“Now if you can draw a stone, everything within reach of art is also within yours.” John Ruskin, 1819 – 1900
Ruskin was explaining observation and how the act of looking is really all one needs to understand how to draw. Drawing, that much maligned skill which the contemporary art world gatekeepers feel is sad, tired, colonial and probably at this point racist and sexist is an activity that has been with us for tens of thousands of years. I think the earliest known drawings are 40,000 years old, but the medium could be much, much older. I am not very skilled at drawing and have avoided it for many years. Instead I’ve tuned my pickier brain skills onto technology, learning code, SEO and other endless machinations of Google and social media; at times it all seems for naught, as once you think you’ve mastered an idea, a module, plug in or program some software comes along and erases your skills set altogether.
And so, when I get particularly mired in how small I’ve made my universe – 19 inches to be exact, the size of my laptop screen, I tend to walk over to my studio and try to draw something. As kids my brother and I drew monsters and stories for each other. His were great, all fire, fangs and teeth – mine, well I constantly made mine cute, friendly and fun looking. I’ve always tried to find the best in things. His critique at age six was that I drew curvy lines – straight jagged lines were scarier. Why he is not the artist in my family is beyond me – he continues to be my best and most brilliant critic.
Drawing is a fantastic discipline. It makes you slow down, even if you draw quickly. You must observe, think, put line to paper, control your hands and, mix your intentions with actions in a way that gets somewhere – so that when you look back at your drawing you see something. A face. A house. A tree. A rock. It doesn’t matter really; all subject matter can make incredible drawings. It’s a fierce, personal and exciting act. I believe it also to be something we are inclined to do, not just as artists but just as humans. We are inclined to draw the world around us.
I’ve found that drawing is something a lot of us share. I can’t count the times I’ve entered someone’s home and found that they too have done masterful little ink/water colour drawings that are secretly but in full view on their walls. “You did this?” I ask like some idiot pretending not to be one. “Yes” is usually the answer along with a brief explanation said to the floor and not me about how they were just having fun. Almost all these people are better than me at drawing. It’s humbling to say the least. And it gives credence to that axiom about how talent isn’t all you need to persevere as an artist. Most of the time you just need perseverance.
Ruskin was himself an amateur at drawing, but his work is truly lovely and revelatory. For his observance of things like lichen, rock faces, tree bark are all so astoundingly detailed without the intense scrutiny of scientific examination; they are intense from his passion for them. Pouring passion into drawing is something I’ve come to realize can be a salve. Especially today in a world wired for fake – drawing is real.
For fun go outside and get a plant, flower or rock from your backyard. Put it on the table. Get a sharpened pencil, an eraser and some nice white paper. Draw the thing. Keep drawing until you get what you want. Draw slowly or quickly, draw in big sloppy loops or tight little lines, draw toward the thing that you see, those ineffable borders of life that shape us, keep us in some kind of assembly and see what you have when you stop. Every drawing is a bit of information that keeps us who we are – lost mammals scratching on cave walls.