I spent another hour this morning drawing contour drawings, this time of an African violet I’d found on sale at the local supermarket. I drew one or two perfectly good contour drawings, with which I was perfectly satisfied. They looked totally lopsided, but that’s what contour drawings look like: what do you expect when you’re not looking at the paper?
At this point I was out of exercises in The Natural Way to Draw. The next set was gesture drawings, and I didn’t have a model of any sort. So I turned to Keys to Drawing, and did one or two exercises out of it. The first one was to draw your hand. I did that, and it turned out OK. The second one was to draw a bell pepper. I did a quick drawing, looked at it, and completely froze. It didn’t look anything like the pepper. Aackpfft! I had completely failed. “I can’t draw!” I thought, and closed the notebook hastily lest anyone see my awful drawing.
Which was funny, since I had just completed a totally lopsided drawing that didn’t even vaguely resemble an African violet, and been perfectly satisfied. What was the difference?
Well, the contour drawing was all about process; it was “having a certain type of experience”, with no possibility of doing it wrong as long as you attempted the process. The drawing of the bell pepper, while an exercise, had a goal – to draw something that resembled a bell pepper. And where you have a goal, you have the possibility of failure. And that looming prospect of failure can be completely paralytic.
What to do, then? Refuse to set goals? Adopt a theory of “If I never really try, I’ll never really fail?”
No, of course not. The only thing to do is soldier boldly on, facing the fear of failure squarely, whacking yourself on through the whole process, determined to get it done.
Umm, no. That mostly results in mental self-flagellation, and a constant fear of failure.
So, what to do?
The first thing I do is recognize that I feel like I failed. Whether or not it’s grounded in reality, it’s how I feel in the moment. This is important. I also recognize that that is how I feel now, but may not be how I feel in half an hour. So I walk off and do something else, something I am already good at, to reassure myself that, even if I can’t draw, I’m still a competent human at some things.
After awhile, I come back and try to analyze the picture as objectively as possible, ignoring the awful self-consciousness that wants to scream, crumple up the paper, and toss out anything that looks remotely like a drawing implement. I look at it and analyze the strengths and weaknesses: OK, it doesn’t look exactly like a bell pepper, but the proportions are relatively reasonable, and that little section around the stem end is actually not bad at all. The shading is completely off, but that will come with time.
By looking at it objectively, with an eye to technique, I get myself out of judging mode (this looks awful, I can’t possibly do it) and into learning mode, where mistakes are simply things I will work on next time. This is not easy, especially when dealing with something completely new and overwhelming, but it’s the only way I’ve found to proceed. In the case of the pepper, I walked away from it for about half a day, then came back and took another look at it. It’s not fine art, but it’s really not as awful as I’d been thinking. I don’t know how to fix all the flaws, but I can think of at least half a dozen that I would address differently in a second session, and that’s the important part: knowing what to try next.
By going through this process, I gradually change the objective from a very lofty “Draw like the sample drawing in the book” (which was done by an instructor with twenty years of experience) to “Apply cross-hatching to produce slightly better shadows next time”. By making each step towards the goal as minute as possible, I change it from a completely daunting, terrifying experience to a series of small successes.
A not-entirely-parenthetical aside: when I was volunteering with a women’s self-defense/empowerment program, we had a student come in one day and announce with great pride her week’s achievement: “I took a bath!” She lived in a trailer behind a house, and usually took sponge baths. Her landlady (who lived in the house) had offered to let her use the bathroom if she wanted to, but my student (who had been physically/sexually abused by her family) had never felt she could ask for anything. But she had decided that she really, really wanted to break out of this, and was determined to learn to ask for what she wanted. So she got up her nerve over the course of several days, and asked her landlady if she could use the bathroom to take a bath. Her landlady said, “Yes, of course!” and my student took a long, hot bath with scented bubble bath and candles. It was her first real bath in years, and she was thrilled at having gotten up the nerve to ask for it.
The point here, and the reason I so greatly admire this woman, was what she was not doing. She was not kicking herself for being so pathetic she couldn’t even ask someone to use the bathroom. She was not thinking, “Oh, I have so far to go before I can live a normal life again.” She was not worrying what we would think of her for being so proud of something we all took for granted. Nope. She was ecstatic because she had made a major step forward, and achieved a goal she really really wanted: being able to ask for, and take, a bath. In that particular moment, she had a degree of serenity and self-acceptance that I completely envied.
So that is my thought for today, on how to get past the “Aaaaaaaackpffft!!! I can’t do this!” sense of complete panic when starting a totally new endeavor: accept the panic, let it pass, and then move on, accepting your incompetence, then setting small, achievable goals to make the process of building skills a series of enjoyable successes, not a moment of complete panic.
I lost touch with my student a few years after the class, but I still have a rock she gave me. It’s an ordinary stone with “IMPACT” (the name of the program) painted onto it, and I keep it in my display cabinet as a reminder – both of the impact one can have on others, and of the impact that a simple act of self-acceptance can have on me.