Still Life

I am learning to draw. Or no, I am not exactly learning to draw; I am just drawing. I have a small, simple journal, unassuming, and each day I sit down for a few minutes and attempt to draw something: a leaf, a shallot, a candle. For now, I am not working from imagination but from an actual object, looking closely at it and trying to find the lines, to figure out how to translate it to paper via pencil. There is no theory or instruction; I am reading no book on how to draw; I am not being taught by anyone. I simply am drawing.

It started less than a week ago, after Kate and I wandered our way across town to a large drafting and art supply store here in Portland, only a few blocks away from an old apartment of mine I lived in years ago. I knew the store from my past neighborhood residence, but I don’t know that I ever patronized it. See, I am not an artist—or at least, that’s what I tell myself. I am not artistic. I can’t draw. I don’t paint. I write; I like to think I create some kind of art with words; but I don’t do it visually. That’s what I tell myself.

When I first started putting together Into the Ruins, I worried as much as anything about the cover. I felt confident about the text; I could find some good fonts and I feel I have a sense of how to lay out simple, attractive text. But the cover was a different story: I couldn’t just do text. I needed visuals, and that unnerved me because I have always assured myself that I have little skill or knowledge of visual art. I lucked out in finding W. Jack Savage’s artwork, but the cover scheme of Into the Ruins is a tacit admission of my discomfort with visual design. It uses Jack’s artwork simply, blocks it in, adds only some basic adorning text. I made a simple template and stuck with it throughout the magazine’s run.

It was a fear that drove that—a certainty that I was working outside my skill level, and I was as likely as not to screw it up if I veered anywhere outside of a strictly defined comfort zone. It’s that same sense of uncertainty, that same lack of confidence, that has insisted I am not a visual artist, I do not draw, I do not paint.

It’s funny, of course—why shouldn’t I? And who’s to say I may not be a perfectly adequate artist if only I tried? After all, when I began to put words to paper, I would not claim the output brilliant. Yes, I think I have always had a certain innate talent for written communication, for narrative and storytelling, but it has been the slow practice of putting down and arranging hundreds of thousands of words that has made me into what I like to think is a halfway decent writer. Perhaps drawing could be the same.

It also is funny because I once drew. I did it as a child, without much reservation that I can remember. I drew silly monsters and stretches of sea with waterfalls dropping out of the clouds and other inventions; I even have a vague memory of a large book filled with my creations, monsters cut and pasted into its pages. I saw nothing wrong in my youth with putting pencil to paper not for words but for pictures—and enjoying what came of it. It was only once I grew older that I at some point decided I was not an artist, that I could not draw.

But once we found ourselves in that art store, some inspiration came over me. We wandered the aisles, inspecting journals and writing utensils, pens and pencils and brushes, craft supplies and large sheets of paper featuring beautiful designs. The sprawling store spread out inspiring before us. As we inspected the journals and Kate suggested we get each other a few small gifts, the idea came almost dumbfounding to me: I could draw. Regardless of whatever skill or lack thereof I might have, nothing stopped me from drawing but myself, my own misplaced certainties about myself.

Why not buy a nice art pencil, a gum eraser, a simple journal—and draw? What an idea!

Now I am drawing each day. It’s only been four days so far, not that long. Yet I like sitting down at the dining table, placing something in front of me, inspecting it, and seeing if I can put some simple facsimile down on paper. What perhaps is surprising—or maybe it shouldn’t be—is that I am not that terrible. The drawings I’ve produce are not brilliant by any means, but clear enough in what they are. I am still figuring out depth and shading, and struggling with translating color to black and white, to capturing light and shading only with gray graphite. Yet I’m enjoying my daily activity.

I don’t know how long I will do this or if I will pursue it to any greater level than dabbling. It may be interesting to take a class some time, or to look up some instruction and see if I can get a better sense of what I’m doing. But for now, I’m just enjoying drawing. It’s fun to play. And it’s been a small revelation to realize that I can do this, regardless of my level of capability—and that perhaps I may not be so bad at it as I thought in the first place.

I am not yet working toward anything in particular, but I do have one vague, dreamy goal: to someday draw a cover for a novel or story collection of my own. I have recently been reading Tove Jansson’s adult work and was delighted to realize that the simple but beautiful cover for her novel The True Deceiver is her own artwork. How nice it would be, I think, to create a piece of art of my own to encompass a story of my own; and what an evolution that would be from my tentative foray into cover design with Into the Ruins.

Will it happen? I have no idea. In the meantime, though, I’m enjoying my drawing, and I’m curious to see where it takes me. If nothing else, it’s a small lesson, a modest revelation: that whatever I think of myself, I am not limited to that. I can always be more. I can always learn new things. I can always develop new skills. It’s just a matter of thinking what if, and trying it, and seeing what happens.

7 thoughts on “Still Life

  1. Great to hear you are drawing. I’ve been participating in my local arts councils annual January 30day drawing challenge for a few years now.
    I believe that drawing is something that should be taught as a skill starting in elementary school. It’s such a great way to train the sight to an accurate perception of the world and to exercise a different part of the brain. It’s fun too.


  2. Hi Elaine,

    It’s been both fun and interesting. I’ve found that I can actually draw somewhat decently when looking at something and trying to replicate it. Not great, by any means, but decent. I’ve been more recently just trying to draw more from imagination and that has been much more a challenge; some pretty unimpressive output! But it’s still fun, and I’m curious to keep working on both and trying to figure out what I would want to draw and what my style would be outside of physical objects I’m directly looking at.

    Drawing as a standard skill in elementary school seems useful to me. What actually originally got me on to writing was my third grade teacher. She had the entire class write for a set period of time . . . well, I remember it as every day, but it may have been more like a couple times a week. Whatever it was, it was a regular occurrence, a set amount of time, and we got to write whatever we wanted. That’s where I discovered I really liked writing and that I seemed to be pretty good at it, and here we are today.

    I’ll have to check out that drawing challenge. Thanks for the link!


  3. It’s interesting that you’ve started drawing. When my parents took me to Nebraska when I was 12 or 13, and we stayed with an aunt and uncle, I was given paper and colored charcoal and encouraged to draw a wolf from a picture. I did and it turned out I did a good job. I still have that picture. Perhaps, as my son, you have inherited some artistic talent.


  4. Perhaps so, although if my more recent drawings are an indication, I may not have inherited all that much talent. I like that they had you draw a wolf–that would be a fun one to try. You should show me the picture sometime!


  5. I haven’t taken up drawing, but had some artistic juices at play as I sewed about 800 face masks. Nothing profound, just matching up fabrics, pleating a little differently. I also made a banner, using felt to spell out my new grandson’s name, Elliott, and decorated it with faces, etc., of Marvel comic book characters, also made of felt and embroidered. It really turned out well.


  6. Hi Debra,

    800 face masks! That’s very impressive. I imagine if you’re making that many, it helps to bring a bit of artistic inspiration into the mix. I imagine it must have been fun matching up the fabrics and finding ways to bring some extra joy and pleasure to the work. The banner sounds like fun, too. Congratulations on having a new grandson! Is he in Oregon or elsewhere?

    I hope the weather didn’t get you too bad this weekend. Not sure if you got hit down where you are, but it sure gave a beating to Portland!


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