In my ongoing experience of learning to draw, the most satisfying drawing, both in terms of outcome and enjoying the process, is done when one is mentally alert and calm, and focussed intently on the subject. This state is not specific to drawing of course, and is often called “flow”. Wikipedia describes flow as:
“the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.
Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be on the ball, in the moment, present, in the zone, on a roll, wired in, in the groove, on fire, in tune, or centered.”
Sounds good doesn’t it? Personally, when I am in this sort of state, I feel as though nothing else matters - this, right now, is the reason and the meaning of life. It might sound melodramatic, but if you have experienced it you will know what I mean. So how can we attain and maintain this state? I think the central problem is that we need mental energy, a very aroused state, without this mental arousal drifting off the focus, or becoming too emotional to focus.
My own experience is that I can’t will myself to be mentally energetic past a certain point - I have to be motivated by something external. What I can will is to mentally demand an answer to the question: what is interesting/ compelling/ dramatic/ delightful in the subject? The excitement that results is externally oriented, not internally oriented - it is about something in reality, not about myself - providing an external aim to strive for.
Of course there is more to it than asking the question - like (I imagine) most skills, the process of drawing involves the development of a hierarchical process of organisation. By this I mean that there is lots of stuff going on - things like accuracy of shape, form, anatomical patterns and landmarks, gesture, rhythm, character, design, mark making. I think all of these elements are at least dimly sensed by the viewer, even if they can’t articulate it, and this is the source of their response. The challenge is to get them all in balance, with respect to a certain aesthetic vision. This takes practice - the drilling of skills to make them more automatic, so that more can be juggled at once. The real magic starts to happen when the mind is able to come up with a mark that integrates multiple elements, and we have the experience of saying “wow I didn’t think I had that one in me!”.
The amazement of doing this, or seeing a drawing emerge with a quality that one is excited by can make us forget to focus on the original vision - we get so caught up in emotion, in the “ecstasy of creation” that we forget to be analytical, or we get too interested in the drawing itself, taking focus off the content of the drawing, and begin to drain the life out of the drawing we noticed proceeding so nicely. In other words, we drift out of the outward looking sweet spot of flow and into the self aware states of anxiety or undirected emotion. The cry of “look ma no hands!” right before you ride into the pool.
I think this is one of the principle reasons that ongoing effort in a representational discipline like life drawing is useful even to the purely abstract painter - it is easier to attain a state of flow when working from a subject that contains plenty to be interested in, precisely because it encourages one to be excited about something external to the self. It is harder to avoid the distraction of the self when working entirely from sources within your own mind. The cry of “look how artistic I am ma!” right before you compromise (and metaphorically ride into the pool. Or perhaps literally if you happen to use a tricycle in your painting process). This is not to say that flow cannot be attained with abstract painting, with outward focus directed onto the painting - but my conclusion is that it is probably harder, particularly for the artist of less experience.
Expressive drawing does involve the development of intuition for form and for the human figure, but this is the calm intuition of a practised skill, whereby one is able to see through the complexity to broad truths of the subject.
Drawing is more than a tool for painting or sculpture: it is a way of responding to visual interest, drama and beauty in a direct visual way. The discipline of drawing is the use of self control to stop oneself copying details, and begin the habit of making accurate statements about the subject. These statements will generally work from broad relationships to narrower ones, or from the central forms towards the extremities. I am amazed at the fact that this process usually has the details fall into place with far more ease than if one was solely concerned with accuracy.
Like a foreign language, drawing is a logical, learnable skill, but it involves the ongoing application of effort to master component skills, facts and concepts. These elements are ordered by having a vision for how they should work together. That is, the intention to have visual authenticity, or animation and gesture, or to record whatever qualities you are personally most interested in.
Advice (for myself and others):
Accept that this takes time, inspire yourself with examples of artwork (including your own) that have qualities you would like to emulate, and enjoy the meditative aspect of honest study, rather than being hard on yourself. What we can appreciate is always a step ahead of what we are capable of doing, so rather than expecting perfection, remember that every time you stop yourself switching off and copying a detail, and instead look for the true relationships of forms, the shapes of masses, or seek geometric construction to help you organise a foreshortened limb, you are making real progress. The more often you make these acts of will, the faster will be your progress.
Given that drawing is something we need to do rather than merely know, what are you interested in visually? Being taught drawing can save you time and frustration, but it is important to also apply what you are learning in your own way, without feeling that you are being watched. There are plenty of untutored life sessions around if you want to work on drawing the human body. But you can also draw hands, feet, self portraits, loved ones (including pets). Even shoes and hats can be good subjects that inform about the human body, and can be interesting sculptural forms in their own right. Use drawing whenever you can to note an idea, or describe an idea to someone. Test your study of anatomical structure by drawing from imagination, but do so with an awareness of the geometric forms that the organic is composed out of. Look for the gesture of tree branches, or the way pot plant leaves turn in space, or the design of a cloud. Be on the lookout for things that interest you visually, and use drawing to work out why they are interesting, rather than worrying so much about the creation of a pretty picture. I think that this way of using drawing is the origin of the adage that “you never really see something until you draw it”. In any case, it is certainly the origin of conviction in drawing: in the words of Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty".
If all this talk about focussing attention outward rather than inward is making you wonder “what about me? I want to express myself!”, I have some good and bad news. The good news is that the expression of an individual personality, of your particular relationship to the world is eminently possible - artists have been doing it for a very long time. The bad news, if you want to call it that, is that doing this at a high level isn’t instant or innate. Artists are not born, but sculpted by experience and effort in their medium. It takes time focussing outwards before anything truly authentic and individual emerges about about oneself. I think the artist is, at their best, like a scientist or explorer looking outwards with humility and wonder - and in doing so, is exploring the limits and limitlessness of their own soul.
It occurred to me at the last couple of drawing sessions since posting the essay above, that there is an element to drawing that I did not emphasise correctly or enough.
When I say that I can "mentally demand an answer to the question: what is interesting/ compelling/ dramatic/ delightful in my subject" there is an implication that might distort my meaning. Sometimes when you are tired, you do have to force yourself to do the necessary practise, it is the nature of training for any discipline. And many times, it is the failed attempts, the “bad days” when we press on nonetheless, doing it over, trying to solve a technical problem, that teach us the most. On these days the practise is a drill not a joy. (it is these days when we need to be careful to remain circumspect and not despair, and realise that the solution is in an idea, and that that idea is discoverable). But that is not what I am calling “optimum drawing”.
I think the mindset to cultivate is to pursue the quality or elements or relationships that we are most interested in the subject with a sense of enjoying them, letting them wrap us up at that time. The good ones tell us that something is going right, that there is a cohesiveness to our approach, but critically, they are not the purpose. The bad ones warn that something is off, but making fewer bad drawings is not the purpose either. The purpose needs to be the engagement itself, the sense of being authentically in the moment, where the term “practise” means “that which I do with engagement and joy” not “something I make myself do in order to turn out higher quality scribblings”. To me, there is something tangible and delicious in, say, the way that the arcs of an arm or a face or a tree leaf might sit in relation to each other, in relation to the rest of the subject, to the space and the flat shape of the page. It is this deliciousness that is the reason I continue to draw, that I continue to put effort into getting past my own personal bullshit.