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

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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.
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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?
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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.

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Twist: Observed Eating Oranges

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Eating oranges requires care, especially when they’re juicy and you’ve stopped to rest, and are sitting perched on the top of the battlements of the castle you are visiting. You don’t want to fall and end up fifty feet below in the moat, but you don’t want to drip orange juice all down your clean linen shirt so you twist, and lean over, and spit the pips over the edge when you think no one is looking. Except of course you don’t realise it, but in fact you are being observed, and not captured on camera but recorded nevertheless.

It’s strange how often people are oblivious to being drawn, either because they assume they’re not the subject of the drawing or perhaps because they simply don’t notice, being much more conscious of a camera. I’ve sketched people in all sorts of public places, including playgrounds with children accompanied by adults, where if you took out a camera and started to take pictures you’d cause a commotion. I’ve learnt to be very careful about this and to respect people’s concerns, but it saddens me more than I can say, that taking photographs can feel dangerous and threatening.

But in general nobody seems to mind being drawn, even if they notice, which very often they don’t. Perhaps drawing is still understood in a different way. Perhaps the interest being shown feels more respectful, that nothing is stolen, that no harm is intended. Or perhaps it’s simply a question of identity and anonymity; drawings are not like snapshot identifications. It’s not like being caught on a cctv camera. There’s no real sense of violation of privacy. I don’t know.

However fast you draw, it’s a lot slower than pressing the camera shutter. Drawing is like a gentle exploration, a process of getting acquainted. The very best photographers are able to do this too, but for me it’s never quite the same – which is why I carry a sketchbook as well as a camera. Given the chance, and giving myself enough time, I’d rather look a bit more closely, understand more, and get acquainted.

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