The Eraser Is The Artist's Greatest Tool
Today is the last day of Scientific Illustration, which is one of the top five classes I’ve taken in my human life. I’m fairly depressed about this ending; it feels like I just started Scientific Illustration, and I need a lot more time to sit in front of cases of birds in order to truly understand God and the universe. But it’s cool that I got to do that at all, and I recommend it to everyone who is a little doubtful around the subject of magic: Go to a field museum or a museum of natural history and spend a little more time than you think you need to spend with a set of bones. Then tell me you don’t believe in something inexplicable.
Anyway, it’s appropriate that today will be my last class with Peggy because I want to write briefly about one of her favorite lessons: that the eraser is the artist’s greatest tool. If you’re not an artist, that’s ok; I think this one applies across the board. The metaphorical absence of an eraser is the tendency to believe that things are too far gone; that you should start over rather than salvage; replace rather than fix.
And don’t get me wrong; there are occasions where it’s time to let stuff go. Usually, what needs letting go of the most is the hardest to relinquish; romantic relationships that have turned into attachments, or poisonous ideas about self-worth, or jobs that our mothers thought we should have but that only ever made us miserable. But when it feels easier to start over completely than to see what is working; that’s when you should take out the eraser and see if there’s something good in there worth saving.
The day I drew the cicada, I had just finished sketching when Peggy came over to me and looked down at my pinned bug (I was very proud that I had pinned the cicada all by myself without any gagging noises, like a real scientist) and started laughing. “You’ve got a squished one!” She said. I didn’t know what she was talking about; the cicada looked fine to me. But she brought over a non-squished specimen and it was obvious; his eyes were smashed and his whole torso had been flattened. My drawing was all wrong. I ripped the page out of my sketchbook.
“You kids are always wanting to start over and I don’t get it,” Peggy said. “There is a lot here that is working fine! You’ve done so much right.” She showed me how the wings were good just as they were; she congratulated me on my careful measurement. Then she took out her eraser and took out the bottom part of the upper torso. “Redraw that,” she said. It was too tiny a part, and I wanted to tell her, but she was so insistent.
I redrew the part she’d erased with a properly corpulent bug as my new model. I used the wings as a starting point; she was right, it was easier with the wings as a reference. Then, instinctively, I could see how the top part of the torso was wrong in relation to the (new, improved) bottom part of the torso, so I erased and re-drew that. Being able to look at the mistakes provided me with a sort of map of where and how to move next. Redrawing half my bug didn’t end up being nearly as difficult as I thought it would be.
There is this notion that you are supposed to do things perfectly the first time; a sense that mistakes are so terrible that they signal that the very task at hand has been a total bust. If you’re five days into an exercise plan and you don’t work out the sixth day or the seventh day, then fuck it; all the work you’ve done has been destroyed. When you decide to learn to play the guitar but Megan Prima is better at it than you and is learning faster than you can, then Megan Prima was meant to be musical and you simply were not. Or when you begin a friendship with someone but they say something that bothers you and so you’re passive aggressive and then you stop talking as much, then that person wasn’t worth your time anyway, and good riddance. I think this comes from fear of judgement; of being afraid that people will laugh if they see us fail and keep going. But a lot of the time, there’s an eraser. There shouldn’t be any shame in using an eraser.
Yesterday I kept working on water. Water is so frustrating. It doesn’t look like anything, but it does. There are all these crazy perspectives and reflections and light sources going on all the time. I was doing these waves, and I reached a place where I was ready to give up. The waves were too muddy, and I’d put too many layers of paint on, and I felt like I should just quit already and start again.
But I thought about the eraser, and Peggy says there’s even erasers when you’re watercoloring (you can use a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser on a watercolor and remove pretty much any mark; there’s a life-hack for you). So I soldiered on, and I worked on these three stupid waves for a grand total of six hours. And then, right as I was about to give up again, I started to see the water. It was crazy; the water just kind of sprung out of the paper. I didn’t really know where it came from — what stroke I’d made to bring the water to life — but there it was. My best water yet.
Sometimes it’s not as bad as you think it is. A colleague of mine put this poem up on Instagram recently, and I copied it down into my notebook immediately. It went viral in the wake of the Orlando shooting, and then popped up again after the election. I think it applies here, too. And just in case you missed it, I’ll leave it right here.
BY MAGGIE SMITH
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.