My way or the highway

readingWhen I was nine in Pakistan, my grandfather’s chauffeur drove me to school every day. After a year, my grandfather told me that today he wanted me to tell the driver how to get to school.  He instructed the driver to follow my directions to the letter and we would see where we ended up. Ninety minutes later, we ran into the Indian/Pakistan border. I had guided us out of the country. I shrugged and the driver turned around and took me to school.

Living in Los Angeles means spending a lot of time almost lost. I am forever heading toward destinations unknown, with no landmarks to aim at, no Empire State to reckon by, no buildings more than a story or two tall, the horizon shrouded in smog or the marine layer. And Los Angeles, even more than New York, has no time for the timid, does not allow you to hesitate and peer around in confusion or slow down to read road signs or fumble for the map. It’s a brutal town that way.

Thank God for Roger L. Easton, the inventor of GPS. For nearly six months, I have relied on that computer lady to tell me exactly where to go anyhow to get there. Actually I have three computer ladies, one of whom is an Australian man. They dispense wisdom from our two phones and our car’s built-in sat nav system. When I am feeling especially disoriented and insecure, I sometimes have them all on at the same time,  barking out conflicting commands in various accents or recalculating in disgust at my inability to follow the most basic orders.

All these decades later, I am just as lost behind the wheel of my truck as I was in the backseat of Gran’s Mercedes.  All this step-by-step guidance is now as useless as last summer’s directions for assembling my Ikea bookshelves, in one ear and out the window.  I barely know my way around town, have only the vaguest sense of where Hollywood is relative to Downtown and that there are lots of town and cities and neighborhoods in between with names that are familiar from the movies but which I couldn’t begin to drive toward if my cel service went out.

Which brings me, inevitably of course, to drawing.

For the last few months, I have gotten more and more deeply into teaching people how to make art. I’m doing workshops, I’m writing a new book, and I’m pretending to be the co-headmaster of Sketchbook Skool. So I have to figure out how to tell other people, sometimes in just a couple of hours, how to do what I have taken a decade and a half to do.
blind-handI never learned much of anything from those step-by-step diagrams in art instruction books or in “watch me paint” demos on YouTube. Following someone’s suggestion to first draw a circle and then draw two more circles and then add a triangle and then erase this bit and that till it looks like an old sea captain just has nothing to do with why I draw. I love Bob Ross’ voice and his Afro but I never learned anything about picture making from watching him paint the reflections of pine trees in a tranquil lake. 

I think the way you have to teach people is by releasing a catch hidden deep inside of them. That catch that’s locking them down with the fear of making a mistake. They are so concerned that their drawings won’t look exactly like what they are trying to draw that they can’t get off their duffs and start making some marks on paper. They so badly want to be able to pick up a pencil and draw like da Vinci that anything less unrealistic seems pointless and defeating. Instead, they waste a bunch of time saying they have no talent, can’t draw a straight line, are so stupid, and so on.

But if you can just reach that catch and unlatch it, the world of possibilities swings open. Suddenly you see that drawing isn’t a way of making wall decorations or proving you have some innate gift, it’s how you see the world.  And the funny thing is, there are as many ways of seeing the world as there are see-ers of the world.  All cameras make the same sorts of images but all artists make things differently.  As Oscar Wilde put it, ”Be yourself. Every one else is taken.”

One man wrote to us at Sketchbook Skool and said, “Before I sign up, can you guarantee that you’ll teach me to draw?” I told him, um, absolutely not. Only he can guarantee to teach himself to draw. One less customer, I guess.

So how do you teach people to make art? Well, you start by turning off the GPS lady. You can’t draw if I’m holding your hand. Instead of turn-by-turns, you start by inspiring them with some postcards of wonderful places other people have sent back from their travels and then you let them start off in a random direction.

