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Feeling stuck while learning to draw: How to turn a major meltdown into a brilliant breakthrough!

In this day and age, sometimes artists get a bad rap. Labelled as “sensitive” (as if that were a negative thing?), we all know the stereotype that great artists must suffer for their art (Hey there Hemingway, Helllooo Van Gogh, can ya hear me?!). I’m here to tell you, if you wish to learn to draw, there will be days when the gap in your abilities versus what you wish you could produce will get to you. It is, after all, called artWORK, and it truly takes work. There will be struggles, failures, ruined drawings and inevitably for most of us, negative self talk that goes on in your head on some of those days. So what to do if you have the drawing blues? Read on.

I’ve been working with a 7 year old first grader for part of this semester. At first things were going swimmingly, she has some natural ability to translate 3D to 2D,  great motor skills and a love of drawing. Then, one fateful day, she picked a cartoon character from one of her favorite movies to draw- and things took a turn. She was following my steps and my assessment was that she was doing well. But her cartoon character didn’t look exactly like the character she had seen in her beloved movie. (For more on the topic of why drawing portraits can be particularly challenging, see my post from a few weeks ago). She was experiencing something called the uncanny valley, a phenomenon first described by robot designer Masahiro Mori. The uncanny valley is used to describe how created characters (cartoons, robots, zombies) that have some realistic human characteristics are convincing, cute and widely accepted, but often creations that have too many human facial characteristics seem creepy, odd or just plain off. They don’t look real enough, they don’t look fake enough, and therefore, they look freaky.

As Miss Emily wasn’t able to get her character just so, she fell into the uncanny valley and she had a meltdown. I could barely get her to draw again that day. She was being tough on herself, because I surely didn’t feel as though the inaccuracies in her drawing were cause for concern, in fact I was proud of her growing abilities and thought she was doing well with a difficult subject. But she is good at drawing, gets praise for drawing well from adults and peers, and this flawed image of the cartoon character she loved just wasn’t acceptable. And so began a month of meltdowns during her drawing lessons. Often when a line was slightly off or different than how she saw it on the original image, there was the same meltdown, which generally looked like she was steaming mad, unable to talk, not interested in drawing, grunting, stomping feet and the saddest little girl in my studio all week. It broke my heart. Her Mom and I kept in communication, and I was determined to guide her through this until we had a breakthrough- but also didn’t want to torture her into a breakthrough. There were some weeks where the tactics I tried either didn’t work or moderately worked, with some general malaise still in the air (break time by reading an art story book instead of drawing; rewards at the end of class for drawing regardless of her frustration).

At our last lesson, as usual, she entered the studio in good spirits. We set to drawing, and she did her first drawing fantastically. Then she picked another cartoon girl (Ruh-Roh!!) a close up of Daphne from Scooby Doo! Well I tell you, this kiddo set to work faster than me and drew Daphne’s face shape, added the mouth, nose, eyes and eyebrows which all looked incredible for a child of her age! She then stopped, looked at the whole image and BAM- meltdown over the uncanny valley! Her drawing looked mad, instead of peaceful, which turned creepy instead of human-like.

Scooby Doo, where are you??!!Daphne-scooby-doo-13799324-1014-716

First came the obvious physical signs of the meltdown. Emily’s face crumpled. Her body slumped and looked heavy. Then came the grunting, foot wiggling and steam pouring out of her ears. My girl was full swing, in her own head, beating herself up for her perception of a “failure”. I, on the other hand was amazed that she was able to see the complex shape of Daphne’s face and replicate it in one attempt. Most people can’t do that – even adults – without instruction.

