5 Reasons Drawing Nature is Worth the Bother

In a world where everyone carries a camera everywhere they go, taking the time to stop and draw the natural world can seem like an old-fashioned and even pointless pastime. Snapping a picture takes a few seconds. Drawing takes a few minutes at least, and a lot longer in some cases. Besides, a drawing is less accurate than a photo and can’t capture all the information a photo can. So why bother to draw?

1) It forces us to slow down. This supposed drawback to drawing is actually one of the benefits. When I draw, I am in one spot longer than I would be if I just took a photo and moved on. As a result, I get to see more and learn more about the animals I watch. Because I spent nearly an hour sketching at a prairie dog town, I got to see a burrowing owl chase a prairie dog that got too close to its den. Similarly, I got to see barn swallows feed their chicks while I was drawing their nest.

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My nature journal entry with observations of how the parents feed their young (drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

2) It makes us really look at what is in front of us. On a hike, I sat down to draw a wildflower so I would be better able to identify it when I got home. Shortly after I started, I realized what I thought was eight petals was really four large overlapping lobed petals. I would never have been able to identify this evening primrose if I hadn’t taken the time to draw it.

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Drawing by Kit Dunsmore

3) It increases our appreciation of the natural world. In our day-to-day observations of plants and animals, we tend to gloss things over. We see a bird, think “That’s a robin” and we’re done. In fact, birds vary from one another as much as humans do, as I discovered when I was painting the barn swallows that grew up on our porch this summer. Every time I draw the horse skull I own, I am in awe of the amount of detail and complexity in the bony part of a horse’s head. Nearly every drawing of nature I do leads me to a greater appreciation of the wonder all around me.

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Painting by Kit Dunsmore

4) It helps us to be in the moment and to remember what we saw and heard. Flipping through my sketch books, I remember vividly where and when I made a drawing, other things that went on around me, the individual animals I drew, even the people I was with. When we draw, we can look like we are removed from our surroundings, but it makes us aware in a special way, one we can appreciate when we look at our drawings later.

5) It is a great opportunity to improve our drawing skills. I have drawn cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens for the first time in my life this year. My brain thinks it knows what these animals look like, but it is wrong. Seriously wrong. This is the essence of drawing from life: getting past our know-it-all brains, connecting our hand movements directly to what our eyes see. Taking the time to draw the world around us gives us more practice developing these skills.

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A few of my more successful goat sketches (drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

What are your reasons for bothering to draw?

Nature Journaling at Home: Barn Swallows on the Porch

There is a barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) nest right outside our front door, on top of the porch light. We had swallows last year, too. I would hear their chittering song through the open window, but I didn’t really watch them. This year, I was ready to try nature journaling. I made an effort to draw them daily. As a result, I learned a lot.

July 2: Barn swallows nesting on our front porch. The parents are flying around and chittering at me and sitting on the neighbor’s roof.

The babies are pretty big before I even notice them. I see their heads poking out over the edge of nest and point them out to Kurt. He takes pictures. I stand on the porch as far from the nest as I can to draw the nest. It’s surprising how fond I am of these grumpy looking birds. Their white frowns and slanting brows give them a permanent angry scowl. I love them anyway.

July 4: The nest is like a layer cake of straw with white fecal frosting. Feeding: Mom and Dad fly in one at a time. All the babies open their mouths, but the parent already knows who will be fed. They are in and out in an instant. One of the parents came in at least three times before realizing I was here. Now they are calling and the babies have hunkered down to hide. Mom and Dad were on top of the wind chimes. Flew off when I moved.

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The “nest” page in my nature journal. (Art work by Kit Dunsmore)

The parents do not like it when I’m on the porch and take off whenever they see me. I’m afraid I am keeping them from feeding their family, so I keep my sketching sessions under thirty minutes and draw as fast as I can. We stop going out the front door. Keeping the birds’ stress level low is one of our priorities.

July 5: The babies are flapping! Extended periods of beating their wings while sitting on the edge of the nest. Getting ready to fly. Note: sit inside with the door cracked. Better view of the nest and the parents don’t mind.

