Tuesday, September 22, 2009


My five year old can read fluently, and has no problem with numbers. But she mostly can't be bothered to draw. So, in the interests of balance, we settled down yesterday afternoon to play some games.

First, we did blindfold drawings. Blindfold on, or eyes shut, and draw whatever you want. So she scribbled a few love hearts and flower symbols. Then she tried a face, and yelled with frustration that the eyes and nose ended up two inches to the left of the circle head.

So we moved on to contour drawings: eyes on an object, pencil stays on the page, and draw in one fluid line. She drew a hand symbol four times in a minute, tight and boring: four fingers, a thumb, and done. I spent two minutes doing a slow drawing of my hand, and it was loose, scribbly and hilarious. So my daughter flounced and slammed down her pen because her drawings 'weren't as good as' mine.

Clearly, I was doing this wrong. I reflected. My parents said I used to paint at kinder, then immediately wash over the painting with black paint so noone could see it. I remember being teased in early primary school because my drawings didn't look right (I drew in perspective), so I quickly shifted to symbols: green grass, blue strip of sky, and little stick figures looking straight at the viewer. Even in high school, I kept to symbols until I could avoid art altogether. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I had the confidence to sit down one holiday and play with contour drawings, and in doing so, re-discovered something lost to me since kindergarten: the beauty of drawing.

My inner critic is still powerful, and I'm still learning how to keep it under control; my daughter's inner critic can be as constricting as mine. Like me at the same age, she draws conventional symbols because any other attempts are immediately blasted, by herself and others, as being too wobbly, too wiggly, too weird, too strange.

So we put on some music, and I described the pleasure of drawing. I talked about the satisfying feel of a good pencil moving across heavy paper; I tried to describe the dreamy state when one's thinking moves from the left to the right side of the brain; and I gave her some ideas to keep her inner critic quiet. I told her that some artists take years to complete a painting; that a good drawing takes more than a minute, and it isn't a race. Then I set up a still life of apples and bananas and a cup, and she did another contour drawing, then filled it in with crazy colours. We left her purple and yellow apples on the table, and had a long bath.

While she was in the bath, she commented that she always drew her flowers with a stick, two leaves and some petals, but real flowers don't look like that. So I talked about the difference between drawing symbols, and drawing what one actually sees, and how when one becomes absorbed the sensation of running one's eyes over the shape of a tree, a hand, a leaf feels like a pencil running over paper. Even days after a session, one can look at something and immediately know how it would feel to draw it. Find a good pencil, I suggested. Try different ones and see which you like the best.

Grandpa came over. As I bathed her sisters, she announced she was going to do his portrait. She sat in the back room, drawing away. I came out as she muttered, No! he needs more wrinkles!, and added a series of wavy lines to his face. Quietly absorbed, my daughter, who an hour earlier had managed nothing more than a heart and a flower with five petals, added the chair behind and around him, and the shape of the chair suggested bulk. Totally relaxed, she filled in the plaid of the chair's fabric. She drew in the lamp behind his shoulder, and shaded in rays of light; she drew in the bookcase. Grandpa's jumper bulged in all the right places. It was recognisable, joyful, exuberant.

I fret that her critic is as loud as mine; it grieves me to watch her curtail what she can do for fear of failure or being different. My heart sinks when I see her tight little hearts and flowers, all coloured in regulation pink. But some of the sadness is projected. I spent years at school, head down, trying to be invisible, when I instead could have been writing, drawing, learning; thinking about those years still makes me feel lonely and small. And yet, perhaps my experience is a gift: now I can help my daughter name and defuse the power of that critical voice; now I can choose a school for her which is a little more gentle, a little more encouraging of difference; now I can describe the joy of writing, drawing, making something beautiful.

And for all my worry, in one hushed evening, with a few suggestions, a few pointers, my daughter drew something delightful. She beams with satisfaction, and presents her drawing to Grandpa. We crowd around and admire her work. She grins, then wanders off to do something else. And my heart leaps as I realise that perhaps I need not be so anxious. She's not me, but another child, of a new generation; she's proud of her effort, but relaxed enough to leave it and go play when it's done. Her parents are different; her school is different; and with a good dose of luck, she'll explore whatever fascinates her without being governed by fear. Quick to learn, interested in the world; parents who give her reflective tools: perhaps, just perhaps, her guiding force might not be a crippling self consciousness, but instead an effervescent joy.

Even if not, even if, like me, she decides in the next year or two to bow down to fear and shrink back for a while, there is still hope. Because I have found, in growing up, that the fear means nothing; and the joy has been there all along. In time it will find the cracks in her defences, in time it will slowly seep in and fill her up, so that sooner or later she will be radiant again.

1 comment:

  1. 'that the fear means nothing; and the joy has been there all along'. I remember writing poetry as a kid, feeble and tentative efforts that I was never able to voice to anyone. The fear was binding. It took a teacher in year 9 to tell me what a beautiful poem I had written. Taking a deep breath, I found the courage to read it aloud at home, but older brothers who overhear can be harsh critics. I retreated again and have yet to re-find that courage even today. Thanks for the encouragement, Alison. Perhaps 'the fear means nothing', or at least far less than I imagine.


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