"You gotta suffer for your art, Cookie"

Eiffel Tower sketches by Mary Planding

When I first picked up creating art again after a 30-year hiatus, my inclination was to follow what I was most curious about. When I was young, and studying with Papa or the brilliant instructors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art (among others), I had been "stuck" with using 2HB drawing pencils, charcoal, and if I was really lucky — I got to use colored pencils and acrylic paint. All of which I came to despise.


Studying art is no different than studying any profession. Whether you like it or not, certain basics need to get grounded into not just your mental memory, but your physical memory — in your muscles, your hands, and your eyes. Even to some extent your ears because you come to learn the sound of different mediums as they strike different surfaces.


I suspect now that my attitude at 16 had more to do with the constraints and the tedium of repeating the basics. I felt that if I drew one more pear, apple, daisy, or day lily, or drafted more boxes, spheres, cones, and triangles in one-, two-, and three-point perspective, I would go insane with boredom. By the time college came around, my interests had led me elsewhere and I never pursued studying art figuring it would just be more of the same.


Now that I was an "adult" (still a questionable state for me I think) and could choose my own path, I was determined to do it in wild, glorious color. I was starved for color. And I couldn't wait to get started.


I decided to start creating with soft pastels. I had always been fascinated by them — the vivacity and clarity of the colors, the tactile feel of holding the sticks in my fingers. The control I had in applying them. But 20 years ago, finding a professional pastelist to study with was nearly impossible. Moreover, pastels were not yet as well known or accepted as they are today, thus the materials available were very limited. The few paper choices, a limited number of pastel manufacturers, and little growth in terms of new tools or technologies since the early 20th century, made it an expensive learning experience. But I didn't care. I wanted those colors and I wanted them now.


For more than 20 years, I talked to Papa in New York every Saturday morning without fail. He was overjoyed that I was picking up my art again. His encouragement and advice always kept me going. He wanted me to do watercolor (his first love). I told him he was nuts if he thought I was going to start with the toughest medium. He laughed. Then he encouraged me to find a local pastelist to study with. He pushed me to redo many of the drawing exercises I had eschewed for years, reminding me that "Cookie, you're way out of practice. While you're searching for a pastelist, build up your my muscle and eye/hand memory so it'll be easier for you."  Always said with an encouraging and loving tone.


And as much as I hated to admit it, he was right. From that moment, I began sketching and doodling on every scrap of paper I could find. From the backs of envelopes, to rejected photocopies, to restaurant receipts, bar coasters, paper placemats, napkins —  you name it! Wherever and whenever I was, I sketched. I eventually began carrying around a mini field sketchbook. If I was on the phone, sitting in front of the TV, talking with friends at a restaurant, sitting on the beach, in a meeting. I used pens, pencils, charcoal, markers. I eventually threw out bags and bags and BAGS of paper sketches.


Mind you, it's not as though my skills came back miraculously. They didn't. I fought for every bit of perspective, for each oval, every shape, each shadow and highlight. I went through 2-3 kneaded erasers a month, not to mention dozens of pencils. Again, it didn't matter. I was obsessed. But the frustration I felt in regaining what I had lost was nothing compared to the satisfaction I felt as I got better and better and could see my progress.

One day, when I was complaining to Papa about how long it was taking, he roared with laughter and said, "You gotta suffer for your art, Cookie. You spent 10 years the first time getting those skills. Now it's only taken you what 10 months? a year? to reclaim them?" When he put it into that perspective, I smiled. "Yes, Papa, you're so right. Always, you're so right. And Papa? I don't feel like I'm suffering any more. I'm soaring!"


Food for thought:

  • What passion(s) have you let lapse? Are there any you want to rekindle?
  • What one thing could you do today to get you started on that path?
  • Are you willing to commit to doing one thing every day to keep you moving forward?
  • Imagine how it will feel in 30 days, 60 days, 90 days if you do that one thing every day ... How will you be different? What will be different about your life?