It’s a challenge to draw the birds because they move so much, but I do my best. Looking through the cracked door or the front window is makes it easier to draw the birds, but I still keep my sessions short, because I know that they can see me. These are wild birds. I don’t want them to get used to me. Some people will be kind to them, but some won’t, and how are they supposed to tell the difference?

July 6: They look like hoodlums. Waiting for food from Mom and Dad — and snapping on their own at any insects that come close.

I read about people knocking swallow nests off their cabin porch with the helpless nestlings inside. I am horrified. There is a downside to swallows on the porch: bird poop everywhere. But it’s not really everywhere. Mostly the mess is directly under the nest and their favorite perches. We usually live with it, but it’s bad enough that I scrape and wash the porch before company comes. While I think the work is worth the joy of sharing my porch with swallows, I start thinking about ways to make this job easier in the future.

July 7: This morning at 8 AM, one of the fledglings was on our porch bench. Haven’t seen any of them out of the nest since. More wing flapping today despite the crowded nest — they will stand on a sibling to do it!

I can’t get over the fact that there are five baby birds in such a little nest. Our field guide says barn swallows lay from three to seven eggs at a time. I try to imagine seven birds crammed in that little cup and can’t do it.

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The most detailed drawing I’ve done of the nest so far, with the little bandits peeking out. (Art work by Kit Dunsmore)

July 8: The fledglings are leaving the nest. I saw them fly as far as the neighbor’s roof and then back again, but their favorite destination is our wind chimes.

July 9: The fledglings have been flying all over today, spending more time out of the nest than in. Preening, stretching, and begging.

With the birds out of the nest, I do my best to capture their shape and colors. I experiment with my new watercolor paints. I’m still learning how things work, just like the birds I am watching.

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Trying to capture the look of the birds in watercolor. (Art work by Kit Dunsmore)

July 10: Woke to an empty nest. Are the barn swallows gone for good?

My heart breaks when I see the empty nest. The grumpy faces that have been making me smile every day are suddenly nowhere to be seen. There’s a quiet hole where feathered lives used to be. It reminds me of the hush in the house after a beloved pet dies. The empty air where I expect to see a dog wagging her tail — or a nest full of swallows — feels like a cold vacuum.

I share my dismay on Facebook. Friends assure me the swallows will be back next year, and I know they are right. Last year, the swallows managed to raise two clutches of eggs in a single summer. Secretly, I cross my fingers, hoping for more nestlings before this summer is over.

July 18: Lots of activity at the BARS* nest on the porch this morning which is unusual because the kids have been gone for a week or so. Wondering if the breeding pair have new eggs…

There are only two swallows, so I assume the parents are back to try again. Because of the height of the nest, I can’t see into it without help. I have to stand on a step stool and use a telescoping mirror to check for eggs. I take the time to find the tools I need. I must be hopeful because I also buy a plastic tarp to lay on the door step so it will be easier to clean up the mess.

July 22: There is one brown-speckled tan egg in the barn swallow nest on the porch!

When I look out, the mother swallow is usually sitting on the nest, watching me warily. On the rare occasions when she’s off foraging, I check the nest. The female lays one tiny egg a day, until she has a total of four. Now she is on the nest more often than not, so I know we will have hatchlings soon.

I can’t wait for the fun to start all over again. I wonder what else I will learn about them?

*The American Ornithological Union has a list of 4-letter codes for North American bird species, which can make keeping lists of birds in your journal quick and easy. BARS is the 4-letter code for barn swallow.

UPDATE: August 10: I finally got to peek in the nest this morning, and the eggs have hatched! I think the babies are a few days old at most — pink, gray, bald, and tiny. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them and drawing again as soon as I can see them without the mirror and stool.

