This week’s model has skin the exact shade of Werther’s chewy caramels, and she’s named for a Norse goddess. Her breasts look like scoops of vanilla ice cream with hazelnuts on top. Her legs are so long we all have to keep revising our pictures to fit them in. Though this is her first time doing artist modeling, our latest victim sits perfectly still, hardly breathing, her whole being seeming to vibrate with earnest intent to do this right.
Where does the master find people willing to pose stark naked in front of us for hours, being objectified into Mass, Angles, Distance and Shapes? I mentally compose his ad on Craigslist as I make my initial assessment of the woman on the dais: “Seeking physically beautiful models for hours of naked boredom being drawn by students. Must be comfortable with being talked about as if you aren’t there. A laser pointer will be randomly aimed at your private parts while their dimensions are discussed. Nominal fee.”
My sister and I missed a week. I doubt any of the three of you reading this blog even noticed, but I was at a low point. I was willing to let Resistance win. At the previous class, the master announced we’d be doing a nine-hour drawing. At that point, I had been unable to produce even one salvageable drawing. I was going to be spending NINE hours making a crappy image that would only document my shame and failure?
The time off did me good. I was ready to get back into it this week, had even come up with a plan to deal with the extended nature of this latest drawing. That’s something good to remember in the war against Resistance—sometimes a retreat is okay, as long as it’s used to strategize a new approach and renew your commitment to overcome.
Things got off to a rocky start, though, when the master confused me with a new concept right as I was beginning to quarter my paper and vivisection the Norse goddess.
“This is a seated pose. It’s almost a square.” He took my pencil and stood in my personal space, smelling faintly of lemons and self-discipline. “You must establish the height-to-width ratio. That is more important than the midpoint.”
This smacked horribly of long-ago struggles with geometry, and my mind refused to process his words. “Height to width ratio? It’s a new way of measuring? Can you tell me again?” He explained again, making gestures with the pencil, indicating that there was some new midpoint to be found.
He said words. He said them again. I still couldn’t make sense of them. I was so rattled by the time he moved on that I fluttered around in front of my paper, afraid to make a mark on it, my confidence totally gone.
The model sat elegantly, long legs folded into interesting angles, a counterpoint provided by her elbow. Her gaze was focused on a point somewhere off my left shoulder but her face was turned directly toward me, and for a second her eyes met mine. There was compassion in that look, and camaraderie. Here we are, trying to do something difficult, her tiny Mona Lisa smile said. We’re in this together.
She'd told me at the beginning of class that she'd come back from Africa, and she'd been stared at so much there as the only white person in the village that she developed a phobia. “I'm here to get over my fear of being looked at,” she told me. She was so sincere, trying so hard to be still, to let us record her, not to mind our discussion of her body. Her courage calmed me down.
I didn’t get what I was supposed to do, and I didn't have any confidence I could do it, but she deserved that I at least try.
I went back to what I knew, sketching what I saw. Miraculously, it looked much better, even when I stood back. The master returned from his lunch break and viewed my initial attempt.
“Very good,” he said. My drawing had a look I’d begun to recognize was my “voice” on the paper: a certain idealism, a rounded delicacy and ambiguity of form that was visually pleasing. I exhaled a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.
Then he leaned in. “But this. Is this mark where your drawing should end?”
“Yes,” I said, grimacing.
I’d done it again. Sneakily not conformed to the parameters, therefore the drawing was off. Not accurate. Not what was really there.
What I thought was there, and wanted to be there. An interpretation.
I fought down tears as the master moved in to redo the entire lower half of the drawing. The Norse goddess’s legs were at least two inches longer than I’d made them, her feet bigger, her knees boulder-like masses. And yes, now it was accurate. I confess I liked my imaginary version better.
Later my sister and I were talking in the car and I said, “I don’t really know where I’m going with this art thing. I thought I’d stimulate my creativity and I just stimulated frustration.”
“We are so product oriented, and everything has to have a purpose.” Bonny's been thinking a lot about what’s going on, too, and at this point she’s doing a lot better than I am at learning the master’s realism technique. “I’m starting to realize it’s all about the journey. Would it be so bad if art was your hobby, and you just enjoyed doing a hobby?”
“I’m not sure.” I try this thought on for size. It feels uncomfortable. “Writing is a lot like visual art. I had some initial talent, and then I applied myself seriously for years, hundreds of thousands of hours, before I began to be consistently good. It’s an endless mountain to climb because you could always be better, learn something new. Visual arts is the same. I have a little talent to start with, but I would want to be good at it. I don’t know if I can accept anything less.”
Therein lies the crux. Holding my (wrong type) of pencil in hand, I’m looking at another mountain. Do I have what it takes to climb it? Can I accept being mediocre and having it as a hobby, just “enjoying the journey”?
I really don’t know the answer to that.
What about you? When did you face a mountain and take it on, and when were you able to accept living in the mellow foothills?
