’ve been drawing a lot lately. Three or four times a week, I go to the Art Students League of New York for a life drawing class. I leave my normal world of art making, where video and photography are my primary disciplines. When I get to the studio, I select a spot with good lighting, set my easel to the correct height and lay out my assortment of carefully sharpened graphite pencils.
I drew often during high school and college, continuing sporadically throughout my career as a designer and visual artist. Six months ago, when I started this more rigorous practice, my technique was OK, but I was not proficient. I wanted to improve my rendering skills so that I could whip out fluid, accurate sketches of objects and physical spaces for my videos and installations. I had no intention of exhibiting my drawings; they were intended to support my “real” work. The effort seemed straightforward: I just wanted to get better.
Then I read an article by novelist Jhumpa Lahiri in The New Yorker titled “Teach Yourself Italian.” In her piece, Lahiri describes her desire to find another direction for her writing, a new approach. Her long journey of learning Italian was at first intermittent, then grew in intensity, to the point at which, finally, she wrote a book in her new language.
Though my immersion into drawing is very different from Lahiri’s in scope, intention and dedication (she moved her family to Rome and eschewed reading and writing in English!), I realized that, like her, I wanted to broaden my approach to my art making. I wanted to become fluent in another language—the language of drawing.
As I read the stages of her quest, I began to see parallels to my own. Lahiri writes about her early phases of learning: “I’m bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn’t torment or grieve me.”
Each week, I see my slow, but steady improvement. I like entering a different language, where my only judgment is of my progress. I am not fluent, but I’m learning. I forgive mistakes easily. My focus is on my sketches, not on me. Normally, I’m prone to questioning myself—my purpose, my worthiness—as an artist. In the drawing class, I’m free from those plaguing thoughts. Instead, my questions are simple: Are the room’s angles correct? Am I capturing the model’s gestures? Is my pencil sharp enough?
Soon after arriving in Rome, Lahiri began to write in her diary in Italian. She described the difficult task as groping her way “like a child, like a semiliterate,” and then wrote, “I don’t recognize the person who is writing this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me.”
Here, I paused. Reading that paragraph, I again have a feeling of recognition, but this time, it’s not a good one. Like Lahiri, I don’t recognize myself when I’m drawing, but it’s not because I’m finding my vulnerability or genuineness. On the contrary: I seem to be losing both. It occurs to me that as I gain proficiency, I am forfeiting expression.
I decided to look back at drawings I had done years ago, in the late 1990s. They lacked accuracy, but they were compelling. Each one captured a mood and circumstance—a carefree summer of swimming and sailing,
a horrific winter of upheaval. More important, they were clearly mine. The drawings I’m doing in class are more skilled, but they could be anyone’s. They are competent, routine and prosaic.
In proclaiming that drawing is not my “real” work—“I’m just using my sketches for support,” “I’m just improving my technique”—have I let myself off the hook? While I rejoice in my egoless state, am I using it as an excuse? I want to be free of self-judgment, yes, but not because I’ve limited my expectations. I have removed a burden, but I’m afraid I have also closed a door.
So now, I am at a turning point. As I become more capable, I see the possibility of using drawing as another “language” of visual expression, alongside my other public work of video, photography and installation. I want not only to use my newfound skills, but also to recover the expressiveness of my old drawings.
At the end of her article, Lahiri writes, “I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.”
Will I sustain my drawing practice to the point of real fluency? And if I do, will I be able to retain both expression and freedom? By allowing my drawings to share the title of “real” work, I hope they will help me grow as an artist—maybe even, like Lahiri, into a tougher one. ca
© 2016 W. Richmond