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Art and Me...And Maybe You?

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By Tammy M. Cardwell

I am currently reading a book entitled Art and Fear and in it one of the authors shares a conversation he once had with his daughter. She asked what he did and, when he explained that he worked at the university, teaching people how to draw, she was appalled. She couldn't conceive of having forgotten how to draw in the first place.

(Before anyone asks, this is a good book if you're willing to follow the old advice about eating the meat and spitting out the bones. Christians may be bothered by certain things.)

It seems that every child has a natural desire to draw, but somewhere along the way most seem to lose that desire. I'm not so sure we forget how to draw as much as we're trained out of it. Perhaps it results from seeing the art teacher use your house-sized snowman as an example of poor proportion. Or maybe it's once again hearing a gushing, "You have so much talent!" spoken to the artist standing next to you.

The T word, talent, is what does in most people, I think. I certainly fell at its feet. As a preteen I didn't want to just do anything. If I had talent for a thing, I would gladly invest myself into it. If I (supposedly) did not have talent in an area, I chose not to "waste" my time. Unfortunately, I lived most of my life that way. And then I befriended Anna, an artist. . .and dared to confide in her.

I had always wanted to draw - always. My cat picture made it to the classroom wall when I was in third grade and my Snoopy cartoons amused the nurses well enough when I spent ten days in the hospital as a fifth grader. These inspired seemingly false hope, however, and I began to realize that I really didn't have any drawing talent when my sixth grade art teacher, noting that snowmen do not grow as tall as houses, pointed out this and other flaws in my composition. I honestly don't remember drawing anything beyond doodles after the year I `realized' I had no talent.

But I never lost the "I wish". I still wanted to drawn even though I knew in my heart of hearts that it just wasn't in me. I don't know how many conversations Anna and I had on the topic, but it took redundancy, her essentially repeating herself several times in various ways, before she spoke the words that put the first chink in the wall I'd built between me and art. "TC," she said, "drawing doesn't have anywhere near as much to do with talent as it does with learning to see."


This was a completely foreign concept to me, and a statement that caught my attention firmly enough that I really started listening to what she was saying. According to her, my foundational belief about art - that you either had talent or you didn't - was false. Drawing, she explained, was an art governed by rules and techniques and anyone who was willing to first learn to really see what they wanted to draw, and then to practice using the necessary techniques, could become an artist; talent didn't really have that much to do with it.

I spent a lot of time pondering her words and, in the end, it was my own `talent' that convinced me she was right. "You have such a talent for writing!" they would tell me. But. . .how do you define talent? Did I, the day I first learned to form my As, Bs and Cs, suddenly acquire an extraordinary ability to write well? Er. . .no, and I have a collection of early writings to prove it. Rather, I read voraciously anything I could get my hands on and wrote wrote wrote because the writing was in me and had to get out. I would say that in my case the quality of the writing was not so much a result of talent as passion - because I was passionate about my pursuit, I actively strove to improve myself. The question is might the same thing have happened in the area of art if a certain teacher had chosen private instruction over public humiliation? I don't know the answer.

I'd best interject one thing before someone trounces me; I do believe talent exists. My oldest son obviously has musical talent; there is no way he could have taught himself to play the guitar as swiftly and well as he did unless he does, indeed, possess a God-given talent for it. My point is that I have come to understand that talent is not a prerequisite for artistic success. Passion and persistence, together, will take almost anyone just about anywhere they really want to go.

And to go on with my story. . .

Anna eventually convinced me to invest in a copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, a sketch pad, three drawing pencils and a kneaded eraser. The results astounded me. I'd only made it a few pages into the book before I drew a picture of one of my sneakers. . .and it was good! I'm not sure, but it's possible that I got so excited that I called her long distance to share my joy.

And I suddenly understood what she meant about the importance of learning to see. The average person looks at the sneaker on the floor and sees a shoe. The artist looks at the sneaker on the floor and sees a shoe. Different artists describe it in a variety of ways - positive and negative space, light and shadows, etc. -but the bottom line is that the artist learns to look at a thing and see it in detail. She notices the light reflecting off the eyelets and the tips of the laces, the creases that mar the toe and the fraying of the sewn-on trim. She is able to break the item down into its parts and draw those parts. And, in reproducing details the average person never even notices, she produces a drawing that clearly is the item it represents. The key, then, to becoming a skilled pencil artist lies in learning to see and reproduce those details. And you know what that means.

It means YOU could do it if you wanted to. It means your son could do it, or your daughter. It means that anyone willing to step out and invest his self and his time has the potential to become an artist.

I have.

A while back I decided it was high time I got serious about my art, or as serious as I could with my active-church-goer/homeschooling mother/editor schedule. I was ready to attempt portraiture and asked my artist friend for book suggestions. She gave me one: Lee Hammond's How to Draw Lifelike Portraits from Photographs. It was exactly what I needed. The skills it taught me, and still teaches me, have improved my pencil portraits so greatly that I now take commissions. They're few, because I still have that same heavy schedule, but they're genuine commissions that pay money and people now call me an artist. "You have so much talent!" they say. They get terribly confused when I try to explain that talent has little to do with it.

Learning to truly see the things I draw has also enabled me to see both myself and the world I live in differently. First, I have a much greater appreciation of the wonder of God's creation. Someone once laughed at me for admiring lichen on rock, but it was astoundingly beautiful. Second, my shift from "Oh no, I can't draw a straight line," to "Yes, I'm an artist" has resulted in another shift as well. I could explain it theologically, I suppose, but the bottom line is that if this is possible, if someone with absolutely no drawing talent can become a working artist, then anything is possible for me if I believe. I consider both of these to be gifts as great as the gift of learning to draw.

So if you are a would-be artist, set your fears aside and take the plunge. If you have an aspiring artist in your home, encourage them in every way you can. I promise you, there are very few people in the world who can't become the artist they dream of being.

To help you in your artist endeavors, I've gathered a collection of reviews of a variety of art resources. Some are on drawing. Some are on art in general. There's even a book in here that will help you market your artwork when the time is right. Only one or two are geared toward children, I'm afraid; most would be appropriate for the dedicated middle schooler and up. As is true in so many things, the teaching parent (or older sibling) would need to study first, and then teach a younger child, but think of it this way - the teacher may end up being told, "You have such talent!" as well.

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