How I Developed a Drawing Practice

I wanted to learn to draw for years.  It was one of those primeval urges, a desire that had no clear origin but that persisted.  I had many such urges:  writing, drawing, music, programming, etc.  The common thread that tied them together was the desire to create.  Like most people I know, I never got around to seriously developing any of them.  In medical school, I chanced upon Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (henceforth referred to as DRSB), by Betty Edwards, and bought it immediately, only to flip through its pages now and then while studying for exams.

I made a brief, if brittle,  effort to tackle DRSB circa third year of med school.  I got so far as to produce this portrait of my girlfriend at the time:


As you might expect, she didn’t look anything like this in real life!

After this initial foray into drawing, my efforts were stunned by procrastination and then drowned in the turbulence of other priorities.

I graduated, moved to the West Coast for residency,  and brought DRSB along.  During the second year of residency, while completely absorbed by the intensive care unit, my toughest rotation, I decided that, unless I make a stand now and tackle drawing, I’ll never get around to it.  So, at age 31, I started DRSB again and produced this self-portrait (11/3/10):


You will notice the stereotyped features.  This self-portrait, while inaccurately executed, is actually better than the portrait above, if only because I made an effort at the classic 3/4-view and at getting the ears right instead of leaving them out altogether.

I kept trudging through DRSB, and, near the end of the book, produced the following self-portrait with pencil on cheap white paper:


I eventually finished DRSB.  Afterward, by watching YouTube artists, developing a daily drawing habit (crucial to growth and maintenance of any skill!), and reading other books, I gradually optimized my materials, refined my technique, and worked toward mastery of the fundamentals I had picked up in Edwards’ excellent text.  Her book is still the “highest-yield” book I’ve ever read, on any subject, and I’ve worked through innumerable medical, computer science, math, “hard science”, and self-help books, among others.  For lack of time, I was not able to take formal art lessons.

The culmination of this effort was my third self-portrait, produced shortly after residency graduation and which several friends thought was a black and white photograph of me until they looked more closely or I told them it’s a drawing (7/7/2012; charcoal on 11″ by 14″ paper):


Each of the above drawings was freehanded (no tracing or drafting equipment is used in any of my drawings or paintings).  The skill of drawing what is seen is not particularly rare; what is rare is for a creative practice to take root within a person and to grow steadily over time.  However, as Edwards puts it, drawing ability is (erroneously) seen as an innate or magical ability that some possess and others do not.  This “invisible script” of “some have the ability to do activity X skilfully while others do not” also hovers over other creative endeavors:  painting, music, math, writing, programming, etc.  Unfortunately, it oversteps the reality, which is that nearly anyone who puts in the time and right effort can become very good at any activity requiring great skill.

In this blog, I will attempt to knock down the “invisible script” mentioned above by exploring creative pursuits from the standpoint of an adult with a demanding but creatively unproductive day job.


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