Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Thomas Merton
This past year I have been learning to draw. It started out as a way of exercising my brain – learning something new and challenging – and has morphed into a daily ritual that balances me.
I had no inkling that a dollar store sketch book and a box of pencils would open and expand my creativity, and in the process open and expand my spiritual awareness. My brain gets a work out (after a few perspective lessons, I am exhausted), my mind lets go of disparate thoughts and rests, and my whole body relaxes. Time stands still until I stop drawing and I re-enter the exterior world.
Sometimes I flick through my filled sketch books just to understand where I am going and where I have been. My sketches tell a story.
In the beginning my go-to book was a dog-eared, how-to-draw book that I found in my deceased father’s library (box of old books). Along with all of the volumes of Winston Churchill’s tomes and books about health and ABC’s of nutrition, I found a solitary art book.
I remember my Dad’s “art” period. I was young, married with children, and kinda in awe of my father’s zest for learning. In his late sixties he took up painting, learning to ice skate, learning to build an ice rink for my active boys, and learning to play the accordion (which he within a few lessons promptly pawned off as a birthday gift to my mother which only added fuel to my mother’s long-time assertion: Your father gives the worst gifts). Too busy with raising young children, I have no recollection of when he began or ended his art phase. But at family gatherings we noticed new artwork springing up – one day a large landscape (forests and mountains) over the living room couch; another day a large rural scene (with farm animals) in the hallway. Neither was particularly engaging (to our limited eye), but I remember the lesson that came to me: even when our creative efforts are not perfect or do not conform to others’ tastes, display it anyways and own it. (Sad (and ashamed) to reveal that when we had to disperse of my parents’ worldly goods, no one wanted the large landscape paintings.)
Following in my father’s footsteps, I am teaching myself to draw and discovering that the more that I draw, the more my sense of awareness of all things is heightened. One day I am drawing a leaf on a twig and the next I am discovering the interconnectedness of all things. The twig, the leaf and me – we breathe the same air; rain and sunlight nourish us.
My completed sketch books (much like my collection of writing journals) reveal many lessons: some of them reflect the things I do well – because apparently we all have leanings to what we draw and like to draw (birds, nature, outdoors, streetscapes, people, flowers and leaves) – and some of them are graphic reminders of what I need more help with (perspective, birds, nature, outdoors, streetscapes, people, flowers, and leaves). I enjoy drawing birds, but I do not like drawing animals or cartoons. Although strangely, I once drew the cover of Marley and Me (I was reading the book to my peeps at the long-term care facility) and the completed sketch of Marley looked pretty good. I left that drawing out for days, I was so impressed with myself. (Dad, I owned it!)
With urging from the You Tube teachers and art books that I devour, I draw objects that I find around my house, and I often draw the views from the window in the back room where I sit each morning, drinking coffee and green smoothies. I draw the same view over and over; I draw the window frames and the shutters. Sometimes the shutters are closed and sometimes they are open. Same view, different frame outlining the view.
In Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, the protagonist’s father is a renowned painter who we learn has Alzheimer’s disease. A prolific painter, his father paints only the Swedish landscape; but in a heartbreaking, evocative scene, Wallander finds numerous paintings and realizes that each of the paintings depicts the same landscape – one view, painted over and over again.
Now that I have taken up drawing, I had this bizarre moment where I thought that I, too, was drawing the same view from my window, over and over again.
Perhaps, like Wallander’s father, I am attempting to perfect the scene and get it right. Or, perhaps, like me, Wallander’s father paints that particular landscape because it is just there. (Most likely, the Alzheimer’s disease has prevented his father from remembering that he has already painted this view.)
I have learned that to draw, one needs to let go or surrender to the process. Just let go of the fear of messing up; let go of the need to be perfect; let go of the need to control (because believe me, the end result is not often as planned). I once drew the porch that I was sitting on while looking down and sideways (confused? me, too) – I was attempting a perspective and proportion lesson. Needless to say, you will have noticed that particular sketch is not included in my post. Even my kind and supportive husband looked at it with horror, what the hell is that?
