Curiosity is the truth and the way to creative living.
“What are you drawing gobrya?” my father would gently ask when I was old enough to hold a pencil between my thumb and fingers. I would try to hide the sketch meant to look like a mouse.
As the beak of the mouse and its tail escaped my tiny hands, he would smile and sit down and draw a fresh sketch, which looked more like the mouse I was trying to sketch. I would watch in wonderment and try again. But soon my father would draw my attention to alphabet and numbers.
A for Apple…..B for Ball…..C for Cat….
Or its equivalent in Devnagari (Hindi script) ae…Anaar….aa……Aam…etc.
O…. N…. E…One….T…W…O…. Two…. T….H…R…. E….E…Three…. 4…. 5…. 6…….As I would repeat the numbers after him.
During my pre-school years, I was introduced to three types of alphabet viz. English, Urdu (adapted form of Arabic script) and Hindi (Devanagari script). Curiously enough, none of them was my mother tongue. We spoke Kashmiri at home- a language which does not have an extant script. But my interests were not limited to alphabet and numbers.
I had a flashing but innate curiosity in sketching. At that age I mean!
Free Image From Google Images. Overwritten Drawing is mine.
This story is about how my curiosity popped up in my mind every now and then, like a drowning man manages to catch a few breaths before going under. I never paused to give it a serious second thought for decades. Until recently. And when I did, a spark found me; I discovered it to be a small step in knowing my subconscious faculties a little better. Faculties all of us have. And it became a source of some inner happiness not known to me before.
My ancestors had lived in a village ploughing lands, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. My parents lived a part of their life the same way till they were forced to migrate to the city after the war and conflict in which they lost a number of their loves ones, their homes, and assets. My two siblings and I were born in the city of Srinagar years later where we had migrated. Thus, we were able to venture into school, without the additional burden of having to help in the fields, milking cows or collecting cow dung and shaping it into cakes and bake it in the sun for fuel. Both my parents had enough wisdom and foresight to understand the importance of good education. They were decent parents and natural educators. But letting any of their children pursue a subject like drawing, painting or sketching was fruitless, both literally and figuratively, as you can imagine it would be for people who had grown among orchards and, therefore, that was not in their plans.
With this stereotype mindset, I was able to sneak into only one drawing class perhaps in my sixth grade. That was more out of curiosity than serious intent as my parents would never have approved of it. I watched with envy some other boys naturally gifted to draw better. They did not seem to make much effort. One of the conclusions I had drawn about myself after attending that one class was that I was no good at drawing. A visit to The Louvre three decades later brought that pain closer to my heart. ‘Why am I no good at drawing or painting something,’ lamented my heart silently. Almost subconsciously!
During my college days, one afternoon, perhaps when my teenage sensuality was feeling particularly starved, I took a red fountain pen and drew the sketch of a young woman on a thick white sheet of paper, waste-up, copying from a poster; with her cleavage showing. Trust me; it was not Debonair (also dubbed poor man’s Playboy those days!) which was popular among young folk for its unclad centerspread. Not that I may not have wanted to but, I did not have enough courage to go that far, even secretly. Nevertheless, I made the drawing when no one was around. I folded it and kept it in the thickest book I was proud to possess, and still am: The Complete Works of Shakespeare– intimidating enough not to be opened by others around me. I stealthily opened it every now and then to take a look at my creation. Later I decided that I had made that crude sketch more to cope with my teenage blues than to test a skill or pursue an interest.
Pencil Sketching by The Author
But my curiosity about drawing and painting though faint and subdued, never died. I had not allowed the head popping out of water for breath, drown.
After migrating and living in Canada for more than a decade, a drawing kit in my home office, an aisle, pencils and oil paints, brushes and some canvasses lay unused for some years.
One day I woke up to discover that a tiny flame of my interest in drawing, which had almost faded by now, had ignited afresh. Probably Nature chose to put a little oil in it. I decided to begin sketching. I took a pencil in my hand and wanted to copy Guernica. But I didn’t know how to draw with a pencil or a brush. I felt like a child three years old who had been put in a tenth grade classroom and asked to copy the definition of Archimedes Principle from the blackboard. A few such attempts later, I had not even drawn anything significant. Then I watched a few hours of YouTube lessons, but found myself still in a labyrinth, in a jungle. Thoroughly confused!
Free Internet Image of Picasso’s Guernica
Where should I begin? My interest had returned like a prodigal son, after spending decades in wilderness and finally surviving from getting drowned. But I did not know what to do with it.
Now that I had decided to go to the next level, I searched on the internet and closed in on having a teacher, a guru so to speak, who I hoped would teach me a new alphabet of lines, shades and impressions using pencils, brushes and colors, that my dad had not.
Soon I met with a qualified and experienced teacher.
After saying, ‘Hello, nice meeting you’ etc. at his studio, he gave me a sheet of white paper and a sharpened pencil.
Sketching on shaded grey paper is aesthetically better than a sketch on jarring white was the first full length lesson in one sentence I had ever been taught. When I was handed in a thick white sheet of paper, it appeared smaller than the thirty inch by twenty one inch size of the canvass on which Mona Lisa was originally painted, which dismayed me a bit; but I chose not to complain.
