Sketch-Fright, Cheap Sketchbooks And The Desire To Be Famous


Drawing is a scary thing. I know writers think writing is scary and I agree it is, or can be, and sometimes I find it scary too – but a page of writing is hidden from view until it’s read, and then it reveals itself slowly word by word. Drawing is more like acting. The fear it engenders is more like stage-fright; a drawing is up there bold as brass, visible the first second you see it, and there’s no hiding. And make no mistake, the truthfulness of a drawing is there for all to see as well – you can’t fudge it or disguise it.

Sketching in public places is doubly scary, and drawing people even worse. It’s bad enough that every time I pick up a pen and a sketchbook I’m initially frozen by the fear that I’m not going to be able to draw anything meaningful – there’s also the worry that I’ll upset someone by drawing them and make them feel uncomfortable (although in fact this seems to happen very rarely). And then there’s the fact that sooner or later, someone’s going to come up and look at what I’m doing, and I’d better have something on my page that at least half way resembles who or what I’m drawing.

I use cheap sketchbooks when I’m sketching people – any kind that has paper that’ll take pen and ink and a bit of wash, because better quality sketchbooks are too inhibiting and I simply dare not scribble and take risks and ruin good pages. I wish I were braver about this but I’m not.

Thankfully, once I’ve got going and immersed myself in looking, when my pen is moving about on the paper and I’m completely absorbed, nothing else seems to matter very much any more, so that when the inevitable happens and somebody does come over to look and to chat it’s not so alarming after all.

The other day I was drawing in the children’s playground as I often do, and a girl of about twelve came over and asked me what I was doing. She was there with her younger brother and they’d got tired of playing on the swings. “Are you an artist?” she wanted to know. (People ask this all the time and it’s not a straightforward question to answer, but I usually just say Yes.)

The conversation then went a bit like this:
Girl: Are you an artist?
Me: Yes
Girl: Are you drawing that man over there?
(shouting) Davy! She’s drawing you! She’s really good! Keep still!
Me: Shhh! You’ll disturb him and he’ll move about. (He didn’t; he kept completely still).
Girl: You’re really good. Are you famous?
Me: No! Heavens! Absolutely not!
Girl: So do you have your drawings in books and stuff?
Me: No, I just draw in sketchbooks, for myself. But I do sometimes put my drawings on the internet.
Girl: Can I have your autograph?

I was a bit taken aback by this, and asked her if she meant it, did she really want my autograph, and she assured me she did, so I found a piece of paper and duly signed it and she solemnly told me I should also write artist after my name, which she found very satisfying. We chatted a bit more, she and her brother and Davy (not his real name) and afterwards I went off home musing about this desire to be famous, or to meet someone famous, that seemed so important and so desirable.

I was lucky, growing up. Very early on I had planted in me the enjoyment of doing, and I had plenty of opportunity to do the things I enjoyed. They say that those that really excel at something get good at it not because of being gifted, but because they do so much of it that the hours and hours and hours of practice make them excel. I haven’t done enough of any one thing in my life to be really good at it, but I know practice makes all the difference. I tried to explain this when we were chatting in the playground, and the girl and her brother became thoughtful for a while, as we all considered it and mulled it over.

I’ve thought about it quite a lot since. I wonder if they have too.


7 thoughts on “Sketch-Fright, Cheap Sketchbooks And The Desire To Be Famous

    1. Cate, thank you! On the same subject – almost – I wonder how you feel about taking photographs of people? Because for me, that’s something I find even scarier than drawing them and I simply CAN’T do it.

      1. I am at times ambivalent about taking people shots. I try to make sure they don’t see me as I prefer candid but, strangers do not like being photographed by a stranger. My work really doesn’t have too many people.

  1. We have a beautiful botanical garden here which is a favorite haunt of artists. When I visit I always want to approach one or another of the folks with easel set up before some charming vista, just to see what they’re doing. But I never do, figuring that it’s a private time, even though they have to work in this public place. I also know that I, like so many people, want to see if they’re ‘any good,’–and that’s not really fair, is it?

    1. I don’t know if it’s fair or not – after all choosing to do anything in public whether it’s drawing, or even practising some sort of sport – it kind of makes you fair game, doesn’t it? I certainly accept that, and it sort of goes with the territory I feel. And actually to be truthful I usually like the interaction, which can be very interesting (as this episode was). But ironically I’m very hesitant myself to go up and speak to any other sketcher or plein-air painter I see – for all the reasons you mention! We can’t have it both ways it seems.

  2. It sounds like you had a very meaningful conversation there at the playground. Your post has a lot of thoughts that I will for sure continue to mull over. That drawing is more like acting, for example. I wonder if that is something that kind of intimidates me about it, even if I do it on my own, without audience? (Bought new pencils in the summer, to pick up drawing, but can’t seem to get started. There may be other things than “lack of time” that hold me back.)
    I love your drawings, and hearing about the situation when you made them!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this! I’ve been thinking more about what I wrote about drawing being a bit like acting. In fact there’s enough food for thought there for another whole post! I do think because drawing is a visual art form it does bear comparison with acting but perhaps even more with dance – because it is a way of understanding and expressing visually that uses your physical body – and so yes, when you do it in public you can feel very exposed. It can be terribly hard to get going with new art materials because you inevitably have high expectations, and want to enjoy what you do – and worry that it won’t be as successful as you hope. This happens to me all the time – hence cheap sketch-books!

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