Change 1: Draw

There are a series of nice changes I am making in my life. I’d like to write about them, and see how they stick. The first, is to draw more again.

My grandmother was an artist, and my mother worked for a while in a shop selling antiquarian books and art, which meant that we ended up in a house with very beautiful drawings on the walls. Drawings by artist friends of my grandmother, and old drawings collected by my mother. Drawings of people, landscapes, and amongst my favourites, the occasional cat. Simple pencil drawings, and fine ink drawings. All my life I just wanted to be able to draw like that, simple drawings of nice people, places and cats.

My sisters were also very good at drawing, so drawing was ever-present at the kitchen table. My sister Ellie is now an illustrator:

‘Mushroomy lady pelting it through the evening woods’, Ellie Curtis

… and my sister Rebekah is an illustrator, artist and writer:

’50 Trees’, Rebekah Curtis

While they drew and drew, I got madly into photography, and that became my art, ‘Ben’s thing’.

A year or two after our first child was born, I got back into drawing. “Got back”, because like most people it was something I did as a child naturally, did at school because we had art classes, then stopped doing pretty much around the age of 16 (apart from doodling in margins, or while on the phone, which I’ve never been able to stop myself doing – the repressed child squeezed into the margins!)

This ‘getting back into drawing‘ was wonderful, with a few fatal caveats (obsessive self-judgement, terrible timing – I’ll get to those in a minute). To start, I found a well-known book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and was amazed by my before-and-after-the-book self-portraits:

Ben, before and after…

My illustrator sister Ellie said she preferred the ‘before’ version, and in retrospect I think she was right! It’s free and natural. (So I’m not sure I’d recommend that book – perhaps it’s better to draw as you just draw, like the ‘before’ version above, then look at and copy amazing artists, and just keep going).

Then I discovered the joys of the Urban Sketching movement, and drawing whatever was in front of me wherever I was, and produced some things I really liked, often adding watercolour :

View to our roof terrace in Madrid

As is my way, I kept a blog about my drawing experiences, and even started a sketching group in Madrid. A few of us, total strangers, would meet, wander, and sketch.

Drawing became very important to me for about two years. It was creative, meditative and pleasing. Then slowly but surely it began to fade. Why?

Firstly, it was muddled up with my age-old need for recognition, mixed with my skill for incredibly inappropriate timing. I’d often draw at times when I should have been helping, helping to get our toddler out of the house, to make lunch, pack a suitcase… I’d thrust my finished drawing under the nose of my tired, overworked, by now p’d-off-at-drawing wife, and say, ‘What do you think? Is it any good?’ Then I’d find out where I could stick my drawings … but never if they were works of art or not.

My obsessive nature, (now mellowing!), which had me doing new things at all the wrong hours of the day, and my desire to do things incredibly well, just didn’t fit in with the needs of our new husband-wife-child life. We had no help and little clue how to be parents – bad time for Ben to dive headlong into a new hobby.

And then there was the judging mind. ‘Is it any good? Am I getting any better? It’s terrible! I’m rubbish! Ooooh, this one is really good… or is it? etc etc etc’ – the exhausting inner-dialogue! Anything that makes my mind do that needs to be paused purely on mental health grounds!

So the drawing slowly disappeared, and I went back to doodling in margins and being slightly envious of people that draw, seemingly effortlessly, and usually beautifully, just because they can’t help themselves.

So this is Change number 1!

I would like to draw more again. I’ve started already and it’s giving me joy. I’d like to draw with no judgement – who cares if it’s any good! Some will be, some won’t be. I’d like to draw with zero need for recognition (might be asking a lot…) I’d like to draw so my kids see me drawing and understand that drawing is a wonderful thing. No, hang on, I’d like to draw because it is a wonderful thing, and I learned that in the last few months by watching my 3 year-old daughter draw! (To get unstuck borrow a kid!)

Yes, I’d like to draw for fun! That’s it, for fun! For pleasure, for joy, for delight, to lose myself for a while.

Here’s the tree I drew in the library this weekend, while my daughter was drawing with other kids at a nearby table:

Tree from imagination

Here’s a motorbike I sketched while we sat in the parked car listening to the end of a podcast:

Bike sketch!

Here’s what the table looks like when I draw with my daughter.

How tables should be

So that’s it. I’ve worked it out:

Change 1 is: I want to draw for fun and pleasure. Nothing else. Not to be good. Not to be told I’m good. Not because I want to show my kids anything – they’re the ones showing me! I want to draw because like them I found it fun as a child and I want to regain and reclaim that childlike fun, do things I can lose myself in, in any way I can. I want to draw like my daughter. For hours, without a care in the world.

And finally…

  • I am very grateful to Austin Kleon. I like his books, especially the latest, Keep Going, and his blog is one of the few I read with regular devotion. He’s creative, writes intelligently, isn’t ashamed of sharing the doodles and sketches in his notebooks, and has fun.
  • This is a very good TEDx talk, refreshingly unplanned and disorganised, by a great artist who asks, why on earth to do we draw when we are kids, then stop until we are old and retired – what happens in between? I’m in between, and take up his challenge.