A couple days ago, in the middle of a business meeting, a client asked if I were “clever with a pencil,” and I said “yes,” which may possibly have established some expectations which I did not mean to establish. Somehow, the meeting ended with the client buying me some paper and pencils to sketch with, and then suggesting various places around Zurich which I could practice sketching, which was simultaneously a very lovely thing for her to do and also a little terrifying because of the aforementioned raised expectations.
Anyway, we eventually parted ways, and I did actually spend the evening sketching various buildings and things around Zurich. And it was great. And then I discovered something.
I learned to draw by copying pictures. Mostly anime drawings back in highschool, which meant that not only were they already flat, but also already stylized. As a result, I gained a very neat parlor trick whereby I can render a mildly impressive Manga-style face in about two minutes. And because I could do that easily and with instantly gratifying results, I stopped drawing other things, and stopped getting better, and eventually stopped drawing because my limitations felt so narrow, and obvious, and constricting that I didn’t enjoy it anymore.
But lately, I’ve been trying again. I gave myself a new rule that I have to challenge myself more. Which means: drawing from real life. Something. Anything.
Choosing subjects has been my first challenge. I usually pick to broadly: I’ll see a view I like, and try to draw the whole thing, and something very quickly goes wrong, and I end up discouraged. Or I try to draw a doorway, and instead narrow in on the cracked plaster on the wall next to it. Drawing with a mechanical pencil, it would seem, lends itself to an almost myopic attention to detail.
Last month, I took a trip to the Leopold Museum here in Vienna to admire the work of Egon Schiele, and noticed amidst the collection of [incredible, humbling, challenging, grotesque, stunning] paintings a couple modest line drawings of village roofs. And I thought: I should try this. I should try paying more attention to form, and less attention to tone. Finding how all these buildings connect in a 3D space and rendering them on paper before worrying about texture and lighting. I should focus on the relations between objects.
Yesterday, back in Vienna, I sat down in Cafe Central to practice some more. After a few abortive attempts at figure sketching, I decided to capture the vaulting painted ceilings with their marble tiling and iron chandeliers.
At first I wanted to draw the window and curtains at the far side of the room. Then I remembered how often I pick a broad scene and struggle to fit objects into the image proportionally.
Then it occurred to me that, as I’d been attempting to draw the piano player, I’d found my view partially blocked by a young couple sitting in front of me. So I thought: I should draw the things that are closest to me first. And that meant the chandeliers.
And everything changed.
Suddenly, instead of working with a distant object and finding my proportions off as I added new elements, I could start with a very close object and use it to judge proportions as I went along. There’s a temptation, when drawing in real life, to be blind to certain objects. Whereas from a 2D image, you are forced to contend with each element exactly as it has been presented on the page, in real life it’s very easy to lean to the side and just see what’s behind that chair. What’s past the person sitting in front of you. You anticipate things you expect to see, and forget to draw what’s actually in front of you.
My drawing is pretty mediocre. It lists to the side, is smudged with eraser marks, and the pencil lines are rough and inconsistent. But somehow, the main elements conform to basic perspective in spite of the intersecting arches and overlapping chandeliers. And that’s better than I’ve ever done before.
I don’t think there’s any grand moral to this story, just a bit of practical advice to any struggling artists out there: start with the things which are near at hand, worry about the distant objects as you get to them.
Which maybe is pretty good life advice after all.