Why not sketch?
17 May 2024 | 5:30 pm

On Mastodon, Eric Portis observed an interesting trend of iPad reviewers qualifying their experience because they don’t consider themselves artists. This question in particular stuck out to me:

Don’t y’all sketch when doing anything spatial? Sketching != artistry. I sketch when: planning a garden; thinking about software architecture/control flow; doing basic algebra; teaching a kid tic-tac-toe. Don’t you?

I totally get this feeling. I love to draw, and it’s hard to imagine what I’d do without a sketchbook, scratch paper or sticky notes to quickly work out my ideas, large or small. And I’ve seen a lot of sketches from people who would not consider themselves artists that convey concepts far more effectively than a thousand words ever could.

A messy table-top with lots of paper and sticky notes, some containing hand-drawn interface sketches, some pasted together to form paper prototypes.
Aftermath of a Cloud Four sketching exercise.

But I also know not everyone’s like that.

Some background: I’ve facilitated over a hundred group sketching exercises over the past 15 years. I’ve also trained and managed design teams, provided art direction to animators and illustrators, taught college design courses, presented a sketching workshop for FiftyThree, and volunteered my time drawing cartoons for elementary school kids.

I’m not a therapist. But based on my experience drawing with people of different backgrounds, skill levels and age groups, these are the most common explanations I’ve heard from those who avoid drawing or sketching.

Discouraged Early

I think school stifles the creative spark in a lot of would-be artists. We are told the “correct” colors of the sky, the trees, the flowers and the ducks. Our earliest attempts are scrutinized and pit against each other. And unlike spelling or arithmetic, there is no objective path forward, no one true answer.

When artists are given more criticism than freedom or encouragement early on, they can easily assume they are bad at drawing. From there, it’s a short path to avoiding, disliking or even fearing the activity. Those negative experiences can be really challenging to shake off.

Out of Practice

My elementary school spent years teaching me to write in cursive. But if you asked me to write in cursive right now, without any prep or reference, I’d really struggle. Drawing anything confidently, even simple shapes, may demand more practice than we realize.

In Drawing Every Day, I talked about the frustration of picking up a pen or pencil and feeling rusty:

It isn’t like riding a bike. It’s like trying to write with the wrong hand. You know how the words are supposed to look, you remember how they’re written, but your digits are clumsy and uncooperative.

Some might also feel shame in letting their skills atrophy. Aesop Rock rapped about this in his song Rings:

I let my fears materialize
I let my skills deteriorate
Haunted by the thought of what I should have been continuing
A mission that was rooted in a twenty-year affinity

This cycle is self-perpetuating. The longer it’s been since we picked up a pen and paper, the less likely we are to reach for those tools… even if they’re the fastest or simplest way to work out a problem or idea.

Honestly Can’t

Some may find the act of drawing challenging, uncomfortable or even painful due to disability or neuro­divergence.

It’s important not to generalize: There are countless great neuro­divergent and disabled artists, historically and in present day. And disabilities are not binary: Just because sketching is difficult for someone now, doesn’t mean it always has been or always will be. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge those who struggle to draw for reasons outside their control.

Just Not Their Thing

Some folks just don’t engage with sketching as an activity. They could have all the encouragement in the world, no anxiety from being out of practice, no fear of judgment, no inherent challenges. But stick them on a deserted island with a blank pad of paper for a year, and a rescue team will recover that same pad of paper… sandy and sun­bleached, but otherwise untouched.

Everyone’s different, and not every dislike warrants a deep diagnosis. Some people don’t draw. Some people like pineapple on their pizza. It takes all kinds.


Night of a Zillion Bugs
14 May 2024 | 3:15 pm

It was the first evening of a geomagnetic space storm. The temperature was peaking at an unseasonable 91 °F. I thought I’d take Buster for a short walk before settling into our evening routine.

We leashed up and stepped out the front door… right into a thick cloud of small, flying bugs.

Buster and I cartoonishly running away from (and through) clouds of tiny flying bugs

“Blechh!” I yelled, instinctively swatting the air in front of my face. “Let’s get outta here, Buster!”

We jogged down the block, but there was no escape. Our entire neighborhood was swimming in thousands of small, flying insects.

Sensing his territory was in threat, Buster peed on a small bush with uncharacteristic urgency. Then we high-tailed it home as fast as we could. I shut the door, breathed a sigh of relief… and realized I had 15 or 20 of the pests still clinging to my clothes.

After much picking and swatting followed by a quick change and shower, I started getting texts like this from our neighbors…

Omg I just tried taking [my dog] out and there are swarms of gnats everywhere, I couldn’t even walk far — we had to run back in and I saw other neighbors running

But these weren’t like any gnats I’d seen before. They were tiny, black and hard-shelled (making an audible little “tick” when flicked onto a wall or sidewalk). They flew quickly but seemed a bit sluggish and disoriented on foot.

They continued to plague the neighborhood until 10pm or so.

Who’s that bug?

I’m no entomologist, but after some searching online, I felt pretty sure we were dealing with bark beetles. They fly; they’re the right color, size and shape; they have a hard shell; and they hatch in the heat of Summer… or when it’s hot enough to feel like the heat of Summer.

Where’d they come from?

Another neighbor proposed a likely explanation:

My guess… the new mulch!

Might have been infested with bugs.

The company that owns the homes in this area recently spread a new layer of bark dust… the first such occurrence since we moved in. Bark beetles are known to breed in the sorts of fir and hemlock trees often used for bark dust in this region.

This would also explain why the mass hatching seemed limited to our neighborhood, and why we’d never experienced it before.

What now?

It’s been a few days, and the beetles are still around. Their numbers spike in the early evening, though never as dense as that first night. But you can easily find stragglers here and there throughout the day.

One of my neighbors let our property manager know what happened. I guess it’s their problem now if the beetles damage nearby trees or timber.

Buster’s doing his part, insisting that his daily walkies patrols continue as scheduled. We remain ever grateful for his vigilance.


Big Words
25 April 2024 | 5:05 pm

There’s a Kids in the Hall sketch called “Freedom of Speech,” where a manager (played by Dave Foley) has to discipline a worker (played by Bruce McCulloch) for his vocabulary.

I relate to McCulloch’s character in this sketch a lot.

Watch “Kids in the Hall - Freedom of Speech” on YouTube

I’ve latched onto new words as long as I can remember. The musicality of a word contributes so much to its tone and personality. To describe something as “good” feels flat, stale, muffled by its own neutrality. But if I call that same thing “magnificent,” “sumptuous” or “transcendent,” you know I’m not kidding around.

But there’s a trade-off. The more ten-dollar words I indulge in, the fewer readers will understand what I’m trying to say. But if I simplify too much, I risk losing my own voice in the process.

This is where reading one’s own work aloud really comes in handy. Carrie Fisher once said, “It is easier as an actor to go into rewriting because you know what would fit into your mouth dialogue-wise.” If the words I’ve typed on a keyboard tumble awkwardly out of my own mouth, then it’s no betrayal of my voice to streamline things a bit.



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