I roll up two enormous pads of collected newsprint paper and shove the resulting tube into a plastic bag from, “Super Yuda,” which used to be called Super Baba, but word on the street is that there was perhaps a falling out between two brothers and the ownership changed hands. I don’t know any of this for fact because I’m an outsider here, nor do I remember where I heard it, but ever since the ‘Baba,’ came down and the ‘Yuda,’ went up, the store has changed, and I can’t lie, for the better. Even the plastic bags are better, sturdy enough to hold my paper without splitting midway to my destination.
My pencil case is stocked with all grades of pencils from 9H to 9B sharpened to enough of a point that any one of them could possibly impale someone. Compressed charcoal, graphite sticks and few select chalk pastels lie in a tin case lined with a thin layer of polyethylene foam so as to prevent the spread of colored dust to the inside of my backpack on the journey. Wrapped in saran wrap, as if some illicit substance, are various gum, plastic and rubber erasers in order to avoid getting unnecessary lead all over them. A chamois is folded into a square, tucked into a plastic bag, and my exacto knife is capped to prevent an unfortunate stab when I will inevitably be searching through it without looking.
I zip up the case and place it in the front pocket of my backpack which is exactly the right size. A small, brand new cardboard tube of willow charcoal goes in the mesh side pocket. One spiral sketch pad, one hardbound sketchpad and ten or so sheets of cold-pressed watercolor paper are tucked behind a gallon ziploc bag filled with a vial of India ink (which is itself in it’s own ziploc bag to prevent spillage), an empty squirt tube, an old crayola watercolor tray that’s been cleaned out, several sable brushes in a variety of sizes, an old plastic takeout container for holding water, and twenty or so heavy duty paper towels neatly folded in half which I’ve brought with me from the States because they’re much more durable than the paper towels here. My excitement mounts. There’s nothing better than fresh and expertly packed materials. I’m reminded of the first day of school, and in a way it is.
I’m only ostensibly prepared. My heart is already beating fast and I’m not even out the door yet. I feel momentarily lethargic as I put on my running shoes and check my watch for the probably thirtieth time in the past two minutes. I am not late. Even if I was, being late isn’t a thing here. People aren’t punctual and it’s not because they’re rude or because they don’t care about being on time, it’s just that the window of being “on time” here has a wide berth from what I’ve seen, but again, I don’t know this for fact, I’ve simply observed this in my own small microcosm within this city. If I were to stop every five minutes to tie my shoes on the ensuing forty minute walk (and I pretty much never tie my shoes), I will still be early.
I’m one of those people who fears things like getting lost (I already know where I’m going), getting stuck in inclimate weather (there’s pretty much no such thing here and it’s a cloudless, 80 degree June evening), or experiencing some type of crime on my person that would slow me down (there’s an extremely low crime rate here, especially of assault). Basically, I’m a type-A to a fault, overpreparing so much that at times my overpreparedness has caused me more problems than if I had actually been underprepared, but I can’t help myself. If I start letting go of the little things like being on time, or being extremely efficiently packed, all the parts of my life stacked in Jenga-like towers around me (so delicately constructed, requiring my constant attention to stay standing) will come crashing down in a crushingly mad haze of tumbling wooden blocks until I’m smothered beneath, like, a million Jenga blocks, right?
It occurs to me that a million Jenga blocks smothering me might actually not cause that much damage, maybe a broken tooth, some serious splinters or an impaled eye, but I would live. Logically, I know how faulted my thinking is. The worst that could happen is not actually that bad, but I physically cannot stop myself from packing and repacking or checking and double checking when I’m doing something new and out of the ordinary. Should I see someone about this? Perhaps. Will I? No, probably not, and if I did it would likely entail an even longer preparatory dance and much more clock watching than usual at which point I would certainly have to face the fact that I’m indeed a mess and in definite need of help and I don’t want to come to that realization. Right now I’m kind of at the level of abstract acceptance that I possess many needless perfectionist behaviors but I’m a functioning human so it’s okay.
I don my backpack, throw the massive tube of papers over my shoulder and carry my portfolio. I scream, “Overeager art n00b.” Despite having an undying love of art from the first time I gazed upon Monet’s Water Lilies and even more so after seeing my first Rothko and having the, “Is this really art?” conversation with myself, I’ve never taken a formal studio class. I took the usual high school art class and studied Art History and Architecture while studying abroad, but I always felt I lacked the innate talent required to be bold enough to sketch where other people could see your fumbling attempts at creating 3D form on a 2D surface.
