How to Draw Without Talent

Careful readers may have noticed that I’ve been dropping the occasional sketch into the blog (and into my erratic Instagram feed).

This all started back in March with a sketch of Oliver and Ethan. As I explained briefly then, I was sent off down this road by an online course called How to Draw Without Talent that I found my way to via the Dan Misener-helmed Work in Progress podcast (an estimable effort in its own right; you should subscribe).

Beyond the dulcet tones of Dan Misener advertorially singing its praises, the thing that drew me to the course was the “Without Talent” part.

I have long thought myself without talent for sketching, drawing, painting, and related arts because I was so abjectly unsuccessful at them during my public school years. I’m pretty sure that there was an implicit “we understand you have no talent, so just try your best” vibe from my public school art teachers that only reinforced this.

The capper was when I took my portfolio to Portfolio Day at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto in the late 1980s. I did this not because I thought myself talented in the “fictional fine arts,” but because I’d cultivated an interested in graphic design and typesetting and was seeking to further this. The reviewer of my portfolio, from the Rhode Island School of Design as it happens, opened my portfolio, filled with posters, newsletters, broadsides, and booklets, and their first question was “where are your drawings?” At which point I was forced to admit having no talent in this regard and thus no drawings. Their reply was something along the lines of “your work is intensely typographical.” Which, I think, was a way of saying “you have no talent” in as gentle a way as possible.

Suffice to say that I did not pursue a fine arts education. And my sense of having no talent was cemented.

It’s for this reason that taking a course with “Without Talent” in the title was a beckoning door for me. I figured that, for $39, what did I have have to loose.

And so, in a hotel in Halifax on a cold March night, I payed my tuition, got over my “gross misuse of the letter K” issues with the Skool spelling, and started to draw.

And I’ve been drawing every day since.

A Sketch of Local 343

I’ve drawn my house and my family and my family’s houses. I’ve drawn churches and buildings and many, many cups of coffee. I’ve drawn flowers and hair brushes and Ethan the Dog.

I have no delusions of having talent, but I’ve decided, goaded on by the excellent tutelage of instructor Danny Gregory, to set that aside as a reason for not taking the pen out for a ride.

The effect has been transformative: while my degree of talent may not have changed, my eyes certainly have. I now look at buildings–or people, or hair brushes, or dogs–and see things I’ve never seen. This is a hard thing to describe with any degree of accuracy, but I feel, sensorily, as though I am able to taste food for the first time.

As I wrote in a fan letter to Danny Gregory:

And here’s the revelation: the source code for sketching is all right there. Staring me in the face. Which isn’t to say that it’s easy nor automatic, but it is, much to my surprise and delight, possible.

I’ve come to realize another important thing: having lived with a truly-talented artist for the last 26 years, I’d ceded the role of artist in the relationship to her, carving out my creative identity through typographic means. I’d always thought, subconsciously, that daring to do anything more overtly artistic would be like Julia Child’s husband cooking supper.

It turns out that the great thing about art is that there’s enough of it to go around: anyone can do it, and one person’s doing of it doesn’t detract from another person’s doing it.

My father asked me, on a recent visit, what Catherine thinks of my work. I told him that I didn’t know (other than her generous habit of Instagram favouriting). But it doesn’t really matter in any case, as I’ve also discovered that sketching is a pursuit that, like so many other things, has more to do with the doing than the consuming.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying (without any incentive other than wanting to share) that Learn to Draw Without Talent is on sale for $23 US this week. If, like me, your grade 7 art teacher made it clear that you were an art-loser, and you want to get over that, I cannot recommend this as a gateway drug more highly.

Let me also take this chance to recommend Danny Gregory’s books An Illustrated Journey: Inspiration From the Private Art Journals of Traveling Artists, Illustrators and Designers, An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration From The Private Sketchbooks Of Artists, Illustrators And Designers, Everyday Matters and A Kiss Before You Go: An Illustrated Memoir of Love and Loss. The latter two are powerful ruminations on life’s challenges and have been enormously helpful to me in a way that transcends their visual inspirations.

I’m so happy I found my way to this pursuit; it makes me wonder what other assumptions about my limitations I’ve internalized. So much more to learn…