I’ve always been terrible at drawing. Can I learn in my 60s?
I do not draw. I cannot draw. I will never draw.
My stick figures are abstract abstractions. No neurons light up in my brain to commandeer my pencil. In high school, I painted anemic watercolors — colors that ran into each other, looking vaguely like a sunset crying. My art teacher mentioned motor skills, occupational therapy, and finally, the school psychologist was enlisted to plumb why my drawing had not progressed since pre-school. In my last two years of high school, art was an elective that I happily didn't have to take. After a few sessions, the school psychologist stopped requesting that I go to his office. I rarely saw my art teacher, who never seemed to leave her art room on the third floor.
I forgot about drawing until a teacher pointed out my son's atrocious handwriting in elementary school. Motor skills, occupational therapy — here we go again, I thought. Lucky for him, he was a child of the 21st century who could bypass all of that and use a keyboard. Then he went to prep school, where his classical education mandated a drawing class. I couldn't imagine he would do anything except squiggle on the page very poorly. But the kid learned to draw recognizable portraits of me, his friends and faces in magazines.
It briefly occurred to me that if my kid with the terrible, horrible handwriting could draw a decent portrait, maybe I could, too. All I needed was to learn the skills. A few months ago, a fellow writer told me about a beginning portrait class she was taking over Zoom. She assured me that no one in the class was very advanced. Another writer friend who took up drawing a few years ago said it expanded her mind, boosting her creativity. I enrolled.
[F]inally, the school psychologist was enlisted to plumb why my drawing had not progressed since preschool.
I felt like an imposter buying a sketching pad and charcoal pencils. The only thing that felt genuine was the giant rubber eraser I knew would be critical to my drawing life. The class met on Sunday mornings at eight o'clock to accommodate participants' time zones. I threw on a sweater over my pajamas and tried to remember not to stand up on camera.
I first learn how to see a face in quadrants, measuring distances from eyebrows to nose to lips with a pencil. But it turns out I lack any depth perception. I take pictures of my sketches during class and send them to Alex, the teacher in Israel, over WhatsApp. I try to imitate him as I draw discrete parts of a face. Each time I submit my effort, Alex shakes his head sadly and says, No, no, no. Or if my sketches are especially bad Picasso-like renderings, he'll say, Judy, Judy, Judy, like an Israeli Cary Grant.
I have two choices — keep hauling myself out of bed early on Sunday mornings or drop out. My husband said he wouldn't blame me for skipping the whole thing. I shot back, I'm not a quitter. I won't stop until I draw a nose that looks like an actual nose. For inspiration, I stared at my son’s middle-school sketch of me, finally recognizing how he had measured my face with his pencil within small graph paper squares. I saw how he shaded the eyes and lips until they were unequivocally mine. I saw it, but my brain and hand were no longer on speaking terms.
By the third week, Alex says, "Judy, I will not give up on you." By the fourth week, I tell myself I will not give up on me, either. I know I am the worst in the class, and so does everyone else. I become the group's caboose — the car that never quite pulls into the station. Nevertheless, I decide to do a portrait of my husband, Ken. It turned out to be a gesture of love gone awry.
My husband said he wouldn't blame me for skipping the whole thing. I shot back, I'm not a quitter.
But in the final class, I rebel. I eschew the shadows and forms Alex has tried to teach me and instead lean into what I am practiced in — chaos, the kind I’ve spent my life trying to make sense of in my writing. And so, I focus on drawing Ken's short tight curls. When we met more than 30 years ago, his hair was much longer and his curls sprung wildly spring from his head. His curls were the anti-Medusa; soft, loose corkscrews that gave our firstborn her gorgeous pre-Raphaelite halo.
"No curls," says Alex. I argue I'm drawing Ken's curls to achieve a meditative state. Alex takes a new tact with me and says, "The Hebrew word for drawing is the same as the word for writing. Be as curious about the individual forms of your portrait as you are about what you're writing."
I stare hard at my husband's teeth, which I first draw as symmetrical squares. I've lined them up so that they look like an automobile's wide toothy grille. On the next pass, the back teeth are like Chiclets, and I shroud them in vague shadows, leaving the front teeth too bright, too big and too square.
"I don’t believe your husband's teeth look like that."
And I don't believe that Ken looks like a cross between a wanted poster in the post office and a serial killer as he does in my portrait.
"It's an interpretation," I say to Alex.
Alex wants me to move on from Ken's teeth and asks what part I'm working on next in my portrait. "The eyes," I tell him.
He sighs and says that's a good idea. "I will not give up on you," he says again, this time wearier. I admire his pedagogical optimism. It almost matches my own as I carry on and draw Ken's eyes — eyes I’ve so loved all these years.