This evening will be my first studio art class. It’s a figure drawing class and I am a beginner joining the class midway through. The deck is stacked against me in terms of this going at all well.
I walk up Bograshov, a neat little street that, despite smelling like cat pee most of the time, is filled with all sorts of eclectic clothing stores and cafes. I continue down my favorite tree-lined path when I hit Dizengoff and momentarily, I forget I’m nervous. I forget I’m going to be at least half an hour early. I pass by the open-air bistro and say to myself, “By next week you’ll at least feel confident enough to take out your drawing board and sketch here,” as if by simply attending a studio class I will, by osmosis, be filled with artistic confidence and skill. I’m abstractly aware of my naiveté, but I ignore it because I’m high on the open-ended possibilities of this evening.
By the time I’ve crossed over the highway and reached my destination, the atmosphere is no longer a hot, steaming oven and I can breath again. The street is empty. The pale blue light of a cloudless day, just after the sun has gone behind the buildings, but before it has set, casts pale, delicate shadows. The only movement that can be seen on the block are my own steps and a mechanic listlessly smoking outside a nearby garage. Both of us are content not to acknowledge one another because we’re having our own private moments. I take in the last gasps of comfortable silence before having to reenter the world of people, a world in which I never feel at ease.
I know that by the time I get out of the class at 11pm, the nightlife up and down the streets leading homeward will only be in it’s nascent stage. It will be a much different walk home. That’s if I make it to 11pm. When I had finally got a hold of someone in charge of registration for classes (i.e. I went there in person because I was not having luck via e-mail or over the phone) she had looked at my sketchbook and said, “Oh,” with a forced, polite smile. Oh. I took that to mean that I was woefully a pre-beginner at best (see evidence above in sketches shown to said someone). But the mission of the studio had clearly said it was open to beginners and masters so I forged ahead in full and complete awareness that I was not up to snuff.
As expected I’m thirty five minutes early. A painting class is just finishing up. The familiar sweet smell of linseed oil, and harsher fumes of turpentine linger around the door. I hear the staccato rhythm of classmates speaking rapidly in Hebrew and pick up some words and phrases here and there but nothing that would allow me to casually enter a conversation. Even the painting students have less gear around them than I do. A few people stare at me wondering what I’m doing here so early. I start to doubt whether I’ll ever be able to master the pencil let alone the brush, but I admonish myself to stay positive. This is the first day of the rest of your life as a future, capable, mostly self-taught, mediocre artist.
I immediately begin to see a host of obstacles beginning with how to go about obtaining an easel. Are there assigned easels? I instantly cringe at the thought that I just questioned whether a class full of adults would have assigned seats (problematic thinking of a former teacher) and decide that of course there are not, yet still I’m hesitant. The next hurdle is, where do I position my easel and how? This is not the first time I’ve used an easel, but the concern is more, how do I place my easel in such a way that I can see the model yet have my work be unseen by the rest of the class? I remind myself that if I’m going to make it through this class, I have to fully embrace my mediocrity (or less than mediocrity) à la “The Artist’s Way,” mentality. Lastly, I question how exactly I’m to set up my paper on the easel. Just throw my newsprint paper over the top? Clip it? One clip, two or three? If I clip it, how many times will I have to unclip and flip the page drawing unnecessary attention to myself? All of this hemming and hawing has taken up a surprisingly large amount of time and people are starting to file into the class giving me, thankfully, a chance to watch what everyone else is doing.
After much hesitation and people watching, I finally get up the courage to grab an easel and begin setting up. I busy myself with these tasks as if they were the most important in the world to avoid feeling like every one is staring at me wondering what this new girl is doing in the class and I dread someone starting a conversation in Hebrew and me disappointingly having to reply in English. I sharpen and resharpen all of my pencils. I spend minutes looking for the perfect piece of willow charcoal. I arrange my various erasers on the tray. I clip and then decide to unclip and then clip my newsprint paper again.
