Drawing on Your Beginner’s Luck

The nice blogger from Zara–A Writing Story stopped by recently and her post said she is working at starting to draw. I’m delighted to have another person join the ranks of happy visual artists via drawing–a collection of skills that come in quite handy (no pun intended, especially since there are artists who use their mouths or their feet to make artworks) for far more than strictly a pleasurable activity or visual entertainment. Drawing, a foundational skill in all sorts of visual art, is also a means of communication that differs from and can work in wonderful tandem with writing, singing, signing, and any number of other ways of personal interaction and transmission of information. In addition to the practical application of the end product of the process, the practice of drawing itself has great power as a mnemonic device, a tool for problem-solving, and the training of the brain in such useful skills as eye-hand coordination and (as I know from experience) the correlated motor control of working through tremors to achieve refined movements.

But beyond that, as I said to my blogger colleague, the act of drawing has elements of physical pleasure in the mere action of arm and hand and body that can be worth the pursuit, not to mention the mental and/or emotional pleasures possible. The act of drawing as a form of meditation, even without regard to any possible ‘product’, is quite desirable on its own.

As I said to my correspondent, she needn’t be intimidated in the least even if she’s a rank beginner: By even making the effort to learn, you’re worlds ahead of lots of others! A book I often referenced when teaching my beginner students in college was Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain–it has exercises that aren’t too hard even for someone who’s never attempted to draw before, and because her focus is on how the brain works in visual activity, she offers insights into the process and possibilities that few others do. There are, of course, innumerable excellent how-to books for those who want to draw, many of them favorites of mine as well, but because of Dr. Edwards’ [then] ground-breaking work in recognizing the character of right-vs-left brain function and how it played out in drawing, I always found her work particularly helpful.

Because drawing can engage so many diverse cognitive processes like this, it can be complicated and overwhelming to know just where to start learning how to draw. As I remarked in my note to my fellow blogger, All of that aside, simply making marks on a surface is the beginning of drawing. Sometimes the least intimidating way to begin is to take a piece of paper, make some totally random marks on it, and then see where that takes you. Even if all it does is make you comfortable making the arm movements for a start, that’s helpful. If, as with most people, you look at it and think ‘that looks like . . . ‘ or ‘that doesn’t look quite right . . . ‘–well, then, you’re already making editorial decisions that can help you move toward drawing the way you want to draw.

The bottom line, if you will, for me is that I feel more alert, more attuned to potential solutions when everyday problems arise, and generally just plain happier when I draw. It’s not because every drawing turns into something fabulous–far from it–but because the process of drawing opens up my brain and spirits in useful and unexpected ways. Many times, my drawing produces nothing more than scratches that are shorthand for bigger and more complex and, I hope, better things to come. But the exercise itself is valuable to me, and a glance back through my sketches can often kick-start me into drawing a work that is more successful than the twenty previous ones.

line drawing

Exploring pattern in a sketch.

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Playing around with volume.

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Faces and flowers show up often in my sketchbooks.

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Hands can be pesky subjects, so I play with sketches of them frequently too.

line drawing

Any little vignette that pops into my mind is worth scribbling at least a few times.

Ultimately, whether I’m in gear for serious drawing or just fiddling with a pen or pencil to pass the time, it’s good practice and feels worthwhile. If nothing else happens, at least I have given my brain some thinking-room between the lines and I might figure out what to make for supper, how to cut through the piece of metal that is in the way of my completing a repair in the garage, or who knows–I might even remember where I set down that book I was reading days ago before it ‘disappeared’. It’s doubtful I’ll come up with any Nobel Prize-worthy inspirations while drawing, but then again, if I don’t draw, I’ll never find out!

Another Good Thing about Waving One’s Arms


Waving my arms is something I may think about more than the average person does. From when I was pretty young I was conscious of arm movement as being mighty significant in a seriously diverse series of ways. First of all, there was that childhood training we all enjoy, if we’re well inducted, in the art of waving hello and farewell. I have almost always preferred the former to the latter, but in either case, whenever the occasion was deemed genuinely worthy of such a gesture, I knew that it was a sign of love or affection, and that made it pretty darn worthwhile.

