A few years ago, I broke my wrist on New Year's Eve.
I know what you're thinking, and no... it wasn't the result of too much boozing. That would at least be a fun story to tell, but the truth is far more dull: I was spreading salt on our icy back steps when I slipped and fell. The resulting fracture was to my right-distal radius, where it articulates with the carpal (wrist) bones.
The whole business was frustrating and painful, and I felt really stupid. But none of that matters. What matters – at least to me – is that with my hand and forearm in a cast, I wasn't able to draw anything for over a month.
At first, I didn't think this would be a big deal because I'd never broken a bone before. I figured I could use the time to catch-up on other things, and when the cast came off, I'd get right back to drawing just like before. What's the big deal?
If you've ever had a broken bone, you're probably shaking your head right now.
As it turns out, when a limb is immobilized like that – even for just a few weeks – something sinister happens: atrophy. The muscles you're not using begin quickly to whither and shorten. The result is that when you finally get your cast off, you're left with very little strength, control or flexibility. In my case, my drawing hand just didn't work anymore. What movement I had was minimal, painful and really, really clumsy – not a great recipe for drawing anything.
I was scheduled to teach a figure drawing class just a couple of weeks after the incident. I couldn't cancel because people had already signed-up, so I asked our student Ashly to be there to help out. I talked and pointed at things. Ashly drew a demonstration figure for the students and we all made the best of it.
What really freaked me out was what happened after the cast came off. We were about 4 weeks into the drawing course at that point, and students were struggling with drawing the face on their figures, so I thought I'd offer some guidance with my own quick version of a small portrait. My hand was stiff, but drawing a portrait demo is something I've done a thousand times before. Surely "muscle memory" alone would compensate for my diminished dexterity with the pencil.
Not so much.
What happened next was shocking – at least for me. Not only was the drawing I executed pretty terrible, and not of much use to my students, but my hand felt utterly alien. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like I'd had a complete hand transplant. Sure, I still had a right hand. I could pick-up stuff with it and open doors or whatever – but drawing? Moving the pencil subtly? Precisely? It was like I'd never been able to do those things. My attempts to hatch values on the page were tremulous and erratic, like I had someone else's hand attached to my arm – someone who'd never touched a pencil before.
Trying not to panic, I thought about how long it had taken to develop drawing skills in the first place: years at school, then more years practicing, teaching and demonstrating for students. How long would it take to get this smoked ham that used to be my right hand back in shape?
It was my wife who calmed me down (as she usually does). She reminded me that I am a drawing teacher, after all, and that this situation might actually be an opportunity – a chance to revisit the basics and get back in touch with what it feels like to be a beginner. She also reminded me that what’s most important about making beautiful drawings is actually in your head, not in your hand. In other words, drawing well is less about manual dexterity than about making good decisions. Just get back into the habit of drawing regularly, she told me, and your hand will follow.
So I did what I would tell any student in a similar situation to do: start simply, and practice.
On my first attempts, my fingers were actually so weak that I kept dropping the pencil by accident. So that’s where I started – with just picking up and holding the pencil comfortably. Pick up a pencil, hold it as if I was about to draw, then put it down again. Repeat. I did this as often as I could (for at least 15 minutes) each day to reconnect with the feel of the pencil in my hand, until it felt familiar.
From there, I proceeded through some of the early exercises we teach in our Drawing Basics course: executing straight lines repetitively, at different angles and at different lengths. I tried to maintain a rhythm with the pencil and focused intently on both the lines on the page, and on how my hand and arm felt while drawing them, trying to rebuild the connection between the particular physicality that yielded a desirable line and what I saw on the page.
It usually went something like this:
- That one felt good.
- No, that one was clumsy.
- That line was too dark.
- There. That one was better! Remember what that felt like.
- Now, do it again.
Slowly, I began to notice some improvement. It was the larger, broader motions that returned first. Drawing long, fluid lines across the page felt better after just a week or so. But the more subtle, careful pencil control – hatching and drawing very fine lines – continued to elude me and would require some more work.
I was actually anticipating this, since my doctor told me that the shorter muscle fibers – the ones responsible for very small movements and fine motor control – are the last to come back “online” after an injury like this. So I next turned my attention to shorter, more careful movements with the pencil by doing a lot of hatching.