With confident ease, a man walks in wearing a white tank top and fitted jeans. He is treated like a minor celebrity. Everyone has questions for him or simply wants to greet him and make themselves known. He must be the instructor. Instantly, I see a familiar dynamic. The “real artist” students I was intimidated by, become the eager little middle school students I had once taught. I relax a bit. Skilled as they are, they also just want to improve. When the crowd clears, I introduce myself to the instructor and explain to him my lack of skill and ability to understand Hebrew. He is surprisingly nice and understanding of my pretty large limitations. He assures me that he will help me along after getting the class started, but he has not yet seen the mess I create on paper with charcoal so I’m only hesitantly lulled into a sense of security.
The model who’s been slinking around the class, comfortable wearing nothing but a pashmina tied up like a beach coverup, disrobes without a hint of shyness front and center. She sits on a wooden block, a pillow had been placed underneath earlier for her comfort. One arm sits on her hip, her face is turned in profile and another arm dangles over her crossed legs after much coaching from the instructor on the position he thinks might suit the students best. Studio lights are directed onto her flesh for all to see, illuminating the curves of the human body and the shadows we tuck away. I wonder if I would have her confidence. Although I don’t even know for sure that I’m pregnant yet, I just know. I think about how my body will soon be changing as another human grows inside me at this very moment.
The regular students begin easily.
I stare at my huge sheet of newsprint paper. I’m not used to working on such a large surface, or standing for that matter. I hold my willow charcoal awkwardly. I feel as if I’ve never held a piece in my life, though that’s not true. Somehow I’ve sprouted alien arms that only know how to function on their own planet and now sit limp and uncoordinated on this foreign body. My easel is angled uncomfortably. I don’t have the best line of sight to the model, but I’m scared to draw attention to myself by moving it around. I want to hold my charcoal out to do some sight measurements to help me start placing this complicated figure onto the page but I don’t see anyone else doing this and fear looking even more like a beginner. I begin. I’m not even here, it’s like someone I don’t know, who’s even less skilled than I, is drawing for me. I feel claustrophobic with my unsteady hands and with wandering eyes that can see my struggle.
The timer dings much too quickly. The model changes positions. The instructor comes over to my easel and I’m filled with dread. He stops, looks, puts one hand on his slender hip and the opposite on his chin with a thumb on one cheek, index on the other.
“This paper is no good,” he begins, “It’s wrinkled. You need to buy a proper pad of newsprint instead of these loose sheets of paper.”
“Ok,” I say. I stop myself from explaining that I didn’t want to buy any materials until I knew what the class required and that I knew the paper was crap. He wouldn’t care.
“Your position is wrong. It is not professional,” he physically moves my easel and myself into a much better position. I suddenly feel as if I can breathe again. I had been having trouble mostly because I wasn’t able to glance back and forth over my left shoulder from paper to model with ease.
“Ok, thank you. That is much better,” I say, but he’s not waiting for me to respond or interested in a back and forth. He has little time to see everyone in the class and I’m taking up a good chunk of it while he fixes my many basic errors.
“We’ll try something. I want you to stop adding value and stop drawing details, just focus on the outline of her body. Only use nine lines to draw the contour. This is about decision making. You are not making good decisions with your lines. It’s important to be accurate, to get the right proportion and angles. Use your charcoal like this,” he holds up the charcoal to do sight measurements like I wanted to do in the first place. I stop myself from explaining that I know how to do this because then I would have to explain why I wasn’t doing it which is that I was scared to be judged. “This will help you to make better decisions. I will check on you next time,” he says as he walks away.
For the next four hours I draw position after position in just nine lines. No face, no details, just big craggy mountains meant to represent the outline of a human body (this activity is not shown here in pictures because they really just looked like angular geometric blobs). Each time he comes over I’m either doing too much or too little. The proportions are wrong or my angles are inaccurate. I’m drawing too big on the page or too small. I’m either pushing too lightly or too heavily with my charcoal onto the paper. I’m drawing too fast or too slow.
I’m not really sensitive, but I feel the urge to cry whenever I have any strong emotion. Right now I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that even though I prepared for days in advanced, practiced on my own, took an online course, my type-A struggles with perfectionism have not helped me here. To my instructor, I’m messy, seemingly unprepared and inaccurate. I wanted to get better and instead of starting from my usual drawing habits, I have been pushed back to baby-level. I’ve never drawn like this before, holding the charcoal loosely in my hand, drawing a few fast lines against a timer instead of taking my time and drawing every detail like I usually do. But I bite my lip and put on a tough front to match his own tough exterior.
