Episode 5: Three Personal Stories
2021 March 26th
Link to podcast episode: https://anchor.fm/uncannyfernhill
Well, hey there! It’s Bird Bohannon of the Uncanny Familiars of Fern Hill. Today’s podcast includes 3 anecdotes from the book I’m writing, about the Journal Stew method of keeping pet blank books. These stories will be woven into drawing and writing exercises in the book, so before we get started I will give you some guidance to listen with.
And, speaking of “before we get started,” I have some house-keeping for the podcast. Be sure to check the show-notes for a link to a complete transcript if you prefer to read rather than listening. Also, see in the show-notes the link to sign up to my monthly newsletter. And a big thanks to everyone who clicked over to this podcast from the letter link. It’s just once a month!
Also in the show notes, check for the link to my ko-fi.com page [plays with pronunciation co-FEE versus CO-fee] for free or sliding scale zines you can view on screen or print at home. And sliding-scale of course means that while you can get them for free, you can send some money my way depending on how much you can expend.
And if you can send a few bucks, that would be greatly appreciated, thanks so much! And thanks to my readers and everyone who can donate to my mission to bring journaling to everyone. It’s a big scary goal, “Everyone” [laughter], and I expect it will take my whole life time. So thanks again for joining at the beginning of this journey.
So, back to the “Proper” intro…
You ever sit down to draw, finally ready to make marks on a blank page, and the blank page just stares back at you? You were ready to draw mentally and emotionally, but still had to decide “what” to draw - and that can be a major buzz-kill.
As you listen to these short stories from my life, you may notice each centers around knowing my drawing mission. I had prompts and exercises of my own creation, so when the opportunity was available to spend any amount of time in my blank books, the decision about what I’d do had already been made ahead of time.
How can you prevent decision fatigue in your art practice?
My favorite way is a simple list of what I want to be able to draw, based on a bigger future illustration project. I will make a master list and when I see one of the items in daily life, I will observe it very closely.
Even if you do not draw at that time, the way you observe should be that kind of seeing that we do when we draw from observation. Of course, learning to draw from life and research only makes for better cartoons and realistic drawing styles do NOT need to be the stopping point of your exploration.
Drawing from life does provide a clear challenge where you can “check you math” as you can make a definitive comparison (not a comparison to other people’s versions but a comparison against reality. Where the light and dark is, the actual shape of the contours and so on) something less common when drawing from imagination. And thus a strengthener for imagination and illustrating stream of conscious, which is my preferred drawing style. Just… “drawing”.
Story 1: Beginning (again)
In early Spring a few years ago, I noted how difficult it would be to draw some particularly wicked looking seed pods along the marsh in my backyard. I jotted down a quick observational doodle or two in my field notes book, just to say yes I took the challenge. Then I went back to doodling birds and other safer subjects that were sure to look cool when drawn, no matter how inaccurate or highly stylized.
In late Summer that year I signed up for a free class online to (re)learn to draw nature from observation. When the online “Natural History Illustration” course began, I knew just what my subject would be: these plants I labeled impossible to draw with my current (internal) limitations.
For a couple hours every day for a month, I put on my sun hat and carried a pencil set, drawing book, and folding ladder out to the edge of the yard where the grass became tall stalks of phragmites and bushy marsh elder. There I sat (until my butt was numb) and drew the giant white blooms of the marshmallow hibiscus with their crimson eyes and gnarly seed pods.
At the beginning of the daily marsh studies, the hibiscus pods were green and supple and they developed into the large flowers which withered in the Mid-Atlantic summer sun. Come mid-September, only the broad green leaves and silvery brown seed shells remained to draw. And draw them I did, for hours of intense observation and accurate shading. Not only was it possible to draw the seed pods, it was now fun and rewarding to do so.
That summer, I set out with the mission to use the online course as a framework for deadlines and personal accountability. However, my real goal was to be a student of my own knowledge. Previously as a volunteer art facilitator, I taught others to draw better than the work displayed in my own sketchbooks.
Aside from a daily series of self portraits that occasionally ranged into accurate observational drawings, I had last drawn well from observation in art school when the encouraging atmosphere of other learners made it easy to to learn from beginner mistakes. As I embarked on that month-long drawing mission, I knew I needed a way to stop the negative self-talk that I let hold me back.
This meany-pants internal dialogue had long been both the bane of my existence and the thing that annoyed others about me most. I was asked, “You’re pretty and smart and funny - why do you beat yourself up so much?” Intellectually I knew this bad habit was rooted in the fact I have always been very sensitive, especially as a young child.
Hacking Past Self-Bullying
I grew up a generation before anyone cared about the negative effects of bullying. What made the rampant antagonism of childhood worse was that I was also very self-assured and consistently stood up for weird little self. This, of course, made the bullying worse as I became an extra fun target to mess with. The anxiety that came up for me as an adult, as I tried to draw from observation, was sourced in some similar internal onslaught with better vocabulary.
