This post first appeared on TheTinLife on 8 October 2020.
“He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” — Louis Nizer
I always loved learning but I didn’t like school. I hated being obliged to take mandatory classes (and in college, courses) that I didn’t care for. The few things I enjoyed, I went really deep, and neglected the rest, much to the dismay and chagrin of my instructors. I entered university intending to study painting and then, amidst the drama and depression, I switched out and never picked up a paint brush again.
Soon after I graduated, I went to work in films (a field that did not require the degree I had, yet it gave me some odd seal of legitimacy which opened doors – even to this day – so it’s not that I’m not grateful for it).
Over the years, I occasionally considered going to graduate school. I thought of studying writing. Or Italian Literature – but only for the purpose of returning to my beloved Italy (not a reliable reason). But memories of classroom politics and a rigid structure made me recoil. (It’s the same response, incidentally, I have to the corporate world, which I also was temporarily part of.)
I love teaching, but I didn’t think I would be a student again.
Then, two months ago, after a mere 28-year gap, I began drawing again (as I’d written here).
And once I started, it felt like meeting my Great Love again – a sense of “rightness” at last clicking into place somewhere deep inside, a combination of comfort yet excitement, and the challenge of the very best kind: one that makes me come alive.
The idea of being without it ever again sounds as ludicrous as waving goodbye to the person you know you want to spend your life with.
As Elizabeth Gilbert said in her brilliant book, Big Magic, when explaining why people persist in creating, even when it’s difficult, inconvenient and often financially unrewarding: “When people are having an affair, they don’t mind losing sleep, or missing meals. They will make whatever sacrifices they have to make, and they will blast through any obstacles, in order to be alone with the object of their devotion and obsession—because it matters to them. Let yourself fall in love with your creativity like that and see what happens.”
And so, amidst the upheaval of the past few months of a back injury, packing up my life, moving countries and the trauma of travel in the time of Covid, I made the time.
In my teens I used pencil and charcoal then moved onto oils. This time, I fell in love with pen and ink. Sometimes I don’t even draw per se, but just have my hand move across paper, creating shapes and sometimes words. I bought watercolour and brushes too. I played a little with it, but retreated.
I’m now staying with my mother for the foreseeable future. I’m still in isolated quarantine so actually haven’t seen her yet, but the relief of no longer being alone has brought me great comfort. Now I feel I can exhale and stop waiting for the Next Thing.
(Okay, I admit, I’m also ready to hit the road as soon as it becomes safe to travel again, but I’m aware that the global situation is not changing any time soon, so for all intents and purposes, I’m Right Here Right Now.)
I’m very happy sketching and scribbling and doodling. I could do it forever. I draw the way I do everything: precise, detail-oriented and controlling everything (see cat sketch, above).
From the start though, I’ve wanted to get into colour – because, well, life. My previous tools now don’t feel that compelling. Pastels feel too dusty. Oils feel too elaborate. My approach to life now is lighter and mobile. Which is why I’d bought watercolour, knowing instinctively this could be ideal.
There’s a more loose, free-flowing, trust-in-the-universe quality to watercolour that has confounded and terrified me every time I ventured near it. I know it could be hugely revelatory if I really go for it. As always, I know the real magic lies in letting go.
There is an incredible wealth of resources online to help me. I tried a few short tutorials online, but it felt like scratching the surface. The more I dug, the more I wanted to go deep. So I thought: why not?
Here’s my plan: Rather than go about this in a haphazard manner, I want to treat the next few months as my own semester of intense learning. To pick the instructors I want to learn from, to select the subjects I think will enrich my life and knowledge (I want to understand everything: what are the properties of different pigments that make up watercolour paints? How do they suspend in water and how does the kind of paper I use change the effect? I’m a sponge when it comes to soaking up knowledge I’m fascinated about).
Making great watercolour paintings at the end of it is not even the goal. Nothing thrills me more than a steep learning curve. To apply myself to a complex task and come out the other end somehow transformed by the journey – that’s the reward.