In the driveway, you might teach them a couple of simple principles like negative space and how to take measurements but you explain that these aren’t really rules, they’re just helpful suggestions to grasp at when you worry you’re going off the rails. You hang on in the back seat and encourage them to keep going, and make a few gentle suggestions, to maybe slow down on the curves a bit, and to stop pumping the gas and the brakes together. You tell them to loosen up and not clutch the pen so tight. You point out where they made an interesting turn and you console them when they think they are hopelessly off the road. You show them that if they just keep going, they will always end up somewhere new and interesting and probably not where they thought they were headed. And the driving metaphor finally runs out when you tell them that they can and should take risks and be brave, that no one ever died making a drawing, no matter how ‘bad’ it was.

The key is to build their confidence. To let them know that they can do it. If you have confidence, then you can start to let your self come out, the self that has been watching the world through your eyeholes all these years, that has noticed odd little things. that feels deeply about certain matters, that doesn’t necessarily speak in words, and that wants really badly to share its POV with the world, if only you will let it.  You can’t force that voice and vision or even describe shortcuts to it. You just have to let it feel safe and have ample opportunity to stick is head out from that deep hole in your soul.

It’s up to you. Your mom taught you to walk. But you taught you to run. Your dad taught you to drive in a parking lot. But you taught you to drive down the 405 while checking your email, singing along with Pharrell, applying lip gloss, arguing with your husband, and remembering to buy milk.

There are no shortcuts or instruction books to being a human being or to being an artist. Every single day is a lesson and the skool year never ends.

45 thoughts on “My way or the highway

  1. I do believe it was you who wrote something to the effect of “just let the pen follow what your eye sees.” Anyway, I’ve been doing that ever since and I’m continually amazed at what turns up on my page! Thanks!

  2. 1. A confident line is more interesting than an accurate line.
    2. Get yourself a BIG piece of paper and draw a map of Los Angeles and environs. Add landmarks as you discover them. Make it a “living” document. Have visitors indicate their homes. At Burning Man we put up a huge world map and overseas visitors sign in. They love finding out somebody from near their home is also attending. Your own visitors might discover they are near another acquaintance and never even knew it. Enjoy LA

  3. Great Article, Danny….everyone has a signature unique to them. Unlatch that fear, as you say, and release your own creative voice. No one can walk that lonesome road for you; you have to do it for yourself. A little help along the way can’t hurt, however.

  4. You’re right…Bob Ross didn’t teach me to paint either but do you know what I got from Bob Ross? The passion of painting. The sound of his brush tapping on the canvas when he painted his happy little trees had me running to make that happy sound. I still love the smells and sounds of creating. In my sketchbook I love to hear the scratchy sound of dip pen on paper and watch the flow of india ink take shape. When I talk with children about working in a sketchbook I try to get them excited about the materials and what is around them that they can capture anytime or in any format they want to onto the page. You are so right on about building confidence and you have proven that drawing everyday matters and builds confidence to keep exploring and finding oneself through the

  5. Dear Danny,
    I just loved this post. I’ve been following you on and off for some years now, and I just had to say hi after reading this. I moved to Los Angeles almost a year ago now, and this sprawling city is still pretty foreign to me (I grew up in Wisconsin). And I’ve definitely been cheating, relying on my boyfriend to decide which freeway is a better route, and, at other times when I’m alone, clenching tightly to my own written directions on a tiny piece of paper. It’s time to uncover the real relationships between neighborhoods here.

    I came here to be a writer/director/actor in film and I realize, especially in terms of directing, what a responsibility it is to guide an actor in a performance (and guide myself as an actor as well). Releasing the catch hidden inside them (I love that) is a delicate process. We get so terrified of making mistakes, but when you let go and actually make them, that’s where the magic happens. When an actor forgets a line on camera and I can guide them into staying with the moment and trusting that their feelings will guide their performance – that’s when miracles happen on camera. The wall goes down and the eyes reveal that they’re suddenly in real time, not a rehearsed moment. It’s scary, but it’s also a rush. Little improvised moments that can really make a film only come about when that catch is released, even just briefly.