I knew it was better to replace a bad habit rather than to try to stop it cold turkey, so I decided to listen to something that would interest that perfectionist part of me (that just knew I was going to fail and that it would be embarrassing and why bother when there are other more important things to do). I decided to listen to podcasts and audiobooks specifically about ancient Western History.
In college, I only took the two required intro to western art history courses and after that opted to learn about African, Oceanic, and Indigenous American art history for the requisite higher-level course work. Over the years, this knowledge gap showed up in many otherwise fun conversations and I thought it would be a ‘two birds with one stone’ situation.
Now, I didn’t expect I would remember much of the history lessons, but figured the perceived importance of the information and the newness of the stories would be interesting enough for the meany-pants bully in my head to get distracted. Meanwhile, my gentler observational mind could go to work studying the contours and tonal values of the hibiscus in the backyard.
This worked well enough that I also started to draw the buildings on the grounds where I worked, a collection of sheds, the house from different angles, more sheds. After the month was up, I was drawing the marsh beyond the neighbor’s house daily at sunrise.
With my intentions set clearly, I quickly and finally proved to myself what I knew all along. My missing puzzle piece was patience to focus and trust myself through the doubtful parts of the drawing process. This book is all of the different tricks and prompts I have used over the years to make art-making friendly.
No matter how much time you have to spare, you can fit daily acts of creativity into your life in a way that feels worthwhile - even when it gets challenging. When something in art feels uncomfortable to me, I see that as a perfect opportunity to practice courage. This bravery and self-confidence to face discomfort translates to other parts of your life. It takes courage to show up fully in this world. Drawing, writing, is exercise in being free.
Once you get started, it’s better to not stop, even if you only preserve a trickle of habit. Most of the tips and tricks in this book are things you can do quickly enough to squeeze in something every day. When you draw and write daily, you keep your hand-eye coordination and faith in your ability intact, at whatever level you have time to preserve or enhance. The following anecdote is a cautionary tale.
Years ago when I was an art school student I wrote a lot, freely. Poems, essays - I wrote using my computer, typing fast to keep up with my outpouring of emotions and thoughts. The newness of my mental agility and the intensity of the intellectual landscape I now had to play in, mostly self-guided, had me in a constant state of expression. But I stopped drawing like I used to, as I was busy expressing myself in other ways.
Once I realized I stopped drawing, I wanted badly to start again. When I approached my sketchbook with the intention of easily creating a picture I found that it was painful to draw. The lines were tight and I tried to be too accurate from just my imagination. I felt like I needed to loosen up or I would implode.
The intrusive thoughts were nigh on strangling the same sense of freedom I had in my writing and singing and school work. Whether due to emotional distraction or current skill level, it can physically hurt to try something when our expectations don’t match our current ‘ability reality’. The way I got back into drawing - for fun and easy expression and to explain thoughts visually - was through exercises in guaranteed failure.
When we get into a state of mind where everything we do looks like a failure, it becomes hard to step back and see what’s working, to use witness perspective to understand what isn’t quite right. The wounded ego gets in the way and just says nope, I will not do this, and you end up cleaning the house instead of drawing. Or not pushing yourself when you’re actually so close to the goal post.
Hacking Past Perfectionism
The actual technique that made it friendly to get back to the page again, after my accidental hiatus, was to draw with my non-dominant hand, with crayon, like a child. Once I was able to really embrace that level of abstraction and looseness, I crept closer toward my familiar style that evolved over years prior.
Part of how I was able to convince myself to do something so silly as to draw like a preschooler was that I was serious about increasing my ambidexterity across the board. So, as an added plus from this mini-adventure, I can draw well enough with my left hand when my right arm is out of commission.
Years later, I see how harmful it has been to consistently lower my expectations to prevent disappointment in other areas of my life. In art, this approach is a useful means to begin (again). Purposeful failure is still perfectionism at work, but this trick of lowered expectations is at least a way to get started until you can clarify more appropriate goals. Whether to learn a technique or to work to psychologically affirm your current abilities before stomping off to the next level up, it’s best to pick one battle at a time.
But even that is easier said than done. In fact, the way I currently prevent my success is to try to do too much so that I get spread too thin to make maximum impact. My work quality suffers and does not get the positive response a more thorough approach would surely inspire.
The focus required to plan and write this book is something I have never been able to do before now and it is from following my own best advice and learning to listen to others that I can do this. If nothing else, I want you to be able to listen to your own best advice.
Validity of Your Intuition
I really believe we all know what’s best for ourselves and we just need to listen honestly to our ‘quiet voices,’ even when it is hard to do that. The exercises in this book are the best way I have learned to turn up my intuition and focus on what really matters with a daily art practice.
Story 3: Learning from kids
After college, I worked in a series of small manufacturing companies. I would come home tired from the physical work but I made an effort during my evenings and weekends to draw, write, and make personal craft projects like jewelry or crochet. For several years, my only drawings were the naked-ladies I drew daily as quasi-self-portraits.