3 Things Nature Artists Need to Remember About Social Media

Earlier this month, our dog Dory killed an immature desert cottontail rabbit. In the past, I’ve felt despondent over these little yard deaths. Even though I know these animals do not live long and many of them die young to feed the coyotes, foxes, and owls, I was still sad. This time, however, I did something besides leaving it in the tall grass to return to dust: I drew it. Documenting what I saw seemed like a kindness. Instead of treating this life as a throw-away, taking the time to really look at it and record it in my sketchbook honored the short life it had. I suppose it doesn’t help the rabbit any; it’s still dead. But it helped me to accept the death, and to feel that the rabbit’s life wasn’t negligible.

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Sketches of an immature desert cottontail (drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

Thanks to the drawing class I took in May, my drawing came out really well, so I shared it on Facebook with a group interested in nature journaling. The responses I got really surprised me and taught me some important things to remember about social media.

1) Context is critical.

Someone thought this rabbit was a rare or endangered hare and that I had let my dog run loose in its habitat. That person lives in California. I live in Colorado. Perhaps it’s rare in California, but the desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) is abundant in the neighborhood where I live. This little rabbit lives fast and dies young; few individuals live beyond two years, and they reproduce like, well, rabbits, in order to make up for it. Adult females can have up to four litters in one year and females born in the spring can have their first litter before the end of their first summer! It’s hard to imagine how a place wouldn’t be overrun with these guys.

Also, Dory caught this rabbit in our fenced-in back yard, which is the only place she goes off leash. I wouldn’t dream of taking her for a hike in a park or natural area off-leash. I am determined to keep any wildlife in the area safe from her (she thinks she’s a wolf) and her safe from the wildlife (she only weighs 13 pounds).

2) People can speak with authority and still be wrong.

I was told rather bluntly this animal was a hare, not a rabbit. I hadn’t thought about the difference, so I was grateful someone brought it up. One person insisted rabbits are domestic (raised and bred in captivity) and hares wild. Another argued that hares are from Britain, and rabbits from America. Curious as to who was right, I went through the books* in my house looking for an answer.

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Desert cottontail (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

The “experts” were wrong. The animal I drew is definitely a rabbit not a hare. There are two main differences between rabbits and hares, but they are not the ones I was given. Physically, hares have longer ears and longer hind legs than rabbits. (Despite their name, jackrabbits are actually hares, which unfortunately confuses the issue.) Another way to tell them apart is based on their reproductive strategies. Rabbits bear naked, blind (altricial) young while hares have fully-furred, open-eyed (precocial) young. This difference means baby hares can move around and eat vegetation as soon as they are born, while baby rabbits are initially helpless.

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Black-tailed jackrabbit, which is actually a hare; check out those ears and hind legs! (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

I am glad someone challenged me on this, because it made me educate myself. But it also reminded me I can’t take someone else’s word for these things. I have to verify what they’ve said.

3) Not everyone agrees on what is acceptable to draw.

Some people were shocked and disgusted that I would draw a dead animal. I should have seen this one coming, right? But I didn’t. I thought people who were interested in spending time outdoors drawing wildlife would understand that, for an artist, a natural death is an opportunity to see details close up and record them. Historically, naturalists collected their specimens with guns and traps, then identified or described the species after the fact, when they could easily examine the animal close-up. While I would never kill anything for this reason, I have spent time drawing skulls and taxidermy in order to learn more about the animals I’m interested in.

I’m not alone. Some artists did chime in, saying that they also drew the dead birds and animals they found in their yard. But there were a few who responded with a short and clear “yuck”. In the same way, there are people who do not want to see your drawings of nude models, so it might be better to post a questionable image in the comments and include a warning in the main post out of consideration for others.

Have you ever gotten an unexpected response to a Facebook post? What did you learn from it?

*References used for this article:

  • The American Heritage Dictionary. Fifth Edition, 2011.
  • Fisher, Chris, Don Pattie and Tamara Hartson. Mammals of the Rocky Mountains. Lone Pine Publishing, 2000, p. 244.
  • Halfpenny, James C., and Elisabeth A. Biesiot. A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America. Johnson Printing Company, 1986, p. 46.
  • Burton, Maurice and Robert Burton, editors. The International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1969

Multi-Basking: Layering Interests Increases Drawing Pleasure

Last week, I went to a local natural area so I could draw the prairie dogs that live there. I’ve wanted to do this for years, but haven’t felt able to tackle the task until now. The online drawing class I took in May (Roz Stendahl’s Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public ) prepared me well. I knew what to take, I was comfortable drawing in public, and I didn’t let my moving subjects frustrate me. While the class is responsible for the success of my trip, it was multi-basking that made it such a wonderful experience.

