Learning How To Be A Beginner 

I’ve often wondered why it is when I draw something or make something, my first effort is often good, and later things go downhill. I know this sounds all contradictory and upside-down, but I’ve noticed it happens time and time again; the first drawing or whatever it is might be inaccurate, the proportions off, a bit wonky – but essentially it’s good. The trouble is that from then on I’ll continue in a different frame of mind. I’ll be thinking, ah, here we go, I know how to do this now – and my drawing will be worse. 

It was especially obvious when I did the #1week100people sketching challenge. Along with lots of sketchers all over the world, I sketched lots of people – around about a hundred – and not much else for a whole week. It was an exciting, freewheeling exercise and I was looking forward to seeing an improvement in my drawings. I was hoping – well, actually, expecting that. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Or at least, so it seemed to me at the time. I noticed as I went along that things weren’t going as I’d hoped because as I complained in my previous post, ‘every now and then I’ll find myself drawing with ease and fluency and suddenly it’ll all go right, and then the next minute I fall off the edge and lose the flow, and do something that’s completely off’. I thought I was going to learn and advance in an obvious way, and I thought at the time that this definately wasn’t happening – but in the end I discovered the answer to something that’s puzzled me for a long time, something more interesting and more valuable. 

I have Susan McCulley and her latest post, Revisiting Beginner’s Mind to thank for this insight, and it’s going to pop up again and again in everything I think and do for the foreseeable future. What it is, in simple terms, is that I need to stop thinking that I know what I’m doing and learn to be a beginner. Or rather, I need to think like a beginner, with all that freshness, openness and excitement about the unknown, because as soon as I start to think ‘I know all about this’ I’m no longer really looking, or not looking with a spirit of enquiry. I’ve boxed myself in and closed the door on all kinds of possibilities. 

There are all sorts of ways to do this, none of them comfortable. Like shaking things up and switching materials. Drawing with something uncompromising like a sharpened stick can be a good way. Drawing fast, drawing people in motion helps. But it all requires letting go of what I think I know, trusting my eyes and my hands and the mysterious process that happens when I really look at something as if I’m seeing it for the first time. 

None of this is easy. It’s not just about drawing, either – it’s about the way to approach everything. Beginner’s Mind is a concept in Zen Buddhism called Shoshin, which refers to “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

If all this seems rather obvious, perhaps it is – but the implications are far reaching. If I slip into the habit of thinking the same way about something simply because I believe I know all about it, I’m never going to learn anything new about it. In the words of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” 

Wobbly Challenge part 2: #OneWeek100People2017

I knew I wouldn’t get to the full quota of 100 sketches of people this week, (too wobbly – see previous post) but that never bothered me – to be honest, I never even counted. The point of the thing for me was to share the experience of knowing that lots of other sketchers all over the world were doing the same thing, and enjoy seeing what they were all up to. (Use the #OneWeek100People2017 tag to search the internet and you’ll find some amazing stuff.) 

I sketched in the park as usual. I have a bit of an obsession with drawing moving figures; I can’t do it, but it’s what I want to do more than anything else and I get a sort of morbid fascination watching myself try. I thought if I spent all my sketching time this week concentrating on that, I’d have to learn something. I probably did, but with drawing the funny thing is you’re never quite sure because the learning is invisible. Internal. Every now and then I’ll find myself drawing with ease and fluency and suddenly it’ll all go right, and then the next minute I fall off the edge and lose the flow, and do something that’s completely off. 

Since it seemed like a good chance to try to study the subject a bit I got someone I know to walk up and down while I took continuous shots of him on my phone camera, and then used the photos as reference to draw from, quite rapidly, trying to imagine that I was watching him in real life. Surprisingly I found it much more difficult than I’d thought because still shots don’t look real – there’s obviously a lot of processing that happens in our brains that turns the moving object we see into something quite different from what the camera captures. I mean, really, just look at this – 

I think I learned something from that, but I can’t be sure. (I realise it makes a rather odd drawing, particularly because I didn’t bother to get his features right so it looks like a string of different but oddly similar short men doing a strange shuffle from right to left for no apparent reason but with a sense of purpose). 

It all makes me appreciate even more the extraordinary way sketchers like Marc Taro Holmes and Suhita Shirodkar manage to draw movement so beautifully  and make it look so effortless – but equally I realise how much practice it takes. 

So, another strategy – drawing from the TV – and not talking heads; sketching from films. Interesting because just as in life, you get fleeting opportunities to observe faces from different angles and with different expressions. And this is really fun. 

So the week finishes – but I’m on a bit of a roll and I don’t want to stop. Even if I can’t get out and sketch from reality there’s always the TV. No film is ever going to be boring again, no matter how bad! Back to the sketchbook…….. 

One Wobbly Challenge: #OneWeek100People2017 

If you haven’t heard of the sketching event #OneWeek100People2017 that’s going on all over the world this week, have a look at Marc Taro Holmes’ blog Citizen Sketcher. His drawings of people in motion – or people of any kind doing just about anything or nothing – are completely wonderful and inspirational. 

I’m sort of trying to do this challenge myself, though I should have known that saying I’d do it would be a bit ridiculous and sure enough, my health threw a wobbly and hasn’t let me do anywhere near as much drawing as I’d hoped, and certainly not 20 people a day!  

Schoolboys in Cliffe Castle Park

But it’s a lot of fun. It’s great looking at what other people are posting online, and it’s really fun, drawing people in a sort of mad loose way and just enjoying it without worrying much about the outcome. Something to do a lot more of – whether I complete the challenge or not. And who cares – that’s not what it’s really about anyway. It’s all about having fun!