Rule Breakers: I Simply Cannot Draw

I’ve never thought of myself as that type of visual artist. You know, the kind of person whose absentminded margin doodles actually look like something? Someone with those fine motor skills that translate into magnificent sketches of stuff you can recognize without having to get liberal artsy about it? And they can draw a beautiful circle freehand that doesn’t look like a flat tire of defeat?

Well, that’s not me. At least that’s what I kept telling myself. Yes, I can do abstract paintings that I’m proud to say are interesting; and I can produce deliberate studies in colorful texture and random splatter. But in my adult life, I’ve mostly believed that I simply cannot draw.

I took a watercolor class with Mrs. Robinson in fifth grade, where I painted a lily that was pretty good. And in Mr. Waugh’s class in sixth grade, I sketched a man with a mustache and glasses that actually looked like…a realistic man with a mustache and glasses. In high school and college, I had decent skill in creative lettering. But after that, my art brain was shut down. I could draw pictures for my children by following a YouTube video (a lollipop-backed dragon and a Black Wonder Woman whom we named “LaWondra”). But when people ask me if I illustrate my own books, my immediate reaction is to windshield-wipe the air with a vehement WhoMeNoNoNoNeverOfCourseNot.

So when Paul Zelinsky asked me to join him at Minerva Durham’s legendary drawing studio in Chinatown, I said yes. It was a risk. I was planning to sit in a corner with no one behind me to see my wonder lily with a mustache. Paul told me there was going to be a live model and flute music. Which would mean some naked person — just sitting there in the room, watching me draw badly with Zamfir playing in the back.

I really liked the idea of saying I would go, but actually going took next-level chutzpah. I was no stranger to midlevel freak-outs. I texted Paul several times, asking him questions: Was there a certain brand of supplies that was just gauche to art students? Would it be okay if I bought supplies at the dollar store? I really wanted to ask about snacks, but I held back. It was going to be a long, long three-hour class of stick-figure drawing.

When I arrived, the veteran teacher said that she had been waiting for me and asked me to draw next to her. I have teacher’s pet syndrome, so I was happy to sit shotgun, notwithstanding my inevitable artistic letdown. But she was so encouraging, like Art School Oprah: “Feel the subject. Empathize with the model. Don’t draw what you see. Do what you feel.” (I hate it when people write yassssss in public writing, but it’s so apt here.) I was amazed at what I made appear on my pages. I poked Minerva’s arm, excitedly imploring her to look at the figure I had created.

Kevin Noble Maillard

Kevin Noble Maillard wrote the Sibert Medal–winning Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story (Roaring Brook), illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal.

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