Beginner’s Mind for the Student

Lots of life drawing. Drawings on the back of the paper too.

“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.” ― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

Yesterday I wrote of the need for the teacher to practice the beginner’s mind. Today I want to talk about that childlike inquisitiveness as a student.

By student, I mean that we should all be learning constantly, and especially when practicing art. But it’s easy when creating art to fall into habit, to be mindless, bored, resistant, or just lazy. Or to be so driven by results that we forget that the process is where we make progress.

I practice figure drawing a lot. I draw from internet sources like the Croquis Cafe, life drawing sessions, and real life. And I consider accuracy to the form to be important.

I usually draw with line, or block in my figures, then progress to value to build the form. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a recent discussion with a student who wanted to draw the figure as if it were a painting—using only values and no line—made me start thinking about other ways to create a figure. As I said yesterday, I need to get out of tunnels I’m stuck in; they’re dank and sloggy, and I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. So I decided to force myself to adopt a different kind of process for drawing the figure.

2-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

The drawing above is how I normally approach life drawing. I like to make sure everything on the contour is accurate before I begin describing form shapes.

15-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

I usually make a contour drawing describing the shapes of the form and cast shadows, then fill in the values. This is my classical realism tunnel; thanks Bargue plates.

Drawing from model on Croquis Cafe
2-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

So I decided to change things up. Instead of a charcoal pencil, I used a block of charcoal, and tried really hard not to let myself devolve into line, but instead, draw the figure using broad strokes to create shapes that described the form, without the benefit of line and pre-planning. Something different happened here, although I was unable to complete the entire figure in 2 minute gesture poses.

20-minute drawing from model on Croquis Cafe

I tried a longer pose, still trying to limit myself to shape only, carving out the form with an eraser when needed. You can see that some lines snuck in to the drawing, despite my best intentions. However, this one has a different life to it than the other (although it’s very hard to manage proportions with this method).

My point is not that I drew better or worse using either style. My point is that, as an artist, taking a beginner’s mind attitude when I work leads to new discoveries. I don’t get so bound up in what I know, or the need to have a successful drawing. The outcome for my own personal projects (illustration work-for-hire is another story) is not as important as the process.

Dear reader, next time you’re creating art, do something you’ve not done before, or that you don’t like to do. Do something that makes you feel silly: Dance while you draw. Paint with a leaf and a feather, or even a rock. Be happy and light-hearted, focused as well as scattered, and learn something new!

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