Thursday, February 4, 2021

On the Subject of Erasers

© commonstockphotos /

As much as it would be great to erase 2020, it's a good thing I can't. The year taught me more than I could ever have imagined, and I'm grateful for what I was able to learn and even enjoy during one of the strangest times of my life. And it's not over yet!

2020 makes me think of when I was first learning to draw: it was hard, but I was determined to not give up, even when my art teacher said: "Never use an eraser." Never? Never ever? You're kidding! It sounded horrific, but I was also intrigued and my curiosity impelled me to give it a go.

Coincidentally, it was around this same time that I was reading Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and her advice on freewriting:  just write, don't think, don't cross out or erase what you've written. Wow; don't erase applied to writing too? 

It does, and I've never looked back. First thoughts and first marks are often our freshest and most honest, especially when we're working on the first draft of anything: a short story idea, the final chapter of a work-in-progress, a sketch of the garden, a journal entry--just write, just draw, and most of all, don't worry. Here's why:

  • When we are learning to write or draw or even plant petunias, yes, we want our work to be "right." And of course it's important to eventually learn correct and pleasing proportions, grammar, and sentence structure, but erasing won't make that happen. Only doing the work will teach you what "right" means and what's right for you. If you think a line in your drawing is crooked or wonky and you really hate it--just draw a new one next to it. Same with your writing. Think you've written a "dumb sentence?" Write another one, one you like better. Keep going. (If you're afraid of wasting paper, try writing or drawing on junk mail, old envelopes, used paper bags, or the backs of manuscript pages. Whatever helps you to practice freely and fearlessly, do it.) 
  • Not using an eraser teaches you to make confident lines. That's why drawing in ink or writing by hand is such a good discipline--it's not so easy to get rid of what you think you don't like. And who knows? You might love what you've drawn or written the next time you review it. How terrible it would be lose what might be the best of the entire piece.
  •  Abandoning erasers can lead to developing your own style more quickly, especially with drawing. Keep in mind that a "perfect" drawing is often a boring drawing, one that could be made by any old "Anonymous." (Ditto for many a book.)
  • At this point you might be asking, what about erasing the guidelines on a drawing that are the basis or outlines for a painting? Well, if you've got that far, congratulations! Leaving, or erasing, your pencil outlines is entirely up to you, but personally I love seeing pencil lines in a painting. Not only do they add, in my opinion, a lot of extra energy and charm to the finished work, but they help me to see what the artist was thinking and what his or her process was to develop the piece.
  • Finally, not using an eraser can turn your drawing or writing practice sessions into memorable creative outings. Standard challenges such as "write for twenty minutes without stopping," or "draw an object or a skyline without lifting your pencil or pen," are far more authentic when you don't erase. Gesture drawing in particular is a wonderful exercise that encourages you to draw from the heart without concern for results. (You can read more about gesture drawing in my recent post on the topic here.)

If it sounds as if I'm totally against erasers, believe me, I'm not. Revision work is an entire art in itself, and that's when it's the appropriate time to examine what material to leave in and what to leave out. For artists, erasers in all their many forms are amazing tools for purposefully removing areas of graphite or charcoal to create highlights and white lines such as whiskers on a cat, or veins on a leaf. As for writers, pushing the "delete" button is invaluable when you've given your main character at least three different names and changed your setting midway from Ohio to France without realizing it. The secret is knowing when and why to use your eraser, and always with a light touch. Moderation in all things!

Tip of the Day: Here's a nifty trick for those unused erasers: try making rubber stamps. Whether you use the kind on the end of a pencil or those larger pink rectangles you remember from school, you can easily cut and carve your own design(s) with the aid of an craft knife. Tap the finished stamp into ink or paint to create plenty of new lockdown fun. (Note: Please be very, very careful--those blades are sharp! The Voice of Experience.) See you next time.


Charlotte Fairchild said...

A potato can be carved into a stamp!

Charlotte Fairchild said...

A potato can be made into a stamp with carving!

Charlotte Fairchild said...

Redundancy is poetry? A little early to make sense as I doze this morning!

Valerie Storey said...

Oh, Charlotte, I remember those awful potatoes from grade school. We dipped them in tempera paint and then stamped patterns on paper we were supposed to give our mothers for gift wrap. Mine were always hideous. Thanks (I think!) for the memory.