Without much ado or explaining, my drawing teacher with an experience of more than twenty five years, asked me to shade the paper grey. I held the pencil in a slant and adjusted and readjusted the angle and the pressure a few times till I got it somewhat right. It took me about twenty minutes to make a grey shade across the whole sheet that looked as uneven as the waves in a sea.
Once done, he kept a few objects like a jug, fruit etc. in front of me. He asked me to draw what lay in front of me. ‘You don’t draw long single lines but small, short lines, keeping a constant eye on the objects in front of you’, he said. After three hours of work, I had completed a pencil sketch of the objects. It was a sketch rudimentary and uncouth. My sixth grade class mates whom I had envied would perhaps have done better. But I was not comparing myself to anyone here. It was, therefore, satisfying all the same. Looking back, if anyone had shown me that pencil sketch and asked me how much time it would take to make it, I would probably have said about half an hour. However, after going through the process of making it myself for almost three and a half hours, I had learnt a lesson deeper than the lines and shades I sketched. To pursue a curiosity takes time. And patience!
That evening when I treated myself to a Single Malt, I saw shades of grey cascading into the glass, a new taste in my mouth and new buoyancy in my spirit. I slept better and woke up the next day with a huge smile on my face.
Now I also felt a little confident. Yes, I could do it. It was a slow change of mindset. A change in the way I thought I could or could not do stuff. Mind you this was an experiment in an idiom I had not tried before. I needed confidence that I could pursue it at will in future.
Giving Final Touches…..
In my second creation, Kim asked me to use pastels and a bit of water color. Looking at the objects and my moving fingers in quick succession hundreds and thousands of times, I began seeing the objects in front of me the way I had never seen anything before. I was now able to see the different components and surprised each time that I had not noticed them earlier, using the same pair of eyes. My eyesight had not improved but my ability to see had. Kevin Kim taught me to break the objects into components. Learnable components. He taught me unobtrusively that drawing was more about how well you perceive the edges, the outlines, spaces, core (primary) and secondary shadows and reflections. Drawing was not a gift that only a few had but about using our eyes better which all of us have. It is about how well we see. I felt I was echoing what Carol Dweck says in her classic book Mindset (quoted later in a subsequent paragraph).
But I was not done yet when I thought I had. Working on my craft in color for almost seven hours, I thought the piece was complete. But my guru once more pointed to a shade, a reflection or a bend or a color that I had not observed before. Wow! What a discovery! I was seeing better without using a magnifying glass. I remembered Arthur Conan Doyle,” You see, but you do not observe.” When Kim wanted me to look at all the components, their relationships and the whole, it was a kind of ‘Eureka’. After three more hours of deep work I knew the process was not complete but I had to be satisfied with what I got. I could now understand why many artists say that a painting is always work in progress. It is never complete. I could now understand why Mona Lisa took twenty-five, and some say more, years to be incomplete!
Free Image of Mona Lisa on The Internet
I followed up those Saturdays, when I worked with Kim, with walks in the park the next day. I found I naturally breathed deeper. The singing of the birds sounded like divine music. There was not even a hint of a frown on my forehead and it felt like my dalliance in sketching and painting had created a new circuit in my head. A circuit of happiness! I could instinctively hear Keats sing in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, “ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:”
I am not so naïve as to claim that I became a painter with a dozen or so hours of dallying in the craft. Not at all! But I do see this experience as a way to initiate a change of mindset. It provided a confirmation that if you honestly pursue your curiosity and take the next few kinetic steps; you can do what you once thought you could not. No one can say it better than Carol Dweck. Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.
All I can say with confidence is that I made small progress. From my earlier belief that “’I am no good at sketching and painting’, I can now say, ‘Yes, I can sketch or paint and even be good at it, if I make that choice.’”
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation…. It is not an act but a habit.” Aristotle.
What are the takeaways from this experience?
Not one but ELEVEN. Here we go.
1. If an interest, however small, keeps nagging you, do not let it die.
2. More importantly, do not kill it. If you do, your deeper conscience should feel more troubled than……say by a real crime or murder.
3. If you hear discouraging voices, whether from your own mind or from outside, you have the right to give them the finger…the one that lies between…..index and ring. But you need not exercise that right either, as you have another choice: to pass them off with a sardonic smile!
4. ‘I am too old for it’, is a disconcerting voice from your own mind. Never let it overpower you. Don’t you want to feel young again? There is great fun in being a child again.
5. Never be trapped by your monkey mind that will tell you, ‘Where is the time?’ You can always find it.
6. That pursuing an interest, a hobby, adds another dimension to your life and living. It changes your mindset.
7. It brings about a change from hackneyed, ‘No I can’t’ to ‘Yes I can.’
8. That to activate and energize a lurking interest, you need to make time. Make appointments with yourself. Long ones! It is great fun.
9. Seek the help of a professional, if you must. That may open the door you found closed so far.
10. Immersing yourself in an interest not pursued before, adds a new ‘Circuit of Happiness’ to your brain. A new key to happiness, so to speak!
11. I found this to be one of the easiest ways to travel within for some true joy and a sense of fulfillment. So can you!
Gobrya My darling boy/son. For a female child the word is Gobree