Drawing 101: Lesson 1: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Like most people, I am my own worst critic.  Even sitting here at the start of this post, I’m second guessing myself:  How much do I admit?  What if I put people off?  Should I post something so personal?  No, I’m not about to divulge some dark secret or talk about Aunt Mildred’s silent-but-deadlies; the title is Drawing 101, so I’m pretty sure I’m about to impart some valuable lesson that might have a little to do with drawing.  But who am I to impart lessons? Especially lessons about drawing?

I’ve been creating stuff my entire life.  I have corners and walls and drawers full of stuff I’ve made.  I sing and write music (my brother is better–sometime we’ll record him so you can hear what I’m talking about).  I paint, but I know I’m not really great, even if The Guitar is quickly building a following in the Spanish-speaking community.  I can draw, but I’ve never taken an art class, so I couldn’t even pretend to explain what I’m doing wrong when it’s wrong (and boy, do I get things wrong sometimes), or how I managed to get it right when it’s right.  Things just happen on the paper, for better or worse, which is why, since I started building this site, I think I smell pretty bad.  (Not Aunt Mildred bad, just sweating-the-small-stuff bad, which is bearable, but still not recommended for polite company.)

Have I said too much?

Over the course of the past week or so, I’ve been working to populate the pages on this site with plenty of details, so that the world I’ve created in writing can be seen, felt and heard, the idea being to just keep putting my work out there, build the audience.  My characters have flesh in my head, but to be honest, until a few weeks ago, my character sketches consisted of roughly scribbled ideas like this:

old tierney sketchOr this:

old Elli sketch

Definitely not high quality art.  I’ve got notebooks chock full of little doodles like these, interspersed among years of story building and notes about science and religion and various cultures, and theories on everything under the sun (you don’t even want to know some of the ridiculous tangents I’ve taken in my journey to bring you The Eleventh Age).

The writing world has changed a great deal with the technological revolution.  Gone are the days when an aspiring young author would send her work directly to publishers, who would take ages to decide her fate.  Today, many publishers won’t even consider your work unless you have an agent, and while getting an answer from an agent takes considerably less time than with publishing houses, the yes or no is based on far less material–often just an introductory letter, in which you’ve summarized your work in a single paragraph (the rest of the letter, which should be no more than a single page, is for telling who you are, why you are the right person for writing your book and why the agent you’re querying is a good fit for you).  With self-publishing avenues such as the various electronic formats and even print on demand, getting your work out on the market is relatively simple, especially if you have money to purchase hard copies up front and buy advertising.  So today’s market is super-saturated with new authors, all of whom are jumping through the same hoops, taking their rejections in stride, believing in their work even when it feels like no one else believes, doing whatever it takes to build a following, each and every one of them just trying to get noticed by the right person, the one who will eventually make all the efforts worthwhile, meanwhile still penning their next book and maintaining some small measure of sanity.  Even the world’s most excellent storytellers would get lost in this new world where, to get noticed, you have to put yourself out there, attend seminars, join writers groups, build your web presence so that you’re the number one you on Google, and generally be something that most writers are not: extroverts with astounding interpersonal skills and winning grins.


In my effort to sell myself, I decided that, although I’m an untrained, mediocre artist at best, it would be a super-duper awesome idea to draw my characters, so that readers could get an idea of who I see when I’m writing, even though every reader will surely see the characters in their own way.  Some of my attempts at putting real faces to the people in my world are, ugh, just laughable, which brings me to my lessons learned for today:

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

(I wanted to entitle this post “Realize there are bigger things to sweat than whether or not his eyes are too big for his face or her nose is out of perspective, like world hunger or the ethics of reciprocity, so get over yourself already and just have fun,” but it was too long to be taken seriously.)

I’ve drawn and redrawn Aisling O’Toole about seven times now (a few of my attempts are in the collage of good and bad sketches above, though none of them come close to representing Ash as I see her in my head).  Maybe it’s the nature of her character that makes her so difficult for me to work out, or maybe it’s really that I just cannot draw people in the perspective in which I want to draw her, I just don’t know.  Okay, I do know.  I can’t draw people in profile.  Inevitably, there is something off with her, every attempt I make.

