If there is one thing I have consistently wanted to be good at, a talent I have desperately envied in others my entire life it is this: illustration.
From time immemorial, I have had an absolute obsession with all things paper and pen. The closet in my childhood bedroom was absolutely enormous (not just in kid relativity) and one entire shelf was full of paper – top to bottom, side to side. I had all the colors, all the thicknesses, all the textures you could possibly imagine. The shelf above that was rammed full of pens and pencils – jars of them, bags of them, drawers of them. I had skinny ones, fat ones, glittery ones, inky ones, scratchy ones, markers, sharpies, colored pencils, crayons – anything I could convince my mom to buy or get away with accidentally not returning to whoever lent it to me (yes, I am the place where all your missing pens end up. Mystery solved).
Pen and paper are the perfect marriage for me. They are all I really need in my life. They let me write, they let me read, they let me doodle, they let me fantasize and wander and daydream. There are few things I love more than black ink on a white page. I love coloring in the spaces. I love appreciating the lines. I love whimsical swirls. I love ominous images. I love it all. I cannot get enough of it.
In my adult life, I can and have quite easily gotten quite lost in the world of illustration online. I used to haunt a series of blogs, watching the artists talk together, listening to them inspire and support one another, and feeling utterly despondent that I couldn’t be a part of that world.
This envy comes from the fact that every time I put my own pen to the page, I produce the most infantile scrawlings known to man. My dogs look like small, deformed elephants. On a good day, my people are stick shaped. I am either the very best or absolute worst partner you could ever have at Pictionary – it all comes down to how much you like to laugh.
I have never let myself imagine that I could call myself an illustrator, that I could put myself in this class of people I respect and love so completely. That I could actually belong with people who are so creative, so incredibly inspired, so beautiful. Every time I have ever touched my pen to the page, I have heard the tape in my head start to loop “I can’t draw. I can’t draw. I can’t draw.” and I have stopped – broken, sad and completely defeated.
For the last few weeks, I have been going through the Artist’s Way book (a truly amazing read and creative adventure I think everyone in the world could benefit from), and it has stirred up a lot for me. It has made me address some of my ideas about what creativity means, about where it comes from and what it is capable of. It’s also made me see a lot more clearly what it looks like when a creative person stops themself from doing the thing they are compelled to do.
This realisation came to me as an image – as it always does – and I was desperate to express it as a drawing. All I wanted to do was draw a stick figure carrying a hobo bag on a stick. That’s it. But the thought terrified me. My hands were shaking and I was absolutely panic stricken that I wouldn’t be able to draw even that simple image.
And yet, I started.
I drew heads that were too wonky. Smiles that were too creepy. Legs that were anatomically impossible. It was kind of a mess – but I kept going.
It took me two pages of practice to get the beginnings of the image I wanted. But after some tweaking and some wishing, I sat back and saw exactly what I sat down to draw. I couldn’t have been more chuffed to see my pen create the perfect image for what I was feeling.
It made me go a little nuts. I was so excited about making an image I was proud of that I spent the next few days in a total Sharpie frenzy. I couldn’t draw enough. I couldn’t be with my notepad long enough. I would make myself stop for a while to start on other projects – things I have to do to live my life as a responsible, adult-type person – but I could only think about drawing. And for the first time in my life, I found a strange thing happening with my images. I started liking them. I started seeing them as a place full of possibility, a place for my own self-expression instead of a xerox machine for others’ ideas.
My images are far from perfect. They are far from skilled or professional. But making a lot of them over the last few days has changed my perception of what it means to illustrate. My whole life, I have looked at images that other people create and thought, “Oh my God! That is the most amazing/beautiful/stunning/evocative/powerful/moving image I have ever seen. I love it so deeply I cannot even express my total amazement at its beauty and my gratitude that this is now part of my life forever.”
Then I try to make that thing.
Unsurprisingly, it looks nothing like what I want it to. I can’t evoke the same feeling, I can’t create the same personality, I can’t draw the same thing. So I crumble. I grow despondent. I get sad and dejected at the idea that something I love so much, that fills my heart with such joy, that makes me so deeply happy, won’t come out of my own fingers. I curse my hands for their lack of skill and resign myself to appreciating the ability in others, always secretly yearning to make the thing myself.
But I’m learning something. It isn’t about making the thing that other people make. It isn’t even about making the thing that I picture in my mind beforehand. It’s about putting the pen on the paper and letting it do what it wants. Laughing at the turns it takes. Smiling at the colors it puts together. Allowing it to make what it wants out of the page. It’s about letting the image make itself, and not judging or censoring it along the way. It’s a really hard thing to do, which is why I am going to force myself to do a whole lot more of it – publicly, which is even harder.
I’ve been putting up images of my doodles on Instagram the last few days, if you want to check in and see what I’m up to. And for those of you who like postcards (who doesn’t!) for the next month (maybe longer), I will make all the postcards I send out (sign up to get one here!).
I am new to this. I am just getting started. I feel behind. I feel set back by my own mental blocks, my own definitions of what my expressions should look like, of what they should represent, of what they should embody. I am walking out into a completely blank space, and I am touching my pen to the page…