Drawing, Frustration, and the Art of Pedagogy

I’m just over half way through the ‘Drawing for Beginners’ class I signed up for, and as some of you may have noticed on Twitter, I have been feeling quite frustrated about the way it is going so far. I am trying to learn lessons from my frustration, but despite how ready a few people have been to suggest this, I honestly don’t think a fair conclusion is that I am receiving some valuable schooling about my own teaching. Rather, my frustrations mostly reinforce my own pedagogical strategies and priorities. They may not be perfect, and I may not implement them perfectly, but as far as they–and I–go, I think I have the right idea. *

I’m not frustrated that, after just three weeks, I still can’t draw well. I was prepared for it to take a while, and plenty of practice, for me to get any better! I’m frustrated because so far, I don’t much sense of how to improve, except to keep drawing badly until eventually, somehow, I’m drawing better. Although we have done a bit of work on explicit techniques, such as shading, we’ve mostly just been told to draw things, either from life or by copying or finishing other drawings or pictures, and reassured (if that’s the right word) that we’ll get better with practice. To me, that seems more or less the pedagogical equivalent of my putting a poem in front of someone and saying “here, write about this,” without explaining at all what “this” is, or being more specific about what I mean by “write about,” or breaking the task down into its component steps.

Maybe there isn’t an equivalent way to break down the process for learning to draw. Or maybe the direction to “look closely and draw what you see” (including if it’s upside-down) is closer than it feels to my frequent instruction to “read carefully and comment on what you notice.” I recognize that there isn’t really a way to built up a collective sense of how to do the work, the way we do in my classes through discussion of our readings. Our instructor doesn’t demonstrate our tasks for us: I don’t know if it would help if she did. In any case, I do realize that just as ultimately there’s no substitute for actually putting some words in order and seeing what they say, there’s no alternative to making marks with your pencil and seeing what they look like. In a way, what counts as success in drawing is clearer: your picture either looks like its subject or it doesn’t! That sense that there is a “right” result is one of the things I’ve been finding stressful–ironically, perhaps, I know my own students sometimes feel annoyed that there isn’t one right interpretation, or one perfect way to write their essays.

I’m also frustrated because I haven’t really been enjoying myself. I thought (foolishly, perhaps) that there would be something freeing about this experience. In part, I blame Lynda Barry! You’d never know from Syllabus that drawing can be really hard work: she makes art seem so joyous and self-criticism seem counter-productive. The goal of getting the drawings exactly right has been one of the things stifling my joy. I know that we aren’t in fact expected to get them right yet, of course: we’re just learning. Still, when there’s the shoe right in front of me, and then there’s my deformed rendition of it in my sketchbook, it’s hard to hang on to Barry’s injunction that it’s fine to be bad at things. There was a bit of a mismatch, too, between what I thought I was signing up for and what we discovered on the first day was going to be the emphasis of the class: the flyer did not specify life drawing or portraiture, but that turns out to be what our instructor is focusing on. Faces are really hard! Asking a rank beginner to draw eyes just seems like a recipe for discouragement–especially if the originals belong to Julianna Margulies.

Last night, though, I actually had fun for very nearly the first time, because we worked for a while on landscapes. They seem much more forgiving subjects than people, at least if you aren’t trying to incorporate architectural structures or to get every feature precisely accurate. Though my trees look pretty spindly and my mountains are, shall we say, impressionistic, still, it is recognizably a picture of trees and mountains, and it didn’t feel wrong to improvise a bit when I found the original drawing I was copying hard to reproduce. My fantasy about being able to draw has a lot to do with sketching expeditions to picturesque locations in Victorian novels and very little to do with portraiture; working on this picture, for once I could imagine being happily ensconced somewhere picturesque myself, sketchbook and pencils at the ready.

It isn’t that I don’t want to be more skillful, but as a beginner, and an anxious perfectionist beginner at that, I found the experience of drawing more loosely very helpful. I do want to master (or at least improve at) the more technical aspects, and obviously I’ll never do good landscape drawings if I don’t. It was just a relief to do something besides trying and failing to draw perfectly realistic eyes, hands, or shoes–something that allowed for a bit more creativity. It restored my enthusiasm for this experiment!


