Draw Your Way Back to Yourself
“Creativity is the ability to find new solutions to a problem or new modes of expression; thus it brings into existence something new to the individual and to the culture.”
~ Dr. Betty Edwards
Dr. Betty Edwards is the author of the 1979 classic art instruction book, The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. She’s renowned for stating that all it takes to learn to draw is to acquire five easy-to-learn skills:
Perception of edges; spaces; relationships; lights and shadows and the whole/Gestalt.
Why do we want to learn how to draw? Many of us have it hammered into our brains that we “are not creative”. I won’t even get into the notion, reflected in lack of arts funding in many schools, that being creative isn’t important.
But the fact is, being alive is being creative. Just by being here and guiding ourselves though the myriad twists and turns of life, we are making creative choices all the time.
Let’s not forget: to create isn’t just to be a working artist lauded the world over for our masterpieces of painting, writing, music, sculpture, dance and everything in between.
To create, by definition, is to generate, to make, to build. So we are all art objects of our own making before we even try.
Life in all its forms is an unfolding process of generation, and each of us is generating all the time. Trees create new leaves each spring, and we shed our skin, our very cells, on a continuing basis, so that new ones can take their place.
One of the reasons we can start to feel stuck in our lives is that we stop seeing ourselves as both the products and the instigators of creation. We don’t believe we are making, building, contributing to the world at large by way of ourselves: by our incredibly engendering actions of breathing, moving, laughing, sharing stories.
So what happens? We forge (yes, create), a separation between ourselves and the world and start to feel isolated, and bingo: misery.
Everything we do, for better or worse, is creative. Yet, exploring ourselves as creators—being actively creative or artistic—can be scary. And this is precisely why we need it.
I remember when I was a kid, I used to make stuff all the time. Drawings, paintings, macaroni-portraits of my family, masterworks of shaved crayon ironed onto wax. Making worlds—my worlds, reflecting my vision of how things are and could be—came naturally.
Then it just stopped.
It wasn’t until early adulthood, when I was really in a rut, that the idea suddenly came to me that I could try to take up painting. It seemed as far-reaching as planning a trip to Jupiter. I stared at the blank canvas like it was physically threatening me.
Dr. Edwards says something says something striking about this:
“You may feel that you are seeing things just fine and that it’s the drawing that is hard. But the opposite is true …”
What Dr. Edwards is saying is that we literally don’t know how to see. She distinguishes between left and right brain activity, where the left brain is all about analytical, linear thinking, and the right brain is more about intuition and visual orientation.
Most of us live—have been trained to live—according to the whims of our left brain, while drawing is about the right. So by engaging in the skills required to draw, we are learning to let go of our conditioned way of seeing the world, and reorganize our brain/mind patterns.
The results are no less than a cataclysmic change in our relationship with the world—and ourselves.
Just like meditation and yoga take us away from our patterned acquiescence to the tides and times of our minds, so too can drawing help us find our way back to ourselves in a whole new way.
Once, a few years after I started to paint again (still not fully accepting that I was’t great), a friend told me about an exercise I have since become obsessed with and wanted to share with you. I’ll call it:
The Therapeutic Self-Portrait
All you need to do is grab a blank piece of paper with some kind of solid backing, and a pen. I use a fountain pen, but any anything will do. Find your bliss!
Then, sit down in front of a mirror, pretty close, and place the paper on your lap.
Look at yourself. Intently. Try to see who you are and how you’re feeling, instead of how you want to look or how you used to look. This is already difficult, as anyone who’s tried telling their mirror image “I love you,” already knows.
Then, without taking your eyes off yourself, draw your face (and neck and shoulders, if you’d like). Don’t look down, and don’t lift your pen from the page.
Here are some of my recent efforts:
As you can see, the point isn’t to draw a perfectly representational version of ourselves.
But it’s truly amazing how, despite feeling like you’re faltering and wandering around the page aimlessly, something can emerge that indicates how you’re feeling on a particular day, or how you are or can be most of the time, according, naturally, to how you see yourself.
It’s kind of like keeping a diary, but you’re getting to some fascinating conclusions by means of the visual field and without that interference-loving left brain.
“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
~ Pablo Picasso
The more we practice drawing (and mediation, and yoga, and dance and so on), relying on tried-and-true exercises set out by Edwards and others when we need to, the more agile and versatile we can make our brains, minds and selves.
Use technique to get past technique. Use the mind to get past the mind.
But on a less scientific level, I recommend to anyone afraid to try: go for it! Throw it on a canvas, chisel away at a piece of wood, break free and explore rhythm—and just watch yourself unfold!
This was first published in elephant journal. Thank you!
They said the world might well reach its last moments on December 12, 2012, or 12/12/12. But here I am, early in the morning on this day, and I’m alive, and the world is still here. I’m in Thailand, which is now well into its dry, so-called winter season. It rained all night, which is very unusual for this time of year. It was still drizzling this morning, when we got up to meditate. It was hard not to think in metaphors, in lurid symbolism. Could this be an actual watering down, in a way, of the cataclysm we were all bracing for? A reminder that dark times were nearly averted and could return, vengeance-like, anytime, provided we don’t learn how to live properly? Was it just rain? Is anything ever “just” that thing? I’ve come to learn that it’s rarely the case that something is nothing. After all, each of us makes the world, our world, and why would we make nothing? Why would we make at all? The trick, I feel, is to remember, and to remember all the time, that we have made and we do make our world – and ourselves – every moment. We need to be acutely aware of this process of self-creation and world-creation if we want to live in a world that is also a world-of-conscience. Today, here, now: a dull, light rain in an otherwise sunny and perfect season. Perhaps our fears, then, while dulling us, are also lightening or easing, though they have not completely disappeared. There are some who believe it to be this way: that the end of the world predicted by many has been avoided because of all the work people have been doing with the forces of Light. This is a beautiful idea, that amid news of calamity and destruction and hopelessness, there is indeed a movement of luminosity underway, that underpinning the rain and our fear is beauty and hope for re-genesis – so that it’s actually possible to partake in the world’s recovery. There are others still who say it’s ridiculous to assume that Mother Nature will cave under the weight of human misbehavior, that nature is much, much stronger than anything we can do to annihilate her. We might meet our end sooner rather than later, but Nature will survive, and prosper, and new life will grow – this is the nature of nature being herself. What is true is also what is undeniable: we are still here now, and Earth is still here now, and there is as much potential for laughter as for sadness, and as much ability for light as for dark. This, I believe: we make our world, and then we remake it. Every time. Is this fanciful thinking? Because it’s as practical as any thought I feel I’ve had. I can’t imagine anything more powerful than turning a day around by willfully neglecting a negative thought, and I’ve already watched this work and succeed. If it can be done, it’s because we’ve done it. If we haven’t done it, we have absolutely no way of proving it cannot be done. This is logic. So let’s meet the world we have made, see where it can use some work (some of our light), and know that this work is nothing more or less than spinning on the axis of love (we love love, we fear love, we too often narrow the scope of love) and the creative power that belongs – intrinsically so – to all of us. Let’s also remember: the point isn’t to live forever any more than it is to actively avert death, to get away with not dying. The point is to embrace death as well as all the moments of not-yet-in-death that remain to us.
This article was recently published in “Vortice: The Eye of the Needle”, a collection of work paying tribute to the original Vortice movement, described by the editor of this collection like this: “The year 2014 brings the 100th anniversary of the founding of Vorticism, a short-lived and militant English art and literary movement that defiantly rejected the popular conventions of the day.” Please see the full editor’s statement, and the rest of the amazing work in the collection here.