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Sunday, 30 July 2017

Learning to Draw and Letting Go of Perfectionism

Do you like to draw? Do you sketch or doodle things in your free time, or as part of your career? Many people do, but for the past decade, I have had such a strong aversion to drawing that the experience literally evoked physical pain. Today, we're going to talk about that, and how I've overcome it.

When I was very young, I liked to draw. I always participated in elementary school contests or designs, and I enjoyed the experience. Then, something happened. I'm not sure why, but I developed the strongest sense of perfectionism. I refused to do something unless I knew I could do it exactly right. I gave up on drawing, and I was very stubborn about a lot of other things. I was also very young and had a lot to learn.

As I grew older, I let most of this go. If you don't try, you won't make mistakes, but you won't learn from them either. I've written here before about letting go of your ego when it comes to living life and pursuing knowledge. I learned to let go of the ego keeping me from asking questions in university, more content with being thought of as foolish (for asking easy questions) than actually being foolish. It was a very useful tool for self-growth and I took to it faster than many of my colleagues.

For the most part, I had learned to let go of being a perfectionist. I learned to accept things, or use my passion for perfection to drive me to succeed through iteration. In almost all areas of my life, I had succeeded in overcoming self-doubt.

Except with drawing.

Now, many people have apprehension about creative endeavours. There's the old idea that more people are afraid of public speaking than dying, or how many refuse to sing unless they are completely alone in the shower. But, my aversion to drawing was intense, and very out of place in my life.

In every other area, I was fairly confident. Even if I didn't know what I was doing, I relied on my foundation of logic, intelligence, experience, strength, and patience. Didn't know how to skate? That's okay, I'll try it and if I fall, well, I told you I didn't know what I was doing. Singing in public? Well, hopefully I know the song, and don't say I didn't warn you! I even wore a cloak around Russia, if you recall

I had worked very hard to become comfortable with myself to the point that I could do almost anything without hating myself for it. I know I'm being repetitive but I must stress the fact that this state of being is not really common. Most people I know often feel strong doubt which turns back on themselves. Doubt about their relationships, friendships, career. But not me. While I felt doubt, I used that to be patient, open-minded, cautious and curious, but never to turn it negatively upon anyone.

Except...for drawing.

So, how bad was it? It was so bad that I absolutely refused to draw anything of any kind. Unless it was a map, and a very simple one at that, I would not draw it. I avoided drawing at any cost. During my Masters degree, I knew we would need to design cover pages and posters for our projects so I told my team that I will do anything and everything, except anything artistic.

But counter-intuitively, the desire was still there. I have many artistic friends, people who took visual design, are graphic designers, or who like to doodle when they can. I play Dungeons and Dragons and enjoy the stories which are crafted every time we're at the table, and sometimes, I really wished I could draw so that I could share what we had experienced.

Sometimes, I would sit down, pencil and paper at the ready, and try. It took a lot of effort to get to that point, but it happened. There I was, ready to create something.

Then, the darkest, most self-defeating emotions would hit me.

"You can't draw!"
"You're wasting your time."
"Your best work isn't even on par with anyone else's worst."
"Ugh, that looks terrible, you really think things look like that?"

These thoughts were so strong that I would feel angry, defensive, sad, and bitter. Any encouragement I received bounced off the shell of loathing. Every piece of advice was heard with a snide accent. I knew they wanted to help, but why bother? I was terrible at this, and I knew it.

My feelings were so strong they affected me in other ways. I refused to doodle. You know when you're on the phone and you swirl a pen around a napkin? Not me. I would only draw if I had a very strong reason for it, and even then, I didn't want to waste the paper.

That's right. I could be sitting in a room full of paper and think to myself, "No, don't draw anything, it'd be a waste." If I needed to swirl a pen to make sure it worked, I then immediately threw the piece of paper in the trash.

To make matters "worse", I started dating an artist. And not just any artist, someone with a Masters in Visual Arts from a prestigious French university, whose work you may have seen here. She lives and breathes artistic expression. She can doodle anything you want, in nothing more than 10 minutes. She can work with any medium and pull from reference or from her mind, just as easily.

She saw my issues and tried to help, teaching me the simple basics of composition and proportion, but it was painful. Normally in life, I feel like a superstar, or at least a curious amateur. Here, I felt like a caveman, or a baby with zero coordination.

The lessons helped, the encouragement helped a lot, but I needed to also fight the battle within. 

For the past year, my friends and I have played a Dungeons and Dragons game called Saba: The Twelve Whispers of Twilight. The game is coordinated, written and designed by our dear friend, Mike. In that game, I play a young wizard, written a little about here. Wizards normally have spellbooks, a place to keep their notes and instructions for studying the arcane and learning spells. I thought this would be a good opportunity to push myself.

In order to keep my ambitions manageable, and to keep my negative feelings in check, I set some ground rules. This was not a journal, not a place simply for text recounting the events of the game. This was also not a finished copy. The idea was that it was a living document, updated over time, and always from my character's perspective and experience. My character was young, and not a good artist, but he was also not a very good note-taker, relying on short hand and doodles to move things along. He was impatient, but thorough when it came to collecting the details.

These "rules" helped me a lot. Instead of being focused on creating perfect renderings of things from the game, I settled for the best I could, blaming any imperfections on Ash, my character, along with the fact that I imagined this notebook being updated on the run from monsters. The pictures only had to cross the threshold of sense, so as long as someone could get the idea, that was enough. Updating the notebook was more important than drawing something perfectly, as the story moved fast and Ash would rather a doodle to refresh his memory, rather than a perfect drawing to capture one specific moment exactly.

Because of all of this, I started to let go of my problems. I wasn't concerned with being perfect. I was actually starting to enjoy the experience, and even volunteer to draw, rather than work up to it like some great event.

I moved from the issues mentioned above, to the issues many artists face: needing a better reference, not content with how it turned out but knowing it's not a sin against humanity, you know, typical artistry.

So, without further ado, let me show you some of my work, taking from the pages of Ash's spellbook!

In the world of Saba, everyone was a sentient spirit companion, this is one for Ash's friend Thevyn

Wizards often have arcane familiars, magical animal friends. In this case, Ash has summoned a spirit and made it an owl-robot body!

Some tools and artifacts in Ash's possession


The reference for the previous drawing: a machine capable of weaponizing a person's spirit, into a colour-changing storm cloud of doom!

More devices used to power the spirit machine above!
The world of Saba is strange and interesting, and I may do a post about it, over on my friends' D&D blog, which discusses design and story elements from several games we run. 

Anyway, it's not perfection, but it's progress, and it is finally fun. I no longer feel the intense dread, and instead accept that my drawing will be good enough for my needs. Thanks to the encouragement from others, I allowed myself to accept my vulnerability, and deconstruct my self-doubt. Once I realized that my doubts were a) completely unfounded and b) utterly useless, I was able to replace doubts with tentative acceptance that it was all a learning process. I find this happens often with me, it's kind of my method: in order to effect change outside, I must start from a base of confidence within, and in order to hold off external anxiety to build internal confidence, I lean on, and am extremely grateful for, the support from others.

If you ever feel anxiety over doing something, just know that there are ways out of it. Hard work, patience, lots of encouragement, all these things help, and one day your heart will agree. Sounds dramatic, but I can honestly say that if I overcame my issues and learned to draw (or least learned how to try to draw...self-burn), then I know you are capable. Maybe not now, maybe you need time, but one day, I am sure you will make it happen!

Thank you very much for reading, I hope you've enjoyed this little introspective journey. I'm very much looking forward to sharing more here again soon, and until then, stay positive, and keep up the good work!

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