I’ve been drawing for so long, I forget what it feels like to learn how to draw. But once in a while, I learn something really basic for the first time. I wanted to write about it before I forget what it feels like.
Now, I believe I can draw anything. That doesn’t mean I can just sit down and draw anything off the top of my head. What it really means is I can copy anything. Everything in my drawing memory banks originated from copying one thing or another at one time (notice how I used “originated” and “copying” in the same sentence). Everything I copy is stored somewhere in my head, and my muscles too – actually moving my hand around a shape forms my mind in a way that just looking doesn’t.
I’ve looked at a lot of pictures of Tibetan-style clouds. Some of these showed up in Indian art, in the Adventures of Hamzaa, the beautiful catalogue of which I owned until I left it behind with the bed bugs. Apparently Moghuls imported artists from all over Asia, which is why some Moghul miniatures are beautiful mish-mashes of Persian and Himalayan styles.
I saw the spirals in those cloud designs, so I drew clouds with spirals. They didn’t really look the same, which was fine – I wasn’t copying directly, merely being “influenced.” I made do with the spiral-drawing skills I had.
Fast-forward to today, and my new hobby: sewing. It turns out you can draw with an ordinary sewing machine! It’s called “free motion,” and I only learned it was possible last month. A few weeks ago I bought a machine and fabric and stuff, beginning another kind of spiral that’s taking over my life & apartment (more on that later). Drawing with a sewing machine is different from drawing conventionally in 2 significant ways:
- The “pen” stays still and you move the “paper” (fabric) around.
- You can’t lift the pen. It stays down the whole time.
#1 is simple in theory, but difficult in practice as I need to retrain my muscles. It’s like holding a pen for the first time, or drawing with my feet. I’m clumsy, for sure.
#2 seems simple – after all, isn’t drawing intricate designs with long meandering continuous lines what every stoned college kid does? Well, I haven’t been a college kid for 23 years, and I don’t get stoned (my few experiences with pot didn’t go very well). I never thought about how much I lift my pen. I usually draw with a lot of short strokes. I had to get in the stoned-doodling-college-kid mindset and keep my pen down.
It looks OK, but I had to do a lot of starts and stops with the thread. The main cloud is not one continuous line (the background spirals are, more or less). I also had to plan it in advance; I couldn’t sew it freehand. I knew it should be possible to draw clouds freehand. Something was wrong.
I returned to studying Tibetan clouds. I visited the Rubin Museum and took pictures of some tapestries there.
What was different about those clouds, from the kind I was doing? I could draw either kind if I lifted my pen, but keeping the pen down, I could only draw dense, maze-like spirals, with no open areas.
And then I saw it: when I reached the inner point of my spiral and “turned” to go back out, I was always turning in (toward the focus of the spiral):
Somehow I went my whole life doodling spirals this way. Last night, for the first time, I consciously turned the other way, away from the focus of the spiral. “Spiraling out” felt very strange at first. My hand, so practiced at “spiraling in,” didn’t want to do it. I had to force it the first few times.
And that’s the secret to drawing Tibetan-style clouds without lifting the pen:
Now, this should be filed under “D’uh,” But in my 40+ years of drawing, I never understood it before. Someone new to drawing spirals would probably “turn” either way; my habit of only “turning in” was so ingrained, I didn’t even realize there was another way out of the spiral. THIS IS BIG NEWS! Especially at 5 this morning when I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking about spirals. So I took out my handy bedside notebook and doodled like a stoned college kid:
Now I can easily draw Tibetan-style clouds and flames, freehand, without lifting the pen (or, in the future, the sewing machine needle). Another mystery unlocked! I can still learn!