Draw From Life

I sit down. It’s late and quiet, a cool Sunday night as the summer slowly turns into fall. You wouldn’t think this is important, but it is, because it’s all about what’s happening right here and right now.

Here’s my pen. It’s cheap and I bought a whole pack of them because I kept running out of ink in the one I was using, and then I had to go a few weeks without drawing because I only had one pen at a time and we live in a world where you have to buy new pens when they run out.

The sketchbook is small. Hang on, let me see if I have any bigger ones.

Ah, here’s one. That’s better. I’m always running out of sketchbooks too. You really do need to stock up on these things.


This is the way it works. We “start with experiments and end with precision.” Every mark at first is a guess. You have to be okay with not being right the first time. The lines are wide and rough, placement is an estimate.

Once the whole thing is roughly there, then you go back and fix stuff.


I mark the nose. The shape of the head. The eyes. I roughly measure the distance between the eyes and the bottom of the nose and use that as a reference to check other distances. The features start to look like just lines and areas of light and shadow now rather than distinct features.

Slowly something crazy starts happening. I notice details that were always there but I never noticed. Things that the mind just glazes over and ignores, filters out as unimportant, become visible.

Sometimes I’ve stared at an object for hours, days, weeks, drawing or painting it, and I suddenly see something that I never saw before. It always comes as a shock.


The real power here is the focus. It becomes a real meditation. The whole point is to focus on something that is external to yourself. Then you stop thinking about yourself, which is really a relief.

And when that external thing is something really specific, something right here and right now, something real, it breaks the mind out of all preconceived ideas, and originality happens on its own.


Teacher: Are you thinking about art?
Student: Yes.
Teacher: Don’t. Art just happens.


Did you notice the Buddha is smiling? These are the kinds of things you notice only after slowing down and trying to see reality clearly.


About Kevin McGillivray

Kevin McGillivray is a teacher and web developer from Wisconsin. He writes about creativity, mindfulness, code, and tea. He is the co-founder of Sandcastle, a tiny studio.

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