I’ve been plundering how-to-draw books for phrases and diagrams to collage. It feels right because it fits with the book I’ve been working on and also because it’s a thing I’ve thought about forever and ever: can art be taught?
I believe you can train a chimp to render a “realistic” likeness, but is that art? In the times before radio, TV, and smartphones, many people who made enough money to spare the time sketched and painted. It was a common hobby of the educated classes. Did any of those people consider themselves artists? Probably only the ones with bruised egos and other insecurities. It would be like a kid in a park shooting baskets believing himself ready for the NBA.
But for drawing, those times are long gone. People take up running or cosplay or polyamory in their free time. They don’t pick up a pencil or brush.
I had several art teachers growing up, but none of them taught me to render in the methodical step-by-step manner of the how-to book or TV show. Some would occasionally reveal tips or tricks or shortcuts, but these inevitably failed to work for me, either because of my ineptitude or my contrary nature. I had to stupidly learn things by constantly failing. In contrast, the books I’ve been cutting up always have an upbeat, cheerful tone. I know in my bones that has nothing to do with art.
The last time I tried to quit art was in high school. I hung out in the gym playing hoops for weeks but rarely got picked for teams and made no new friends. Soon after, I gave in and got the sketchbook back out. It wasn’t a choice made for happiness or even enjoyment, but for a kind of survival. I knew instinctively that if I didn’t go back to drawing there’d be no reason to keep living.
This may all sound melodramatic and extreme, I know. Art is supposed to bring pleasure and ease and I hope very much that now and then something I’ve made does that for someone else. But as I cut up diagrams and chapter headings from the drawing books, I’m struck by how little any of what is described has to do with my experiences. The goals of these exercises is not to justify one’s reason to live. A drawing how-to book like that would sell very few copies.
Last year, when I taught a couple college drawing classes, I found myself holding my tongue a lot. I could sense that almost none of my students would make a life of art after watching them half-ass drawings of cubes, cones, and bodies. If any of them had asked, I would have told them that the way I knew I had to give my life to this is I was cornered and felt there was no other way out. Not what most kids want to hear in an elective taken most likely for an easy A.
I haven’t done the research to find out whether anyone buys how-to-draw books these days. There are several companies that still market paint-by-numbers kits and you can watch days of Bob Ross shows on YouTube. Prior to the plague, paint-and-drink emporia dotted the city’s storefronts. But aside from kitsch value or unusual mating rituals, does anyone believe any of these methods could make them artists?
With NFTs and record-setting auction prices, perhaps kids will see becoming an artist as a way to get rich quick. Maybe I’ll write a how-to book just for them.
[Was reminded of this piece I’d illustrated a couple years back, written by an ex-Marine living in Kyiv, for obvious reasons. I have no original thoughts or insights into the daily horror my birth-country is inflicting on their neighbor, aside from the hope that the next person who finds out where I’m from isn’t surprised——as most are——when I tell them I’ve never been back or ever had the desire to.]