September 14, 2009

Retrospective: Be Very Afraid. And Then Draw It Anyway.

This is a drawing I made in 2003. It is untitled. I made it with a green gel pen on 60-pound sketchbook paper.

Please take a moment to notice whatever thoughts or feelings arose in you when you first glanced at this drawing.

If your response was That's not a very good drawing. The perspective is all messed up, and it's not very realistic, and there's hardly any detail... you're absolutely right. If we approach this drawing from a sheer technical viewpoint, it gets a failing grade.

On the other hand, if your first thought was That's such a good drawing! Whoever made it was really paying attention to their environment... you, also, are absolutely correct. If we see this sketch as an attempt to interact with and remember a specific moment in time, a way to record an impression, then it succeeds.

And if your reaction sidestepped the question of quality, if you saw this drawing and wondered how and why and by whom it was drawn, if you intuitively identified with the underlying desire to somehow name and contain one little piece of an overwhelming experience... then you are the most absolutely correct of all.

I've never been very interested in debates about how to define Art, or whether a piece of artwork is Good or Not Good based on any specific parameters. What interests me is what type and degree of relationship a created object compels from me. Sometimes I can't seem to stop looking at it—I fall instantly in love. Sometimes I find a piece aesthetically displeasing but, because it elicits a strong response from me, it has succeeded in its job of creating relationship.

This is why I love seeing pages from other people's sketchbooks. In our sketchbooks, we are vulnerable. Sketchbooks are tender places where our drawings sometimes tremble or smear or are left unfinished. I began recording my world in notebooks at age 9. They were purely written journals for the first 17 years, no visual elements until about 2001. Even now my journals and notebooks and sketchbooks are a messy and cryptic mix of handwritten entries, sketches and collages, lists, color-coded schedules, and notes from a smorgasbord of whatever I'm studying lately... but always they are vulnerable and doubtful, with bravery leaking out around the edges.

So here's what I see when I look at this drawing now. I see a young woman holding a green gel pen and a cheap sketchbook, sitting on the back of a couch in an empty common room at twilight, struggling to breathe in and center herself, despite bone-deep anxiety and self-doubt. She is afraid of being caught in the act of being an artist—afraid of being told that she is not an artist and never could be—and she hurries through the drawing so as to escape unnoticed. But she so badly wants to capture the beauty of the mugs drying on a table at twilight. She draws because she can't help seeing and loving the world.

What matters here isn't the drawing itself, or the hurried and anxious way in which it was produced. What this drawing records is a moment in time that mattered, and a desire to document seeing the moment that was stronger than the artist's fear of doing it wrong.

So it is that the drawings I am least proud of are sometimes also the ones that make me feel the most proud.


  1. Beautiful post. I am going to link to it at my blog <100K Project (

  2. I don't know that I've ever read anything more absolutely honest. Thank you. You have in just a few sentences taught me so much.

  3. Wow. What a great post. Such openess and baring of the soul of the artist. Just beautiful...I have the same struggles with what defines "art" and have been on a soapbox many times with my clients, those in the mental health arena, students, friends, and just other artists. The term "artist" is such a socially created paradigm. Since you know I have fear often, this post especially touched me.

  4. What a beautiful post! And you are making such an important distinction between good art from a technical standpoint and meaningful art!!

  5. Thanks for sharing this Tracy-- I really enjoyed reading it and your thoughtful reflections.... -gretchen