What did you just say? You can’t draw? You can’t draw what exactly?
And the conversation goes like this almost 100 percent of the time.
“I can draw stick figure....well, no I can’t. I can draw lines that look like a bad stick figure, but I can’t draw, well, not like you anyway.”
Really? Is that what you think?
I want to tell you all a story and I hope you get a glimpse of what I can see, and what I truly believe.
Something magical happens when you’re a child. Let me explain exactly what that magic looks like, and how it feels for me when I watch it spread like wildfire.
For the past few months I’ve been volunteering at school in my little boys prep class. I help with literacy and writing- and it’s me that’s learning more than them!
The teacher Ms. DiDeo says “today we’re doing letters and word recognition” and we all read a huge book together. Then she asks the children to go and draw what they remember about the story.
Yes, she asks them to DRAW the story. This is in prep. These kids are 5 and 6 years old. I haven’t ONCE heard any of those beautiful children say “but Ms. Dideo, I CAN’T DRAW”.
She also says “if you can, WRITE what you remember about the story too...........”
Suddenly the kids wriggle and get all frustrated and anxious, so I break off to a table and help them, and what I hear is “I CAN’T WRITE THAT YET”. No, they can’t write it yet, but they happily draw. Colourful, simple, gorgeous drawings, filled with symbolism and joy, a true reflection of the way they see the world.........simply. (See the drawing done by my son Hudson of myself with my big lipstick and his smiley face, and his FIRST attempt at writing his own name without prompting)
Some of them have a crack at writing, and you know what, their writing isn’t perfect. Some of the letters are back to front, quite literally, and others write the word from the last letter to the first, (and trust me, even as an adult, writing backwards is a hard task!!), but this tells me that their little brains are soaking it all up. And it all tells me that they WANT to learn how to write. They’re trying so hard. At this stage though, it’s easier and more natural for them to DRAW. My little one scrunches up his face and purses his lips as he tries so desperately to grip the pencil, gently stroking the paper and guiding the lead with jerky movements, and I can tell you now, a bomb would go off and he wouldn’t even hear it, he’s deep into the zone of creation. THIS is the place that all artists go to when we create.....It’s so hard for me to hold back the tears as I see this magic....and it’s infectious. Learning is infectious. And as far as I’m concerned, Ms.Dideo, my little one’s teacher is a magician with power to make the world a better place.
Now let me ask you, can you write? Yes? You’re reading this so you must know how to write. What exactly are you writing? Shapes, I say. Just shapes. If I said to you, fill in the missing letter.....C_T? You would automatically write ‘A’. Now if I draw a body and leave off the head and ask you to fill in the missing body part, would you squirm? It’s just a head. You look at them everyday, in fact you’re probably looking at someone’s head right now. Will you fill in the missing part for me please?
Back to class.
I have never ever heard the teacher say once “you can’t draw” and worse than that “you can’t write and you’ll never be able to write” (because this just isn’t true on any level) and I would be utterly mortified if anyone ever said that to my child. And yet, some people say that to THEMSELVES every single day.
Go back to when you were 5 if you can, when you first learnt how to write. Who taught you? How did you learn? Did you look at letters and first learn how they sounded? Then, did you say them, and eventually you recognised them? Then you copied rows and rows and rows of letters until you were bored and started to disrupt the class. I write cursively, and nowadays they all have little loops and tails....(don’t get me started on how the fine art of lettering has died, but are you getting my point here?). A 5 year old can learn how to look, identify a shape, sound it out and then.....copy it..........so what’s wrong with you now? Why oh why can’t you learn how to draw- or even LOOK for that matter? In fact, do you know ANYONE who CAN’T write? No.
Let’s look at this another way. Letters are a language right? So, if everyone can learn how to identify shapes and lines in letters, then why is it so difficult to translate that to reproducing what their eye sees right in front of them in a realistic and believable way when it comes to identifying a hand, a leg, a body, a cup, or anything else that we can draw? The Egyptians wrote their language with Hieroglyphics, tiny drawings that ran together to make stories. It’s beautiful, simple and mesmorising. I often wonder why we don’t see our letters as beautiful and incredibly simple too. Every single shape is beautiful from the letter A right down to Z.
