Drawing badly and loving it

A page from Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor asking: “What is a bad drawing?”

I’ve never considered myself to have any talent when it comes to drawing. Copying an image in front of me has often been too challenging, let alone translating images from my head to the page.

So despite a consistent compulsion to draw, my misgivings over the pictures I failed to create prevented me from ever building any kind of drawing habit.

I was also hesitant to share what I drew. On the occasions I did share, I was rarely met with encouragement. So I told myself drawing wasn’t for me.

But more recently, I’ve tried to embrace the practice of making bad art. Not only do you need to suck at something to get good at it, but we should resist the idea that we must be competent at something to enjoy it.

I mostly have Austin Kleon to thank for the push to make bad — or even “ugly” — art. He says:

“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.

It was also through Kleon that I discovered Lynda Barry and her excellent book Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Seriously, read this book if you think you can’t draw but want to. Hell, you should probably read this book even if you know you can draw.

As the title suggests, Syllabus provides a curriculum with a wealth of exercises and recommendations. Every page is gorgeously illustrated too — making every single page unique, thus inviting close study.

Lynda Barry has completely shifted my mindset regarding what constitutes a bad drawing. What really made me rethink my drawings was just allowing myself to draw and see what image I could create, rather than become frustrated because it was not a perfect recreation of what I imagined.

Or as Lynda Barry puts it:

There’s the drawing you are trying to make and the drawing that is actually being made — and you can’t see it until you forget what you were trying to do.

Page from Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, showing robbers drawn in the style of Ivan Brunetti

Barry advises emulating the art style of Ivan Brunetti as a replacement for stick figures, and I was surprised by how much this approach made drawing feel easier and more fun. Essentially, you build people out of simple shapes — squares, circles and triangles — and then add some minor details to make them distinctive.

(If you want to see Brunetti’s art style in action, I recommend his book trailer for Cartoon: Philosophy and Practice.)

Something that struck me was what Lynda Barry says of people who first start drawing again after quitting when they were kids:

People who quit drawing a long time ago make the most incredible drawings when they start up again. Some of the best, most original work I’ve seen since I’ve started teaching was made by students who hadn’t drawn since they were kids.

Now, despite an awareness that I don’t make the prettiest drawings — nor necessarily interesting ones — I allow myself to draw anyway without so many hang-ups.

Some doodles from my journal

The above drawings from my journal have no context I can offer beyond this: they were rough images that came into my head and I decided to see what would happen if I tried to recreate them on the page. None of my journal doodles are pre-planned, and I wouldn’t willingly share many with the world. But I love making them.

Occasionally, I’ll have the start of an image and then screw it up in some way. Early on, those frustrations from the past resurfaced and made drawing excruciating. Now, though, I’m trying to let myself make the mistakes and see what new picture might be made from those mistakes.

Exercise: Basic Quick Diary Format

Lynda Barry’s instructions for a basic quick diary format

One of Lynda Barry’s early exercises she recommends is the quick daily diary format, which I first encountered via Ann Handley’s newsletter: Total Annarchy. This is a quick six-minute method of recording a day.

Here’s a breakdown of the method:

  1. Divide your page into 4 sections (as shown in the above image).
  2. For two-and-a-half minutes: list 7-10 things you DID that day in the upper left-hand column.
  3. Then for another two-and-a-half minutes: aim to list 7-10 things you SAW in the upper right-hand column.
  4. Next you have 30 seconds to transcribe something you HEARD someone say in the lower left-hand box.
  5. Finally, you have 30 seconds to DRAW something from the list of what you SAW in the lower right-hand box. Aim to pick something challenging, but do not focus on making something highly artistic — it’s just a doodle.
Example quick diary format from my journal

Truth be told, I don’t do this daily like I should. Usually, when I do get around to this, it’s in the morning to reflect on the previous day. I’m often preoccupied with something else or a different kind of journaling by evening. But going forward, I may finish up my days with this exercise.

I also cheat by not sticking to the time limit, but I often find I struggle to recollect what I see — hopefully, this exercise will eventually change that.

But what I love about this exercise — besides the chance to incorporate a quick doodle with a daily writing habit — is a short and easy method for journaling your day. This makes keeping a daily diary less taxing.