At the end of this year, I can assess where I want to go next: try intermediate watercolour classes? Add supplementary lessons on typography, book binding (how I’d love to bind my own sketchbooks!), or even making my own watercolours? But all that can be decided later.
Honestly, the mere idea of spending my next few months drawing and painting makes me cry with happiness. The only thing that remotely made me feel this ecstatic in a long time was being in nature last month after a six-month lockdown.
I always heard the expression, “Youth is wasted on the young”, which feels broad to me. I think it’s more accurate to say “education is wasted on the young”. When I was young I thought I knew everything and resented being taught.
It’s only as a grown up do I revel in saying: I want to be a student, I want to learn.
It’s as an adult I know that to keep learning means to keep growing, which means I stop feeling stale and stagnant, which – ironically – makes me feel young.
“I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.” — Chopin
I’m assuming there’s not a hoard of secret wannabe watercolour enthusiasts reading this so I won’t detail my (very long) reading, watching, blog and class lists here (if you’re interested, do email! I’ll happily share). I’ve hand picked a few which may be fun for everyone.
Koosje Koene has a chatty, friendly style, and she’s been sharing a free tip every week called Draw Tip Tuesday for seven years on her YouTube channel as well as on Sketchbook Skool’s channel. I watched this video and was charmed by her light, playful touch. Then I watched this and learnt to get over my terror of a new sketchbook and draw my art kit (it took me three days but I got there eventually, see above).
Although she’s currently on a temporary digital detox, I look forward to Koosje’s tips weekly.
I tried a number of classes on Skillshare. For those unfamiliar, Skillshare is an online platform where instructors offer short courses on a wide range of topics. You sign up for a monthly or annual premium membership which gives you unlimited access to thousands of courses. (The price range varies depending on the country you’re signing up from.)
However, Skillshare overwhelms me the way a brunch buffet overwhelms me: everything looks tantalising until I actually bite into it, then I feel that inevitable pinch of disappointment. My greed is not matched by the offerings (though I stress I’ve only tried a fraction of what’s available, so my opinion is akin to trying a few olives and declaring the whole buffet unappetising; apologies. They have awe-inspiring speakers like Roxanne Gay and Simon Sinek too, it’s just not what I want at this time).
Domestika is similar to Skillshare in that it’s a platform where different instructors have short courses. But, oh! Domestika is like the plush, glamorous version. All courses are design/art based, the largely Spanish-speaking (all lessons have subtitles) instructors are award winning, and the videos are exquisitely produced. They feel like an Armani ad.
I believe there is a membership option where you can take unlimited classes for a monthly fee, but I want to avoid that buffet dilemma and only pay for the courses I specifically want to take. I purchased a couple during a recent 75%-off sale, though they normally are in the region of US$40 per course.
The more in-depth courses (offered directly by artist–instructors on their own websites, to be taken in your own time over 6-12 weeks) are more heavy-lifting. They are more expensive and require more commitment so I’m choosing carefully though here, too, I am spoilt for choice.
In my earlier attempts to get back into drawing, I’d start with a single large sheet of blank paper, and found the prospect terrifying. This time, I’ve kept it casual and (somewhat) private by keeping a small A5 journal.
If you plan to use watercolour, then it’s good to get a sketchbook that specifically caters to watercolour or mixed media, otherwise the paper can warp and bleed through. For pen and ink, any sketchbook should work well, though not all take fountain pens without rebelling.
As mentioned in my earlier post, I loved Samantha Dion Baker’s book Draw Your Day, and Danny Gregory’s compilation, An Illustrated Journey, which outlines how various artists around the world keep travel journals.
One of my favourite journal keepers is José Naranja. His intricate drawings and typography are jaw-dropping. He sells curated facsimiles of two journals to date: The Orange Manuscript (also available as a free PDF download on the same page), and The Nautilus Manuscript.
Prolific Cathy Johnson (who will certainly figure in my current art education) is sharing her ebook, Keeping an Artist’s Journal, for free during Covid. You can download it here.