Those Bad Drawing Days
Yup, it’s a bad drawing day.
Those days when you just want to stab the paper with your pencil, or press so hard with your charcoal that it breaks. You grimace and shake your head. You keep tearing out pages and tossing them behind you.
Why can’t I get anything right? Why does her face look like it was smooshed by a bus? And why do her hands look like claws? Her eyes look like they can see each other; her legs look like penne pasta.
Have you ever felt like just snapping all your pencils?
I’ve lost confidence in my drawing abilities. I feel claustrophobic. It takes a lot of self-control to pack all my drawing materials away calmly. To not scrunch up all my attempts at drawing today. And to not tell myself I totally suck.
It takes a lot of self awareness to know when to push yourself beyond your boundaries, and to go easy on yourself when you need to. The more I tell myself I suck, the worse I feel.
So I just need to step back, remind myself that I’ve done good drawings before, and just forget about what happened today.
I actually rarely have ‘bad drawing days’ I feel. Not because I’m arrogant and think all my art is just dandy. But because I draw a hell of a lot — almost everyday — and I’m used to making mistakes and just moving on to the next thing or the next page.
But today feels like it’s really bad.
Maybe I just have too much on my plate and it’s time to chill
By the way, I’m writing in the present because yes, the only thing I felt that would help my low feeling today would be to write about it. I don’t want to touch a pencil or paint brush today. And if you’re reading this blog right now, you might be feeling the same way too.
So hissy fits aside, (I didn’t actually throw a hissy, I just complained to my wife a lot, who patiently told me that maybe I need a break), sometimes you reach your limit and it’s time to stop. There’s always tomorrow.
I have a lot on my mind. We are supposed to be moving home soon. Recently having bought a house, we’re waiting for the Deeds Office to process the final steps. And in South Africa, things happen in ‘African Time’. Also, we have to be out of our rented house by the end of the month. We haven’t started packing yet. We have to plan our lives around the daily nation-wide black outs because of continuous corruption and mismanagement from our government.
And here I am sitting in life drawing class, manning someone else’s music on the iPod and calling out the timed sessions to the group. I’m hungry. I’ve had too much coffee. My hands feel a bit shakey. It’s 27 degrees Celsius and I’m stuck to the plastic chairs. I was a little bit worried that the model I hired wouldn’t show up for some strange reason. That would be embarrassing. I’m struggling to see details in the back-light while sitting too far away in the corner. And I feel like I just want to go sleep. Maybe I’m exhausted.
But one can’t expect things to always be perfect. As the saying goes, if you don’t have problems, you’re probably dead.
The hardest thing about bad drawing days is needing a lot more patience
So if you’re feeling frustrated and all your drawings are really sucking turds today, ask yourself, are you maybe being a little bit hard on yourself?
The thing about bad drawing days is that it wouldn’t be so bad if you could just see your mistake, learn something from it, and rectify as you go, without holding on to your crippling performance anxiety.
When you put too much pressure on yourself to make good art all the time, every day, you’re bound to burn out.
I generally fall into the overachiever trap. I didn’t go to university, so I don’t mean overachiever in the traditional scholarly sense. No, I wasn’t a nerd LOL!
Overachievers are all about the outcome. Less about the actual process.
I write daily lists. Although helpful for knowing what needs to be done, they are pretty ridiculous. My wife laughs when I tells her my plans for the day.
And I get upset when I achieve only a fraction of what I intended to do that day. Which means I’m usually disappointed that I didn’t do enough. The next day I work harder.
I don’t get no chill. I don’t allow myself.
And I want to see steady improvements in my drawings and in my art. The graph must keep rising. Otherwise, I’ll feel a bit lost and out of sorts.
So, patience. Patience with oneself is the hardest kind of patience to learn. I’m still waiting to learn that one.
It’s O.K. to fail sometimes
Just don’t fail on purpose.
Failure can be a real deathblow to the ego. Failure is a reality check.
Being a constant winner, being the best in your class, thinking you’re the shit, is dangerous. It can make you conceited. You soon forget that the road to improvement is still a long way ahead, and that there is always someone better or more talented than you.
Art shouldn’t be about comparisons though, and when you start thinking that your art is better than the stuff you see around you, that’s when you get stuck.
You become ‘good enough’.
Not failing regularly means you’re in a comfort zone and aren’t trying new ways to improve.
So it’s important to eat humble pie occasionally, and also to get a sense of what it’s like for people who don’t have your talents and who struggle with their art even more than you do.
Failing means that you don’t take your artistic skills and talents for granted.
As Master Yoda says, ‘The greatest teacher, failure is.’
In failure, we learn the most about ourselves. We need to learn to forgive ourselves. To be compassionate with ourselves as artists. It’s impossible to be perfect.
Remember, art is a long game.
Bad drawing days show us our weaknesses
If you are constantly allowing yourself to do bad drawings, but telling yourself they’re good enough, then I would call that laziness.
But if you genuinely know you should be able to draw better than this, then maybe it’s time to start doing some more drawing exercises. Not today when you’re upset though.
Let’s start tomorrow.
So let’s take stock. Get a cup of tea and study your drawings objectively. What are you totally sucking at today? Is it hands? Faces? Proportions? Shading? Lack of control with your pencil?
