Sketchbook Habit Series, Part Two: If It's Not Fun, We're Not Doing It!

5:44 AM

In the first part of Creating The Sketchbook Habit, we took a look at the huge stumbling block of fear in it's many, many forms. (Part One of the series can be found here.) The fear is there and it's probably not going to bow out of the room and get on the next train to bother someone else without some kind of action on our part.

That action begins with a decision. Simply put, it looks something like telling ourselves, "Yes, I am afraid (no need to spell out what you're afraid of) and I'm going to draw/paint/create/doodle/sing/dance/drum/dance anyway." And then doing just what we said we would. (Follow-through is very, very important when moving past fear!)

In the case of keeping a sketchbook, the first step usually involves drawing skills and from my perspective through my classes, the number one obstacle to most folks creating on a regular basis is weak drawing skills. We know no one was born with a pencil in one hand and a brush in the other, but that doesn't mean that it is fun being stuck laboring over our efforts to recreate our subject matter on the page.

We want to get to the good stuff—the color and the splashing around in paint and making things pretty! However, we have to have something on the page to color first. So we look for a photo we can trace onto our page.

Tracing is a great place to begin as it helps us to build hand and eye coordination. It introduces us to all kinds of new shapes, textures and designs. And for a while, tracing will carry the day. But it's so easy to get frustrated when the photo isn't clear, is not from the correct vantage point or we cannot find a photo of whatever it is we want to draw.

Our weak drawing skills begin to hamper and frustrate our creative efforts. There's a bit of dissatisfaction in the back of our mind when we settle on an image that's not quite what we want or when we didn't use the photo we wanted because the image wasn't clear enough.

We decide, with steely determination, we're going to learn to draw. We dutifully pull out a sketchbook and look around for something to draw...and nothing inspires us. There's nothing in our immediate environment that we give a fig about drawing and the idea of going outside (gasp!) where someone might see us (eek!) and ask to look at our efforts (the horror!) is strictly out of the question.

Make no mistake, determination and discipline are what keeps us going when motivation fails and inspiration fades away. Being determined can pave the way past a lot of obstacles and keep us on track for quite some time, but eventually, even those stalwart tools will let us down. Something we've started as a pleasure pursuit (art) begins to feel like a chore.

We start to wonder why we're doing this. And we often quit.

Improving Our Drawing Skills

There are few things more amazing than looking down at the page and realizing we've drawn a complex subject without even thinking about it and feeling totally chuffed over the results. There was no struggle, no hesitation, no frustration because the image just flowed out of the end of the pencil.

Arriving at this experience is directly related to the number of drawings we create. 

I would love to tell you this wasn't the truth, but it is. And to my knowledge, there are no shortcuts, no loopholes, and no way to escape paying our dues by learning through copious amounts of drawing.

If that statement just made you shudder and think to yourself, "That's it, then, I'm done because I don't like to draw," I ask you to continue reading.

Strengthening our drawing skills is a lot like learning the alphabet when we first started to school. When we stick a straight line next to a circle and we have an "a." Make the stick longer and depending on where we put it, we have it a "b, d, p or q." Before we knew it, we had 27 shapes that made words, then sentences and after that, paragraphs.

Drawing is like that...but no one's standing over us telling us we have to learn this. No one's giving us a grade (but us) and the only pressure we feel is what we apply ourselves. So, if there's no grade, no pressure and no one standing over us to make sure we learn, why aren't we?

Is it too hard? Are we too lazy? Too old to learn something new?

Nope. It's not fun.

Think back to a time in your life when you either learned something easily or when you having so much fun you didn't realize you were actually learning a new skill. It could be anything from learning to bake cookies to learning a new language or working on an old car. The memories associated with gaining those skills is mostly positive and almost always begins a smile when we revisit the those times.

Make Drawing Fun

So the trick then is to make learning to draw fun. We play games with ourselves. Just as we trick ourselves to get up off the couch to go the gym, to get on the treadmill, or to not eat the whole package of cookies, we can learn to trick ourselves into drawing more. Some ideas:

Start A Challenge With Yourself - track your drawing efforts. Example of a tracker can be found here. If you can draw for 15 minutes a day for 7 days straight, give yourself a small reward. If you make it for two weeks, give yourself a medium-size reward. If you make it a month, give yourself a bigger reward. And don't underestimate the power of those rewards—they can be quite powerful, but not nearly as powerful as a sketchbook full of your efforts!

If you're going to reward yourself, there has to be some criteria to make sure you're really practicing and growing your skills rather than just thinking about, reading about or searching with the web for images of drawing. That pencil has to be hitting the paper.

Take A Class And...- If you take classes on a regular basis, let me ask you a question—how often do you go home after the class and recreate the class project or by applying the skills you learning to a new subject? If you answered seldom, you're in good company.

The majority of artists I know take a class and then do not crack their sketchbooks open until the next class they take. Now, let me ask you a second questions—how often do you not only LEARN a new skill in one class but also perfect that skill the first time you attempt it? If you answered never, then why would you not go home and redo the class project and/or apply it to a new subject?! Get more out of your classes by putting more effort into them. Make the knowledge yours by applying it the way you want to use it!

