I have been a painter and an artist my entire life.
Okay, maybe when I was like four, I couldn’t really call myself an artist, although my mom is very adamant that my drawing level was much higher than an average four year old. Something about being able to draw more than just stick figures and smiley faces on butterflies apparently, in mom’s eyes, made me a better drawer than my peers. I think it’s the mom-ness talking.
However, I never put down my brush after I picked it up for the first time. When I moved to China, my dad found me a weekly art class, where my passion for drawing really began to flourish under a man who was possibly the most caring and invested art teacher I will ever meet. He trained me in traditional fine arts, with still lives and sculptures and art retreats into the more beautiful suburbs of Shanghai, through what began as a rather impossible language barrier. He spoke Chinese, and I spoke almost none of it; he would spend so much time on me, explaining the finer details, only for me to ask him at the very end, “What do you mean?”. Once, when we went on a trip to some suburb area to draw from life, he was telling me to add texture to the tree bark in Chinese and I asked him jokingly, “What’s tree bark?”
Instead of giving up on me, he actually stood there and spent a while racking his brain trying to come up with a different way to describe tree bark for me because he really thought I didn’t understand him.
That’s the kind of teacher he was, and this is a story that he still likes to tell his students that end up under his wing.
After a few years under his tutelage he asked me to join his Saturday art classes that he held for a few students. I promptly quit my ballet classes to join the class.
That’s how much I loved drawing. I spent almost 10 hours weekly with this teacher, just painting. My mom once said that I spent more time painting per week than I did doing anything for any other class.
When I went to boarding school in Connecticut, I was put into the pre-AP Painting and Drawing class with the art teacher, JP, there. His teaching style was so different, and he taught me to loosen up with my artwork and be less technical.
I learned my foundation in China and I learned to be colorful in the US.
After doing the AP my sophomore year, I opted to take a break from the Painting and Drawing class for the next year. I managed one semester out of three before I was almost literally crawling back to the studio asking JP to let me into his year-long pre-AP class again.
I realized that painting and drawing did wonders for my mental health, even though at the time I didn’t think of it as mental health – drawing was just a part of me and it felt like I had tried to rip it out of me for that semester. When I took my break from it, I literally didn’t know what to do with myself – I had all this specific energy and concentration that wasn’t going anywhere and I needed an outlet for the stress from my APs, but I didn’t have one.
I didn’t think much of it at the time. I just felt better after I went back to the studio and started drawing again.
At MIT, I didn’t have time to draw. I painted for my friends, on their birthdays and Christmas, but I wasn’t drawing every day like I had been in high school. I wasn’t going out on walks and drawing the landscape despite how beautiful Boston is. I was socializing, making friends, stressing out over psets, not getting much sun, and pursuing other creative things that were more mindless, like crochet and knitting. (Not that there’s anything wrong with crochet and knitting, I still love my hobbies. It’s just not the same for me.)
As my semesters have finally mellowed out (because I’m not taking studio anymore) I wanted to get back into drawing but the activation energy I needed to begin was enormous. I would sketch things out on canvas and then just leave it for months without going back to work on it, because I preferred lying in bed watching TV – it was less energy, more mindless. Somehow over the course of MIT I began preferring activities where thinking wasn’t required.
I had become so burnt out, I forgot what I was passionate about.
When my grandpa passed away two weeks ago, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to be able to say goodbye, but he’s in China, and I’m in Boston. I wanted to see him again, so I asked my dad for pictures, and I naturally gravitated towards painting to work through my sorrow.
I had painted my grandmother, my mom’s mother, when she passed away, and it only seemed right to paint my grandpa as well.
It took me a week to complete it and it was a horrible painting – the photo I was working off of was pixelated and unclear so I had a poor reference, and my skills are still so rusty, but the painting did what I wanted it to do. It helped me work through my sadness. Studying his face, despite the graininess of the photo, really helped with my mental health.
What a classic Grandpa Lu thing to do, to help me rekindle my love for drawing – rekindle my love for the act of drawing – even as he passes away. He always did try to help me when he could.
Since then, I’ve been making a true effort to draw more regularly. I mean, when the semester began I told myself I wanted to draw more, but I never really acted upon it. Now I’m actually putting into my planner a reminder for something I should do every day. I’m bringing around my sketchbook and when I have nothing to do – which is surprisingly frequent nowadays because I’m trying to take a chill final semester – I turn to a fresh page and draw something in my field of view.
I forget how nice it is to lose myself in my pen and concentrate on drawing what I see.
I’m still rusty, of course. I’ll probably be rusty for a very long time, and even when I get back to the level I was at before, I’ll still feel like I’m not good enough. That has always been my constant state when it comes to drawing, and it has always pushed me to improve more and practice more.
Drawing has always been there to help me be happy. I just forgot that it was still an option.
What passions do you have that help you work through your problems?