I cannot draw.
This has been my mindset since about 8 years of age. Aged 48, I now understand how it came to be that “I cannot draw” and how this mindset (and inability) developed.
So, why can’t I draw?
More importantly, how can I do something about it?
In second class my friend was a brilliant artist. He was always helping us by drawing tricky bits and his sketches were awesome. My own efforts were comparatively very, very poor. His father was the principal of the school and loved art. I am pretty sure the word had not been mentioned in my household.
I was much better than him at sport and maths. We were both good at spelling, reading and writing; books were a passion we shared. I did not draw or paint. He did, constantly.
To my great shame, I just stopped even considering that I could draw or paint. It was just something “I could not do”. Consequently, I never spent any time practising as my mindset and self-talk were negative (in truth, there was no self-talk – I just didn’t think about this topic). I had other talents.
In Year 7 we studied technical drawing for a term. I remember walking into the classroom for the first lesson and having to use a pencil and ruler to draw solid figures. The teacher did some live on the board very quickly and then we had to do it. My rectangular prism was something less than satisfactory. Friends laughed.
Increasingly, it was confirmed in my own mind that I had zero talent for drawing. My art teachers certainly were unable to make me see and I do not even remember those classes at all from early high school (or the teachers). I am certain there was no fear of failure – I had already failed!
Looking back at my life I have often been friends with people who were good artists, formally and informally studied art or whose homes reflected their passion for the creative arts. Over the years it became obvious that I loved art and artists. Their ways of seeing were important to me and I read many books exploring the history of art and biographies of artists. Art, history and literature are, after all, closer than cousins.
My dad’s cameras – relics of the younger man it seems as I never saw him use them once – always interested me but it wasn’t until my late 30s that I started taking photos. I read very widely about photography and used software to make my pictures looks like drawings or paintings. It was a workaround my inability to draw.
The grammar of visual design interested me as an English teacher working with picture books, film, advertising and the texts that are largely images. I read widely, especially theory by thinkers like Kress and van Leeuwen. I always encouraged my students to draw and develop their own designs never thinking about drawing or painting or making something myself.
The longer I taught – and read – the more obvious it became that people with talent were those who spent countless hours developing their skills. When I thought about what I was good at it was clear I had spent countless hours developing those skills. Mindset and a sense of purpose – why am I learning this – were much more important that any of my teachers seemed to realise. It wasn’t that I couldn’t draw it was that I just didn’t ever pick up a pencil to even start!
Neuroscientists know how little they understand about the workings of our brains but have known for some time that intelligence or ability is not fixed. Educators slowly came to understand a little more about neuroplasticity and student potential. We also started to understand that children were deeply impacted when streamed into ability groupings that convinced some of their talent and others of their deficiencies. It is more complex than that but low expectations have a debilitating impact on young minds.
Over the years books I read about mindset, flow, grit and the “10 000 hour rule” made me a better educator. Maybe that’s not exactly as true as I would like it to be but these concepts certainly made me a better learner. Often I have noted that many of us are much better at learning than we are at teaching. These concepts helped me pursue new ideas and skills. I took up photography, learnt much about technology, genealogy, population genetics, edutech and generally let the autodidact in myself free.
I asked reflective questions: why do I read so much? why do many students find it difficult to read for fun at all? why don’t I write every day? how do I learn a new thing? how does one motivate themselves? how does one motivate others? Every few years it seemed the answers to these questions not so much changed – but deepened. I noticed that I did write more frequently and started to understand a great deal more about why what worked for my learning made no difference for many students.
So what about drawing?
I commenced a 365 Day drawing project. The idea was to draw each day to see how much improvement could be made in a year. I decided to employ an iPad and Apple Pencil rather than traditional materials with Adobe Sketch being my main app for drawing. I watched video tutorials online about how to draw. I collected books from the library and on my kindle about drawing. I found The Elements of Drawing (1857) by John Ruskin deeply interesting but a book for parents who wanted to draw for their little children was where I started, copying pictures of sea creatures, animals and faces.
I started to draw each day. I saw improvement. I felt good, meditatively calm and in the moment. The quality made my children smile benevolently and praise me for having a go when I was clearly so hopeless. I kept thinking about learning and what one needs to do to make progress.
“All art is but dirtying the paper delicately.” John Ruskin
To many reading you will wonder at my ignorance but after a few days it became clear I had not understood what an artist does to represent or imagine what they will draw. Several books and tutorials talked about the relatively few lines, shapes and shadings one needed to construct an image.
My hand was painfully unsure but I experimented with cross-hatching, getting more comfortable with my Apple Pencil. I have – as a photographer – thought about light often but it was a real revelation to see the importance of shading. I know it would make sense to buy paper and the appropriate pencils to really follow what the books and tutorials were showing me but I knew there was more chance of me staying the course if I drew with digital tools.
My young nephew – freshly graduated from kindergarten – was very interested in my iPad and Pencil, watched me drawing. I rubbed out some lines after an exclamation about “making an error” when he said quietly, “there are no mistakes when drawing”. What do you mean, I asked? “My teacher says there are no mistakes when drawing just learning about what might be a better way of doing it.”
That’s quality teaching!
The mysteries – never really explained in Year 7 tech drawing or Art – of perspective made themselves clearer and I could see that I could learn to do most things reasonably quickly now that my mindset was not only one that – in a metacognitive sense – understood why I did not (rather than could not) draw. I started to get what I had to actually do to dispel the bank page. I had known about this with writing but just had no toolkit for drawing until seeking it out.
My 365 Drawing Project was interrupted by a two-week exchange to India. I had my iPad but each day was completely full and there was no downtime where I could sit and draw. When I returned home, with every intention of maintaining my daily routine, somehow I stalled and did not pick up my pencil.
How many of students have their good intentions stymied by the challenge of maintaining an emerging routine or not really understanding what tools they could employ?
After a lifetime of not drawing it is very difficult to make this a daily practice. Writing this reflective piece – about why I can draw – has motivated me to keep going. I really want to make drawing a part of my life – forever.
What I have learnt that will help me be a better teacher of writing – or indeed, anything?
- habits and routines are not easy – even when motivated – so create them in class
- make sure each student can start at their own level and has the toolkit needed (including a growth mindset)
- there are no mistakes only opportunities to learn and make it better next time
- competition and comparison with others stunts learning for many
- being able to spin a good anecdote about your own learning can help make sense of the world for students
Educators who wish to understand why students learn or fail to learn have their own experiences of teaching students but understanding our own learning selves is important if we are to make theory from books, teacher professional learning sessions and pre-teaching courses real in our daily practice.
I still am very poor at drawing as my journey has just begun after what amounts to a near life-long hiatus. I am really enjoying the challenge of learning to draw and hope to be able to show my work to friends, colleagues and family as an example of what grit and practise can achieve.
The best thing of all is the sense of satisfaction one gets while in the moment – drawing.
How do we help our own students to have this experience with their own learning?
Featured image: Darcy’s shark