Then again, I also had an early fondness for wagging my crayon-gripping fist over a piece of paper (or whatever flattish surface was convenient) to make squiggly lines and, if I got lucky, get them to coalesce into picture-like concoctions. I  might be sitting off in a cozy corner at Grandma and Grandpa W’s, scribbling away, with the faint sounds in the background of parental and grand-parental chatter as they sat drinking their coffee intermingled with the slight chattering sound of Grandpa’s cup doing a little jitterbug against the saucer, because he had a mild tremor in his hand. Of course, his arm-waving was hardly dramatic, but it was one of those delicate underpinnings of my early memory that became part of the whole subtle weave of my perceptions.

Sometime in my early teens or thereabout, I found that the family resemblance extended to my having my own familial tremors, occasionally in my head and neck but mostly in my hands and arms. There have been times when it was more pronounced than was entirely convenient for a person wanting to draw, but fortunately it’s rarely been at problematic extremes, more often merely requiring that I find ways to compensate for or control or use the tremors to advantage in my art-making. In any event, keeping my hand in (no pun intended) as an artist has tended to keep the inevitable interactions of these two kinds of arm-waving present in my attentions. Meanwhile, my other grandmother had her own kind of arm-waving to lend to the family skill-set: Parkinson’s Disease.

Typically, Granny had the wit and will to battle her Parkinsonism not only with great tenacity in staving off the ravages of the illness for many more years than is typical but also with a lot of good-natured humor, because that was her style. So whenever we had a family gathering, she was the first to offer her services for tossing salads and making milkshakes. That my mother has followed in the Parkinsonian lineage would make her forms of arm-waving far worse to behold, knowing that the same sort of insidious progression lay ahead for her, and to be fair, including the knowledge that the odds are a bit higher for me than for some that I will eventually join the parade, but she too has maintained a bright attitude about it all. Besides that, I am very slightly suspicious that her particular skillfulness when it comes to shaking the dice gives her a unique edge in the evening board games.

But the top of the list when it comes to magnificent ways and reasons to wave one’s arms has surely got to be the one I’ve been witnessing so much now that the concert season is well underway again: conducting. Bands, orchestras, operatic performances, choirs. No matter what the form of the musical art, if there is a conductor up there waving his, her (or, particularly, my beloved husband’s) arms, the love that fills the air is what makes all of the arm-waving a worthy and beautiful thing. It brings hearts and minds into focus and, often, into community, and it makes the world a more wonderful place to be.

And that makes me want to stop waving my arms altogether, just opening them wide enough to embrace that better world and anyone I can in it.digital image from an acrylic painting on canvas


Sound Advice for the Voiceless

watercolor birds x 2

Singing our little hearts out . . .

I have spoken about having Spasmodic Dysphonia. That in itself, when in the aural forum and not (as in yesterday’s blog post) just the printed format of the internet, is a fine thing in my estimation. It means that having SD hasn’t rendered me either mute or unwilling to let my sometimes goofy sounding voice be heard. It could conceivably be argued that it would be good if I would actually shut up occasionally, or at least not be quite so outlandishly talkative as I can get. I consider that other people’s problem. Egotistical, I know, and I’m not really exaggerating when I say that. What you hear is what you get.

Being fortunate enough to retain the power of speech, I prefer not to stop using it. SD has meant getting over any vanity I may have had about the sound or quality of my voice. Having been flattered by many in my younger years as a strong and clear and pleasant speaker and encouraged to take singing lessons, to consider radio work, to be a lector and to speak at public events, I now have a different sense of my voice and what I do and don’t trust it to do than I did then.