These sketches are not meant to be the end-all where my characters are concerned, and there has been some debate in my household over whether or not an author should post images of the characters at all, or if the writing should be left alone to speak to the imagination of the reader (there was even some talk about whether or not it would be beneficial to collaborate with an outside artist, not because I’m not Michelangelo, duh, but because it would bring in that person’s contacts as a resource, which seems like a nefarious reason to take on an artist, if you ask me).  More to the point, while I do have a tendency to be a perfectionist about many things, I know the drawing of Ash doesn’t have to be perfect, and deep down I don’t really care whether or not it ever is perfect, but I would at least like it to pass.

So why am I sweating?

Mostly because I’m still learning, and it can be easy to forget that everyone else is still learning too.

Obviously, learning how to draw isn’t massively important to me in the grand scheme of things, especially since I’m not pretending to be some fabulous artist to be admired, but I know it is important that I always be capable of seeing when there is something that I need to learn, and this is something I need to learn.  It is clear that I am just no good at drawing people in profile.  I could continue trying and failing, which I don’t recommend to anyone.  I could throw up my hands and decide never to draw another person in profile again, which I also don’t recommend.  Or I could be true to my standard of always learning and do a little youtube search this evening and take some lessons from people who do know what they are doing.

It’s easier not to sweat the small stuff when you can admit you have more to learn.  I am still learning, and that’s okay.  That’s not just okay, that’s actually really quite wonderful–probably the whole purpose to life in a nutshell, if life has a purpose.

While I’m on this subject, this is Aidan Foote:

Aidan Foote and his shadows
Aidan Foote and his shadows

See the scar marking his left brow and eye?  Yeah, um, that’s wrong.  This is how I see him in my mind, but in the writing I changed the scar long ago, because at some point I decided it wasn’t believable that he could have a scar like this and still have two working eyes.  I could have just explained away the lack of damage to his eye when his uncle marred him as magic, it is a fantasy after all, but instead I decided to write his scar as having stopped just short of his eye (because even in a magical world, I like my magic to be believable, and how could they fix is eye but leave him with such an awful scar–just didn’t add up).  It was two days after I posted this image that I realized I had just shown the world something that wasn’t part of the canon, and of course I panicked a little.

Now, I firmly believe in owning my mistakes, and this clearly is a mistake.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t draw much attention to something like this, chances are very few people would have noticed the discrepancy between this image and the writing if I hadn’t pointed it out, and if I was really worried about it, I could have just taken care of it without anyone ever knowing (frankly, there’s not much traffic here, yet, but that will change eventually).  Even now, I could remove the image, redraw him entirely or try to erase, but I actually rather like the message this mistake sends.

Let’s face it, I’m bound to make a lot of mistakes, big and small, in this process.  So, over-sized-scar Aidan will serve evermore as my reminder that it really will be all right.  I’m allowed to let a little bit of my human side show now and then, to be imperfect, and just like most readers out there, I can gladly proclaim that the characters I see are not necessarily the characters as they are written in the work, even though it’s my work.

(If you haven’t seen Aidan’s character link, you should read about him sometime.)

Finally, in learning not to sweat the small stuff, it’s important that I remember what I’m trying to accomplish.

I am a writer.  I write.  I can spend hours producing images I hope you will find appealing and intriguing, in an effort to gain your attention in a world of seven billion authors, all looking to sell their stories. But ultimately, I have to take an honest look at what I’m really trying to accomplish as I’m sketching so much that my fingers ache and I begin to develop a dowager’s hump that I’m not likely to wear well in my old age.  Gaining a following for my writing is well and good, but utterly pointless if it keeps me from actually writing.

From now on, even if Peril’s eyes are too big and Meggit’s nose is seriously bent out of shape, I will only write during my coveted six hours a day of writing time, because there are more important things to sweat than eyes and noses in drawings, like what will happen when Elijah discovers Elli manically writing and re-writing Ash’s prophecy in a furious attempt to see what the words really mean, which still isn’t quite as big as world hunger or the ethics of reciprocity, but much more important than drawings that can be made anytime, but not during coveted writing time, so I’m going to get over myself and get to work… and have fun.

Have a lovely day!


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