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Roger Ebert’s sketchbook and thoughts on drawing

While I was watching Life Itself last night, I noticed two or three drawings in the mix of images, none of which were commented on.

Had I been reading his blog more carefully, I would’ve come across this blog post, “You Can Draw, and Probably Better Than I Can,” where he explains how he met a woman named Annette Goodheart in the early 1980s, who convinced him that all children can draw, it’s just that some of us stop:

The break in our childish innocence comes the first time we use an eraser. We draw a chin and think it looks nothing like a chin, and in frustration we erase it. That’s it. Our bond of trust with our artistic instinct has been severed. We will be erasing for the rest of our lives. I speak here not of great and accomplished artists, for whom I hold great awe, but for you and me, whose work, let’s face it, will not soon be given a gallery show.

It seems to me Annette said something like this: Begin with a proper sketch book. Draw in ink. Finish each drawing you begin, and keep every drawing you finish. No erasing, no ripping out a page, no covering a page with angry scribbles. What you draw is an invaluable and unique representation of how you saw at that moment in that place according to your abilities. That’s all we want. We already know what a dog really looks like.

When he was in London, Ebert bought a Daler sketchbook and a drawing pen across the street from the English National Opera.

I settled down in a nearby pub and began to sketch a glass, which is no more than an arrangement of ovals and lines. I continued to draw throughout the 1990s… I sketched mostly on vacation. I had the time. In Chicago there was always a deadline, someplace to be, a phone ringing. On vacation I found a cafe or a park bench, or was waiting for a concert to begin, or whatever.

He soon found out that the quality of his drawings didn’t matter at all — it was the mere fact that he drew them:

That was the thing no one told me about. By sitting somewhere and sketching something, I was forced to really look at it, again and again, and ask my mind to translate its essence through my fingers onto the paper. The subject of my drawing was fixed permanently in my memory. Oh, I “remember” places I’ve been and things I’ve seen. I could tell you about sitting in a pub on Kings’ Road and seeing a table of spike-haired kids starting a little fire in an ash tray with some lighter fluid. I could tell you, and you would be told, and that would be that. But in sketching it I preserved it. I had observed it.

I found this was a benefit that rendered the quality of my drawings irrelevant. Whether they were good or bad had nothing to do with their most valuable asset: They were a means of experiencing a place or a moment more deeply. The practice had another merit. It dropped me out of time. I would begin a sketch or watercolor and fall into a waking reverie. Words left my mind. A zone of concentration formed. I didn’t think a tree or a window. I didn’t think deliberately at all. My eyes saw and my fingers moved and the drawing happened. Conscious thought was what I had to escape, so I wouldn’t think, Wait! This doesn’t look anything like that tree! or I wish I knew how to draw a tree! I began to understand why Annette said finish every drawing you start. By abandoning perfectionism you liberate yourself to draw your way. And nobody else can draw the way you do.

As he wrote in a Facebook post, “An artist using a sketchbook always looks like a happy person.” 

Knowing Ebert himself drew means a lot to me, as the only direct contact I ever had with Ebert was this Facebook post where he praised one of my drawings.

He published a little paperback with some of his drawings (Two Weeks In Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook), but, unfortunately, it’s out of print. Luckily, you can read all of his thoughts on drawings and flip through some of his drawings on Flickr.

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