Finding purpose in the process: a recap of the Drawing Project

drawing project

Tomorrow a yearlong project comes to a close. Last September I started sending out weekly emails to a small group of people who agreed to join me in an experiment. I wanted to see if I could confront my inner critic and my fear of drawing and find a way to make drawing feel fun again. I've spent the last twelve months reading drawing books and blogs, obsessively searching for drawing quotes, writing about drawing, and, of course, drawing. It has been quite an adventure. This last year I've tried new materials, visited new places, and drawn subjects that I probably never would have otherwise. I've dealt with frustration, boredom, and disappointment and I've enjoyed wonder, delight, and a sense of flow.

drawing project

I didn't draw as much as I'd hoped I would. I had this idea that by the end of the year I would have fallen completely in love with drawing and would be obsessively scribbling all the time. That just hasn't happened. I still frequently don't feel like drawing, or don't think that I can, and often have to intentionally remind myself of all that I've learned over the past year. It hasn't been a linear climb to some ecstatic peak of transformation. It has been a journey of both peaks AND valleys and I usually find myself somewhere in the middle. I didn't do all the assignments like I had originally planned, and as the year progressed I did fewer and fewer.

There were months when I didn't enjoy drawing at all and it was a complete slog writing the emails and doing any work in my sketchbook. And there were other months where I amazed myself with what I was capable of. Plenty of the drawings were terrible and I was embarrassed to share them in our private Facebook group. Most were okay and a small few were very good.

Every single drawing taught me something, whether I realized it at the time or not.

drawing project

Despite the ups and downs, I would say that, for the most part, I do feel better about drawing than I used to. My confidence has increased significantly and I feel better about incorporating drawing into my regular art practice. I'll never make it my sole focus, but I'm happy to see it as a friend to be embraced rather than an enemy to be avoided.

The Challenges

The biggest obstacle that I came up against during the project was a sort of existential crisis brought on by the thought, "Why am I doing this?" There were times when it felt pointless to continue a drawing that didn't seem to be going anywhere and that I wasn't enjoying. A few times I wanted so badly to put down my pen or pencil and walk away but my commitment to the yearlong learning process kept me planted, and I finished every drawing I started. I also kept every single drawing, no matter how much I disliked it. This meant that as I struggled along, I often came up with a reason for that particular drawing, which kept the existential angst at bay:

I'm drawing to learn to see.

I'm drawing to make my hand steady and confident.

I'm drawing to pass the time.

I'm drawing to teach myself patience.

I'm drawing to explore an idea.

I'm drawing to record a moment.

I'm drawing to learn about mark-making.

I'm drawing to try something new.

I'm drawing to push myself out of my comfort zone.

I'm drawing to find something beautiful.

I'm drawing to express something within myself.

And most importantly: I'm drawing because every line has something to teach me, if I'll let it.

drawing project

The Wins

The more I explored drawing for its own sake, and doing it whether I thought it was "good" or "useful" or not, the more I started to experience magical epiphanies where the struggle suddenly made sense. Here are two recent examples:

Magical epiphany #1

drawing project

One of the last drawings that I completed was this one, of my motorcycle. I started with the section in the top left, the headlight, and then worked my way around clockwise. I hated that first drawing. The entire time I was struggling with the "What's the point?" thoughts: "I don't like this subject, I'm never going to be someone who draws motorcycles, why am I doing this?" But I knew there had to be some reason for this, even if it just meant looking more closely at my motorcycle, so I kept going. The second drawing felt a little bit easier, and I felt better about the result.

By the time I was working on the drawing in the bottom left, I was completely lost in the process and couldn't wait to get back to my desk to finish the final piece. I was so glad that I had stuck it out and I was fascinated to see how my drawing style changed from piece to piece. It started going deeper as I spent a lot more time and care on the shading and giving the image more depth. I thought about going back and touching up the earlier ones so that the whole page would be consistent, but I was so pleased to have such a clear record of a learning process that I decided to leave it. I was amazed at how something initially so unpleasant turned out to be one of my favourite projects.

Magical epiphany #2

drawing project

Last weekend I was trying to pass the time at a very slow market. My phone had run out of data, so I couldn't scroll Instagram endlessly like I usually do, and I hadn't brought a book. I had brought a sketchbook and a pencil case full of pens and markers so I started drawing some random patterns. They felt sloppy and uninteresting and I wasn't pleased with where the drawing was going. Eventually, I gave up and put the sketchbook away. "I guess I didn't really learn that much after all," I thought grumpily.

After cheering myself up with a hot chocolate, however, I decided to try again. I decided to return with an open mind and to see if I could find something interesting or useful within the drawing, even if I didn't like it as a whole. Once I had filled the page, I found that I liked the way some elements in the lower right corner looked. So I took those and made another drawing using just those elements. This second drawing was a lot more fun and I enjoyed how it turned out (or will turn out once it's finished).

Of course, there have been plenty of times when I stuck with a drawing and still didn't enjoy it at the end, like when I struggled for over an hour to draw the underside of a mushroom and it just looked like incoherent lines. Those times I just had to trust that I was getting something out of it, even if it didn't feel like it at the time.

drawing project

Permission to do it my way

I also am finally starting to give myself permission to stop doing things that don't appeal to me. I've always felt like I need to be one of those people who carries around a sketchbook and is constantly drawing (like this artist). I admire their work so much and have held it up as the ideal artistic practice. But I've learned that I actually prefer to take photos when I'm out and then do the drawing at home. This always seemed like it was wrong somehow but after looking at so many different drawings and reading about so many different artists, I can finally accept that my process is my process. I enjoyed a brief stint of sketching when I visited Portland but I'm not putting pressure on myself to keep it up.

drawing project

The truth is that I feel like I've barely scratched the surface—there is so much more to learn and so much more experimentation to be done. But since I have a better idea of what I like and what interests me, it doesn't feel quite so overwhelming. I was hoping to finish the project with a better idea of what my style of drawing is, but I've tried so many different things it's hard to see a cohesive thread. I'm okay with continuing to practice and, without the constraints of the assignments, following what feels most fun and seeing what emerges. I have learned that I like simple line drawings and, as you can see from the photos on this page, I did develop a fascination with watercolours. I have a feeling you'll be seeing more of these in the future.

The adventure continues.

If you took part in the Drawing Project in any small way, I would love it if you left a comment below with something that you learned. If not, what's an example of a time when you pushed yourself to do something that scared you and were rewarded in the end?

P.S. You can find three other posts on my experiences with the Drawing Project here, here, and here.