Reference point.

“I’m drawing again.”

This is what I tell people when I show them what I’ve been working on. It suggests I was a draw-er once, a long time ago. Which is a lie. I never drew. I can’t freehand. I never studied as an adult. I didn’t go to school for it. As a kid I took art lessons from a woman around the corner and that’s it.

My sister had–has–an incredible natural ability. Hence the lessons. We’d get dropped off at our neighbor’s every week along with a few other local kids. Our teacher had us practice very basic concepts. Perspective. Negative space. Color theory. She had a lovely blond freckled son who was slightly older than me, who I daydreamed about kissing waaaay more than I daydreamed about perspective.

One time the woman asked us to replicate a Picasso sketch of a seated man. We had to keep the sketch turned upside down. As we worked, the blond freckled boy popped in and asked his mom to cut a tag off his clothes. He lifted his shirt and I nearly passed out because I have this reaction to impossibly beautiful people lifting their shirts but whatever that’s a totally treatable condition, but at any rate I don’t remember if my sister even looked up. She was absorbed in her work. Her drawing turned out exactly like the Picasso. Mine looked like a half-melted church candle.

I thought she was better than me because she was older. So I got older. Then I thought she was better because she was more focused. So I got focused. But I never caught up. She was always better. I didn’t have a visual imagination like she did. She could sketch out a perfect eyeball without ever looking at one. I could not.

I didn’t give up art right away. I thought maybe I’d do better if she wasn’t sitting right next to me. I quit lessons, and when I got to high school I signed up for an art elective and tried my hand at oil painting. I found a reference photo in an old travel magazine from the stack by the wall. The photo was an attractive still-life of a vase, bathed in warm Mediterranean light, with crisp blue glints down the sides of the glass. I planned to treat my painting as an exercise in color theory and perspective.

But when my brush hit the canvas, the painting became a living thing. I felt its breath. I spoke its language. I felt nervous when I touched it. I got excited when I walked into the room and saw it waiting for me. I wondered with a full heart what the future would hold for us both. Each time my brush lay another stripe of color onto its surface, I felt like I learned something about myself and the world. I painted slowly, with relish. I didn’t want the discovery process to end.

But one day I walked into the art room and my reference photo was missing. I dug though every garbage can. I flipped through the magazines again and again. I would’ve done a frantic Google search but the Internet had not yet been invented. I panicked as I stared at my painting. The flowers, the glass, and part of the tablecloth were done, but the background remained unshaded and the chair in the corner was still just a vague charcoal sketch. I felt completely unmoored. I couldn’t finish it without the photo. I didn’t know how.

After that, I quit art completely. I found writing instead. I became my own reference. The practice was a lot more anxiety-ridden and fraught and tormented and gouging than painting had been, and required me to hunker down inside myself with a flashlight and agitate my own contents with a centrifuge-like intensity and record what I found glinting in the beam. It was a sickening process, and still is.

At the time, I didn’t realize the extent to which writers are encouraged to perform their neuroses in their work. When your profession rewards you for your attitudes and behaviors, healthy or otherwise, things get reeaaaaeal murky when those same attitudes and behaviors negatively affect your personal life. You question what’s real and what’s invention in service of story. You question your goals, your habits, your interior life. Your relationships. Your self-worth.

Um so when that happened, it was suggested I try adult coloring books to help ground myself. The placid meditative slow-burn color-filled universe kept me from falling into the void for a bit. And the subjects were often interesting. New York City bridges. Famous historical feminists. Día de Muertos. But the drawings themselves were not. They’re designed to lull you into a pleasant repetitive mindless alpha state that asks for zero emotional engagement while encouraging you to stay within a certain set of boundaries. They are the artistic equivalent of railings on a balcony. And when I see railings, all I wanna do is jump.

But I wanted and needed something to soften me from the inside. I started going through pictures I’d taken of my husband, my kid, my cats, my yard. Foods I love. Places I’ve been. Pages from books I’m reading. Anything that offered an outward expression of what I found meaningful.

Reference photos, in other words.

I know it seems frigging nuts to embark upon a time-consuming artistic hobby when one is already coping with a time-consuming artistic career. But it’s slightly less crazy to act like I’m returning to an old hobby as if I’d always intended to. Even if it isn’t true.


At any rate. I’m drawing again, so…

I’ll be ok.