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

When I arrived at Coyote Ridge Natural Area, it was almost ten in the morning. Afraid that I was too late to see any prairie dogs, I was relieved to find that they were busy feeding and watching for danger. To my delight, there was also a pair of burrowing owls. (I love their grumpy expressions.) Burrowing owls use abandoned prairie dog burrows as nests and I’ve seen them before in really large prairie dog towns. I hadn’t realized that the local colony was big enough to support them.

I set up my folding seat on the gravel path that runs along one edge of the prairie dog town and sat down to sketch. I watched both the prairie dogs and the owls. The owls sat fairly still, making them excellent subjects to draw, but the prairie dogs were often closer and easier to see. As I sketched, meadowlarks and horned larks sang nearby. Occasionally, hikers would pass behind me. A few even stopped to ask what I was looking at and I took a moment to talk with them.

The owls spent their time between two different mounds, which I assumed were the front and back doors of their burrow. At one point, a prairie dog came quite close to one mound. The owl standing watch dove at him, wings spread and beak open. The owl kept up the attack until the prairie dog had scurried away. The interaction left me wondering why the owl was so defensive. Do prairie dogs eat owl eggs? Or was the owl aggressive due to the higher hormones that go with breeding season?

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A few of the quick sketches I drew at Coyote Ridge. (Drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

When I left an hour later, I was feeling elated. Part of my joy came from the excitement of finally getting to draw prairie dogs at Coyote Ridge. Part of it was due to the pleasant surprise of getting to draw burrowing owls as well. But I soon realized there was much more to it than that.

The reason I felt so happy and fulfilled by a simple hour of drawing was because I’d managed to smoosh so many interests* into one activity. My main goal was to draw, but I made it richer by drawing live animals outdoors in a natural setting. I combined my love of the outdoors, my love of animals, my love of learning, and my love of teaching with my love of drawing. I learned some things I didn’t know and came away with questions I’d like to answer. I talked to strangers and helped educate them a little about the animals of the prairie. And of course, I got to draw and spend time watching the animals do their thing.

It seemed like a type of multi-tasking, only more effective and more fun. I was really multi-basking — letting myself enjoy many different things all at the same time. I recommend it highly.

Do you ever multi-bask? What activities or interests do you find go together well?

*”Smooshing interests” is a strategy discussed in How To Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want To Be When They Grow Up by Emilie Wapnick.

Drawing: One Way To Stay in the Moment

When I tell my friends I need to relax more, they often suggest that I should meditate. I’ve tried off an on for years to meditate, with mixed success. Trying to sit and think of nothing doesn’t work for me. Mantras and counting are a little better, but I confess I don’t meditate regularly because it’s just too hard. Then I came across Danny Gregory, an artist who says that drawing is a form of meditation because it keeps us in the moment. I recently put his idea to the test when my husband was having mysterious belly pains on a Sunday.

As soon as I knew we were on our way to urgent care, I began debating with myself. I knew we would have to wait, possibly for hours. Should I take my Kindle or my sketchbook along? I chose the sketchbook, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to read. I’m Anxiety Girl. The minute anything looks off, or there’s a hint of trouble, I’m leaping to horrific conclusions far beyond the facts of the moment. A racing mind has a hard time following even the best story. So I took the sketchbook, which turned out to be the perfect companion for our long day.

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We spent nine hours getting medical help, and for more than half of it, we didn’t actually know what was wrong. Nurses asked questions. Doctors asked more questions. They poked and prodded Kurt. He described his last 24 hours, where it hurt, how it hurt, again and again. They drew blood, and we waited for results.

When my thoughts started to race — what if he needs surgery? what if they put him in the hospital? what if it’s something hidden and big, like cancer no one knew was there? — I would pick up my sketchbook and draw. Making notes of the progress we were making, even that we were just waiting, brought me back to where I was and helped me to avoid being afraid about the unknown.

