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I Took Up Drawing Again, and Now I'm in Love with Frogs

Picking up the pen reminds me of the natural world's extraordinariness.

Dorothy Woodend 21 Feb 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Find her here.

A few weeks ago, an email popped into my inbox. It was from Opus, the Vancouver art supply store where I buy paints, pens and paper on occasion. “Take the Daily Practice Challenge!” said the cheery email. Do a drawing every day for a month from February 1-29.

“Hmm, OK,” I thought. I’ll try it. I spent a large portion of my childhood drawing and painting. I went to art school and got a degree in film animation, a program that required one to sit at a desk and draw on a light table for 10 to 12 hours a day.

Many people in the program got carpal tunnel syndrome and had to wear arm braces. At one point, the animation studio looked like an outpatient clinic for pained one-armed folk. I did the occasional illustration after I graduated, but at some point, and I’m not exactly sure why, I stopped.

For more than 16 years, other than the occasional doodle in the margins of a notebook, I didn’t draw at all.

The Opus Challenge seemed pretty straightforward. I’d done some drawings for Tyee stories, but I hadn’t seriously drawn for a long time. I felt rusty, awkward and embarrassed but also strangely happy to simply sit down with a sketchbook for 20 minutes every day and mess about.

Re-entering the drawing world is like to learning to see all over again. The left brain with its ceaseless chatter, its tendency to overanalyze everything, its constant exhausting anxious need to codify, quantify, to always have the answers, simply shuts up. There is blessed silence. I didn’t even notice that the chatter in my head had died down until I was a few days into the daily drawing habit.

The other thing is that drawing teaches you to see and appreciate just how truly extraordinary the natural world is, whether it’s the s-curve of a flamingo’s delicate pink neck, the eye of a lizard or the iridescent sheen of a fish’s scales. You can look as closely as you can, strain to the far edges of your ability, and you will only catch the trailing edge of it.

851px version of DWIllus-Flamingy.jpg
851px version of DWIllus-Newt.jpg

I had the idea to do some drawings of animals from a giant picture book that belonged to my son when he was younger. The book was divided into different chapters, detailing life in the sea, life on land, plant life, bugs, snakes, trees, wasps, squid, spiders, dragon flies, cows, monkeys. Pretty much everything that walks, crawls or chews a cud was in there, in big bright photographs — ideal for drawing.

Compared to drawings, words are a clunky vehicle, full of moving parts that all have to function in simultaneity, or the car goes careening off the road and lands in a pool of excess commas. Instead of writing a 10-word description to capture the way marabou feathers fall across the back of an ostrich, I can simply drag my brush across the page in a single line. (OK, it’s not always that easy.)

As I recently made my way through the pages, trying, failing and trying again to get the right-angled way a frog’s leg sticks out from its sticky little torso, I thought, what is a world without this delicate, perfect little being?

The humble frog, with its tender skin stretched tight over tiny bones, each gummy toe a mixture of green and orange, cream and brown, pebbled with little leopard splotches. I could happily spend the rest of my life drawing frogs. They are so beautiful and so terribly fragile.

851px version of DWIllus-Cow.jpg
851px version of DWIllus-Wasp.jpg

Everything I sat down to draw, whether it was bumblebees or Dungeness crabs, seems to come with a modern story of unbearable tragedy. Mass extinction for bees, or the news about crabs’ shells dissolving in acidifying oceans. After a while it was difficult to even look at these animals, knowing what was happening to them.

But it’s important to really look, and not look away, to see how extraordinary all these creatures are in their spots, fur and tentacles. To lose them, even the asshole wasps, would be to lose everything.  [Tyee]

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