Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Fear Of Good Paper

When I was a kid, I coveted “good paper.”  I loved having some nice Strathmore Bristol paper at my disposal to do quality drawings on.  Most of the time I worked on drawing paper that came in pads that was a step above newsprint, saving the Bristol for “special” projects.  “Good paper” for “good drawings.”

The end result of this behavior is that the Bristol collected dust.  The Bristol paper was so nice that I didn’t feel anything I was doing was worth its toothy goodness.  I simply didn’t want to waste it — it was more expensive than my usual drawing fodder and every failed attempt at a quality drawing resulted in something that didn’t so much resemble a wad of crumpled paper as a wad of crumpled cash, and I hated feeling wasteful.

Over time, my reluctance to risk wastefulness evolved into a fear of “good paper.”  Boiled down, it was mostly performance anxiety with a little cheapness thrown in, and I refused to even attempt a finished piece on the Bristol or any other paper of similar ilk.  I managed to get a lot of good, quality drawings done (for my age), but it was never on the “good paper.”  No fear led to the freedom to take risks, which resulted in better work.  I tried to transfer my successes to better paper for posterity’s sake, but the result was always lifeless and disappointing, and before long I abandoned my attempts, leaving them half-finished and forgotten.  Of course this just caused further waste and thus deepened my fears.

This continued throughout high school and even into college, which found me dragging the Bristol paper I’d had since the 4th grade, along with the various other necessary supplies and sundries.  It was in college that I was finally forced to face my fears.  Yes, college, where I had to start drawing at a frequency with which I’d never before been unaccustomed.  College, with 6-hour drawing classes so intense that the only sounds one could hear were the scribbling of charcoal pencils on paper and the constant ticking of the model’s timer.  Ah college, where we drew like the wind, when the wind pushes a pencil across a page just so, as it often doesn’t.  So we drew.  And there was no fear, for we drew on newsprint… a LOT of newsprint. 

I don’t know if the reasons for drawing on newsprint are the same as my own reasoning for not using good paper, but newsprint is cheap and thus eliminates any monetary pressure.  Also, given the poor quality of newsprint, there’s no pressure to do a “good” drawing.  Newsprint allowed me to sidestep my issues, but there were occasions when newsprint was the wrong tool for the job.

Beyond the in-class drawings there were also assignments — homework, if you will.  These assignments were where I finally began to take on my fear of “good paper.”  You see, I simply had no choice; it was part of the assignment.  I had to draw shoes on good paper; plants on good paper; figures, and flowers and self-portraits: all on good paper.  At first this was very difficult, but over time I began to understand that these weren’t priceless works of art, but rather important exercises — whether they were good or bad didn’t matter.   The quality of the paper only mattered because it was essential to the subtleties we were trying to perfect.

Plus, as the years went by, I began to paint more and more.  Though drawing was integral to my process, the need for perfection waned.  I paint in oils, after all, and oils are opaque, so the drawing will end up being covered up, anyway.

So that was that, right?  No more fear.  I’ve gotten past the performance anxiety and am completely cured, right?  Alas, no.  I still fear waste.  I bemoan the fact that substantially more paint is thrown out then ever makes it onto a painting’s surface.  I cringe at the thought of the paper and printer ink wasted when trying to color-correct my prints.  I lose sleep over the purchase of a new painting medium that I like to work with because I still have half a jar of the stuff that I hate working with.

The closest I think I’ll ever get to getting over the fear of waste is coming to terms with the fact that there will be waste, like it or not.  Nothing runs at 100% efficiency and the best I can do is avoid waste when I can.  Accept it and move on.  While I have arrived at this conclusion mentally, I have not completely let go.  Perhaps someday, but not now.

So what’s the moral here?  Why did I write about this?  Well, it’s certainly a window into my own neurosis, but I am certain that it is a neurosis shared by others.  Somewhere there’s someone who holds back from drawing on “good” paper, is afraid to use the “good” pen, or paint with the “good” brush; someone who feels unready for or unworthy of “professional quality” supplies.  Will better supplies make you a better artist?  Perhaps not, but holding back might just keep you from reaching your fullest potential.  So, let fly, my friends and good luck.


  1. Thanks for this personal perspective. I've saved a large piece of Arches for 3 years. Need to let things unfold on these hidden treasures.

  2. It's really nice hearing this from someone who has achieved so much. I have suffered through this and still do, though my own issue wasn't as much about waste as it was my work not being good enough for a beautiful, white, perfect canvas, or piece of paper, fine or poor quality. In turn, I didn't work.. .for years and years. As you can imagine, without practice, I never got better, so I beat myself for not being better than I was. Fortunately, I have finally begun to break through and now work vastly more than I ever have though not as much as I need to. . .but I'm now working at it, and the canvas isn't as intimidating as it's inspiring. The pendulum finally swings the other way. It's en-heartening to know that someone who's done such fine work also struggled in a similar way, because if you also had that problem and have come to achieve what you've achieved, then maybe I can too. <:)

  3. @Tom - I still struggle with this. I only just switched to professional grade cadmium colors the other day. Until then, I'd been using these cruddy student grade cadmium hues that I thought got the job done. I felt like nothing I was doing was worth the more expensive, more vibrant paints. It was a mistake to think that way. I feel very fortunate to have gotten over as many of the hang-ups that I have, really. It's always good to hear of others getting over their hurdles. I know it encourages me!

  4. Hah! This is such a big part of my life as well. It's ridiculous! I have nearly unused paper and notebooks that are more than 8 years old. Luckily, since my professional work is all digital, I don't have to deal with it any more. A great read, thanks for sharing and keep up the excellent work, Steven!

  5. @Torstein - You know I never though of going paperless as a way to solve this issue! 'Course when I was in school digital painting wasn't an option, which might explain why I never considered it. Still, it was a very real fear for me, and it's always good to hear that I'm not alone!


I welcome all comments, questions, and discussion so long as you keep it civil.