This was probably around week 5 or 6 of her upset, so I brought out the masters to try to freeze this meltdown. Tactic No. 1: a technique from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. The premise of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is: “NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture. NVC also assumes that we all share the same, basic human needs, and that each of our actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs.” When training to use the principles of NVC, you learn to identify your feelings and needs, so you can communicate that with words, rather than tantrums. But assuming a 7 year old would have this sophisticated an understanding of our complex emotions, the words to express herself and the feeling of safety to do so on her own, isn’t really fair. I decided I would help Emily identify her feelings when she was upset, by asking her to play a game with me. I told her that I was going to guess what she was feeling, so she didn’t have to say it herself; and that I was going to write one feeling down at a time on a post-it note. I asked if she would point to the word that matched her feeling the most. I might guess wrong, but that I was trying my best to understand how she was feeling when she was too upset to draw.  I then wrote down “angry, sad, scared, peaceful, disappointed and frustrated” until I nearly ran out of post-it notes. I told her I had just one remaining post-it note, and that I would try my best to guess how she was feeling. Then she whispered “I have a question: is mad the same as angry?”. I said it was very similar, and wrote “mad” on the last post-it note and she picked up her pencil and circled it. I acknowledged her for being brave enough to identify what she was feeling, especially because feeling mad doesn’t usually feel very good. I said I could understand that she would be feeling mad that her drawing looked mad instead of peaceful. I said I was sorry she was feeling mad. Then I brought out the big guns (or maybe we should call it big hugs in this context? Big acceptance? Big witnessing?) tactic No. 2, the work of Raphael Cushnir.

I took a course of Raphael’s a few years ago and found his teachings to be very valuable. The work I learned in the course guided me through one of the toughest personal moments of my life, and I’ve recommended working with him to friends and clients ever since. One of the concepts that Raphael explains in his books and workshops is that often when we feel negative feelings, we contract, or shut down to feeling them. When we don’t fully witness that feeling, it remains alive in us, either in the background (aka the general malaise Emily would feel after her meltdowns) or in the foreground (combustion after combustion). But when we acknowledge the feeling, really allow it to be in our body, often times in the next moment or the moment after that- it shifts. Sometimes it transforms to another unfelt emotion, like sadness or fear, in which case, all there is to do is feel that next feeling fully. Sometimes it just – poof – goes away, and leaves a feeling of openness. When we truly witness ourselves and each other, in all the positive and negative emotional states that we are capable of as humans, it is magical.

After Emily identified that she was feeling mad, and I communicated that I could see she was feeling mad and she was safe to feel mad in front of me, I asked her if she could tell me where she felt that mad feeling in her body. She looked at me with a blank stare, because again, this is pretty sophisticated stuff for a 7 year old to be able to suss out on her own. I asked her did she feel it in her head? No. Her chest? No. Her tummy? No. Her toes, legs, elbows or nose? NO! I said that usually when I feel mad, I feel it in my chest and in my heart. She nodded. And then I took a risk, and directed her to really feel that feeling for herself. To sit there in front of me, and trust in both me and herself, that she was ok even though she felt mad. I asked her if she could try to make that mad feeling grow reeaaallllllly big, until she felt it all over her body. She sat still for a second. Then her legs twitched and sputtered. Then her face cracked a huge smile and she started giggling… breakthrough!

By guiding Emily to identify her feelings, get present to what she felt in her body and accept that she was feeling mad- her feelings were truly expressed and witnessed by both me and more importantly, herself. And once you allow the negative feelings to be – about your “failed” drawing or whatever has your erasers in a twist – you can move forward to whatever feeling is next. In this case, I think the giggling demonstrated that Emily’s next feelings were of relief and joy. She leaned over to me and nearly collapsed on my lap, I hugged her and told her how proud I was that she felt all that she felt.

The next moment, she wordlessly sat up, vigorously grabbed her pencil and began to draw again! I told her how happy I was that she wanted to draw, and try again. And then I had to break the news to her that her lesson time was just about up, and I had another student waiting to work with me.

I could hardly believe it but the first words out of her mouth were literally “You can’t make me leave. I’m never going to stop drawing. I love it here.”!

WOW!

So if you’ve made it this far in this story, I’m not going to tell you that you won’t have to suffer for your artwork. I’m also going to tell you that you don’t have to go off the deep end and cut your ear off, or more modestly, beat yourself up in your head while wearing a smile on your face. But my guess is, if you’re a human being, no matter what you do, at times, you will suffer because that is just a part of the human condition. So if what you really wish to do is draw, quitting because you mess up a few times is not the solution, and mugging yourself in the dark alley of your mind isn’t going to get you very far either. If you are committed to the drawing breakthroughs that I know are achievable, give yourself time to honor and witness your feelings of sadness or frustration when you flop. This is the only way I know to really get to the magic that is beyond, the zone, where you can draw for hours and not notice the time passing. And I’m guessing this is where the saying “going back to the drawing board” comes from. Breakthroughs, when you’re stuck in drawing, are often just past the meltdown…