Week 7 to 10 health and the big secret behind art making

Week 7 to 10 health and the big secret behind art making
You are drawing and painting day and night, reading books about the masters and “the art of pixar” while you have lunch, you are on a roll and progressing nicely and…. health problem. Argh! Whether we are talking about carpal syndrome, the flu or something more chronic, we are talking of a maddening and unacceptable interference with our art, a depressing waste of time and mountains of frustration.
I’ve never seen any blog dealing with the topic, so I’ve decided I’d be the one. if you are in great health read on too, for it’s a sad fact that we all have some kind of health problem on day or other.
A note: I don’t consider the sudden condition known as “Suddenly-I-can’t-draw-anymore-and-all-I-do-is-worse-than-ever-before” as a health problem. it’s a normal and desirable phase in any progress: you work hard, your brain has to file in all the new info, you reach a plateau and feel you are the worst artist ever – this is the sign that you are about to make a break-through. It’s depressing, maddening, but it will happen to you many times if you are a serious artist. After a while you won’t even pay attention to it anymore. Keep drawing and stop judging yourself.
Glenn Vilppu told me an interesting story: some years ago he hurt his right shoulder badly. Being right-handed and having to draw “from the shoulder” on large boards for his classes (this was before the ipad pro and giant screens he now uses) he was in a bit of a pickle. I know I would have gone mad with frustration and cancelled my classes. Anyone who knows Glenn knows nothing can stand in his way when he wants to reach a goal (he’s the man who found a way to use a selfie stick in order to film his own hand drawing on paper or on his ipad pro – his students, including myself, wanted to see his hand and the way he uses the pencil while drawing).
He did not cancel a single class and just started drawing with the left arm – because it was the only way. There is a lot to be said for not listening to the voices in your head saying “it wont work,it will be difficult and long and painfull”. He just did it. I have no doubt that the first few days must have been hell, but he did it.
The lesson we can learn from this is: don’t limit yourself, do things, it may work or not, but don’t try – just do it. Your mind can be your worse enemy.
As far as hand problems go, my own experience is that hurting your thumb and being unable to move it at all is an excellent thing for your art – it forces you, or at least it forced me to draw from the shoulder and not from the wrist (something I resisted doing for some reason). I taped my pencil to my forefinger and drew without the thumb, and found the experience quite valuable: drawing and writing are not the same activity, they dont require the same muscles or joints or movements. I had never realised before. It has changed my sensory relation to the pencil.
But let’s talk about general health problems. I recently had some long-lasting if not life-threatening trouble that included lack of sleep and exhaustion, fever and shaking, strong pains in the joints. A perfect nightmare for an artist.
I’m still working on reaching enlightenment, but I have noted a few facts that could come in useful to others and that shed a light on draughtmanship and the works of the mind.
Lack of sleep, pain and exhaustion obviously lead to bad eye-hand coordination, and, in some cases, to shaking. If you can’t draw a straight line anymore because you are tired, go digital and use sketchbook pro or manga studio, both have a line stabilisation option that will help you. (lazy nesumi for windows is a must have even for non shaking days: it improves stylus control immensely).
Lack of sleep pain and exhaustion also lead to difficulty to concentrate. As I am a one track mind person (I would not put trying to knock down a wall with my head beyond me) I have tried to “do art” while being a total zombie. I discovered a few interesting things: drawing from imagination is the most taxing thing of all, concentration-wise. Even doodling absent-mindendly is almost impossible in cases of extreme exhaustion. Drawing from the model (or from a photo – when you are sick going to a life drawing class on the other side of town is not necessarily a good idea) is extremely taxing but interesting: you become aware that the process is: 1/ I observe the model 2/ I decide how I’m going to put into “words” (by words I mean lines, shade etc) what I have observed 3/ I put pen/charcoal/brush to paper and do it.
This process becomes extremely clear while you are exhausted as step two, the translation from what you see to what you put on paper is the most intense and most exhausting. It actually comes a close second to working from imagination as it should. Observing the model and actually marking the paper are not that taxing.
Studying the masters – and by masters I dont just mean Leonardo but also Jim Lee or Charles Shultz or your mentor, in my case Glenn Vilppu, or any artist you admire – is quite different. Let’s say you decide (I did!) to study how Calvin and Hobbes are drawn. Step two (drawing from the model) is totally absent for a reason: Watterson did that step for us. He reduced reality to a simplified and exaggerated and expressive line drawing. That work is already done, and by studying and copying a calvin and hobbes strip you only (“only” being the understatement of the century here) have to analyse the lines, the reduction the artist did. The same is true when you study a michelangelo drawing.
So copying/studying a drawn work is less taxing for the exhausted artist. On the other hand if you study a painting and draw what you see in that painting, it’s more taxing, which is logical: you have to reduce a fleshy borderless painting to some lines and a bit of shading or hatching.
Just like having an idea and trying to put it into words is tough, drawing what you see is a simplification and a condensation of all the main characteristic of the model (true for carecatures too!). But listening to a conference (made of words expressing ideas) and being asked by friends “so what did the speaker say?” is different: you heard words, reconstructed the ideas they conveied, then you have to put it again into words for your curious friends, but a good part of the work was already done for you by the speaker and you can remember and reuse some of the words he used, some of his idea-condensing process.
Drawing is no different: reality is rich of details, most of them useless, you have to pick those that are really expressing the essence of the model (are you drawing a furious Hulk or a teasing babe?) and put them into a few lines.
Those of you who like me have health troubles are probably saying: “ok, very interesting but what can I do, tired as I am?”. In my experience I’d advise giving total priority to sleep which is the key to everything, and the study of artists that you truly love, no matter how light they are – new yorker cartoons or the Simpsons comic, or any animation, they all are worth studying for the simple reason that if you love them, there is a reason, and you should try and find out what that reason is, what makes South Park art click for you, or what it is in the Cow and Chicken design that has you in stitches.
Another advice I’d give not just to you but to myself is: dont feel guilty. You are sick, you did not ask to be sick, you do your best and if your best is not enough well, dont blame yourself, blame the disease!
And when you are really too tired to draw (dont push yourself to your limits, you’ll only make things worse) you can still improve your art by watching other artists at work.
I watch Glenn’s enormous repository of videos of him drawing and painting and explaning what he does (figure, landscape, animals, special subjects like kids, etc). The monthly price is ridiculous and you can spend months watching these, hearing his analysis and advice and seeing (so important!) his hand at work, how he prepares for a stroke, how slow or not slow he draws) Vilppu Academy Subscription | A subscription based video library
If you want to study with Glenn but are super short on money (not an illness but q frequently encountered condition among artists), this is the solution (you wont get feedback, but still, this is still invaluable teaching).
I love couch-tutorial-watching. It’s an activity that I find far more rewarding than brainlessly watching tv or reading social medias (though I do love cute cats).
Draw draw draw and take care of your health – and observe what happens in your brain while you work, you’ll amaze yourself.
(no drawing this week, due to said health problems I’m late in my assignments)

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