Using lessons from charcoal drawing to burn through to your best work

Sticking to what you’re good at or comfortable with might yield short term success, but it can also lead to frustration and a lack of personal growth. So part of my approach to creativity these days is to try out new forms and mediums, and see what each could add to my perspective.

Whilst writing has always come naturally to me, I have never had much natural aptitude for drawing.

I can copy a flat 2D picture with passable accuracy, but up until the beginning of the year I had never drawn more than a few minutes at a time, rarely for enjoyment, and certainly never considered the mathematical relationships between objects in a 3D space.

So to embrace the uncomfortable, I took up drawing.

At the moment I’m doing a weekly class which involves drawing with charcoal, a medium I have never really understood or used before. And when I started a few weeks ago, I was quickly unimpressed.

Previously I had been drawing with pencil, and in comparison, my first attempts with charcoal seemed unpredictable and imprecise.

My first lines were wobbly and uneven, and I found it difficult to account for the way a charcoal stick constantly wears down, creating obscure angles and clouds of smudginess.

Charcoal seemed to me to be utterly inadequate for representing things faithfully (despite evidence to the contrary). But after working with it for a few weeks now, I have come to love the black.

Yesterday I was having coffee with a friend who works in UX. We were discussing a project he was involved in where a colleague had skipped prototype stage and forged straight ahead with the final design for a team website. The end result was impressive visually, yet there were already plans to make changes to the underlying structure, as little time was spent in working through the problem the site was meant to solve.

Except the design was already 70% done, and the person behind it was now pushing back on every change due to the amount of work required to build them into the design he had settled on.

My friend explained that as a designer he tended to not build anything solid too early on, for fear that he’ll grow attached to it and be reluctant to change fundamental things about its structure.

When building something for the first time, and perhaps still thinking it through, its good to work in a space where failure is cheap. That way as you work through the object, story, or product, you aren’t afraid to rethink your original assumptions.

This sentiment certainly rings true when working with charcoal.

At first pass my lines were dark, filled with an intent to finish the drawing as quickly and accurately as possible. These early drawings became a mess of smudge marks as I was constantly erasing and redrawing lines in attempt to try an lasso precision early on.

It was only once I stopped trying to draw well that my drawings really started to improve.

I learnt to hold the charcoal more loosely in my fingers, and to apply less pressure on the page. I would make vague outlines of things, concentrating on gathering objects into a composition, and then retracing those lines over and over again, building each layer into a more considered form.

It feels uncomfortable at first to create lines you know are going to be quickly replaced by better lines. Why can’t you just draw the better lines first?

In art, this process is often called restatement.

Often a restatement can carry through to the final artwork, and other times they are lost in successive layers of increasing detail. Their purpose is simply to guide you to the next layer so that the drawing can continue to develop. The presence of restatements will not say anything about you as an artist, except of course, if you grow frustrated and give up.

It seems to me that most forms of creative output require a stage of restatement, where failure is cheap and judgment withheld. As Todd Henry suggests in his book, The Accidental Creative:

We want to be able to engage in the creative process without requiring concrete results too early. When we do this, we neutralize the effects of unhealthy expectations and allow ourselves the full freedom that is required in order to take creative risks and see our infant ideas to completion.

In film, restatement occurs during storyboarding, where an entire film can be sketched through without turning on a camera. Designers often use thumbnail art to work on layouts and ideas before making them more permanent on the computer.

In writing, restatement happens during drafting, but it takes discipline to allow this to play out.

It is the ability to transform a drawing that makes it’s early stages feel so malleable. But to the eye, a word or sentence looks much the same in final and draft stages. The visual characteristics of a computer font are always the same, and hence permanence and final intent can be implied during writing, even if it’s an early stage draft.

Achieving the same sense of impermanence as drawing with charcoal becomes key in allowing sentences to shift and change, to deny their original form as you write through the bad stuff on your way to the good.

I do a couple of things. Firstly, I write a lot by hand in a small journal that I try to take everywhere with me. I have the handwriting of a small child; it’s inconsistent and often incomplete and feels much like rough sketch of ‘real’ handwriting.

I try not to get too attached to the sentences I sketch in my journal, as I’ll restate them later by retyping them out at the end of each day (or more likely, each week).

But once I shift to the computer, that sense of permanence immediately sinks in, which is strange, because one of the advantages of the digital format is the ability to delete and redo. But it’s this on/off approach to digital restatement that I find quite restricting.

In most digital forms a word either exists or is deleted during its a revision or replacement. Often in revising a draft you may encounter a feeling of ‘riskiness’ where you hope that whatever you’re replacing is going to result in an improvement.

For me, its the existence of a word or sentence in two places at once, even if those places are physically removed, that makes restatement possible.

So if I am writing on the computer I will print the draft out, place it next to me on the table, and retype the story from scratch back into a new document (like Ulysses, which is my current digital notepad of choice).

The subsequent draft will then grow from the original and often take new shape, but because I am working in a new space, rather than over the top of the original, I don’t feel the same psychological weight of the surrounding sentences and paragraphs. The work feels malleable. It is less ‘risky’ to make substantial changes.

So I have always tended to follow this process, without ever really reflecting on why. Until I started to draw with charcoal.

I find that my restatement process results in more considered work, and adopting the state of mind that early stuff is just sketch work, helps me put on the blinkers and burn through to my best creative work.

Maybe it will work for you.

2 comment(s)

Great post Mark! To add another medium that also uses restatement, video game developers often use ‘paper prototyping’. It’s a technique by which you just use cut-outs to simulate the gameplay of the game you’re hoping to make, in order to see if it actually works. As you say, it helps in avoiding annoying tropes or bad gameplay before you spend all the time putting an engine/thousands of lines of code together. Or getting attached to an imagine mechanic that won’t actually be fun.

Good to see you back in the blogging saddle. 🙂

Hey Phill! Yeah I’ve seen a few paper prototypes before. It’s quite an interesting technique. I think any process that allows you to iterate, rather than starting from scratch every time, will mean you learn and build simultaneously. Which has got to be a good thing.

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