    Anyway, thank you! It’s so great to follow an artist who is also getting used to LA. :-)

  6. When I open up my blog reader program and see there’s one from Danny Gregory I smile to myself. That’s going to be the best. But I don’t rush straight to it – I just see it there in the periphery of my vision and I savour the moment until I reach it. It’s a little like fried eggs. I always leave the yolk to the last because it’s my best bit. Of course, by then it’s probably a little less warm than it should be but it’s still the best bit! SO looking forward to Sketchbook Skool.

  7. You pretty much hit the nail on the dead with this story. Everyone can relate to your metaphor to some extent. Seems to me that those that are visual adept are more likely to pick up on sketching or drawing easier than those that are verbal. I may be wrong on that observation. I did like this article. Overcoming a catch, like fear, is the key to unlocking new vista’s in this world we live in.

  8. I wish the Klasses were starting tomorrow–I am ready. After the latest snowstorm is over, I may go up to Mt. Rushmore and do a contour drawing of the faces, your post was so inspiring.

  9. Danny, I love the idea of releasing the catch deep inside. Little by little, my catch is being loosened, and I suspect when semester one of Sketchbook Skool is done, that catch will have snapped completely open. Not to perfection, but to the sheer love of “giving it my best shot” and all that I learn along the way. Thanks for this post! I agree with all the others – can’t wait for Skool to begin!

  10. Like Lynn commented above, I started drawing again (years ago, now) because you wrote “Draw what you see”. So instead of drawing an eraser (and what that was “supposed” to look like), I drew the thing I saw in front of me and wonder of wonders, it came out looking like an eraser! I have continued to strive to do that, but it’s always nice to be reminded that we have to let go of the fear of mistakes and just do it, and that practice is how we gain confidence. The way you’ve written this message in the post, Danny, really resonates. You’re awesome :)

  11. When I moved here 30 ago we used a map book called ‘thomas guide’. It was a great tool to navigate California. Then we advanced to map quest. Today I still miss my Thomas guide. It might help you too if you can still locate an old copy of Thomas guide. Its great!

  12. Great post, Danny. I began art journaling several years ago and have struggled mightily to “find my style”. I started drawing just last year, and have lost my fear of trying, which means I am no longer afraid of being imperfect. And funnily, I have come to realize that the imperfections of my drawing are my style! And as I look at other people’s drawings and journals now, I realize that what I recognize as an artist’s “style” is often their unique brand of imperfection.

  13. “I think the way you have to teach people is by releasing a catch hidden deep inside of them.”
    Thank you for this visual! Now I want to illustrate a gate, just unlatched, & opening to a wonderful world! Thank you! ♥

  14. I’ve been following your blog posts for a while, but this one, this was inspired. You eloquently explained something I’ve been trying to point out for a while. Thank you. I’ll be referring to this post frequently from now on.

  15. How funny that you talk bout learning to drive. I tell my students all the time about how when they started to learn to drive they stalled the car, made mistakes, persevered and eventually passed their exam, now they drive on “auto pilot” doing a “million” other things on route to where they are going. Drawing is the same. Why is it that peeps want to do it perfectly first time? I think it has a lot to do with our schooling. Brilliantly written article.

  16. I found this an enlightening article. Having just posted a step-by-step tutorial on social media for the whole world to see, I was of course horribly embarrassed. I tried to think about what you said objectively, and I think there are two sides.
    I spent years trying to discover the secret to Hergé’s beautiful work in Tintin, and tried to find something that would tell me his method – the more step-by-step the better. I just wanted to know the secret. But it wasn’t to be found, and so I gave up.
    So here’s the bit where I agree with you.
    After I gave up trying to find the secret, I started an illustration business, and I drew all the time. Then I discovered Everyday matters and drew even more. Then I discovered Urban Sketchers and drew even more. Two years later I have returned to children’s picture books, this time as author and illustrator…and suddenly it’s easy, after years and years of failing. So I guess I discovered the secret – that there isn’t one, you just have to draw so much that eventually it’s just not hard anymore.
    And here’s the other side of the argument.
    I see the frustration of my students when they see what I can do, and wonder why they can’t. I try to show them that it’s not rocket science, and so I show them what to do. Simple as that. Just as my teachers set me on the path as a teenager, I try to set them on the path too. After that, it’s up to them – of course. But all I’m doing is exactly what you say you don’t have an issue with – showing them how to look, how to see, and taking mental measurements.
    Maybe it won’t be of any use to my students – they haven’t seen my tutorial yet. Unless it helps them a lot, I won’t do it again, as all it meant for me was a few hours’ less sleep, with an early start.
    But if it removes the furrowed brow from just one of them, then I’ll be happy.

