Starting Over

Sketching and drawing is something I've been passionate about for a long time. This journal is about sketching interfaces and interaction, but I want to start out with a story about sketching that isn't at all related to web sites and software. I think it might help to understand why I wrote this.

A Confession

I have a confession to make. Most of my life I've really thought that I sucked at sketching and drawing. But I've always wanted to do it, and I've always wanted to be better.

Growing up, I was always drawing and making things with my hands all the time. I wanted to be able to accurately and realistically draw what I saw with my eyes, and draw the ideas in my mind. I really wanted my drawings to look like those things. But I've always felt like I sucked at that, and I think that's really blocked me for a long time from being successful at using sketching as one of my design tools.

When desire is greater than ability

I think there's something interesting about having a desire that's much greater than your ability. Something about that equation creates a tension and possibility to grow that can be delicate to handle. It's easy to find yourself unable to meet your passion and give up. If you're lucky, if you have guidance, or something or someone who influences you and pushes you forward, however, it's possible to discover a path to satisfying the desire, unexpected as the path may be.

I'm regularly provided with interesting life lessons seeing the world through my children, and trying to see them through challenges. The unique position of wanting to help, but knowing you need to do so carefully makes me think about responding to those challenges in a way that doesn't discourage, but offers possibilities and paths for consideration. I haven't always approached things this way, but when I do, I find it can be less effort pushing one's self forward. Getting spoon-fed every solution in life only gets you so far.

My son is 11 as I write this. He's a kid like I was who seems to have always loved making things with markers, or photoshop, and that sort of thing. Talking with him about his artwork one day helped me to understand what was blocking me in my own design work.

One day when he was about 6 or 7 years old, he was doing his usual thing, drawing pictures and characters. I'm sitting in the same room with him and I hear him say, "I suck at this." Of course my heart breaks a little because I want my kids to feel awesome about themselves. I went over to see what was up.

I saw that he was drawing a character. He was trying to copy a picture of an anime character he likes. He's focussing on the details and trying to make his face and hair look right, and he's really looking closely and working meticulously, trying to make this thing look "right" to him—to match the image he has in his mind.

He's kind of blocked. And all the time leading up to this point, I've never really seen him express frustration over not being able to have the thing in his mind match the thing he created.

I already thought that his drawings were great, but at this point I think I started to talk to him about the idea of maybe taking a break and stepping back. We talked about what it was he wanted to do. He told me that when we made books together, he would get frustrated that the characters didn't look the same from cell to cell, page to page.

At some point during this conversation I told him that I loved how hard he worked on his drawings and asked him, "What if you focussed on the story you want to express, because maybe the thing that's important to you might be getting this idea out without having to make it look exactly like what you're trying to copy." I knew this wasn't the answer he wanted. So I also introduced him to some techniques I had learned to give him something to hang onto while he worked, but I think the first message was the important one.

Empty your cup

I had taken a class with this guy a few years prior. His name is Kensuke Okabayashi. He's a manga illustrator who taught a class on the Lower East Side of New York for people who wanted to to draw manga. His class helped me to break down the drawing of faces by looking at the basic elements that go into each expression, from happy and surprised, to sad and totally devastated. Until that point, I was never able to see what I needed to do to draw in all the traditional figure drawing classes I had taken. But somehow I started to see differently, and my eyes were breaking down what I saw into forms I could sketch.

By repeatedly practicing drawing the basic set of expressions Kensuke introduced, I had tools to tell a story—the starter kit version anyway. I began to believe that it's not learning how to represent the human form accurately and showing all the details that I should be concerned with, but thinking about what it is I want to tell in my story, and knowing how to do that with a few basic techniques.

I don't know if my son really took all my messages to heart, nor do I think it was my talking to him that changed things directly. But, shortly afterwards he did kind of let go of this idea of having to be perfect. And when I look at some of his drawings, there's a lot of emotion and humor there. It's very rough and loose, but there's nothing wrong with having that character in your drawing and not being "perfect" at it.

In retrospect I think we had similar problems, although I spent much more effort and time trying to be "good," whereas, I think he's moved on much sooner. I also learned eventually to let go when doing my own work and accepted that sketching should be a something that's loose and free. And I embraced sketching over drawing.

I think when you focus on the message and the story you want to tell, when over time you give up this need to be technically correct and just practice doing the basic things to tell your story, that you get progressively better.

These are some sketches from my sketch book in recent years, post-Kensuke. I think my sketches which used to be really tortured became fun and started to look more like things in my mind. I look at these now and I feel like I've come a long way from really sucking.

I really had to start over. I didn't realize it at the time, but this struggle was happening in my work as a designer as well.