Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Page from my Travel Journal. . . And Thoughts About Things We're Not Good At

As promised, this watercolour sketch from the travel journal I'm gradually filling this trip.

I should tell you that I began this page by trying to draw another very similar historical-architectural remnant, also being used to place a potted plant atop.  I began, in fact, eight or nine times. I'd think I almost had the graphics of that pedestal, finally, after wrestling with the intricacies of the swirls or horns either side of that central spear, the complications of shadow and relief. . . And then I'd see that I'd got the proportions wrong, misjudged the ratio of the section above the design to the section below or  messed up the relationship between width and height.

Or I'd almost have the pedestal the way I liked it and then realize I hadn't left enough room to fit the pot above it. Or I'd smack my forehead seeing that one of the lines that should have reflected gravity (i.e. been parallel to the side of the paper) suggested an odd physics. . . .

I got madder at myself with each erasure, began, in fact, calling myself "Stupid." Began wondering why I ever thought I could draw. Reminded myself that I'd always known I wasn't artistic and I should probably stick to what I knew I could do well. . .
But something I've learned over these last few years of taking up pencil and brush is that IF I can keep looking and IF I persist in putting down marks that express what I'm seeing and IF I remember some of the techniques I've been taught, I have often ended with a result that pleases me. To my surprise.

I muttered my frustration to Paul, on the rooftop terrace with his cup of tea, and he asked me what it was that I was having trouble with and what I liked about what I'd done so far, and I grumbled at him and told him not to try to cajole me, and insisted that he was patronizing me even though he must see how poor a draughtsperson I am. . . But the venting began to sound a bit silly to me, I guess, although I kept it up while I erased another horrible, ridiculous (my Inner Critic's words) effort.

This time as I erased, though, I was already processing the data I'd gained from the five or six previous efforts. I began holding up my pencil the way Alison had taught me, to get a better idea of proportion, and I was careful to pay attention to the negative space, and I tried to plan the placement of the basic shapes and foundational angles before I started working on details.  Three more "failures" after that and the grumbling wasn't quite silenced, but I was beginning to tap into two attributes that help balance my lack of natural talent: discipline and faith in process. That is, I'm willing to work at something, methodically, and I've learned that the process of that methodical work will yield a product that pleases, if I'm patient (and, along the way, try to be kind to myself).

For me, part of the process is often a time-out. I put great stock in the work our brains do when we leave them alone for a while.  So I erased the latest effort, joined Paul for tea, and left the sketch for the next morning.

When I picked up the sketchbook again, early the next morning while he was still sleeping, I chose the subject you see in the little painting. It's a very similar base (I'd love to know how old that stone carving is, what building it was part of, whether the building was destroyed through war or earthquake or simply succumbed to the same forces that put the wrinkles on my face), but it was right outside the door, and something about the perspective seemed more manageable to me.

So I started in. I held a pencil up in the air, moved it until I had a proportion that would fit nicely on the page, went back and forth with my pencil from page to up in the air, made some marks on paper, erased them -- but this time more contentedly, as if the effort and its erasure were both instructive. As they were. As they so often are. I figured out a few things along the way (those shutters on the wall of the house, for example, I skewed at a strange angle, not recognizing the problem until I'd painted the surrounding stone -- did some nifty work with erasure, then pencil, then brush, and they're now mounted correctly (although slightly more narrower than they should be).

And I'm happy enough with the sketch I achieved. Well aware of its limitations, but happy with the page itself and also with what I learned through persevering. Plus the memory of my contentment as I  first drew, then painted it, sitting right here. . . .
I have a beautiful Croatian port city just outside my room, and a husband impatient to spend it with me, so I'll sign off now. This last photo is a reminder -- to me and to you, if you find it useful -- that the process itself (that sunshine, the physical sensation of sitting on that narrow concrete ledge to the left, the tiny insect that got trapped in the wet paint on my page, the smell of the jasmine) is as important, as memorable, as the product that points back to it.

xo,
f



32 comments:

  1. Reading your process was so emotional--I could feel the frustration rise, and I thought, no! Don't say you're stupid! Then I felt the pressure go out, and ended all zen. Great writing.

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    1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful encouragement.

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  2. Your painting is so much more evocative than the photo. Well done. I know your frustrations. And unlike you, I gave up my attempts at art... again. Not sure why I was having difficulty finding time to practice drawing. Funny how the helpful comments don't always help, isn't it?
    You're inspiring me to pick up my own pencil again, Frances. Maybe on our trailer camping trip, when five days away from wifi will allow for lots of quiet time.

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    1. I hope you get back to your drawing, especially since you obviously have so much more natural talent than I do.
      And yes, about the helpful comments. I wanted to Growllllll!

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  3. The result is lovely
    The art through pain?
    Dottoressa

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    1. Thanks -- I'm curious how much of the frustration I'll remember when I look at it in future.

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  4. My favorite part of your painting is the wall - the way you've caught the light.

    And maybe that part wasn't frustrating at all. xox.

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    1. Not frustrating, no, because if I caught it, that was accidental and lucky ;-) Interesting . . .

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  5. This painting has a romantic and ethereal vibes to me. Beautiful. Amelia

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    1. Thanks! I think part of that romantic/ethereal vibe comes from watercolour's inherent property -- that transparency. . .

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  6. Your painting looks lovely...so soft and subtle yet evocative. That travel journal is going to be a treasured keepsake.

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    1. Thanks, L. I think so too -- as much as some of the souvenirs I might have bought but resisted. . .

