personal project

Drawing Is Good, Even When You Suck at It

Photo: Stevie Remsberg; Source Video Getty

Personal Project is a week about hobbies and digging into our hidden talents.

Even though most days I wake up and dread it, the ability to do aggressively pleasant things with my kids is my current salvation. We’ve made cakes, hunted for worms, written chalk notes to neighbors, and mailed letters to friends. We’ve had picnics and painted watercolors, and we’ve done our fair share of Cosmic Yoga. These are all activities that distract, forcing you to focus on them instead of thinking about the future, or thinking at all. The most reliably effective of these I call “draw-on-demand,” and I think it does more for me than it does for my 1-year-old and 5-year-old.

Here’s how it works: My toddler shouts various nouns at me, and then I draw them. If I don’t start right away, without hesitation, he repeats the word over and over until I start moving my pen. DOG DOG DOG DOG DOG DOG, he insists, jamming his pointer finger at different spots on the paper, marking where he wants each dog to go. It’s early in the day, my co-parent is in the other room working, my coffee is cooling on the table, possibly with a plastic toy animal bobbing in it, and I am itching to hide in the bathroom and stare at my phone or go on a walk by myself.

Instead, I draw dogs and mice and cats and little cartoon babies with a spiral curl of hair. Some are awake and some are asleep, depending on my son’s demands. Some are on skateboards. Some are on fire. Some are driving. There are mommies and daddies and babies. There are sloths hanging onto elephant trunks, and birds atop the sloths. Somewhere between a camel and my kindergartener telling me that hippo eyes “aren’t like that,” my resistance slackens and I submit to what is in front of us. I have stopped thinking about the news or wondering if anyone texted my group thread or sent me an email. I draw another hippo, this time with the eyes in the right place.

Then my toddler takes a black marker and says Hippo hippo hippo, scribbling all over until the semiaquatic mammal is no more or the paper tears in two. In this way, draw-on-demand is a kind of performance art, a meditation on temporality: I create images, bringing animals to life before his very eyes, like magic, and he squeals with delight moments before destroying them.

Other times, the animals that have been demanded of me are simple enough or I remember some shortcut from a childhood art class that they come out pretty good. In these cases I stand up and admire them, holding the notebook out of harm’s way and cocking my head this way and that. “Let’s show Dad!” my 5-year-old sometimes says, and I let him burst into the makeshift office-bedroom. Hungry for praise, I strain to hear what his dad thinks of my drawing, hoping his colleagues aren’t on a video chat and about to witness a 5-year-old present my almost-successful attempt at an octopus.

Most of the time, though, my drawings are laughably bad. I don’t actually know how to draw, and I doubt I would do it without the exceedingly low bar of my young children’s approval. Something about drawing in particular has always felt genuinely humiliating to me. Inadequacy and effort on display, right there in plain sight. If you tried to draw something concrete and specific — a person, maybe, or a car — one look at the original shows where you went wrong. The adolescent shame I feel after a bad drawing isn’t about being bad at drawing, which is something I can readily accept about myself without much regret. It’s more about the reality that I could be bad at it and still do it.

I know this feeling is immature, but it’s potent to the point of absurdity: If someone were to come over and peek over my shoulder at my notebook, I would turn bright red and possibly die and/or murder them. When I am in the middle of drawing, though, I am completely absorbed in the task — of looking and of drawing, of whatever mood the drawing seems to need. I feel almost happy, so soothed that the risk of shame is worth it.

Last year, I bought a friend Lynda Barry’s Making Comics for Christmas, but after paging through it, I decided to keep it for myself. The book is filled with exercises not unlike draw-on-demand. For example, Barry recommends setting a timer, then making four random squiggles. Switch papers with a partner, and turn each other’s squiggly shapes into monsters. Switch again to finish them. In another, you close your eyes and draw a skeleton. Doing these exercises with my kindergartner helped hustle us through week two of winter break (which felt like forever at the time — let’s not talk about how naïve we were), and they are really saving me now.

Barry’s books are a loveable combination of practical and mystic, and her insights into the vulnerability of the artist are never grandiose but reliably make me cry. In Making Comics she addresses drawing shame directly: “Something about drawing does become too much for some people. It’s more than just feeling ashamed … it’s fear. There is an urge to destroy the drawing — to snatch it and ball it up, and toss it.” The human urge Barry articulates — to hide the evidence of failed effort — once seemed so personal to me. But kids take that otherwise private turmoil and, as if it were a half-drawn octopus, crumple it up before it exists all the way.

Tiny externalizations of my superego, my kids sometimes literally destroy my work before the urge to do it myself fully forms. I think this is partly why I enjoy drawing so much right now: It has to be about the process — no attachment to the end result, no time to overthink it. (If you hesitate, you’ve lost your kids’ attention, and when you’ve lost them, you have to think of something else for them to do.)

Drawing with kids offers a pretense, and that’s what I needed. I needed a small child who could barely talk to sit in my lap and shout the names of animals in my face until I drew them for him, over and over, forcing me to overcome my self-consciousness.

This is the beauty of Lynda Barry’s Making Comics or even those inescapable Mo Willems Lunch Doodles: it becomes an assignment. You aren’t a loser for trying. You are a person who is trying to self-soothe under extraordinary circumstances, and in the process, you drew a picture. Maybe that picture will be thrown away or destroyed, like all of our plans for this spring. Doesn’t matter. The end result is not the point here. The point is to not think, for a minute, about anything else.

We should all aspire to draw something dumb today. Draw yourself riding a camel. And the camel is skateboarding. You’re playing the saxophone. If you want you can send it to me. I will laugh at it with you, and then I will tell you it’s good.

Drawing Is Good, Even When You Suck at It