my sketch, though, figured it out all by myself using photo reference, and I’m pleased as punch with it (while simultaneously nitpicking its flaws). My writerly affection for circular structure demands its inclusion at the end of this post, but you that terrifies me too! Well, I once posted a story I wrote when I was five years old. My mother saved it for me and now I look at the fledging handwriting and nonsensical dialogue (“We will have to take care of it. If we don’t it will die.” “OK. Let’s go to the store and buy a big Ice-Cream.”) with real affection. Maybe in a year or ten I can feel the same way about this.
A different kind of copywork. Rilla likes to work in miniature and I like to eat up the page.
Famous Men of Rome. Rilla’s first time. Rose and Beanie are listening in—they know these stories well and enjoy them, and it’s amusing to them to watch Rilla encounter them for the first time. She’s doing a lot of narration afterward, mostly at dinner in the guise of “tell Daddy all about Romulus and Remus.” Sometimes during or after a chapter, I use the whiteboard to help her remember names.
Whiteboards in general. You guys, I use them for EVERYTHING. A million years ago I made the brilliant move of buying a whole bunch of scratch-and-dent markerboards for a song. The larger size are perfect as painting boards, underneath our paper—they wipe up easily and can be moved elsewhere while the masterpieces dry. We also use the big ones for things we’re trying to learn by heart. Presidents and their terms, British monarch family trees, and so forth. The smaller ones fit handily beside my chair and are great for our Latin lessons. I’ll write out a sentence and let them parse it. Meanwhile, Huck is keeping himself busy nearby with another markerboard and my best dry-erase pens.
Creativebug. The other day I happened upon this rather amazing site. It offers video tutorials in a zillion artsy and crafty pursuits, everything from embroidery to cake decorating. I signed up for a free two-week trial subscription, and if you’re my friend on Facebook you know I’ve been having a whale of a time. Rilla and I have already devoured illustrator Lisa Congdon’s Basic Line Drawing course, and we’re three-quarters of the way through Dawn Devries Sokol’s Art Journaling class. We have Art on our schedule twice a week after lunch, but that’s not been nearly enough to accommodate the creative outpourings inspired by our Creativebug explorations. I’m finding the Lisa Congdon class has been particularly inspirational and instructive, spurring me to do a bit of sketching when I hit a snag in writing. Sometimes my other jobs—raising kids, educating them, managing a household, editing—plant me pretty solidly in my left brain and I need a right-brain pursuit like drawing (even though I’m no visual artist, as the whiteboard above attests*) to exercise my creative muscles. I’m enjoying, too, painting backgrounds in the art journal and returning to them later to practice line drawing. Rose plans to watch all the cake decorating videos. Beanie’s interested in the embroidery. Right now Creativebug is offering a whole MONTH of free trial (use promo code “CRAFT,” good through Sept. 14, and thanks Kortney for the heads up on that!), so if your interest is piqued, now’s the time to give it a try. After the trial, a subscription is $9.95/month for unlimited courses, or $9.95 to buy individual courses that you can access forever.
*In my defense, I did draw a lot of it upside down.
20 Ways to Draw a Tulip. Lisa Congdon mentioned this book of hers during her line drawing tutorial. I’m in love with it. It’s tulips and 44 other flowers. Twenty ways to draw each of them, from simple-and-sweet to highly detailed to stylized and folk-arty. Wonderful, wonderful, out of all hooping.
And guess what’s back. ModPo!!! The best Coursera class I’ve taken, and I’ve taken some darn good ones. Modern and Contemporary Poetry with Al Filreis and his MFA students at University of Pennsylvania. Last year I watched about 75% of the videos. This year I’m hoping to tune into the entire course, but listen, even if you only manage a single video all semester, you’ve gained something. The discussions are engaging, thoughtful, and lively. My highest recommendation.
Best of all: Wisteria and Sunshine, Lesley Austin’s lovely membership site, has reopened its doors. There’s nothing else like it on the web. Lesley’s posts and pictures are nourishment for the soul, and I always come away with something to ponder, something to act on, something to cherish—just like in the Charlotte Mason motto about how a child should always have Something to Love, Something to Think About, and Something to Do.
We spent most of yesterday morning laughing our fool heads off over my pathetic drawings in round after round of Draw Something. It’s like Pictionary on your phone or iPad. Years ago, gosh, maybe as long as TEN years ago, I used to play a lot of iSketch with a group of friends—that too was like Pictionary, but you drew with your mouse. Very tricky. Drawing with my finger in Draw Something is only marginally easier. But oh such fun.
One of the friends I’m playing with happens to be a professional comic book artist. His pictures are, as you can imagine, quite wonderful: comical works of art. I draw stick figures; he produces fully colored masterpieces. One of the game’s best features is that you watch your opponent’s (partner’s? it’s not a competitive game) drawing in real time. I’m sure this becomes tedious for my partners, as they watch me begin and delete attempt after attempt to produce a recognizable “butcher” or “runway” or “Angelina Jolie.” For my kids and me, watching the replay on our end, this game provides a spectacular peek into the mind of an artist.
Speaking of: here’s a clip Scott shared on Facebook today. Delightful and rather dazzling: Chuck Jones demonstrates how to draw Bugs Bunny. “If you’re going to draw Bugs, the best way is to learn how to draw a carrot, and then you can just hook a rabbit onto it. Simplicity itself.” Oh, so THAT’S how you do it.
Scientists Figure out the Cause of Brain Farts – “A “brain fart” is a term for an inexplicably stupid error in a straightforward task made by someone with abundant skill and experience. Everyone is prone to them. Neuroscientists call these episodes “maladaptive brain activity changes.”
Thanks Lissa! This is perfect timing. We have been doing ten minutes of
drawing at our Family school (or what the kids call Breakfast school).
My kids are very intimidated by drawing and all claim they can’t, so we
decided from now until Christmas we’d draw every morning for ten
minutes. These little exercises will fit perfectly into our new routine.
My kids have all enjoyed and been quite inspired by the I Can Draw series published by Usborne Books. Here’s an excerpt from a long piece about drawing books I wrote last last year—
These are some drawing books my kids are nuts about. The Usborne
ones NEVER stay on the shelf; someone is always using one, it seems.
They’re also fond of the Draw Write Now series, but we’ve always
ignored the Write part. They just like the step-by-step instructions
for drawing things like the Statue of Liberty and buffalo. (We only
have a couple of them, but I’m assuming the others are just as good.)
And these are two books that I’ve been using to improve my own
skills a little…I especially love the snippets of advice Claire
Walker Leslie gives for drawing trees, plants, birds, etc. She has a
knack for pointing out just the right way to approach the tricky bits
that don’t come naturally to me, like how to make a tree branch look
like it’s really curving out of a trunk.