Modern Adventuress

A weekly email letter by Jen Myers

On pencil and paper

14 October 2016

I know nothing about Anne-Marie-Louise Thomas de Domangeville de Sérilly, Comtesse de Pange, except that a marble bust of her likeness sits on a pedestal in the Art Institute of Chicago. I picked her as a subject to draw mostly because her bust was placed near a bench to sit down on. But the sculpture is lovely in itself: softly defined and neo-classically minimal. It’s an attractive subject to draw, even if one isn’t quite sure how to do that anymore.

I haven’t drawn anything in so many years I can’t remember how many. Perhaps I last did when I was in college, which comes out to around twelve or thirteen years. Even then the habit was fading, though. I drew excessively as a teenager, bent on a future as an artist, but the pressure to stop and focus on a real career, plus the insecurity born of being talented but not being a prodigy and needing to put in work to improve, turned me from that path. I’ve thought a few times over the intervening years that I should pick up a pencil again. It’s one of those recurring thoughts that provides just enough inital comfort to prevent you from actually taking action on it.

My daughter loves to draw. She’s good at it. I recognize the same visual aptitude I had, the natural ease transferring observations into art. I make it a point to keep her supplied with high quality sketchbooks and pencils. When she mentions becoming an artist “when she grows up,” I tell her we can find a way to make that work. At some point, I must have told her I had used to want to be an artist, because she started encouraging me to draw again myself. That is not where I thought my determining inspiration to return to drawing would come from, but the world often moves unexpectedly, even if in retrospect the movements are entirely sensible and likely what you should have anticipated from the start.

So we have begun to draw together, at the art museum. The first time I put pencil to paper again, sitting in a gallery room crowded with largely indifferent tourists, was a bit intimidating. The convenient bench was full of people looking at their phones, so I sat on the floor. My daughter got a sliver of the bench and began drawing quickly; she had both the trained muscles and the confidence to do so. I was more hesitant. I remembered from my lonely studies twenty years ago how to sketch out the underlying lines of a human head, where the guides for eyes and nose and cheekbones went. I did so lightly, rubber eraser clenched in my other hand, ready to remove, lightning-fast, whatever mistaken marks I made. I did do some erasing. But I was surprised at how much I remembered, and how much of what I remembered wasn’t the technical rules but the feeling of my hand sweeping across the paper and leaving a path. Of bringing out an essence of what I saw when I looked at something, even if it wasn’t realistically perfect. I eventually did less erasing, and made darker, stronger lines.

An older lady stopped by our side and complimented our work. I thanked her sincerely. While it’s true that confidence has to bubble up from within, it’s quite nice to get a compliment from time to time, and it’s even better when it’s a time when you could use the backup.

I’m happy with my sketch of the Comtesse de Pange. It’s not great, but it was a good restart. The Comtesse herself, despite her agreeable appearance, would likely not be very impressed with my work, being more accustomed to a higher standard. But she contributed her part, as did the complimentary lady, as did my daughter, and as did I. Altogether, when you take a step back and see the whole context, the essence comes through, and it makes for a lovely picture.

Read all essays