Developing a Daily Drawing Habit Transformed My Perspective
One cold January morning, something caused me to decide to visit the art section of the library. I’ve always been interested in creating art of some kind, dabbling in everything from sculpture and needle felting to knitting design, so this wouldn’t have been unusual for most of my life. But in January of 2018, this was an unusual thing to do. At the forefront, I was singularly focused on completing my undergraduate thesis to my satisfaction — satisfaction being an elusive creature that slipped deeper into the shadows with each error I found as I combed the data. Most of the visible work of my day consisted of researching and writing punctuated by coordinating transportation and activities of three busy teenagers. The back of my mind whispered anxiously with worries about my daughter’s well being (she was having a tough year socially and emotionally), post graduation changes, and making couple time with my husband. My meditation practice was out the window. After years of practice, I suddenly found myself uncomfortable sitting with my thoughts. Mostly I was just surviving, with little time set aside for self care. I had blinders on and didn’t notice much outside of the daily grind, so right then, wandering through the art section of the library was unusual.
Then I saw it: “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”, by Betty Edwards. I remembered wanting to read one of the earlier editions twenty years earlier and never getting around to it. I told the part of my mind that was nagging me to just focus on getting work done to just shut up, and took the book out.
I started reading the book and working on the exercises that very night. It was during working on an upside down drawing exercise copying a work by Picasso that the magic happened — my brain stopped its’ chattering. I was able to just be in the moment. I had found the old state of flow that had once been easy and frequent for me. But I had also discovered a completely new and unfamiliar state of mind. I was deeply focusing on a new task, aiming for perfection in my work, but not verbally analyzing any of it. The exercise accomplished its’ goal. Everything I looked at and drew were simply shapes and their relative sizes and distances. There were no labels for anything I drew. When I completed the drawing and turned it right side up, I saw a slim, older gentleman in glasses wearing a lightly crumpled suit. But while I drew, there were no hands, or eyes or sleeves. Just lines and curves and empty spaces.
I decided I liked this feeling. I committed myself to a new habit — taking the time to draw every day. One of the first concrete advantages I experienced from this new habit was its ability to combat brain fatigue. My thesis was on the effects of highway twinning on traffic safety and wildlife collisions. This involved combing through seven years’ worth of collision reports from provincial major highways and classifying collisions based on location, highway type, severity, and contributing factors. When dealing with so much data, there are many opportunities for error — and for frustration when each error requires recalculation. My old habit had been to soldier through, stopping only for “one more coffee”. I tried a new method and took a drawing break instead, even if for only fifteen minutes. I found I could come back to my work making less mistakes and capable of looking at problems new ways.
I also found that I started to see more, rather than just looking. I noticed the shape of divots above people’s upper lip, the weathering on old bricks, the ripples around a feather floating in a puddle. As I began to see more, I found more things beautiful. The act of focusing on what I saw made daily things seem more important. This was especially apparent as I practiced drawing portraits of friends and family. Every little freckle and scar was part of who they were, worthy of attention. Drawing a portrait was like an intimate exchange between the vulnerable humanity of the bodies I drew and my pencil recording the focus of my gaze. I felt I began to see people in a universally human way, rather than just as who they were in relation to me.
A couple of months later, another wandering through the library’s art section broadened my daily drawing routine. This time, I spotted “One Zentangle A Day: A 6-Week Course in Creative Drawing for Relaxation, Inspiration and Fun”, by Rebecca Krahula. I was attracted to the intricacy of the patterns and the abstract forms. This type of drawing was not focused on observation of the subject. Instead, it was focused on being mindful of the artistic process; carefully repeating patterns and mixing patterns using a prescribed format. I found that working on a Zentangle was an excellent early morning and before bed activity. It allowed me to relax and focus without requiring the same degree of alertness as observational drawing.
One interesting feature of using the Zentangle method is that the patterns are done in pen; not pencil. There are no mistakes, and no erasing. Zentangle taught me to let go of perfection, and to see “mistakes” as opportunities to adapt to changes and create something new.
The repeating abstract patterns of Zentangle also broadened my awareness of the natural patterns around me — the branching of trees, patterns of bark, ripples in water. This piqued my curiosity about the mathematical patterns inherent to our natural world. I found wonder in both the order and variety, which led to learning about areas of science and engineering outside of my field, which in turn led to me making new connections in my work and studies.
Taking the time for structured drawing practice increased my confidence to really experiment and innovate with art. Despite loving art, I used to have a list of things I believed I couldn’t do. I saw myself as not being good with 2-D art, not comfortable with painting, not able to draw from memory and all kinds of other “not ables”. Now I am enjoying everything from watercolor to alcohol ink, drawing from imagination and memory and combining it all to create my own vision. This respite from the daily grind of work is so valuable to me as I grow a part of myself that is more than my professional performance. It’s a chance to see the world differently and to find my own way of expressing my experience.
I now think that taking time for artistic expression may be one of the best ways for people to get “unstuck” — even, perhaps especially, for those that don’t feel artistically inclined. Give it a try! I believe you will be amazed at the beauty you can see, the beauty you can produce, and the changes a daily artistic practice can make to your mindset.