Back to class again.
When the children draw, I don’t have to help them at all- THIS IS FOUNDATIONAL TO THEIR LEARNING and very instinctive. What comes is so natural, so right. A fish looks like a fish. Their little stick figures have scratchy curly hair, huge rosy cheeks and always a loopy smile......and they never say “did I do that right Karina?” They are very, very sure about the world around them and how they see it right now. When it comes to writing however, they want help. I write their sentence for them and they copy it, and the looks on their faces are utterly priceless. Many a morning I’ve fought back tears as I see how much they love understanding that they can do something, and copying is easy for some of them, and they just BELIEVE that one day, just like me and all of the other adults in the room, they WILL be able to write a word, a sentence, a paragraph, and maybe even a whole book one day on their own.
When did we lose this sense of ‘belief’ is now what I ask. Why doesn’t anyone BELIEVE me when I say to them”but drawing is a skill and you CAN learn this- you learnt how to write, right?”
We spent the first few years of our lives learning how to tell a story with letters – lines and shapes, and somewhere there we stopped drawing our stories. We swapped the drawing for the lines and shapes. I see it this way. We never stopped drawing. We all draw. Writing is drawing. And it’s beautiful. If you can remember a letter and reproduce it so that everyone else can read it, you can reproduce someone’s head and body, and environment.
Is it hard to draw someone asks?
“Well, yes, I say, it takes years and years of PRACTICE, focus and the desire to LEARN how to draw”.
And this is what I see every week in preppy class. The beginning of years and years of practice, mistakes and discovery, they’re focused, and they WANT to learn. “
Now I would like you to imagine this..........
What if art was just an everyday part of life, OUR VISUAL LANGUAGE? What if in your next corporate meeting you all drew your presentation, just like the preppy’s do, and conveyed your knowledge and story via pictures and images? What a brilliant meeting that would be.
What if at your next interview you had to DRAW your work experience. How many would grab for the yellow crayon and draw a big golden arch. “Oh yes, so you worked at Macca’s for a bit hey? And then you worked at the supermarket fresh food department? I like those apples you drew, very good”. What a different world it would be.
Is this not true for many modern artists? They read an image very well and reproduce perhaps the feeling of that image, some actually even perfect the realism of it.
Art schools seem to not be focusing on teaching the masterful art of drawing anymore and it’s widely becoming a hot topic that drawing is becoming a long lost skill that isn’t necessary anymore...(this is another blog, and a heated one at that)..isn’t this also the case for writing? Everything we do now is on computers, everything is digital, no one learns how to cursively write, and tails and loops just don’t cut it in my book- it’s pretty printing, but it is language in its simplest form never the less.
Art is a language, I believe, just like writing, we just stop learning it somewhere, sometime in school.
I’m pretty passionate about this, can you tell? So passionate that, through serendipity and incredibly hard work, I also now teach. I’m blessed. I teach coloured pencil drawing , physically just a step away from my little boy who is at the beginning of his little journey in learning how to write- and the expressions on the adults faces when they learn something is absolutely identical to that of the 5 years olds.
In our last class we talked about drawing and the fundamental skills of drawing that were probably necessary for fine artists. ‘Golden proportions, drawing from memory, drawing from imagination, composition skills, knowledge of materials, colour theory, rules of harmony, balance, value, symmetry’, blah blah blah and ‘the reasons why certain art images look beautiful’. Sounds intelligent right?
I might say, at this point, that before the course started, one student was so anxious about doing the course because she said quote-unquote, “I cannot draw”...........outright. Cannot. And, yet, she is a photographer and her grasp of values and colour is advanced to a level that allows her to freely interpret the image with accuracy.........and so for the moment, this student traces. Just like the little 5 and 6 year olds, she traces. Her image/language is constructed deliberately and perfectly, and that then leaves her mind free to add colour and explore her next challenge- mastering the blah blah blah stuff. This student will be able to draw in time, because she is teaching herself to LOOK!