*Update: It’s actually mystifying to me that anyone would think this is some kind of “gotcha” moment for me: I have written a lot here over the years about my strategies for helping students past their difficulties in my own classes, I’ve never imagined they don’t experience frustration, and I’ve reflected explicitly on the value for me, as a teacher, of being a beginner at something myself–including in the context of my decision to take this drawing class. And yet I have had just that response more than once, including moments after I shared the link to this post.

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5 Responses to Drawing, Frustration, and the Art of Pedagogy

  1. Perhaps because it was in reading comic books that I first noticed “how” things are drawn, and tried imitating their style and techniques, I always thought of drawing as a kind of storytelling – I wanted to draw people because of the kind of stories I wanted to tell with pictures, though I came to think of many landscapes, such as those of the Hudson River School, as kinds of narratives as well. This attitude probably also explains why I prefer academic Victorian painting to those narrative-phobic Impressionists.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I realized when she said her main focus would be life drawing that I hadn’t thought much about what I had hoped to draw. She made the good point that drawing what you see is the principle no matter what your subject. I suppose in theory I would be thrilled to be able to draw portraits – my favourite painter is Holbein, after all. But sketching trees and flowers appeals to me more at this point, maybe because it seems more flexible and also I live in a scenic spot so taking my sketch book along to the ocean (for instance) seems such a nice idea.

  2. Jo VanEvery says:

    As one of the people who made one of those comments, I have to say that knowing a bit more about your experience helps. The brevity of Twitter can be difficult and means I, and probably others, fill in a lot. Assumptions are always problematic.

    From what you’ve said here, I can see that there are some real issues about the clarify of the course description. If your desire is to be able to draw landscapes, then a portraiture class is not only just a really difficult thing, but it’s not even something you are intrinsically motivated to get better at. SO yay for some landscape and figuring out that this is at least part of the situation.

    However, as someone who has never really liked literature classes and often felt like I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing in them (when I did take them), I can say that your experience is not unlike my experience of literature classes. I suspect that one possible issue is that what seems obvious and clear to you is not at all obvious and clear to the rank beginner. This isn’t because you are not a good teacher (I am sure you are), but because we often don’t remember how we learned (or even that we learned) some of the very basic things that underpin our expert knowledge. They are now so natural to us, that it is hard to comprehend that they are learned. All of which you know, but it’s still a tricky thing.

    Also, from my conversations with artists, I’m pretty sure they would say that there is no right way it’s supposed to look, in the same way that you would tell your students there is no one right interpretation of the poem. I suspect there is something there about how we know when we are on the right track, or how we learn to evaluate the quality of our interpretations (visual or literary), or how we get attached to particular criteria for what it should look like and then judge ourselves against them or whatever.

    And I don’t mean any of this as a gotcha. I mean it more as a set of observations about what it means to be a beginner and how bloody hard it is to imagine what beginner status looks like for something we are now expert at. Also, I think it all reinforces the point you make often that teaching is a skilled profession, and that there are ways of recognizing excellence in teaching that have nothing to do with innovation in method, but are about good solid skill development and expertise.

  3. As an art teacher, your post really struck a chord with me. I frequently question my own pedagogy – am I doing enough demos? Should I let the students do more hands-on discovery while I keep my feedback organic (like it sounds like your teacher is doing)? I am finding that demos are appreciated and sometimes my students will even ask for them, which is great! Sometimes I’m afraid to waste their valuable class-time with too much demonstration, and err to the too little.

    But about your feelings of frustration with your drawing skills – the great secret of art is that the frustration never goes away. It’s what drives us to do better and better, but each time we learn a new skill, we learn even more about what we don’t know. Welcome to one of the most fun and enjoyable, and addictive and hair-pulling, journeys in life! 🙂

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      It’s really interesting to hear from an art teacher about this. Your comment about proceeding organically helps me understand what might be the plan in this class. I think clearer explanations along those lines would actually allay some of my anxiety; just given the kind of learner I am or the kind of class / teaching I am used to, I guess I would like the clarity of at least knowing why we are doing what we’re doing, so I can put my struggles into context!

      The difficulty and frustration never goes away with writing either, but I know what you mean about being driven to do better as a result.

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