When I was young, I enjoyed drawing. I drew birds and horses, and usually reasonable representations. I was a rule-follower and that carried through into my art — I was a “stay-between the lines and try to have your pictures look like something recognizable” kind of artiste. I doodled on my notebooks in ways that today’s zen-tanglers would appreciate. I loved crayons first, then cray-pas, then working in pen and pencil. But somewhere along the line, I decided I wasn’t really any good, so why should I spend my time on that? Somewhere along the line, I lost the sense of the joy in simply creating. I worried far too much about the product and forgot the joy in the process.
When my children were young, I enjoyed drawing for them, until they could do it themselves. I drew dinosaurs, and trains. Lots of dinosaurs and trains. In chalk on the driveway. By pressing a rock into the sand at the beach. In crayon on the back of paper placemats.
This summer, while I’ve been working very, very hard on my writing, I’ve also experienced a real draw (pun intended) back into art. Fourth of July week I attended a soft pastel class at The Clearing, a folk school in Door County, WI. I’ve been to The Clearing before and enjoyed some amazing times there at Judy Bridges’ Women’s Writers’ Retreat. For the soft pastel week, I tried to learn about and do pastels, while also using free moments to write. I thought of it partly as an independent study time for me. And, an amazing thing happened. As I was exploring this art form, I opened up to new ideas in my writing. This shouldn’t have been shocking, I know. Creatives are often drawn to more than one creative outlet, and different avenues of expression can influence other avenues. But it still surprised me. Some day, I may well be working on a painting from any number of pictures I’ve taken at The Clearing – a beautiful, beautiful place. Here’s a shot from that week taken from the lodge, looking out over Ellison Bay:
The process of creating the pastel paintings was so fascinating to me, so very much like writing. Not the same, of course, but the similarities existed. Our brilliant and generous instructor, Sandy Place, had asked us to bring some of our favorite pictures that we had taken. On the first day, we worked on still lifes and drawing a pear. Then, we each began working on paintings from our pictures. My goals were simple. I wanted to have fun, to explore and play — and, I hoped I wouldn’t suck. Eloquent, I know. But that was really what I thought.
I hesitated to do my favorite picture first. It’s a photo I took last year at Bread Loaf in Sicily of laundry hanging on a line near our hotel in Erice, the Mediterranean in the background, plants in clay pots under the line. (For a post with other laundry pix of mine, click here. ) I was afraid to take that on. And then, on the last day, two of my classmates encouraged me to try to do it. So, I dove in. My first draft looked like this:
On the left, you see the print of the photo and on the right, my first blocks of color. I had no intention or desire to exactly recreate the photograph; rather, I wanted to share its essence, how it made me feel. At this point, I wondered if I’d be able to say I didn’t suck when I was all done. I knew though, from the other work we had done that week, that more colors and more layers would continue to build the picture. And, I remembered Anne Lamott’s advice to write shitty first drafts….something I hadn’t been letting myself do in some new chunks of writing at that point. The weird colors in that draft seemed to shout shitty first draft to me. After a while, it looked like this:
I was extremely delighted at this point. (I decided I didn’t completely suck.) What this picture can’t show you is the pleasing feel of the pastels on the sandpaper, the concentration and absorption I enjoyed as I tried to get those shadows how I wanted them by the pots below the line, the camaraderie in the room when we would take breaks and walk around and view each others’ progress. This is what I sometimes crave when writing, someone to turn to and say, “Hey, wanna see this sentence? It wasn’t right but it’s getting so much better.” By the end of the day that I worked on this piece, I was so happy with it. This is how it looked, and still looks:
I want to touch up a few things. That gray pair of pants about a third of the way in on the left still drives me nuts. It looks like someone’s in them. But, I am contemplating leaving it alone. For my first pastel class, I am very happy with the results and I loved, loved, loved the process. Ever since that class, my writing has been flowing. If I feel stopped up in the future, I hope I’ll remember to sit down and draw something!
I’m also working on some painted furniture this summer for a fundraiser, but that’s another story.