Please, I implore you, don’t let the idea of not being able to draw hold you back from creating art. Focus on the colours instead, focus on the values and tones, and practice drawing. Start out only using graphite if you want to......but please create.
Just like the little kids.......they focus on one letter at a time. They don’t try to put a whole word together, let alone a sentence, because they know they just can’t yet, so why as adults do we try to draw an entire scene with exhausting details and complicated lighting and think that we’re going to get it right? With practice, just like a 5 year old, with the desire to learn and ability to look more closely at the subject, we WILL ALL be able to draw whatever we want to. We give our kids 12 years, yes 12 years to get their skills right before we let them loose on the world to express themselves and exercise their language. And even then, some of them will still need to work at it and try- for the rest of their lives.
So, please don’t tell me you can’t draw. I makes me crazy mad. Because, if like the Egyptians you relied on your drawings to communicate to the world, believe me, you would apply yourself, and you would be able to draw. You rely on your language skills to get by in the world, you know that, so you applied yourself. Every artist had to learn. Every child has to learn. There is no magic pill for learning. It takes time, and can be perfected, and only one person can do this for you- YOU. And there’s no shame in wanting to learn AT ANY AGE. But there it is- that's the word that makes all of the magic happen.......WANT. For an artist, it is a NEED. For a child it is a NECESSITY.
If you can learn how to write and interpret shapes and lines, you can learn how to draw and interpret the world around you in colour and line through application and practice.
And if you have children, watch how they learn. They copy. They mimic. Art is nothing more than a copy of the world around us. Everyone writes differently, some print, some scroll, others writing is completely illegible. It’s the same with art, some faithfully reproduce everything they see to perfection, some interpret their world tonally for example, and others truly express their language with nothing more than colours.
Take yourself to a third world country and be with a child who cannot write- I bet my life on it that they can draw. FOR ART TRANSCENDS WORDS.
So, why do we doubt our drawing ability, when we haven’t even tried? Just like preppies- trace, trace, trace, copy images, shapes, lines just like you had to so long ago, and sooner or later, you can take that tracing image away, and your eye will get the image right just by looking at it, being familiar with it, and knowing what you want to say with your interpretation and style.
If a child takes the first 6 years of their schooling to learn how to write, I guarantee you if you took 6 years out of your life to learn how to draw, you could. It’s a skill. If you practice at it, you’ll get better at it. However, I still love the work my little one produces, bursts of colours, never in the lines, over the lines, all over the paper in fact, scribbles everywhere and blobs for clouds, twenty lines for legs and no body. Now that’s real art.
And that comes back to my final message.
Artists learn their whole lifetimes their skill and craft. Not just about how to reproduce what is in front of them, but about the materials they use, and how make them last and endure. You’re not paying an artist for the time it takes them to draw your little commission. You’re paying them for all of the years prior that they spent learning. We pay doctors and lawyers according to their level of study. Pay an artist for theirs, and in theory, they should be paid many, many more times the ‘scholars’. For an artist, they never stop learning because life is always changing, people change, lighting changes, no day is the same, no moment is the same, not throughout the history of mankind, and as artists we document all of that, people you have loved and lost, your memories, our memories, our worlds, stimulated by an uncontrollable desire to create, and, believe me I know of many people, including myself where art has literally saved a life. Artists make the world more bearable, more palatable and more beautiful.
Just like the child embarking on their educational discoveries, the art class is an artist’s life- every single day of it. Everything they see, everything they feel is class for them. Respect this, and embrace artists, pay them with your money and your reverence. They’re multi lingual. How any languages do you know?
And by the way, you can draw, you just haven’t learnt yet. It’s magic.
If no one believes in you, and even if you don’t even believe in yourself, I do.