My peeps (or the residents) at the long-term care home where I volunteer inspire me: They draw well; exceptionally well. So I begin to wonder if dementia allows them to let go of the rigid thinking and presumptions that are barriers to drawing perceptively? Does our right-brain thinking expand and, therefore, free us when we have a dementia? Do we surrender to the process of drawing because the left-brain thinking that restricts us is now diminished?
Because of their dementia, do they just surrender to the it is what it is of the moment. The ism of the moment or the is-ness, or whatever. Because to draw, I have learned just to be present. Just be. Allow my mind’s assumptions and presumptions to take a rest. And, like my father, to be happy and accept my progress, or lack.
Because to draw or sketch with ease one needs to be mindful. To pay attention to the details – the micro and the macro. To pay attention to the lines and the white space on the page and not worry about the finished picture. To pay attention to the simplicity of the object or scene – to allow the mundane to expand and become profound.
If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is – infinite. William Blake
And I have learned that the greatest lesson (or gift) when drawing, is that I can see more deeply and completely. I can see the inherent beauty in the simple and in the ordinary. And when I sit in mindfulness, I begin to realize the interconnectedness in all things and in all of us. I feel the Sacred.
I can find joy and delight in just staring at my climbing hydrangeas; in the many tones of bronze and browns of the Diablo Ninebark’s leaf (chartreuse in the sunlight); in the various dark and light shades of rocks, stones and pebbles; at the American Goldfinches who visit my cobalt blue bird bath every day. The yellow and the blue. Bliss. And I confess that it is in those moments, I do not draw. I just sit.
While staring up and wondering how one would capture the blue sky behind the cloud formations, my senses are heightened: I can smell the viburnum, the earthiness of the soil and the mulch; I can hear the rustling of the frequent winged visitors in their new home within the euonymus that grows on our fence. I notice tiny, white feathers drifting down from the clouds – not feathers, but white seed fluffs from the trees that grow in the north part of the city then fill our skies here in another part of the city each early summer. I tell myself that when I learn to paint with watercolours, I will paint white feathers, not fluff pods. Although fluff balls or seed pods are intricately beautiful, too.
I take pleasure in everything: A stained and broken jug that sits in the garden shed – new life as a still-life. When closed, the outdoor umbrella is a lesson in “folds.” I like drawing folds and drape-y fabrics. I like drawing shawls draped over a couch, pillows, and blankets.
I drew my foot once. And my hands. When I completed the sketch, I was struck how old my hands looked. But beautiful. Worn, but worthy. (I had never noticed that before.)
Suddenly I have realized that I have spheres throughout my house – not rectangles or squares. My preference or leaning for soft, rounded edges is clear. I think that explains why I find angles and perspectives more difficult. Now I inform my husband that I am not a straight angled kinda gal. What does that mean? he asks. I meander, I reply.
Since I am a beginner, I sometimes find myself in the middle of a drawing and feel overwhelmed – too many uneven objects (and my shading and tones are too naive), too crammed (and I have run out of page space), too many angles…ah! perspectives.
I am recognizing that a busy streetscape might be too ambitious for a beginner. So I am learning another important lesson: discernment and patience. So my eye has become a telescope – scrutinizing the macro, adjusting my lens to capture the micro: an ornate doorway, arches supported by columns, moldings, cornices, and decorative motifs. I must sacrifice drawing the building (or streetscape) and focus my attention to the smaller details.
Discernment – how to judge well. That’s a lesson worth learning, along with draw with looser movements (don’t be so uptight), visualize your completed creation (before you begin); be carefree, not careful; do-overs are a good thing (and so are erasers); and do not tear out pages of spoiled or disappointing sketches. Own them.
When I close my sketch book for another day, I feel expansive, creative, and fulfilled. I feel restful.
The little things. The little moments. They are not so little…Jon Kabat-Zinn
It is the little things that matter and enrich our lives. A simple Diablo Ninebark leaf. It’s not so little. Learning how to draw. It’s not so little.