    • All that matters is that you get them drawing, and ultimately drawing on their own. If a step-by-step approach gets some of them going, I guess it’s a good thing. I think there are limits to how far that will get you, however. They may be able to ape your strokes and produce one lovely thing, but I wonder if that will endure, will it stoke their fires and keep them creating their own work?
      Personally, I am impatient. I could never learn to play a musical instrument because I just can’t stick with the fingering exercises. I want to play songs, make music, not do technical work.
      But as with most things I say, your mileage may vary. Don’t be embarrassed, just keep putting it out there and sharing your enthusiasm for drawing.
      As for Hergé, check out Tintin, the art of Hergé that was put out by the Hergé museum, I got in for Christmas from my son and it is enormously inspiring, even though I still am mystified by his draftsmanship. One secret: he had a team of a dozen people drawing for him at the end!
      I need to get a team!

      • Thanks Danny, I have (of course) the book you mention. Also, his secret is in fact the same as the one I learned: repetition. He had to produce a strip for a kids’ paper every week – and he was no great shakes as a draughtsman to begin with.
        The good news is that anyone can get better just by drawing loads.
        As for aping my strokes: my sister teaches too, and she recently produced a calendar for charity. I admired her lovely illustrations, which were so “her”. To my astonishment, they were all done by her students: they have all learned to draw exactly like her. A very weird experience for both of us to observe. I wondered if the same thing would happen with my students…The funny thing is, my sister does not consciously tell her students how to draw…I wonder if your myriad followers draw like you? I did a “Breakfast” last year…!

  17. Thanks for the fuel to get the engine going. Now buckling up for the ride to skool. Just gotta choose which colour lip gloss……. Ring the bell for skool to start

  18. I have been trying to follow advices from Nicolaides’ book “a natural way to draw”, but I have found it so hard to draw very slowly watching just the model and not the paper … What do you think of this method ? I love drawing, but this method makes me hate it and feel so guilty because I don’t have the patience to draw like that one hour a day during 3 months.

    • Ugh, that sounds awful. I have looked at this book a few times and it feels a hundred years old. Drawing slowly is good and looking at your subject most of the time is also good but don’t do anything you hate. Better to do fast drawings, bad drawings, wrong drawings… than NO drawings.

    • I think that you need to look at the various ways Nicolaides spoke of drawing — he also did gesture drawing which is quite fast. His point was along the line of Frederick Franks, that people didn’t need to learn to draw, but learn to look. When my drawings are not coming out correctly it is almost always because I am nto looking, but assuming hey should look a certain way. When I was working through his book, I was part of a life drawing class with a model. We warmed up with gesture drawings, then moved into a 15 or 30 minute longer draw. I learned just to look at the pad for reference and to look at the model to see what I needed to draw. Amazing. I could draw feet (no small feat for me — pun intended!) Kate

  19. What an amazing post! You have such a great talent for writing and getting a point across! Thank you for this post today. And it left me feeling “happy”!

  20. I couldn’t agree more! that’s what I tell to my students….learn the tecniques but the most of the time is to inspire confidance ( I’m a Teatcher of public School). But at the same time, I use to say them:
    20% of inspiration; 80% of transpiration (insiste hard work…again and again and…..). Never give up believe in themselves! :)
    Great Post Danny G. like always ;)

  21. I hope you don’t ever get tired of hearing from your minions about a post that really hit the mark. This one spoke to me LOUD and CLEAR. You’re right, someone helped me learn to walk but I taught myself to run and climb trees and discover bugs and find faces in puffy clouds. We need some general tools and guidelines, but we have to let go and “do the work” and “put in the miles” to use a few cliches before we reap the rewards we are really looking for. It doesn’t happen on its own and the artist wannabe has to be a hard worker. And that is where you give me a kick in the pants with a good post like this.