Okay, see, I don’t know how long this class is supposed to be, so yes, I noticed that you didn’t post last week, but I didn’t know if that meant the class was over or what. So there. 😉 But I did notice.
Honestly, Toby, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten out of the foothills. I always try to take things on, and then for some reason I bail on them. Sometimes I can see external reasons, sometimes I think I just have to admit to chickening out. Life in the foothills is, to me, endless frustration due to the continual sense of failure. But that’s because I have *never* achieved the summit. The foothills have never been the goal. You have achieved the summit, in one area (probably more, I bet you’re bad at giving yourself credit), and I am certain that time in the foothills would be lovely if one were to make a deliberate choice to be there.
Just my thoughts.
That’s why I’m writing this. To understand better, to hopefully inspire, to learn something more. Thanks for being one of my three readers of this series, Shalora!
Just to let you know- you do have more readers of this series. I just didn’t think I had anything to add. But I’ve read the all.
Thanks Sandy. It means a lot. These little essays are as much of a workout to write as the drawings!
Amazing timing Toby. A few years ago, I thought I had conquered a mountain but because I spent so much time going around it, I climbed up the back side. When I got to the top, all I saw were all the tiny foothills; I couldn’t see the mountain still behind me. Yesterday, I found myself at the mountain; it feels like Everest; but my logical side says it is more like the Koko Crater path I saw in Oahu. Neither of which, I am sure I am ready to take on, just as I am not sure I can be content in the foothills.
Wow, Erin, sounds like a story there! Want to tell me more what that was, exactly? *grin*
Thanks for commenting and letting me know you read!
I’m reading along, and finding these post incredibly fascinating, so yet another silent reader chiming in. I am, in fact, pondering a similar question with my writing at the moment, and between you and Hugh Howey, I’ve had a lot of food for thought this week. Which will make up the bulk of my own blog post tomorrow, so thanks for this.
And best of luck with your philosophical discovery..it *is* a frustrating process, no matter the individual theme, but to me, that is what keeps us from stagnating, and I’d far rather be frustrated and growing than standing still, mentally speaking.
I’m thrilled to hear that you read these, Jamie, I respect you and it means a lot. I don’t know where I’m going but I’m trying to keep growing as I do. If you follow along you’ll be part of my journey. I take such strength for the extra work of blogging knowing people are getting something out of it.
Oh Toby… I can almost feel your discouragement. And I agree that it’s hard to come to terms with not being ‘great’ at everything we try. HOW is that possible? If natural talent doesn’t get us to the top, then surely hard work should …
This line > Can I accept being mediocre and having it as a hobby, just “enjoying the journey”?
I ask it of myself 5 times a day somedays, AND that goes for my writing as well, which is really discouraging since that’s what I’ve set out to do to make a living. Sigh… but then I throw cold water on my face, hike up my resolve, go for a walk, or do something that tells me I’m just feeling sorry for myself, and on I go because I must.
You excel at writing, publishing, selling. You don’t know if you’re the next great artist, but you are out there taking the risk to find out, AND documenting it for the world. That takes courage and will not be wasted effort, by any means. All these blogs speak to an increased insight into who you are … and ultimately, I believe we are more than what we produce. We gain wisdom by doing, even if what we do doesn’t always come out as we would like.
Thanks, Eden. Thoughtfully said, as usual. Mahalo.
Both my parents were very talented artists – oil on canvas, sketches, and so forth. A number of years ago I started painting first with watercolors and then with my own homemade egg tempera. Like you, I was discouraged and critical of my work, and I did in fact drop out of class. My parents came for a visit shortly after and asked to see some of my work. I reluctantly showed them and was surprised by their encouraging words. My mother had some good advice. First, you don’t have to follow the instructor’s rules, they are just laying a foundation for your success, but you can change those rules to fit your style. Second, frame everything because almost all art looks better framed. I framed two of my best watercolors and of course she was right, they now hang in the hallway outside my office. So, don’t give up. Remember the instructor is just teaching you “method”. What you do with that is entirely up to you.
Yes, we are our own worst critics…but its not my imagination that I’m at the bottom of the class there. I am wondering whether or not to continue with the master in the fall… a lot will probably depend on if my sister is going, ha ha! I really appreciate your share. Thanks!
Yes, of *course* we’re reading. And empathizing. And learning because you’re willing to share your thoughts and fears and hopes. Thanks again for your candor.
I’m not sure how to answer your question about the mellow foothills. I think for me it’s no. I don’t like settling for less than my best, and that’s becoming harder to achieve as I age and find I have less physical and mental energy to pour into any activities each day, creative or otherwise. I guess all any of us can do is try to be true to ourselves.
(On a sidenote, I’m not sure why this didn’t turn up in my Twitter feed. Happily I’m subscribed to your blog so I found out that way :o)
If it helps, I’ve truly enjoyed reading your series of posts about your drawing lessons.