So I find it less comfortable both physically and psychologically to sing, and certainly have no desire to show off my resulting lack of confidence and practice publicly. I was always a nervous Nellie when it came to singing in any group smaller than a chamber choir (Yikes! Someone might hear me!), but even singing along with a crowd is not the same fun it once was. It has in no way diminished my delight in hearing others sing, however; quite the contrary, it transformed my understanding of what it means to be able to sing, and to do so with skill and fluidity and grace. Working on proper vocal technique will help me continue being able to speak, but my own sense of music has been shifted rather firmly into listening to and appreciating and being moved by others’ mastery of their instruments. My own musical endeavor now sits much more comfortably in the realm of written and spoken language and of trying to capture the marvels of rhythm and pattern and color and sound in the confined refinements of print and speech. The potential is perhaps equally profound and potent, but simply takes an entirely different route through the senses in some significant ways.

Just to be crystal clear on this, I say this without any sense of loss or privation. I’m not suffering! Indeed, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. I’m neither summarized by nor limited to a description of my anomalies any more than I am defined by the ways in which I conform to any norms. SD is something I have or experience, not who I am or what I’m capable of doing. I could go through the list of potentially problematic quirks that help to shape my daily experience and my present self and sound like either a professional victim or a hypochondriac, or I can find–as I most decidedly do–that while each of those oddities has enough effect on my health and capabilities to be worthy of treatment or accommodation of some sort, each brings awareness of deeper gifts and the drive to overcome not only the irksome ills themselves but anything else I might be letting hold me back.

Yes, I am a lily-livered scaredy-pants of the first order as well as a lollygagging and procrastinating and self-sabotaging ignoramus, able to match pretty much any other arguably normal person around in those foolish and unhealthy arts. But at the same time I am so gifted as to understand that my true limitations are all self-imposed and even self-created, and that not only do people with far greater difficulties and far fewer resources live far more impressive and productive lives than I, I can grow up and into a better version of myself by taking notes on how they do it. Being a somewhat lazy and under-motivated student, I have to actively counter the urge to hide behind the couch until all inspirations and moments of willing effort pass, but on certain miraculous occasions I find that, well, I actually get up and do something.

When I do manage to pull myself up by my nearly invisible bootstraps, I find that despite having familial tremor (mainly in my hands) since who-knows-when, I can draw a straight line or a pretty fine freehand circle when I’m focused enough to make art. When I’m not, I have learned to hold my drinking glass with both hands if need be, or to keep kettle and bowl nearly overlapping when ladling soup. When all else fails, spill cloths and laundry detergent are mighty handy things. I may chill easily, thanks to my slightly off-kilter thyroid, but I’ve got layered-clothing styles down to a -40 Edmontonian nine-layer art form that I can still pack in my carry-on baggage. Wanna learn how to do nearly any basic survival task without an inner compass? I have virtually every dyslexic and perceptually dysfunctional talent I’ve ever heard tell of, from the ever popular reading-related visual chaos to spatial, directional, numerical and probably even temporal displacement. So without even knowing or trying to do it, I learned most of the affected skills upside down, backwards and sideways, doing everything with my own inevitably inimitable flair. Once I started treatment for them, my clinical depression and anxiety stopped holding me back and instead informed more of my interaction with other people as well as with my art. My lack of physical stamina and athleticism may have prevented my becoming a famous basketball player or dancer or a three-meter platform diving star, but I figured out early that leverage and a little logical logistical ingenuity could make up for a largish quantity of strength and skill in things physically challenging. Blazing alternative trails isn’t glamorous work but it’s done useful things in my life, and gives me an appreciative slant on those whose achievements outshine mine.

And when it comes right down to it, my ‘substitute’ versions of reality have served me quite nicely. I don’t sing in the way of the magnificent-voiced soloists and choral artists whose offerings have so richly embellished my existence, but there’s nothing stopping me from using the alternate voice I have in words and images to sing in my own way, and mainly for sheer happiness.

spring green flora + text

There are so many ways — and so many reasons — to sing . . .