Waking to the body
I think my first really concrete experience of the physical nature of drawing came on a summer school I attended before I went to art college. It was my first time working in a proper artists’ studio, and the large space and the excellent tutor encouraged me to break out of the A4 page, to work big.
As an illustrator, and even in my own drawing for pleasure, I’d become used to working on quite a small scale, and I don’t think I’m alone in that experience. Many things can influence our choice to draw small: constraints of space—working on a kitchen table, for example; constraints in confidence—it takes quite a lot of confidence to make a grand gesture with our drawings; and sometimes even financial constraints—big pads of cartridge paper can be expensive.
However, that summer, I was encouraged to think big—and it was a transformative experience. By then I had started practicing mindfulness too, so I was able to make connections between what was happening in the studio and what was happening when I sat and meditated.
On one particular day of the course, the tutor tacked up a huge piece of card on a white wall already scarred and marked by the paint and charcoal of dozens of other artists, and suggested I just go for it.
At first I was tentative; I’d never drawn or painted on this scale before. Doubts surfaced about my capabilities. Fears arose about whether I’d actually be able to do it. But once I’d started, making the first mark on that blank piece of paper, in the same spirit as a child taking their first jump off the top diving board, I soon began to enjoy having so much space. Standing—instead of in my normal sitting pose—I drew and painted for hours.
My marks got bigger, bolder. I brought in swathes and washes of colour. Lines journeyed across the page, extending my arm and shoulder to their full reach. I stooped to fill the bottom of the page; I stretched to reach the top.
And as I became more and more absorbed, my habit of mindfulness kicked in, and I began to notice something. I was drawing with my whole body—not just hands and eyes, but wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, my back and chest, my hips and legs and even my feet were all involved in the making of marks. And even my breathing, I became aware, was part of the drawing process too.
I discovered that drawing was a dance, and I’d never felt so free with it. They almost had to physically evict me from the studio at the end of that course.
This awareness of the physical nature of drawing, this relationship to it as an act of the body, is something that hasn’t left me. My perspective changed irrevocably that day and it had some profound effects on my mindfulness practice, too.
When drawing, draw
Here, I feel I should make a confession. I’m someone who’s naturally very up in my head. Like a lot of creative people, I conceptualize, visualize and analyze brilliantly. I can look at things from a hundred different angles and then probably find some more.
I think I can safely say that my thinking-mind is pretty well-developed. But moving into being-mind, that’s been a challenge, and I’m still working on it. Every day. But the more I bring my awareness out of thinking, out of the small, contained little space of my mind—and instead go big, moving into the expansiveness of my body with its direct sensory experiences, the better I’m able to dwell in awareness, the more deeply I’m able to open to life.
This was the mindfulness practice the historical Buddha, Siddhãrtha Gautama, taught. “When walking, walk; when standing, stand; when sitting, sit; when lying down, lie down,” he instructed. In other words, be with the experience, the physical feedback of being in the body and do only this thing. Leave the thinking-mind behind.
He may as well have added, “When drawing, draw.” Just draw. Draw with the whole body and allow yourself to rest in the direct physical sensations of drawing. When we do this, we have a sense of being entirely in the present moment, completely immersed in our direct experience.