A dirty little secret about people is that we’re generally curious about the same things. Ask anyone who works in a retail setting, and I bet they have a list of things people say or ask over and over. Think about your own profession. Are there phrases you hear time and again? As a painter, I have my own list. It isn’t an annoyance for me. Far from it. It’s a predictable shortcut that lets me know what people are interested in—whether it’s me, my work, or the painting genre in which I spend most of my time pondering and asking my own questions. One topic that often gets touched on is how to groom a young, budding artist. There are many variations on this question, but the framework is usually the same: “My (son/daughter/grandson/niece/cave troll) is an artist. What (supplies/books/instruction/livestock feed) should I get them?” Now, because I love talking about all of this stuff, the elicited response has a tendency to be an exhaustive encyclopedia stretching the bounds of my own experience. About the time their ears start bleeding, I wonder if maybe they were just making polite conversation. More often than not, I get the sense that they’re simply looking for Christmas gift ideas. To appease that appetite, I might suggest a few of my favorite books. What really should be said is, “Buy them a ream of printer paper.” For less than $5 the aspiring wunderkind will have access to an expansive arts education that is only limited by their own drive.
“How so?” the skeptical, yet well-intentioned grandmother may ask. Drawing. Drawing is the foundation on which most visual art forms are based. Drawing is to the visual arts what grammar is to language. Having at least a basic understanding of the rules, we can begin to communicate effectively. And the earlier a young person develops those skills, the more adeptly they can apply them to an even wider range of potential fields. I grew up in a small, rural town in central Wisconsin where I had wonderful art instructors. The area as a whole, however, was lacking in a general knowledge about the arts. Mr. Wilbert, my middle school geography teacher would say to me, “Remember who was good to you when you become rich and famous,” as he would point his thumbs proudly back at his chest. While I appreciated his blind confidence, clearly my hometown was out of touch. The concept of the “starving artist” had yet to breach our city walls. As far as we knew, anyone who could hold the title of “artist” was bound for wealth and glory! Notwithstanding, this sort of encouragement kept a pencil in my hand.
By the time I reached high school, my drawing skills were proficient enough for a teenager. The mysterious career of “artist” had moved to the periphery in favor of professions with more austere titles like “illustrator” or “designer” or “His Majesty, Lord and Artisan of Wisconsin, Husband of Jennifer Aniston.” The common denominator among these was, of course, drawing. Ultimately, I pursued an education, first in industrial design and later, in illustration. While I thought I had done a fair amount of drawing in high school, that workload doubled or even tripled in my college courses. I loved it. But I was confronted by an uncomfortable truth: I wish I had done even more drawing in high school. Visual arts are all about communicating ideas, and in order to do that effectively, one has to have a handle on the visual vocabulary. Illustration and industrial design rely heavily on this skill set. In an abstract way, that is the entire job description. For example, industrial designer John Doe has to design product X for the Acme Product Co. When Acme comes to John and says they want product X to be a kitchen appliance that brews coffee, chops vegetables, sharpens knives, has a built in crème brulee torch, pets the dog… AND it has to look cool, John doesn’t want to be thinking about the basics of drawing perspective. He’s focused on taking this idea and putting it on two-dimensional paper. If and only if he’s done a good enough job communicating that idea in 2D, product X will be made into a 3D model and subsequently move on to production. John will also need to update his resume. Acme Product Co. will be bankrupt inside a month with that ridiculous product line.
To expand this idea further—spoiler alert—I did eventually become a professional “artist,” and I still rely on my drawing skills. Only now I wish I would have drawn more while I was in college, too. Some might think of painting as separate from drawing, but they are symbiotically joined. Like our designer friend, John, I don’t want my mental energy to be consumed by the very basics. I want that to be instilled muscle memory. When working on a two-dimensional rendering of the Acme Product Co.’s kitchen monstrosity or—in my case—painting a landscape, the less I’m actively thinking about accurate drawing, the more I can focus on brushwork, color choices, values, and all the other things that make a painting successful. “So you don’t think about drawing at all anymore?” asks the grandmother from earlier who is still standing around for some reason. Of course I do! Good drawings beget good paintings. This is a Sisyphean task, to be sure, but the more deeply rooted the drawing skills are, the more efficiently they can be accessed without disturbing the flow of the art-making process. An athlete who stays in good physical shape will perform much better in a game time situation. Similarly, an artist who maintains or expands those drawing abilities, will in turn, improve the quality of their finished work.
That is why your kid/niece/grandson/gremlin/cave troll should receive a ream of printer paper this Christmas. Tell them to draw and keep drawing. These sketches aren’t meant to be polished masterpieces. When a drawing goes poorly, don’t worry; that piece of paper cost less than $.01! These sketches are the sets and reps getting pounded out in the weight room. Encourage the young artist to burn through that ream of paper. Keep track of the progress from the first sketch through the last. Buy another ream of paper. Repeat. Keep a small pad in their backpack, purse or gunny sack. They can do quick doodles when they have 15 minutes of downtime. Just draw keep drawing. I still keep a stack of printer paper in my studio, and gosh-darn-it, I think I’m making progress. They say the best things in life are free… or under $5.