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  7. I seem to have lost a direct link to your blog but I have found another way to access it and have been catching up on your travels. Lovely posts all of them, particularly the last two. Very evocative indeed!
    Frances in Sidney

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    1. Oh NO! Glad you found your way back -- I'd have missed your voice here (especially as a reading reader!). I know that changes happened all over with the compliance to the recently introduced European Privacy Laws; I wonder if that triggered the problem you had.

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  8. Perseverance is a great trait, and the process shows. I love the colours and light in your sketch.

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    1. Thanks, Lorrie. Perseverance is what we might counsel students, right? So I should practice it myself . . .

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  9. It struck me reading your post how hours are taught teaching us to write, calculate, speak a foreign language in schools, but school art classes (at least in my day) started from the presumption that you would just be able to draw. Or at least I dropped art before getting to that stage, but shouldn't that be right in there at the start?
    Your approach to the creative process is following in the footsteps of that of many novelists and scientists, the latter also being creators. Think of Proust's 'reculer pour mieux sauter'. If you haven't read 'The Act of Creation' by Arthur Koestler, search it out. It will convince you that you're up there with Nobel Prize winners!

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    1. Exactly! That presumption was what I absorbed, so that I just assumed that I was one who couldn't and wouldn't ever be able to. I was surprised to find how much I could learn, given a few very basic techniques.
      Thanks for the recommendation -- I'll look for that Koestler title.

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    2. Yes! That's what I continually tell my students -- why do we think drawing can't be learned methodically with instruction and practiced, to improve and improve until we master it, just like a language or music? I also am going to search out that Koestler book (my husband mentioned it to me just the other day).

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  10. Congratulations on your perseverance and systematic approach - and also on taking a break when necessary. The result is proof that you did the right thing - your picture is so beautiful and full of light! (I wonder if some congratulations shouldn't also go to Paul for having asked the right questions.)

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    1. Thanks, Eleonore -- and I'll pass your congratulations on to Paul who did, really, ask good questions, even if I didn't appreciate them much at the time ;-)

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  11. Agree "discipline and faith in process" is at the heart of all forward movement, as is being willing to "work at something, methodically," and to be kind to oneself. Kindness always to others and to oneself with equal love. I also find power in stepping away and letting my mind wander over other things before I return to the project that was challenging me. It surprises me what new solutions have formed within me without my conscious knowledge. I love your art. It inspires me because I have told myself over a lifetime that while I may write well, I could never draw or paint. Maybe I'll try to step outside of that. I know I'd love it as a form of artistic release. Enjoy your travels as I am enjoying reading about them. xo.

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    1. Katharine, this is exactly what I told myself. I used to play the piano well and I write well, am a decent scholar, but thought it a fact that I couldn't draw or paint. So much power in those old narratives -- I think I'm enjoying this whole process as much for smashing an outworn tale as for anything else.

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  12. Interesting post, Frances, with echos ringing here.

    In our yoga class the teacher is having us focus lately on more difficult poses with the goal of increasing our patience. The emphasis isn't on doing the poses perfectly. Or even, specifically, on persistence, although that happens. But she's inviting us to build patience and learn to forgive our imperfections.

    After all -- who would criticize a painting by [pick a famous artist whose work sings to you] because the proportion in her/his picture was not an exact replica of the scene or objects painted?

    Same with music. That's what rhapsodies and riffs are -- improvisations on another's work.

    Ann in Missouri

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    1. So much here, thank you! The yoga teacher I love most (from whom we moved away, sadly) used to say something like, "You enter the pose when you want to leave the pose." That somehow was not contradictory with her assurance that we should do what "served our bodies" -- i.e. we were not to push through as an exercise in stoicism, but rather to experience the patience you're speaking of and sit with the sensations that arise.
      And now I wonder if that's why I took so much time to outline the process, the frustrations, in this post -- working through those was as worthwhile and interesting -- once I got some perspective -- as the actual pencil and brush marks on the page.

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  13. Such a well crafted and evocative post! I am determined to resurect my very rusty artistic skills, but am completely stymied by watercolor. Hearing your process, feeling your frustration and then contentment, make me want to try just one. More. Time...
    Bev in Texas

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    1. I hope you do, if you have a yearning. . . I've found it so helpful to have a guide, to take a few classes, and then to give myself as much leeway as I can, to remind myself to attend to process and be patient about product.

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  14. I do like your gentle watercolours . Drawing & sketching has always been easy for me . Right from being a child I could make likenesses of the world around me & my old travels journals are peppered with sketches . It’s made me lazy though . Painting has to be learnt I think & I found watercolors especially tricky . My painting always disappointed me so I stuck to drawing . I admire your tenacity .
    Wendy in York
    PS Thanks for the warning to vegetarians on instagram - Is it safe to go back there now ?

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    1. You're so lucky to have that innate ability!
      It's entirely possible that I have much more relaxed standards than you do with the watercolours -- although I must say I'm very aware of the shortcomings of my technique and I do a fair bit of wincing!!
      Yes, you should be able to manage most of what I'm posting on IG now ;-)

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  15. Frances--you have put exactly into words what I hope students learn. The perseverance and discipline that you bring to so much of your life is bringing you success in art too. f you don't mind, might I quote you from time to time, in class or notes? I especially like: But something I've learned over these last few years of taking up pencil and brush is that IF I can keep looking and IF I persist in putting down marks that express what I'm seeing and IF I remember some of the techniques I've been taught, I have often ended with a result that pleases me.

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    1. I'd be quite honoured if you quote me -- especially if it might convince a few more like me to take a chance again with art-making. xo

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  16. Your watercolor is so evocative, capturing a beauty of place that is not there in the photograph, and perhaps capturing something worth persevering over. I am reminded of how difficult it can be to stick to things sometimes, and how worthwhile, to allow oneself to carry through. Your statement of "IF"s particularly resonates. I think I will hold on to that.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we?

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