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I started just doodling, guessing I would get interrupted and we would be relocated fairly often.
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I started drawing Kurt’s hand. They took him away before I could finish.

When we got the blood tests back, the doctor was clearly puzzled. Except for a slightly elevated white blood count, everything was normal. He was a good doctor, not giving anything away, but I sensed he wasn’t sure what was going on, and that was scary. He said the next step was a CT scan, so they did the scan, and we waited for those results.

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I drew this while waiting for the CT scan results, then added the diagnosis when we got it.

At last, we had a diagnosis — appendicitis — and a plan of action — surgery, right away.

Everything went smoothly, and we were back home that night, looking at one another in amazement at the way our day had gone. I was especially proud of how calm I was, even when we were waiting for test results with no idea what was wrong. I learned that Danny Gregory was right. My drawing and doodling kept me in the moment and kept Anxiety Girl from busting out all over the place and freaking everyone out.

7 Writing Lessons That Apply To Drawing

During my six-week Sketchbook Skool (SBS) drawing class, I kept recognizing that things I know about writing also apply to drawing. Are they universal creative process rules? Maybe. That these two activities I love have so much in common surprises me. Here’s what I’ve learned about writing and drawing:

1) Lock the Inner Critic in the closet when it’s time to create. The Inner Critic’s job is to edit or evaluate finished work. If you let her weigh-in while you are making something new, expect trouble, loads of it. I’ve learned to write a shitty first draft (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, p. 21 ff.) as fast as I can to get something down while my Inner Critic is looking the other way. Otherwise, I stumble over my words and spend more time fixing things than writing. It turns out that I need to ignore my inner critic when I’m drawing as well. During the first week of class, I kept freezing and felt anxious all the time. A note from the teacher helped me let go of my expectations and just draw.

Maybe it will suck, maybe it won’t. Maybe you will master it, maybe you won’t. Let’s suspend these sorts of judgments and just explore… I think that’s the only reliable path to making art that fits you. And making art that fits you is the only art making that matters. — Danny Gregory

2) Stop worrying about quality and focus on quantity. Lots and lots of written pages lead to some that are worth polishing and sharing. The same is true for drawing. I gave myself permission to “accumulate pages, not judgments” (Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, p. xv), and it suddenly got easier to draw. I stopped hoping for a masterpiece and just tried to get something on the paper. Without practice, I can’t improve. I have to be willing to make messes. I have to write to write and I have to draw to draw.

3) Warming up helps. A few paragraphs in my journal or a quick gesture drawing before I start can help me to shift my head into the proper space for creating. Taking time to warm up may improve the quality of the work that follows. It definitely makes it easier to do.

My first two tries of drawing my husband were really warming up. I got it when I turned the page sideways and tried again.
My first two tries of drawing my husband were really warming up. I got it when I turned the page sideways and tried again.

4) Daily practice helps. Writing or drawing daily keeps the machinery well-oiled. It’s a sort of extended warm-up. Too many days without a pen in my hand, and suddenly I find my task seems impossible. I’ve forgotten how to put words together or how to translate what I see into lines. I must struggle through a rocky period of starting again in order to get the flow back. Better to do a little whenever I can and stay in shape to create.

5) Trying something new helps. Applying someone else’s rules to my creative work can strengthen and broaden my skill set. This is harder for me to do with writing than drawing, but it works in both cases. Being willing to experiment allows me to see in a new way and to learn. I may learn that I don’t want to do it that way ever again, but even that is useful information.

6) Stop worrying about how long it takes. Writing novels takes me a long time, something I fret about constantly, though I try hard to accept that it takes what it takes. If I persevere, I will eventually be done. (Or dead. But I’m hoping for done.) In the last Beginnings class, Tommy Kane challenged us to take a long time on a single, very detailed drawing. This was a huge challenge for me because my fear that “it will take too long” has kept me from drawing for years.