It’s easy to get into a comfort zone when you keep using the same paper and materials. Sometimes changing up your materials can throw you a technical curve ball. Maybe you just haven’t figured it out yet. You have to get used to a new brand of pencil or charcoal or texture of paper all over again.
Maybe you were sitting in a posture that you weren’t used to or entirely comfortable in.
Take a look at some of your drawings from last year. They probably suck right?
Well maybe your eye has just gotten better and your hand hasn’t caught up yet? Maybe your level of artistic discrimination has improved!
My hand was being really stupid. I tried using different pencils, charcoals, ink and water brushes, all in an attempt to find what out what medium would work with me. But sadly, I couldn’t connect with any.
I even wiped my compressed charcoal drawing out with a rag and made a black smear all over the page, then drew over that again.
I knew I was drawing badly, so I didn’t want to waste anymore paper. So I just drew on the back or on top of previous drawings.
Right. So what are my problems here?
The self assessment
- First of all, mental fatigue.
- I can’t seem to get used to the texture of this paper. I haven’t found a ‘style’ of drawing that suits it yet.
- Not controlling my pencils well enough on this paper.
- Getting stressed and into a negative emotional state and deliberately messing up my drawings.
- Overworking drawings so that they seem stiff and generally making a mess. Instead of taking my time and really observing.
- Getting stuck on trying to fix small details, instead of working from a general loose whole.
- Screwing up my proportions. Constantly going off the page. Lack of planning and layout.
- Not leaving the drawing alone. Same as overworking. I should just leave a line as it is and move on to the next. So getting the right tone the first time around is important.
- Forgetting about my structural basics. Drawing features first instead of anatomical structure.
- Not enough exaggeration to the gestures. Forms look stiff as planks.
As you can see, these are dumb mistakes I shouldn’t be making. But I did.
You can also ask someone who’s opinion you trust, to give you an honest report on your drawings. Can you handle criticism? As an artist, you better.
All those people saying oh that’s lovely, when everybody, including you, knows it’s shit, is doing you a huge disservice.
So here’s my plan of action
Gesture drawings. Lots of them. Preferably everyday.
It’s time to go back to basics. At least for a little while.
To build up my line confidence and accuracy, I’ll do 2 minute gesture drawings and just try to slow down a little.
I must also make sure I don’t work too close. It’s important to step or sit back while drawing to get a better sense of proportions.
And I’ll take my time. Make sure I draw calmly and with intention. The point is not to draw all the details, but to make it as simple as possible.
I can focus on every stroke, the movement in the pose, the gravity, the angle and position of my pencil, and the line quality.
It mustn’t be too hesitant or tentative either. There must be confidence in the mark making. But this is just an exercise in simplification, flow and control.
There are many online platforms where you can get free timed life drawing references:
I’ll also do some longer poses to get used to the paper, and keep on experimenting with different techniques and mediums. Drawing is about having fun!
But right now I realise that my issue is really trying to do too much and dealing with too much distraction.
Should you try to fix a bad drawing?
Some artists are of the opinion that you should try and fix a bad drawing or painting. You learn the most in those situations they say.
And sometimes I agree with that. But it depends.
In trying to fix a bad drawing, you already think the artwork sucks, so you aren’t so precious over it. You’re not afraid of messing it up further and making more mistakes. So it frees you up to try things and to analyse your mistakes. You can always just chuck it in the bin anyway.
If you keep on running into the same mistakes and then starting over every time, maybe it’s time to figure out what you’re doing wrong. You can draw on top of your failed drawing with a different colour or medium, or with a sheet of transparent acetate. Improve the proportions. Look at your balance in the figure, or improve the grace in the lines.
On the other hand, trying really hard to fix a bad drawing can lead to obsession. Because sometimes, no matter how much you try and fix it, the drawing was just bad from the start. And there’s no way you can make a Mona Lisa from The Ugly Duchess.
So you just end up wasting a lot of time and materials (although charcoals and pencils are pretty cheap, paints though are not so cheap), and you just end up feeling even more frustrated.
However, it may be better sometimes to redraw the same drawing on a separate page so that you can take your time and start off better than before.
Drawing and self mastery
Many art forms, such as painting, dance, martial arts, culinary arts, singing, music, writing, glass blowing, sculpture etc. are life-long disciplines towards mastery.
Drawing is such a life-long course, and benefits us with many personal lessons. Through art, we learn discipline, patience, observation, discrimination, appreciation, compassion for the self, self-awareness, stimulation, sensitivity, and self mastery.
Self mastery includes knowing how to deal when things aren’t going so well.
In a final word for this blog post, I want to mention meditation.
I realised that a lot of my art issues were due to mental exhaustion, distraction, feeling stressed, trying too hard, not observing, lack of confidence, and emotional frustration.
Sometimes there are just too many distractions in my life and running around in my little head. My head is only so small. I can’t think of everything.
And drawing is a time when my mind should be silent.
When there’s just too much noise, negative emotions, or a feeling like we can’t do enough or get stuff done, then it’s time to reset with meditation.
I’ve been pretty bad at meditation. I used to do it a lot when I was younger. So now, after my drawing wobbly, I have set myself a 90 day meditation challenge.
My challenge is to do a 15 minute meditation every day, preferably in the morning and before working on my art.
Let’s see how it goes. Maybe my art will improve. Perhaps I’ll become more patient with myself.
Maybe through meditation I won’t be worked up about a stupid bad drawing day.
You can check out some more of my figure drawings here.