Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Inktober: Shut Up and Draw

Does an embarrassing clutter of markers
make you draw more? In a way, yes.
If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I love me a writing marathon. Every year, I do NaPoWriMo and the August Poetry Postcard Fest, two 30-day writing marathons that I rely on to generate new poems. The rest of my writing year tends to be haphazard, and I work full time, and I’ve never been a write-every-day kind of person. But I’ve found that I can keep up a daily practice of just about anything for 30 days, after which I collapse in a boneless heap of laziness.

So I was thrilled to find that in the world of art—which I’ve recently rejoined after a long and bitter absence (future blog post)—there are also marathons. And this past month I decided to try one: Inktober*, a 30-day sprint where thousands of people from all over the world draw or paint a piece of ink artwork every day and post it on Instagram (#inktober2021). Back in my youth, drawing in ink was my thing, so I was eager to give this a try. I wondered: Could I keep up with a drawing a day? Would it energize me, or make me hate art all over again? And what, in today’s avalanche of art supplies, qualifies as “ink”?

I gathered everything in the house that had ink in it—fistfuls of pens, markers, India ink, even a Cross fountain pen that I bought in a closeout sale three years ago and hadn’t had the guts to take out of its package, it was so unapproachably pretty. I also snuck in some bottles of liquid watercolor, which felt like cheating but oh well. I chucked it all onto an end table in the living room and piled even more on it over the course of the month, my own Inktober hazmat site.

So, how’d it go? Pretty good. I drew almost every day. Okay, I skipped about 10 days, but I tried not to sweat that; not sweating things turned out to be one of the themes of my marathon. I ended up with about 20 new pieces of art, including a few that I’m proud of. 

During the month of drawing, I had a lot of thoughts—some ups and downs, many times when I almost bailed, and a lot of late-night pondering over the connections between visual art and poetry, different animals on the artistic family tree that still share some genes. So, observations:

“Inking” is actually drawing.

I had to laugh at this. Around day 5, I realized that I’d started the marathon with some lofty notion that “inking” would mean just grabbing a fancy pen or some brush markers and whipping up some instant art, a happy little miracle every evening. But I found out I’m too much of a mechanic for that; I preferred doing a pencil sketch first and then inking over it. The few spontaneous doodles that I did were my least favorite pieces of the month—they seemed inert, uninspired. But the drawing thing became an unexpected visit with an old love—I adored drawing in my teens and 20s; then, after some art trauma, I lost my confidence in drawing and didn’t do it for decades. But after this past month of drawing pears and apples and trees and cows and horses and houses and mountains, I now feel like I actually can draw again, like I want to. The muscle memory of it is still there, still in my hands; in fact, with my older brain, I seem to be better at it, better at seeing shape and value. I am, in particular, better at pushing the darkness (a metaphor on a platter). And luckily, the joy is still there too.

To keep drawing, I had to fight my own fragility.

This is one way that Inktober was different than a poetry-writing marathon—it turns out I have all sorts of confidence in my poetry, but almost none in my visual art. I’ve been doing poetry for a long, long time, and I’ve written so much and had so many poems published and rejected that I can write a crappy poem one night and completely forget it about by the next day; I know there will always be another poem. But the same wasn’t true of drawing; if I did a drawing one night that I didn’t like, I felt melodramatically wounded—absolute despair, like it was all over and I should just give up. This happened several times early in Inktober; I’d draw and post something that I wasn’t happy with, and it would haunt me into the next day: Well, there it is—I’m a crappy artist, and now the whole world knows. Luckily, by the next evening I’d usually get the bug to try something different—thank you, pile of art supplies on the end table—and that night’s drawing sometimes turned out OK. And the pendulum would swing the other way—Hey, this came out cool, so maybe I’m good at some things. Or even I like that color. By the end of the month I was very aware of those swings and was consciously trying to even them out. I realized that the fragility was a result of the Great Art Trauma in my 20s—a time when I decided I was a bad artist and feared showing that to the world—and the marathon became a way of working through some of that. And some of the drawings I didn’t initially like grew on me over time; they weren’t what I set out to do, but once I let go of that, they didn’t seem so bad.

The brain wants to get all up in art’s business.

I would start drawing, and my brain was clicking away. I could feel it, trying to control my hand. Careful. Don’t be derivative. That’s too Miro; people will notice. Don’t try that again—you’ve drawn so many bad horses! And then, without my noticing, that language center would shut off. Things got very quiet, and for a while I was all body—my hand scratching at the wet ink, flicking grass or branches onto the paper, my face contorted, my voice whispering to itself—rounder, darker, right here. I would sit back and see the balance of the scene, see what it still needed. It felt just like I was playing deep into a tennis match—all motion, intent, instinct, the body doing what it knows how to do. It was also just like being in the middle of writing a poem—the editor had fled and the subconscious was now driving; that’s always the interesting part. Oh, the brain came back later to criticize what I’d drawn, and sometimes it hurt me. This is a place where art and poetry differ: A poem can always be changed, but ink is pretty much forever and leaves an ugly stain when you try to fix it.

Drawing/painting takes longer than writing poems.

I got tired during Inktober. Really tired. Every night—even if I set out to draw/paint something simple, like a pear—I ended up spending at least an hour on the piece, and often longer. And afterward I’d be so wired that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. And it was a busy month at work, so I was already tired in the evenings. Toward the end of the month I felt sleepy every day by late afternoon. My system for writing every night during poetry marathons works better; somehow I can predict how much time it will take and compensate for it so I don't get exhausted. So that needs some thought. And, riffing off that …

I’m sort of lucky I survived.

By that I mean, all that staying up late and drawing when I was half awake probably wasn’t conducive to great art.** And by all rights, bad art should have finished off my fragile ass (see above). However, Inktober made me try out markers and pens and notebooks and pencils, and it forced me to go through my own reference photos (which I take all the time on drives around town) and raid them for things to draw. It was a month of experiments, and I found a few things that I unexpectedly seemed to be good at (and a few that I just liked doing). And in a way, doing that every night produced the same results you get—if you’re lucky—after receiving umpteen rejections of your poems for umpteen years. You stop caring so much about each rejection, because you know you’ll write again and will send stuff out again. Same thing with this art marathon; the next night, there was another pen, another fistful of markers, and another picture in my head. And I tried again. And that was maybe the best thing about Inktober—all those days to try.

* Another thing I found out this past month is that the art world, like the poetry world, has its scandals and infighting. Apparently the guy who owns the trademark to Inktober was accused of plagiarizing another artist's educational writing, and it caused a split in the art world; some artists now refuse to participate in Inktober and have spawned all sorts of rival marathons. So that gives me something else to check out next year.

** This is a debate that poets often have about NaPoWriMo: the argument that if you have to crank out a little ditty every day, how good are the ditties going to be? I understand that viewpoint—and I used to share it—but I found that NaPoWriMo serves a purpose for me, if only to shake up my usual writing practice and to force myself to write when I don’t feel like it, which results in interesting themes and forms. I always figure if I can get four or five decent poems out of the 30 that I write during NaPoWriMo, that’s a fine return on my investment. And I end up with stumps of weird stuff that sometimes serve as sparks for other poems later.

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