Let me just get this out of the way first: Two weeks ago, I had a heart attack.
Sorry, I know that sounds a bit melodramatic. But I didn’t even know it at the time. For the rest of the following week, I thought I had a chest infection and just needed to take it easy.
Like most things that scare you, the reality isn’t as bad as you might think. People can have heart attacks and go on to live perfectly normal lives, run marathons even.
The mornings are the hardest time, when I wake up and remember that I’m ill again and still have a thousand and one things I need to do. Each day seems like a mountain I have to climb.
But I’ve been here before, and I know how to approach it. I know that mountain is too big to see all at once.
So I do the small things: Make sure I get out of bed and shower and shave, get dressed. Go for a short walk every day. Bit by bit, the mountain gets smaller.
It’s the same thing with practice. It’s daunting sometimes when you think about all you have to learn, all the improvements you need to make to get your work to where you want it to be. That mountain also is just too big to comprehend all at once.
The answer is the same: Do the small things. Just look at the next small step.
How I practice Drawing
Always, the first thing I do is to sharpen my charcoal pencil on some sandpaper.
A meditative five minutes or so is spent on this job, getting it to a fine point, cleaning off the dust and placing it in the holder if it’s getting short.
Then I just sit, and take a moment to feel grateful that I’m here, in my own space, with an opportunity to spend some time developing my drawing skills.
This part of the practice session is the most important, for me.
What I draw
What I do in a practice session varies, but it’s always very focused practice for a short amount of time.
At the moment, my favourite exercise is one called “Origin/Destination” from the excellent Language of Drawing programme from Anthony Waichulis.
This is actually the first exercise in the program, and strictly speaking I’m past this point in the program now, but I still do it every day (or at least, every day I don’t miss practice!)
It’s all about developing a controlled and confident line, and being able to connect two points (the origin point and the destination point) with a straight line. It’s surprisingly hard at first.
Here’s a quick video from a while back of me doing it, so you can see what it’s like.
Why I do this
I realise it may seem strange to some that I still put aside some time every day to practice what might be thought of as beginner skills. After all, I can do a pretty accurate block in these days anyway – accurate enough for my still life paintings, at least.
I do it because I believe that the basic, fundamental skills like this feed into everything you do. If I develop this skill, lots of other skills naturally develop at the same time.
I do it because every time I do it, it teaches me a little more about focus. And because gradually over time, I see a constant development of my control of my materials.
And I do it because now, after practising like this for several years (in various different ways with different exercises) I find I’ve come to a point where I love the practice for its own sake.
What I get from it
To me, it’s more than building skills. It’s a meditation. It’s an opportunity to slow down and be, it’s where I find the core of who I am.
Ultimately, I think practice is about rhythm. If you can get into a steady rhythm with it, repeat, repeat, repeat, you’ll wake up one day and find that your skills have developed well beyond what they were. You’ll be doing something, blocking in a painting maybe, and find suddenly that it’s not only much easier than it used to be, but that it’s better, too.
There are times when the pressure is high, when I know bills are coming due, when the bank balance is dwindling to next-to-nothing and the kids need to eat, that I’m tempted to leave the practice and get straight on with the work that earns money: working on videos, making small paintings for auction, whatever.
I don’t always win that battle. Sometimes I do miss practice. But more often than not, I do win it. Because I know that one thing is for sure: tomorrow will come. And when it does, I’d like to be a better artist than I am today.
A few millimetres more
Each practice session wears a few millimetres off those pencils, hardly noticeable. But look at them now. They’ve become a record of the development of my skill and of my commitment to myself to constantly improve.
And they teach me much more than drawing skills. This approach, this mindset works for anything you want to achieve. Right now, I’m walking for just a few minutes each day, getting my heart used to exercise again. When I wake up in the mornings, when my resolve is weakest, I just concentrate on getting downstairs and into the shower.
We may not be able to choose what happens to us much of the time, but we can choose how we deal with it. Once that decision is made, the most effective way to implement it – assuming you’ve made the right one – is just to take the next small step:
Sharpen your pencil.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
P.S. I’m currently reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He found meaning under the most unfavourable circumstances: internment in a Nazi concentration camp.
His message is that although we can’t choose our circumstances, we can choose how we react to them. We can decide to let them overwhelm us, or to persevere despite them. That this choice, if we make the right one, makes life meaningful and purposeful.
Most of us will never have to endure the kind of suffering that he did. But in small ways, we have the opportunity to make a positive decision many times every day.
We may not always make the right one; I don’t, always. But over time, those decisions make us who we are.
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