Drawing Strategies: Persistence and its Shadow

Drawings by Andrew ContiAll my life, as far as I can remember I’ve been a drawer. The kid with a notebook covered in doodles, a sketchbook under my arm, concocting epics in pencil, and trailing the family dog with a  stick of charcoal.

These days, I’m fairly confident in my ability to draw from life. Not to sound cocky, but I’ve spent a lot of time doing it, and I feel confident in my abilities –despite the numerous challenges a drawing always presents. When I first became truly serious about drawing I was all about Van Gogh, and being all obsessive about drawing the people around me. So now, if you stick me in front of something I feel I can get a decent drawing together.

One thing I am considerably less confident in is my ability to generate sound figures straight from my head. I can do it, but my understanding of anatomy is a mixed bag at best, and I am far from consistent.

My first art-love as a child was the art of comic books. Drawings of superheroes and outer space that filled the comics of the 60’s(inherited from my father) and the 80’s. The latter of which I purchased and collected religiously for some time – and still do. These drawings still bring delight to me, and I’ve been thinking of ways to use them more in my painting and other upcoming projects.

So I’ve taken to digging in to these kinds of figure drawings. Really being obsessive and focused in on practicing and skill-building with anatomy, foreshortening, etc. every day.

For me this kind of extended effort can be a lot of fun, but it’s also a bit like exercise. I’m building a habit of it, and yet it can be tough to just get out paper when I know I’m going to be meticulously focusing on basic skills.

Especially when it’s late, I’m tired, and I’d really just like to chill out for a while.

In short it’s work.

I combat any reluctance with a few strategies. For one, I stay focused on the goal, not the present exercise.  I have a clear direction I want to take my drawing, and I imagine the things I want to do with it. That makes any current drill ( flat diagrams of the body projected into space anyone?) far easier to deal with.

I also practice being good to myself. I’ve created a chart of my hours spent drawing, and track my progress. I try to set little milestones and reward myself for it. Nothing big, but maybe something like, finish 5 copies of the above mentioned diagram and you can chill out and have a beer. Little ways to celebrate.

I recognize that this kind of persistence is vital to really improving my drawing. Persistence is the bright light you bring to yourself when you are going somewhere new. But the light creates shadows and you need to spend some time in them too.

I can be flat-out obsessive when I start a new project. I am a bit of bull, just putting my head down and plowing ahead. This is good for a while, but it’s easy to burn out. So, I remind myself that you can’t  grind your way to improvement. I mean, we use words like grind to describe putting in effort because it really does correspond to what’s happening. You are moving against your inadequate skills and grinding them into a more polished shape. But if you go too hard for too long, you start to grind yourself down.

We all know that persistence is key to improving technical skill. But drawing is as much about idea as it is technique. I would even argue it’s more about idea. And ideas don’t come with hard work/persistence. They are something else. Something shadowy.

The shadows are about the perspective of knowing nothing happens over night. Put in the time and work at it, but there are certain things that can only happen when you’re at rest. When you are in the shadows, resting and dreaming. You need to give yourself time to just play. Taking some time to draw whatever comes to mind, dreaming with a pencil, or losing yourself to making.

Things happen in the dark that are just as vital to the experience of growth as the light. To me it’s the most important idea I hold onto as I take on my new project of really lifting my drawing abilities to a new level.