At some point I decided I wanted an additional prompt to center the ragged edges of my (perpetually troubled) emotional landscape. I chose to draw circles within circles as meditatively as I could, a sort of knock-off mandala. I accepted the imperfections as a seismograph that could reveal my current level imbalance. To achieve harmony, I chose to darken or leave blank different sections of my patterned circles and doodled additional designs with mindfulness and loving-compassion toward myself.
This simple practice evolved into drawing planets, very nearly in the style of those in The Little Prince. The lumpy planets in my sketchbooks had oversized antenna structures and enormous satellites in orbit. These illustrations inspired me to start drawing even more, again, and soon my journals were heavily illustrated in addition to the regular written goals and feelings.
During this time, a lot changed for me in my close relationships and my living conditions were ‘not normal’ to put it politely. I took an opportunity to get a more stable living situation in pursuit of my goal to learn to sail, and took my pens and ink and sketchbook with me.
I wanted to improve my skills as an illustrator, so during this time I started to draw objects from observation just for the challenge, anything was game. I would draw an observational doodle and then create many different versions of that object in a sort of translation where each new drawing became the observed object in turn. Each sketch morphed into the next until finally a completely new object was rendered on the page. The iterative morphologies of the Evolution Drawing Game play with the initial bravery of direct observation and co-mingle in imagination and abstraction while still grounded in representation.
I started to get seriously curious where my aesthetic came from. It was obvious that the same inspiration that moved me in other aspects of my life were at the core of my choices while drawing.
I decided my primary inputs were post-punk, low-tech, D.I.Y. methods; ancient non-Western art, tattoo and textile traditions, pottery decoration and abstract symbols; Big History and the evolution of life on Earth, micro-biology and self as super-organism; magick as practiced through love of nature, self as nature, and validity of intuition; and literacy, human languages, the modern English alphabet and illuminated manuscripts.
Because I worked to understand the source of my inspiration, what I deemed as valid and personally impactful, I can see those connections now and how they showed up in my work over time.
For a few very focused years, I embraced the unseen landscape of my subconscious through a body of work inspired by the Flat Planets exercise. I got out of habit yet again with my observational drawing even as I improved my understanding of line through an abstract world I created called Mubble Space. These renderings were a combination of the line work and rules from the flat mandalas, the kinds of landscapes and worlds found in the abstract planet illustrations and mountain contours drawn in travel journals from trips out West. These bizarre yet cute drawings incorporated faceless abstract creatures inspired by the strange creature-like shapes created with the Evolution Game. These “Mubbles” had spots and stripes like birds, tribal tattoos, rocks, and pottery.
I featured my bizarre creatures in carved linoleum block prints inspired by illuminated manuscripts. I gesture sketched simplified designs with a large brush and india ink on big sheets of paper. In my body, I internalized how it felt to make these large designs and translated the same energy with a small-tip pen in my sketchbooks.
I meditated and enjoyed this subconscious flow onto the paper as much as possible, whether in the company of others while they watched TV or by myself with the sounds of the wind in the tall marsh grasses outside my small studio. Through this practice I gained so much confidence in the actual skills of pen and ink and my personal ‘line language’.
Good Questions from Young Humans
But my partner’s kids asked, why don’t I ever draw real things? When I encouraged them to draw from life or scenes from their imaginations they often got intimidated or were hard on themselves. I realized I was doing the same thing to myself when I avoided observational drawing.
I do think drawing is like riding a bike, but I also think a lot of people never learn to ride a bike in the same way that an adult commuting to work on a bike in the rain has to learn to ride their bike. If it was already getting hard for these young people to draw, then I needed to show them I could face the same challenges I put them up to. So I began to draw again, from life.
The kids were not always nice in their comments about my drawings. You know how it is, children say the obvious things and not as proper compliment sandwiches. I got better at my observational doodles and watercolor sketches and at taking jokes. I found the boundaries to what I was able to handle at that time and blossomed within the rules that determined my aesthetic.
Making Prompts to Fit Long-term Goals
Later, I faced down my desire to write a children’s book about the vocabulary of sailing. I saw that I would need to up my game to another level completely if I was going to illustrate the nuances of the story I wrote. With the mission to communicate ideas clearly in an accessible manner for kids, I was able to get past the icky feelings of doubt that had held me back for so long. I was able to focus on my niche and learn from others in the supportive community of children’s book makers.
When the 2020 pandemic proved to be detrimental to people’s mental health I pivoted away from my children’s book on sailing, back toward an older goal. Since I was a teenager dealing with a best friend’s death, my life’s goal has been to bring people to art in the same way that my own journaling practice has helped me time and again with my own mental health challenges.
[Sing song Do-do-do-do-do-do-do!]
May you have courage and Focus as you face your next blank page. And may you have humility and self-love upon reviewing your new work.
Many thanks for listening, until next time!
Bird + The Uncanny Familiars of Fern Hill