Note: Some personal musings about learning to draw and my own personal philosophy. This is written more as a reminder to myself than to anyone in particular.
A few weeks ago, I came to what I would call a profound insight into drawing and its purpose. And it’s all summed up in one phrase… “it’s not about you”. That’s right. In my opinion, that is the essence on how to become good at art, or anything for that matter. You put the subject matter first. You put the subject and the content first. You don’t sit there wondering about whether or not the nose is too big. You don’t set about to create something of interest. You simply observe the nose and then correct it. It is a matter of seeing the world in an entirely different light. Every shadow or light is wonderful and every flash of color is beautiful. If you look closely, you will be stunned by the beauty that is in everything. When you walk outside, you will see the world in an entirely different way. Observing is key. You must let your eyes and mind be open enough to take it all in.
The most skilled artists that I have seen make art not only their profession but also their life philosophy. They are so otherwise absorbed in it that it’s difficult to disengage. They bring their sketchbooks with them wherever they go. They are so enthralled by the wonder that is life. They are externally focused.
Perhaps the single most failing that any artist can make when they work is to constantly think of the end product, or perhaps the finished drawing. That is not the way to view it. When you draw, you put the subject matter, whatever it is that you’re drawing, and you put it at the front of your mind. You must exist beyond the paper. What you write down is nothing more than a simple reflection of your thought processes as you gently move along the contour of a face or the side of a vase or as you imagine yourself touching that blade of grass. In order to become a good artist, you must experience the subject matter as more than simply an image. It is a living breathing thing that has personality and an essence. Capturing that essence, then, is absolutely key. And to do that, you need to experience life— experience it deeply.
Technical skills are necessary so far as they allow you to be more faithful in what you do. So that you are able to do the subject matter justice and not simply repeat what is already known. You should not seek to simply make a copy. However, neither should you add in what is not there. Like I said, it’s not about you. The more quickly you lose that notion, mainly that you as the artist are important, then the more quickly you will progress in your understanding. In learning, you are the vessel of sorts that allows the material to flow. You are the means with which it can be passed on to others. Art is a matter of sharing that experience in a way that others can relate. The original essence, though, is not of your creation. If you manage to capture it or harness it or redirect it to the page, then you have done your job.
I think this is where a lot of people go wrong with art. They put themselves ahead of what they are trying to convey. They think, ah, someone will pay good money for this. Or, ah, I will receive praise and popularity. For the true craftsperson, however, the opinion of others is completely irrelevant. It should not even factor in, in the strictest sense. If you truly capture the essence of something, that quality will shine through and people will naturally gravitate toward your work. Your abilities will speak for themselves.
So, what then is the key to “improving”? The same for any number of things, the key is to get rid of all of those voices. Quiet the inner chatter. Become so versed in your technical skills that you can consciously forget about them. And then? Focus. Observe. Feel. Smell. Touch. Experience. Don’t just sit back passively. Actively engage the subject matter. For that moment, exist for that purpose alone.
If you do so, I can almost guarantee that you will experience the world differently after.
Don’t ask “how can I improve?”— that is not the right question to ask. Instead, ask yourself how you can more faithfully capture whatever idea it is that you’re trying convey. Ask yourself how you can be more faithful to the subject matter. Remember, it’s not about you.