  22. Hi Danny. I’ve just discovered you by purchasing a couple of your books at a local bookshop. Creative License so far is extremely inspiring. I wish I’d had it 20 years ago.

    I’m new to drawing…sort of. I’ve been half-heartedly trying to draw for many years but recently I’ve actually been seeing positive results, which is, of course, inspiring.

    But you’re right about fear. But it’s not just fear of failing, it’s fear of the criticism of others. I know people who wear the title of “Artist” with such an air of superiority and pretension that I would never dare tell them that I like to draw. Our society has this seemingly built-in notion that art is for young children or “real” artists and the rest of us shouldn’t bother.

    But I truly believe that anyone can aquire whatever skill they put their minds to. I play guitar and I teach lessons, mostly to kids. The only difference I see in “talent” amongst my students depends on whether the student practices or not. Anyone can learn to play guitar if they put in the effort.

    I now feel similarly about art. Progress is based on learning to see, and learning how to represent what you see on paper. It’s a thrilling process and I’m so glad to have found your blog and your books.

    Sorry for the long-winded post!

  23. I think our job as teachers is to turn off the I-can’t-do-this thoughts that block people from being able to create art. Recently I taught a brush painting class to non-artists and I started them off with an exercise to just scribble on the paper and make random marks. Then I gave them a small mat window and had them move it around to find a little gem of a painting, which they cut out and glued to a card front. It released their inhibitions and freed them up to continue on to the next project, which was brush painting simple birds! It is so empowering to be able to pass the art torch on to others. Love your books Danny & today I found your blog. Wonderful stuff.

  24. Great post! As a teacher in public education (K-12 Art and college-level Rhetoric and Composition), I easily identify with your thoughts here. Two strategies I use to build confidence in my students, whether making art or writing or both, is to share my own experiences–not just the “good” ones, or the “good-feeling” ones. We often learn, grow, and change the most when we are uncomfortable. Out of our comfort zone. Accomplished and “successful” artists still have to deal with the inner critic, battle their own insecurities, challenge themselves to try something new, commit to showing up–it’s just part of the creative process. Sharing our own experiences may not build confidence in others, but it can definitely help them to feel less intimidated as they ease their way or dive in to new territory. And, most creative people produce a large body of “shit” (whether based on their own or others judgment) in order to get to the “good” stuff. In short, creating shit is an essential part of the creative process. I LOVE SKETCHBOOK SKOOL–one of the best decisions I’ve made in the last decade!

    • You are a wise woman, Susan, and doubtless a great teacher. I hope people come to understand that the lessons on SBS are not prescriptive, step-by-step instruction but about the things you describe: examples, anecdotes, emotion, challenge, risk, novelty, encouragement, and then a healthy remove that allows you to find your own way.

      • Yes. And, most likely, there will be some students who are not satisfied. Just as artists (of any kind) can’t please all viewers, we teachers can’t please all students. Great (read effective) teachers take time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, whether an individual lesson, unit, workshop, or a Sketchbook Skool. I imagine our fakulty will do the same, keeping in mind that some students might be looking for or expecting something other than what they are getting. I think Sketchbook Skool is great so far–it’s getting me drawing, and I am a bit rusty. It’s great to have a community of support via Facebook and Klass, and to hear our fakulty’s stories and perspectives on artmaking, materials, etc. I have thoroughly enjoyed viewing the videos where we can see our fakulty creating drawings and hear their voices as they provide guidance and encouragement. Online courses pose certain limitations, although working within these constraints could be a way of promoting creativity–just as in the creative process we must all be flexible and willing to go with the flow! PS: The hound drawings are lovely–thank you for the gift. :)

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