Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bad Drawing Spell!

For the past few days I haven’t been able to sketch. Each day I put on my pack and set out for a walk with my dog, Chloe. I have every intention of sketching but it doesn’t happen. The light isn't right. Or the angle. Or I'm not in the mood to draw. Or my mind is too filled with all of the things I have to finish by day’s end. Finally, the walk is nearly over and I try to force myself to draw something, anything. Failure.

I was just going to wait it out and not post, but I suddenly found myself curious to find out what happens when other artists experience this.

I first discovered that I wasn't the only person who had this problem when I read the early diaries of Wanda Gág an illustrator and printmaker, who wrote often about the highs and lows of drawing moods:

Oct. 13, Monday

Thursday I had a fierce drawing streak.

The day before I had had such a fierce streak too. I went to chapel with Theresa and afterwards she wanted me to go to one of the classes at the Y.W. on “First Lessons in Nursing,” but I was then already absolutely wild to finish the picture I had started before supper so I didn’t go. I locked myself up in my room and just drew. Three of the girls came and wanted me to go to the movies with them but I asked to be excused and I drew until about eleven when we have to turn our lights out. 1

Yeah, I know this feeling! It’s not an every day thing but it’s probably one of the things that contributed to my choice to make art for a living. At the other end of the spectrum:
Feb. 2, Monday

Today I started portrait class and turned out a very bad sketch, for I had no drawing mood. It is now a whole week since my drawing mood has forsaken me and I feel so forlorn, so very much lost. 2

As an illustrator, I’ve found ways to work around the problem but when there’s no deadline looming it’s not as easy. And I find that it’s not black or white. Sometimes I can draw and it’s fun and I do good work but it’s not that transcendent place where nothing else in the world matters. Probably that’s a good thing. But what about when you just can’t get yourself to draw? Or what you draw is so awful that you’re sure you’ve lost your ability and go into a panic because, for goodness sake, what else can you do to make a living!?

Mostly what I do is wait it out. Over the years I've come up with other projects that help me wait out the doldrums. I sew. I visit with friends. I clean my studio. I look at sketches done during good times and sigh. A lot.

One day I wake up and I know it's over. I can hardly get out the door fast enough and it's tough to drag myself back to the ordinary world when my time for sketching is up.

So, artists, what do you do when you can't draw or write or play music?

1 Wanda Gág. Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908 - 1917 (Coward-McCann, Inc., 1940) p. 163
2 Wanda Gág. Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908 - 1917 (Coward-McCann, Inc., 1940) p. 193


  1. I happen to play the piano and draw. Lately I've found myself using supplies as an excuse, I tell myself I need to buy some other item (like the 10 brush markers I just got and the cotton rag paper) but still nothing. What I've started to do is doodle, doodle absolutely rubbish and I think it will come. Of course I still have to force myself to finish of commissioned work with deadlines. I guess when you have you just do it.

  2. This is a fascinating topic and I hope to read Wanda's diaries someday.
    I used to play the piano and remember that flow, the feeling of improvisation.
    Just lately I've found that collaboration with other artists rocks the muse out of slumber.
    But most of the time I'm working toward a due date and rarely sketch from life when I'm hanging out. I people watch, walk in the park. I sometimes doodle, play music, dance, and sing to get "unstuck".
    When I'm sketching out imaginary people, sometimes I get the feeling that other beings guide my hand, and that's eerie but cool.