Most people who work in the arts know one thing for sure: we’re our own worst critics. It’s easy to get discouraged by looking at great work created by others, or by picking apart our own work until we don’t want to show it to anyone because we think it isn’t good enough.
One way to get around this is to create a place to play, where self-criticism takes a back seat to the great feeling that we had when we were little kids, when we made art without a second thought, totally absorbed and unselfconscious. How many kids look at their drawings and say, “this isn’t any good”? All I remember is proudly showing my art to anyone who’d look. And I’d try new things without hesitation. Make a drawing out of macaroni, glue and a piece of paper? Yes! Build farm animals out of Playdoh? Sure! Sculpt a giant alligator in the snow? Okay! I didn’t feel like I needed to take a class to learn technique before I dove in. Imagination was everything. There was no such thing as frustration, just the joy of play.
Now, my place to play is in my sketchbooks. I have a few going at once, full of scribbled sketches, scraps of paper, notes on ideas, and little drawings. Everything’s jumbled together and it doesn’t matter because nobody’s ever going to see it. I can happily romp around because it’s just for me. It took me a little while to get there, though.
Way back in art school, I drew this walnut.
I stuck it into a recent sketchbook to remind me that when I’m loose and relaxed, I draw better, and that this is how I like to draw — casually, easily, without hesitation, confidently. But sometimes it’s so hard to do because that critical little voice in my head won’t shut up.
I keep this drawing I did years ago of my friend Diane to remind me that I used to be comfortable drawing people.
I don’t draw people anymore because I get too fixated on getting a good likeness and end up frustrated. So how did I draw Diane? By not trying to get a likeness, by being relaxed and open until the drawing came together and it suddenly looked like her. By not trying so hard.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out that I’m more likely to get a drawing I’m happy with if I chill out, so eventually, drawing became a way to unwind, a way to clear my brain and find that pure concentration of fun, like when I was a kid.
A few things I like to draw:
Twigs. Why twigs? Texture, I suppose, and the bumps and dips. I don’t have to explain, it’s in a sketchbook. Nobody’s going to see it.
Stuff I find on the ground. Why isn’t the leaf finished? Who knows?
I like drawing my art supplies.
The corners of rooms, little portions of places. A bit sloppy. It doesn’t matter.
Small buildings. This is Tom’s little house near the beach. Messed up the roof on the left. No big deal.
Big buildings. This is a streetscape near Madison Square Park in NYC. A little trouble with perspective? Oh, well. Whatever.
I love playing with my nephew, Lukas, who’s now almost eight years old. He’ll say, “What do you want to make today?” We’ll pick a topic, like sharks, decide between crayons, markers or paint, then start in on one sheet together. We’ll color for hours.
So when I’m frustrated and unsatisfied with whatever art I’m working on, when that little voice starts saying, “it could be better,” it’s time to remember what it’s like to play with Lukas. If I can shift my mindset and tap into the feeling of making art like a kid, the sheer fun of romping around with my paints and pencils, well, then… problem solved.