My 4-hour drawing of part of our kitchen. Full of mistakes and lessons.
My 4-hour drawing of part of our kitchen. Full of mistakes and lessons.

My kitchen drawing took four hours. Before the SBS class, I wouldn’t have dreamt of spending that much time on just one drawing. But as a student, I’m willing to try something new (see #5) and I benefited from it. I noticed things I’d never seen before and I learned a lot about shadows. Sure, I made mistakes, but I was able to produce an interesting drawing despite that. It gives me hope that the time I’ve spent on Rapunzel will translate into a rich and detailed book, even if it isn’t a perfect one.

7) Work on things you love and are drawn to. In my college creative writing class, I was told that science fiction was not serious literature and that I needed to write about real life. From that point on, my stories for class were horrific. I hated the modern settings and wound up hating my stories. (My professors hated them, too.) Now I write fantasy: fairy tale adaptations, stories with magic in them somewhere, alternate realities. I deal with real life problems in unreal worlds. Filling my stories with what I love keeps it fun for me. Our drawing assignments had us drawing things I wasn’t at all interested in, like buildings, but I treated them as experiments. When I go back to re-visit the exercises that intrigue me, you can bet the subjects will be things I love: animals, plants, and the toys I keep on my writing desk. The things I love make the best material because I want to spend time with them. I enjoy doing the work, even when it goes wrong.

I discovered during class that I really enjoy drawing animal toys that I own. I can't wait to take another shot at this stuffed kitten using a different technique.
I discovered during class that I really enjoy drawing animal toys that I own. I can’t wait to take another shot at this stuffed kitten using a different technique.

The similarities between my drawing and writing processes have me thinking that creativity is creativity is creativity.  While the creative process can vary from person to person, there are some aspects that may be universal.

What do you think?

Forget About Mastery: Drawing to Find My Voice

I’ve started my drawing class. Drawing is proving much more emotional than I expected. I’m swamped with anxiety whenever I pick up my pen or even think about picking it up. I keep drawing shaky lines because my hand is quivering. I don’t know where this fear is coming from. I hope I can work through it, get past it, and reach a point where drawing is fun again. I remember loving to draw when I was little, but I’ve lost the ability to enjoy myself as I’m drawing.

My new art supplies, waiting for me to pick them up.
My new art supplies, waiting for me to pick them up.

In discussions with my online drawing class, I talked with another student about my frustration at not being able to draw “what I see”. That what I draw doesn’t look as I intended it to look is a more accurate statement. I said I hoped with more practice, I would master this skill.

The teacher made a comment that cut to the heart of things: maybe I will master drawing, maybe I won’t. I should just explore the world of drawing. Experiment and see what happens. Find out what kind of artist I am, instead of setting standards for my work based on the art I’ve been exposed to all my life.

I hated reading that, because he is absolutely right. I need to let go. My expectations are just getting in my way. They are part of the reason my heart is racing when I draw. Though I can’t hear it, my nagging Inner Critic is whispering in my ear that I am wasting my time. My drawing will never be as good as it “should” be. Letting go of how it should look will free me up to enjoy how it does look.

Studies of a horse, by Leonardo Da Vinci
Studies of a horse, by Leonardo Da Vinci

But the thought of letting go of my expectations also makes me sad. I want a sketchbook full of pencil studies that look like a page by Da Vinci. But I am not Da Vinci. There is a human element to making things by hand. Our personalities intervene. Our way of seeing the world plays into the work, as does our physical being. My nerves influence my drawing as my mind does. If my hand is shaking, I’m going to get some wobbly lines. I’m not in control of everything that goes into the drawing. While all of it comes from me, some of it is beyond me.

I can choose what I think. I can think that I am just drawing to see what happens. I am looking at something and translating it to the page. The goal is to find my visual language, the lines I make to describe what I see, not to copy someone else’s style, or even to meet someone else’s standards.

Writers talk about finding their voice. Voice comes by writing, writing, writing. My visual voice is going to come from drawing, drawing, drawing. I just need to keep picking up that pen.

Have you had to change your vision for your creative work in order to do it? How do you get out of your own way in order to create?