This, too, was a strange experience. In the old days, I could turn hatching on and off at will. My hand was so accustomed to that back-and-forth movement that it would settle into a groove instantly, producing hatch strokes so closely knit that they would dissolve into continuous tone on the page. But post-injury, my hand was like an old lawnmower that doesn’t want to start. My hand felt dead and sluggish, and there was none of the automatic ease that I’d grown used to while drawing. If I did manage to scrub the pencil back and forth a bit, the lines were unpredictable. Some were on target, but others were poorly spaced apart, or too dark, or my hand would lurch spontaneously across the page, as if a mild electric shock had induced some kind of seizure.
A New Discovery: Slow Motion
To solve this problem, I tried something my piano teacher had me do when learning to play something new: practice in slow-motion. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Playing the piano requires your fingers to move in complex ways, often quite quickly, and it’s discouraging when they won’t cooperate. But any physical movement, no matter how complicated, can be made to seem simpler by slowing it down. So instead of trying to play at full speed, practice in slo-mo for as long as it takes to teach your hands the correct movements, then work gradually to speed things up.
This makes perfect sense for learning to hatch with a pencil, so I set about practicing in slow-motion. My normal hatching speed is about 4 or 5 back-and-forth movements per second – fast enough to maintain a comfortable rhythm, but not so fast as to feel reckless. For my slow-motion drills, I slowed it down by at least 75%, completing just one back-and-forth circuit each second.
It felt absurdly slow at first. So slow that it was hard to take the exercise seriously. But just like practicing the piano, when I got impatient and tried to go faster, things got clumsy and I was immediately reminded of why I was doing this. Like I did with the longer lines, I practiced this movement without trying to draw anything in particular. Instead, I spent a couple of weeks filling up one page after another with hatching lines – washes of pencil strokes of different lengths and at different angles. Everything about the exercise was deliberate.
Things improved over time. The random, erratic movements became less frequent and my optimism increased to the point where it seemed time to draw something for real. I feared hiring a model would put too much pressure on my still shaky hand (and confidence), so I set up a simple still life arrangement featuring a bosc pear and tiny orange pepper. The setup looked beautiful when lit up inside a shadow box and I looked forward to spending some time drawing it.
The results were a mixed bag. I like the little drawing I came up with, so I was encouraged by the results. But it was harder to execute than it should have been. My hand would still go “offline” every so often, where the hatching movement I’d been practicing wasn’t immediately available. I could solve this problem by doing some practice hatching on a piece of scrap paper, just to get the motor going again, but that’s not something I ever had to do previously and it was a little sobering. But nevertheless, the drawing turned out well in a way it wouldn’t have just a few weeks earlier, and so confirmed what I already knew: drawing skills improve with practice. Keep going.
I kept churning out pages full of hatching strokes before the urge to draw something “real” once again took over. This time, I felt ready to hire a model and draw a portrait. DaLawn is one of our most reliable models whom we’ve worked with for years. He’s fun to draw and is rock-steady in any pose. I invited him to the studio for a portrait session, and decided to record the drawing just in case I could get a YouTube video out of it (which you can see here if you’re interested.)
This drawing was more ambitious than the little still life, but it felt better. I didn’t experience quite so much difficulty making the required motions with the pencil and I started to remember how drawing portraits used to feel, like reconnecting with an old friend.
Is my hand back to what it was before the injury? Well, not quite. I still experience stiffness and a strange lack of responsiveness early in a drawing session that I never noticed before, but I can live with it. A little bit of warmup before getting to work seems to solve the problem. And who knows? Maybe this is something that just happens with age, anyway.
In the end I’m grateful for this experience. I still wish I hadn’t broken my wrist, but doing so has reminded me of the key role practice plays in developing drawing skills. It’s an easy thing to take for granted. Of course, you have to practice to get better at something, but it’s easy to lose sight of what that really means. True practice – of the kind that helps, anyway – requires discipline and focus on mundane, repetitive exercises that can feel unimportant in the moment. I didn’t really want to fill up page after page with hatching lines, and while doing it, I had my doubts about whether it would help. But it did help and while I’m glad it’s over, I’m happy I spent the time required to do it well.
I also made a new discovery in the form of slow-motion drills. It never occurred to me before to apply this technique of learning to play an instrument to drawing skills, but it makes sense that it would work. Any movement can be better understood and mastered when learned slowly. Once that’s done, speeding it up is relatively easy. I plan to use this idea with students in the future.