I work for a great Belfast-based company. Every year each employee is encouraged to spend some of the company’s money to learn a new skill. This isn’t about professional development. It’s about the individual and stimulating the mind and soul some other way. “I know”, I thought to myself, “I’ll do a stunt driving course! That would be great craic and I’ve often thought that mastery of a j-turn would be useful for the school run”. But instead I decided I would…learn how to draw…for five days…in London.
I play with words and numbers for a living but not in some clever way like an author or mathematician. When you boil it down, my day job consists of capturing information, analysing, making decisions and presenting information to persuade, instruct or describe. I’m reasonably proficient at the spoken and written word (you, dear reader, may beg to differ) but I’ve always been envious of those who can knock up a sketch or two to illustrate their point. We generally prefer pictures to prose, right?
A colleague of mine suggested I check out a workshop based on the best-selling book Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain. She showed me two self-portraits she drew on the first and last days of the five-day course. I was gobsmacked. The tag line was certainly intriguing “if you can write your name you can learn to draw”. But I wasn’t so sure. I was pretty confident my colleague had some latent artistic ability that was just bursting to get out. My artistic talent on the other hand just about stretched to colouring-in without going over the edges…on a good day. I signed up nevertheless.
My self portrait on the first day reflected, as predicted by our instructor Anna, the last time I ever really picked up a pencil to draw in earnest…as a 9-ish year old. I remember around this time thinking that I wanted to be an architect. It’s perhaps no surprise that I ended up in the software industry. Oddly, around the same time I remember being pretty chuffed with a battleship that I copied out of a book. I’d always put it down as a fluke.
Four days of learning about contours, negative spaces, sighting, proportion, perspective, light and shade. I was loving it but I found it a struggle. The essence of the course, inspiring its title, is to suppress the left side of the brain that tries to use experience and symbolism to interpret what our eye sees rather than what the eye actually sees. The side of the brain that I rely upon and (mostly) trust for my day-job was getting in the way.
An early win (a drawing of my hand) was quickly followed by a couple of fails. An exercise in negative space (a drawing of a chair) was a woefully incomplete abomination. I don’t cope too well with failure or the threat of it so I found this particularly uncomfortable – as uncomfortable as my incomplete chair looked in fact!
A side portrait of a classmate was also fairly ropey. My fear of failure was keeping left-brain engaged and a foggy paralysis was the result. Accepting the failure and understanding the mechanics of what I’d done wrong was the only option. (When do we ever really feel safe to fail? It’s easy to say and preach but, for me, that absence of control is a horrific feeling).
With Anna’s tutelage, patience and encouragement from the rest of the class I persevered. Mistakes became part of the process, left-brain was put back in his box and right-brain came out to play. Playing with light and shade is a great way to while away the hours. When this ‘r-mode’ mindset arrived the whole experience was very therapeutic, almost meditative. Not my usual state of being!
The final day arrived and it was time for the self portrait. My colleague’s before and after portraits loomed large in my memory but I was determined to give it a good crack. It didn’t go swimmingly. Left-brain got told to pipe down more than once but I stuck with it. I recovered from my mistakes more quickly and easily than a couple of days previously. Eventually, features started to emerge from my drawing that I vaguely recognised. These little wins spurred me on and by the time the day was over I had a drawing that bore a passing resemblance to me and the whole week had been a mental journey I hadn’t really expected.
My wife tells me that my final self portrait captures my anger well. She has a point perhaps, but on that final day right-brain was in overdrive and I felt as chuffed as a 9-year old drawing battleships. I guess I just look grumpy.
So my drawing journey has just begun – drawing real life with graphite on paper. There’s a way to go before I can sketch with abandon from my imagination like my doodling colleagues but I know it’s within my grasp. There is much to learn and many fails ahead but left-brain is just going to have to get used to it.
- Anna and my classmates;
- artismarti for alerting me to the course;
- Peter Campbell, Kieran Barber and Rory Hanratty for the inspiration to pick up a pencil; and
- Kainos Software for the opportunity.
Read more about Kainos’ award-winning training here.
Darren’s post originally appeared on Medium. View it here.