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May 20, 2024

Practice Pieces

By Sand Pilarski

That tiger you see there? The medium is pastels, on cheap paper. I did it when I was 15 years old, on a winter evening when I was bored and just wanted to draw. I know it was a winter evening, because if it had been summer, I'd have been outside on the porch swing, hoping some good-looking boys from school would walk past on the sidewalk.

The picture hangs on the wall of my studio above my turps and a jar with my granddaughter's first attempts at using a pencil rolled up in it. The tiger has hung there since I found him once again in the stack of drawing pads and canvas boards in the garage when I was setting up my current studio. I was surprised by him, as I had not even looked at the pastel in over twelve years.

The tiger picture has no name. It was just a practice piece, you see, because a teenager liked tigers and had nothing better to do with her time. I look at the picture and I can see where she made some repairs to the outline of the striped head; I can see where she should have used vine charcoal to make the blacks more vivid, where she should have added yellow and red to trick the eye into seeing a more vibrant tiger pelt. I can tell at what point she was becoming impatient, and just wanted to finish the picture and go on to the next blank piece of paper. A practice piece, a throwaway.

Do I remember the execution of the work? No, not really. I remember the feeling of boredom that led me to sketch and then add in the colors of the pastel pigments far better than I do any satisfaction in "finishing" the work of art. There is no signature on the pastel, no characteristic "Sand" in bold letters with a flourish, or the more sedate "Sand Pilarski" in block letters that I use for oil paintings. I have a vague recollection of matting the piece when I was about 21 and had some dirty scrap mat board to get rid of.

Back then, I kept all my practice pieces, because I loved them. I loved the pages of cartoons that showed a single character's face with all kinds of different expressions, the scraps of paper with cartoons of Malcolm X and an alien from outer space, the sketch of my husband's profile that I did while he watched television that caught the shape of his eyelid exactly.

Where are all the practice pieces now? In landfills, for when I was 34, I joined the "real world" and took on a full-time job that had nothing to do with dilettante sketches and non-wage-earning frivolity. There was no more time for drawing or painting. The workplace was a hyena-eat-dog scenario, and keeping ahead of the pack was the order of the day seven days a week. The tiger picture survived the purge by being in a forgotten stack of stuff that didn't get thrown out of the garage when we moved here.

I didn't do "practice pieces" for so long that I forgot how I was able to capture the ferocity of that tiger, forgot how to mix paint colors, forgot how to just spend paper on something that I enjoyed.

In the year 2000, when civilization didn't collapse, I set up a studio once again, more to get my stuff out of the garage than anything else. I had to throw out all the hardened tubes of oil paint and brittle-bristled brushes, the drawing pads with paper mites infesting them, the erasers that crumbled like cookies. But I found my set of pastels, the pigments as bright and true as when I had drawn the tiger back in 1969.

Since my early retirement, I've been trying to re-learn what my hand and eye once knew about color and form. I'm making some progress, but having been a wage-earner once, there's an ugly little money manager in my head who looks over my shoulder with bitter criticism, telling me that I'm a parasite and a time-waster. The nagging creature whispers angrily that every sketch I draw should have a point. Every painting I do should be hangable. Every collage I scan, every photo I manipulate in Photoshop, every essay I write should have an outlet and an audience. "Marketability!" the demon rages at me, making my hands shake nervously. "If it isn't marketable, it isn't good enough!"

And you know, that's just a flat-out lie. My grandmother wasn't a writer, but I surely do wish she'd have written down somewhere her thoughts and methods for training her own horse. I wish my dad hadn't thrown out all his sketches from when he was presenting ideas for people's landscaping. I wish my mother still painted, because I loved seeing each one bloom from blank canvas to rich color. Marketability has nothing to do with it. What it's really about is the love of creation and the glimpses into the lives of the creators.

I'll make my New Year's resolutions early this time around. This next year I resolve to tie up that little nagging critic in duct tape so that it can't make a peep. I resolve to carry a sketch book with me from room to room and play with it, use it up, wear out some pencils. I resolve to splash color madly to see what comes out, to write fanciful words that don't worry about grammar and voice -- I resolve to have more practice pieces in my life.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-12-18
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