The owl I drew…

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson reflects on how letting go of control in his drawing led to delightful surprises and a rekindling of his love of doodling. He wanted to change the way he drew (he felt it was “cutesy and severely limited and…boring”), but was having trouble breaking out of an artistic habit. He recognized that the problem was one of exercising too much control over the images he created, and he realized that “You can’t control your way out of control.”

Brilliant. How many times have I tried to muscle myself into a new habit or a new way of thinking? How often have I tried to “figure out” how to achieve perfection, and fallen into despair that I’d never move forward? How many times have I given up on a project or an idea because I couldn’t completely control the process and the outcome?

The answer to his dilemma came from an artist friend who suggested blind contour drawing, a technique that requires you to look only at the object you’re drawing and never at the paper you’re drawing on. The results of my own attempts at blind contour drawing have been as surprising and delightful as they are unrecognizable as the object I’ve drawn. But here’s the important part: although the drawing bears little resemblance to what I’m looking at, there are certain evocative lines, small areas of unimaginable beauty, and unexpected moments when I can see the essence of what I’m seeing that suffuse me with otherworldly joy. When I encounter them, I physically feel the delight. I feel the frisson of excitement from head to toe which accompanies creativity that has been left to its own devices, free of judgment or restraint.

Anderson writes that blind contour drawing allows you to “really see the thing you’re looking at, to almost spiritually merge with it, rather than retreat into your mental image of it…Blind drawing trains us to stare at the chaos, to honor it. It is an act of meditation…a gateway to pure being. It forces us to study the world as it actually is.”

He mentions producing “slivers of excellence”—a perfect description of my own experience in the world. I live in a world filled with slivers of excellence surrounded by chaos, indecipherable thoughts, and a maelstrom of activity.


The owl I was looking at

If I adopt the principles of blind contour drawing in my daily life, I’ll stop to look at things as they truly are, without judgment or oversight, rather than take the habitual mental shortcuts to ingrained thinking. I’ll embrace the chaos rather than forcing it into some kind of order—usually the orderliness of perfection or how I wish things were. I’ll delight in the “vast distance” between what my mind is telling me and what I’m actually experiencing, and I’ll surrender to the present moment.

The moment you finish this post, set a timer for two minutes, grab a piece of paper and your favorite pencil, look closely at any object, and draw without looking at the page. It’s a meditation that will refresh you and reset your expectations, delight you and encourage you, if you’ll allow it.  And the best part is that no previous drawing experience is required, or relevant.

I can’t think of a better way to move through the world than to lift my gaze from trying to create perfection on paper, and use my hands to feel my way through the shifting, astonishing kaleidoscope of everyday life.

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