Stop Judging - When you create a piece of artwork, are you constantly judging it to be good, good enough, bad, bad enough, horrible, or even thinking, why did I bother? When someone compliments your artwork, is your default position to point out everything you *think* is wrong with the piece or do you just say thanks?

Judging our artwork during the process or immediately after completion is usually a great way to demotivate ourselves and it steals the fun out of whatever we're doing...quickly. When we still have that image in our mind's eye of what the page was suppose to look like and ours efforts do not even come close it's hard NOT to judge. Here's my recommendation:

Fill the page. Turn the page. Begin again. Fill the page. Turn the page. Wash. Repeat. Wash. Repeat. You get the idea. Free yourself from the responsibility of deciding if it's any good or not.

After a month or so has gone by, go back to the beginning of the pages and look at your efforts. Can you see improvement? Yes? Yay! Can you see something you like? Yes? Yay! Is the work better than you thought now that the picture in your mind has faded? Yes? Yay! Please note I did not ask you if you saw areas that needed improvement, that you did not like or what you thought of the work. The answer to those questions is a foregone conclusion or you wouldn't be struggling to create a solid sketching habit.

It is always surprising to me how much better I like my work after a week or more has gone by and IF I can resist assigning value of good or bad to it, and instead, just let it be what it is. I'm much happier and I stay motivated. If, on the other hand, I pick it apart and find fault, it's soooooo much harder to turn the page and begin again!

Capitalizing On Mistakes - There will be mistakes. You cannot escape them and there is no point in trying. Instead of agonizing over them, why not embrace then as opportunities to find new ways to work, to make new discoveries and create a different way of doing something?

I have a painting that won Best Of Show (BOS) several years ago, but just before I finished it, I ruined it. I painted in a shadow on a white door that was much too dark in value. I tried to lift it, but I'd used staining paint. By the time my husband got home, I was deep into grieving over my ruined painting.

He had to pull me out of the studio and he took me out to dinner. I'm pretty sure I sat there in a stupor of disbelief. I don't remember much else about the night, but when I awoke the next morning, I knew how I was going to "fix" the dark shadow...I darkened the values of the door so the value of the shadows were accurate. Then I spent several more hours adjusting other values so the whole painting read accurately. And that's how I saved a ruined painting that went on to be BOS.

And I'm guessing that if I had not told you the backstory, you would never have guess either! Needless to say, I've never forgotten that experience. In fact, it made me wonder how many other pieces of work I had given up on over the years because I had judged them as "ruined" rather than trying to find a creative workaround.

Sometimes, it's an errant line or an extra leaf or a wobbly line. If we are so focused on creating perfection, we overlook these opportunities to go in a different direction and learn something new. If a sketch is truly ruined, what do we have to lose by playing and seeing what we can do or where we can take the work?
The sketch below was a favorite with my viewers and it was not until I stared pointing out the "mistakes" that anyone noticed. You know what that told me? I was way more worked up over the mistakes than anybody else!

Let Your Inner Toddler Loose - Ever watched a child under the age of six create? There are no bad paintings or sketches at that age. If we don't recognize the purple blob as the family dog, that's our problem, not the miniature Picasso standing in front of us with a scowl on their faces because we can't see their genius!

In other words, play. Suspend reality. Have fun. Splash in the paint. Make the sky green and the trees blue and the grass red. Don't worry about proportions and design principles. Quit worrying about whether it's good enough, if someone (anyone, really) is going to like it, or if you're really an artist. We learn so much more easily when we play. 

When we let the work just be what it is rather than expecting it to be "something," we often surprise ourselves into creating something unlike anything we've ever created before. And while it may or may not be something you want to repeat, enjoy it for what it is because if it's not fun, or you are not going to keep creating.

Bottom Line

Like anything worth learning, there is a learning curve that must be traveled in order to get to a place where we consistently produce results we like. Whether you play games with yourself, set up a challenge or get in touch with your inner toddler, the learning process will go faster and we will learn oh, so, much quicker if we're having fun. Not to mention, if it's fun, we'll want to get into our sketchbooks a whole lot more often than we have in the past!

So tell do you encourage yourself or make the process of learning fun so that you keep coming back to fill the page?


In the next installment, we're going to talk about hidden and not-so hidden expectations!

Part Three is here.

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3 Creative Thought(s)

  1. What a wonderful lesson! Thank you for showing us your sketch. I've admired your art for awhile, but I have a new appreciation for your kindness in sharing what we need to hear. Thank you.

  2. I encourage myself (and hinder if I overdo) by taking classes - a variety of classes. Also, I encourage myself by trying new kinds of art. Once in a while I swap out my watercolor for some acrylic paint pages or just pen or pencil pages. Change is good and keeps us from getting bored, helps us learn what our favorites are and what how we are most comfortable working.

    Today I got excited with my facial tissue box art! It looks like tie dyed circles with white mandalas over them so I have a practice blob down on a scrap of WC paper and three circles on my sketchbook page done with watercolor mingling together. Using the blob I tried out different pens to see which worked the best over the colors I used (Sharpie fine point poster paint pen) and now I will try some mandalas.

  3. Dear Laure - super post - you are inspiring me as always friend. Have a delightful day. Hugs!


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