In the early 1980s I met a laughter therapist named Annette Goodheart who told me I could draw. She was at the conference in Boulder to speak on laughter therapy, a subject she took very seriously indeed, and lectured about how we could be healthier in mind and spirit if we laughed more. This was of no help, because I already laughed a great deal, for example at my own jokes.
Annette was also on a panel with a title something like, "Yes, you can draw." She said everyone can draw until we are told or convince ourselves that we cannot. We start out drawing everything we see until that day comes when it is pointed out that our drawing of a dog, for example, looks nothing like a dog. Then we begin to believe we cannot draw.
Some few people actually can draw very well, if by that you mean "realistically and accurately." They can draw a dog that looks exactly like a dog. I respect and envy them. It is worth saying however that from a philosophical viewpoint their dog looks no more like a dog than mine does, because their drawing is a two-dimensional representation of the real animal, rendered in either various color choices or some version of monotones. Nor does a photograph look like a dog. You see my point.
However, given the uniquely human eye-mind link, we interpret art in terms of the real world. And that is where we make our mistake. You and I cannot paint a woman in a field of grass like Andrew Wyeth can, but we can paint our woman in our own grassy field. And that's something Andrew Wyeth would never be able to do.
Our fatal fault, Annette said, is perfectionism. At least, I believe that's what she said. It's been 30 years since that morning in Boulder and I've probably revised her remarks so radically in my mind that she wouldn't recognize them. So instead of saying "this is what she said," it would be fairer for me to say, "this is what I got, or at least what I remember."
The break in our childish innocence comes the first time we use an eraser. We draw a chin and think it looks nothing like a chin, and in frustration we erase it. That's it. Our bond of trust with our artistic instinct has been severed. We will be erasing for the rest of our lives. I speak here not of great and accomplished artists, for whom I hold great awe, but for you and me, whose work, let's face it, will not soon be given a gallery show.
It seems to me Annette said something like this: Begin with a proper sketch book. Draw in ink. Finish each drawing you begin, and keep every drawing you finish. No erasing, no ripping out a page, no covering a page with angry scribbles. What you draw is an invaluable and unique representation of how you saw at that moment in that place according to your abilities. That's all we want. We already know what a dog really looks like.
Not long after that I found myself in London, and bought a Daler sketchbook and a drawing pen. This would have been in the art supplies store across the street from the English National Opera. I settled down in a nearby pub and began to sketch a glass, which is no more than an arrangement of ovals and lines. I continued to draw throughout the 1990s. I loved the British tradition of watercolor paintings and had already started to collect Edward Lear. At the famous Agnew's gallery on Bond Street, I was befriended by a cheerful woman named Gabriel Naughton, who told me I should buy some watercolor paints and try them for myself: "That will help you appreciate how good these artists are, and what they're up against." I did, and they did. I realized in a practical, first-hand sense, with my own fingers, how precise and unforgiving watercolors are. Oils and acrylics can be repaired. Although you can daub up some watercolor with a tissue, you are essentially painting in the moment, and trying to get it as right as you can.
To draw what you want and how you want to is a matter of experience, skill and patience. At Ebertfest I met Monica Valero, wife of my Far-Flung Correspondent Gerard, and through my blog I met Marie Haws and Kelly Eddington. These women are formidably gifted artists. Miss Naughton was correct. If I'd never splashed some colors on a sheet of paper myself, I couldn't have fully appreciated how good they were. I will never draw like them. But they will never draw like me.
I sketched mostly on vacation. I had the time. In Chicago there was always a deadline, someplace to be, a phone ringing. On vacation I found a cafe or a park bench, or was waiting for a concert to begin, or whatever. I began to haunt art supply stores, as if somehow one could purchase what one needed to be an artist. I loved the smell of the paints and papers, the chalks and wooden easels. Apart from sketch books and art pens, I made one purchase that was useful and delightful: The Winsor & Newton Cotman Watercolour Field Box. This was a kit that slipped into my pocket and unfolded to reveal a water bottle, a little pot for the water, 12 squares of water color, a brush, three flat mixing areas and a tiny sponge. Six ounces. Not much larger than a couple of decks of cards. Using this in a public place, I found, was more useful for starting conversations with girls than having a Labrador on a leash.
I've written before (too often, perhaps), about my lifelong love of establishing myself in a welcome place just out of the rain, or the cold, or the heat, or the passing scene, and feeling secure there as I observe the parade. I would not call this "people watching," but more like "closely observed life." To sketch was to provide me with both an apparent reason to do that, and a way to enhance it. For the second purpose, it was more useful even than reading, although in the mornings of course you want your newspaper with your coffee.
In Paris, London, Venice, Cannes, I found corners to establish myself. I published a book about Cannes that was illustrated with my deeply flawed sketches -- but they were perfect, you see, because they recorded faithfully whatever I drew at that time and that place. That was the thing no one told me about. By sitting somewhere and sketching something, I was forced to really look at it, again and again, and ask my mind to translate its essence through my fingers onto the paper. The subject of my drawing was fixed permanently in my memory. Oh, I "remember" places I've been and things I've seen. I could tell you about sitting in a pub on Kings' Road and seeing a table of spike-haired kids starting a little fire in an ash tray with some lighter fluid. I could tell you, and you would be told, and that would be that. But in sketching it I preserved it. I had observed it.
I found this was a benefit that rendered the quality of my drawings irrelevant. Whether they were good or bad had nothing to do with their most valuable asset: They were a means of experiencing a place or a moment more deeply. The practice had another merit. It dropped me out of time. I would begin a sketch or watercolor and fall into a waking reverie. Words left my mind. A zone of concentration formed. I didn't think a tree or a window. I didn't think deliberately at all. My eyes saw and my fingers moved and the drawing happened. Conscious thought was what I had to escape, so I wouldn't think, Wait! This doesn't look anything like that tree! or I wish I knew how to draw a tree! I began to understand why Annette said finish every drawing you start. By abandoning perfectionism you liberate yourself to draw your way. And nobody else can draw the way you do.