On my last drawing, he simply says, “Ok.” There is nothing else to say. I have achieved little but finally managing to get the very basic proportions an angles right on one sketch (out of about twenty) with nine charcoal lines. I have not really improved or done anything remotely amazing. I have simply hit the lowest echelon of his expectations.
I ask, “Am I too much of a beginner to continue with the class?”
He says, “I don’t know. Practice drawing all week like we discussed.”
All week I practice, each time dreading the empty page. Dreading every line I draw. I wonder whether I should go back next week. I feel like I would be a burden to him or the class, but I want to get better. I know if I had better technical ability, I could better express myself.
I look up his work online. He is a genius. His thing is leaving parts of a painting somewhat blurred and vague and others super accurate and realistic. It truly is a demonstration of the strategic decision-making he was talking about. I see everything he was trying to teach me in his own work. I know I cannot miss the opportunity to learn from someone like him. If I am a burden, fine. If he hates me, fine. But I will get better. I will learn.
I trudge back to the class again on Sunday evening. This is not a stern-mentor-who-really-cares and is invested in my progress-type situation. He could care less if I was there or not. Because I’m of the lowest skill, he spends the most time with me each class, I’m sure begrudgingly. If I’ve performed to his standard, at the end of the class I get an, “OK,” and “Next week we will try _____,” with some new activity described to me. That, “Ok,” becomes a treasured two syllables I work my butt off for each lesson.
I don’t make any friends in the class. I’m still the youngest, the only one who can’t speak more than remedial Hebrew, the proto-beginner, the silly-American wannabe-artist. But I get better. Not amazingly so, but I improve, very, very, very slowly. I stop worrying and I enjoy the process of truly observing and drawing what I see, if only at the basest of levels. I am reminded of why I love art so much, not for the end product but for the way I feel when I’m working with my hands.
There are no notions within me that this instructor respects my tireless efforts or the fact that I came back even though it seemed per our conversation that he would prefer I didn’t but was too indifferent to say so explicitly. I know that I am just another face of many he will forget, but I respect him as an artist. I’ve seen him do amazing things with a brush, water and ink. He’s taken a piece of charcoal from my hand and in three quick movements depicted more clearly what was in front of us than I could in four hours.
As my pregnancy progresses, I can no longer handle sitting upright or standing for four hours late at night any more. I can’t walk the 40 minutes in the heat carrying my heavy supplies. I am too nauseous and too tired to even get off the couch all day let alone put myself through the all-evening endeavor that is this figure drawing class.
In my last class, I am awarded the opportunity by my instructor to start drawing the human face. Granted, I can only draw the most basic outlines of the face, but I have moved up three small skill levels since I began the class. I can now contour the outline of the body as well as the rest of the parts and I can add one level of value. It’s the least amount of improvement I’ve ever achieved in any skill or sport. However, this small improvement is one that I regard highly on the list of my achievements, not because I can draw the human form a modicum better, but because I let myself be the loser so I could get better. I flaunted my inability to master the human form on paper with charcoal for a whole class of talented people to see. Basically, I royally sucked, but if I hadn’t let myself be horrible, I wouldn’t have learned from this great teacher. Brutally honest, yes. Critical, yes. But an extremely effective teacher.
There are no good byes. There isn’t a movie montage of me finally making friends and meeting them for drinks after class. I simply leave and don’t return. It’s been a year now and I’ve since had my daughter. My drawing board sits unused. I’ve not yet taken it from it’s position blocking out the light in my room so I can sleep while my six month old sleeps. When I do, I will still pretty much stink at drawing the human form, but I will have a path to getting better. I know how to position myself properly and how to hold the willow charcoal best. I know which type of eraser to use and how I can utilize the chamois when adding value, or how to crosshatch if I prefer. I know how to measure the angles and lines against one another to get a more accurate rendering. I’m confident that I’m still unskilled but at least a more knowledgeable aspiring artist now. I know which supplies to replenish when I go to the art store. I can sketch at the bistro with my daughter in the stroller next to me if I want to; the sting of embarrassment is gone.
I’m glad I took the time to draw at night.