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Iterative sketching (or, how to overcome a mental block)

rough pencil sketch of dog

Ask any writer, and they'll tell you that writer's block can strike at any time, usually out of nowhere, and that it can be difficult to overcome. Sometimes, the paralyzing effects can last for weeks or months.

The artist is no different, and for me, the block lasted for years.

I don't know when my muse left me, exactly, but it was sometime around 2010. I had just finished a piece on deadline for a local sportsmen's banquet, and it was the painting from hell. From the time I primed the board, it devolved into a comedy of errors that would drive the most devout teetotaler to hard drink.

The problems started with a bad choice in substrate - sanded masonite - which usually isn't a bad choice for acrylic illustration. In this case however, some sort of chemical treatment in the hardboard wouldn't allow the primer or paint to bond to the surface. After several layers of color were applied, the paint would just peel off the board and I'd have to start over. Already on tight deadline, I couldn't afford to start anew.

Compounding that problem, I was encountering compositional challenges of my own making. That is to say, in my haste to make the portrait compositionally perfect, I had obsessed too much on the focal point of the image and neglected proper proportion in other areas. Needless to say, once mistakes in proportion have made it to the canvas, it becomes costly and time-consuming to repair.

Under deadline pressure, frustration from continuous technical challenges and mounting cost overruns, the accompanying mental anguish piles on, eventually leading to loss of motivation.

Such is the position I have found myself in for eight long years. I've been dispassionate about art in general, and certainly not motivated to start any new work. It's only recently that I've felt a desire to get back into this pursuit that I love, and believe it or not, some of the inspiration came from work.

Web development to the rescue?

It isn't often that my day job and my personal pursuits intersect, but in this case they came together so well, that it had me wondering why I hadn't thought of it before.

I'm speaking of the Agile methodology for software development. I won't bore you with the details, but the applicable part of the philosophy is that rather than trying to get everything right at once, you recognize things aren't going to be perfect in the first iteration and instead, focus on building components to specification in order to get the product out the door. Later, as time and resource and new learning allows, you iterate to remove bugs and add enhancements.

It's an epiphany, right? Like, totally mindblowing, I know!

Ok - maybe it isn't, but the novice artist, or the artist recovering from a block could gain immensely by thinking this way when sketching. If the idea is to rekindle the love of creating great art, what better way to do that than by approaching your sketch with a mindset that says "I'm not going to worry about getting it 100% right on the first pass, but will make it better over time"? It removes so much pressure and makes it fun to draw again - and that's the whole point.

Here's how I got back on track

1. Find a subject that you love, and is easily accessible to you.

Want to plein air paint the Canadian Rockies, but you live in Nebraska? Trying to capture the soulful expression of someone living a hardscrabble life half-way around the world firsthand? These aren't the subjects for you. If it's inaccessible, it won't happen. You'll spend your days pining away instead of drawing. Pick a subject matter you love that is close to home and that you can start working on with minimal effort. In my case, I chose my dog, Walter.

2. Give your work a sense of urgency and purpose.

I can't tell you how many times I've gone out in the field and taken reference photos with the thought that "someday", I'm going to paint what I captured. Most of those photos are still languishing on my hard drive not because they wouldn't make great art, but because I haven't given a sense of urgency to putting them onto a sketchpad.

You need to find a reason to make the project urgent without imposing a creativity-killing, arbitrary deadline.

For me, I decided to sketch Walter's portrait because he would be undergoing drastic facial surgery, and I wanted to have a permanent reminder of his face how it was when he was a young dog; it was the motivation I needed to do a serious photo shoot and start sketching. (Although, he's still seriously cute even after surgery.)

3. Start sketching - but don't obsess about perfection.

Just start sketching like you normally do, but worry less about getting it perfect right off the bat. Let the pencil do the exploring for you. Forget about mapping your photo and sketch to a grid - just sketch. Don't worry if you made the overall image too big for the sketchpad - just sketch. Don't obsess over every hair being in place, or if that left earlobe aligns correctly with the nose - just sketch. The point, if I haven't already made it, is to just sketch. The whole point is to have fun and do something. You'll get to the details later. You have this. It will resolve as you work on it.

In the image at the top of this post, I've made numerous proportional mistakes. I'm cool with it, because I expected it. In fact, I got a kick out of it because I love overcoming those types of challenges and making the picture come together.

4. Keep refining.

You have the initial sketch roughed in. You know there are mistakes. It's time to start honing in on them. Approach each problem area like a skilled angler approaches a big river - break it down into small pieces and manage it. Keep refining, and keep enjoying it.

Here's an example of a more refined sketch of Walter. I corrected the proportions, which were way off. I even started adding in some texture. (I couldn't help it - I got carried away.) I'm still not done refining - I still have parts that I want to go back in and fix, but I don't feel like giving up.

more refined, but still basic sketch of a dog

5. Keep it fun.

I can't stress this enough. Don't let frustrations pile up. If things aren't going right, don't be afraid to walk away from the piece for a short time, or even start something else. Put on some good music. Start a keg party. (just don't overdo it) Do what it takes to make the studio time fun. It's your hobby and it should be enjoyable.

Fight the funk!

Next time you're feeling ennui, a general malaise, or whatever you want to call it, try this iterative approach to sketching. It may be just what you need to get back into the creative mindset.


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