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A few days ago I was driving home from an errand, and I was listening to a program on CBC Radio called Q. The host, Tom Power, was interviewing Daniel Caesar, a young singer-songwriter. They were talking about the pitfalls of idealizing people. Daniel said:

I’m like obsessed with [romantic love]…I think it kind of goes with what we’re talking about before like. . . idealization or desire. Like, I will see a woman, and see the way she moves through a room, and how beautiful she is, and now I just make her this object of my [desire], on a pedestal, you know what I mean? And then once I HAVE her, then it’s like – oh. She’s a person like anybody else. It’s really unfair to idealize any human being and make them out to be some sort of god, because they’re not. And once you meet them, it’s a disappointment. . .So people become not enough.

People become not enough. Oof. I started thinking about normalness and beauty and the expectations we carry in our brains, and as many things do, that got me thinking about art.

I’ve dabbled in abstract art, but most of my work as an artist is representational art. You’d think that “representational art” would mean that we look at a thing and we draw what our eyes see, and that an accurate image just happens. But that is not the case – in between our eyes and our hands holding the pencil to the paper, we find a pretty complicated filter – our brain.

When someone says “draw a house” or “draw a flower”, our brains barge in and say, “Oh! I know what a flower is supposed to look like!” We idealize, we simplify, and we stylize. Even when we have a flower right in front of us and we’re trying to draw what we see, it takes a lot of practice and focus to bypass what our brains tell our hands to put onto the paper. Getting a drawing to move beyond the stylistic into so-called “realism” is not just a matter of learning art techniques like shading or proportions, it’s learning to push back on our own brain.

You can see this in the very first drawings that little kids do. Children’s art progresses through stylistic stages that are remarkably similar from one kid to another, because their brain-filters are going through the same developmental and observational steps of growth. It’s not something that we naturally grow out of though – once our brains have been trained on stylistic simplifications of what a thing is “supposed” to look like, that default is lodged firmly in our adult brains.

Many beginning artists get discouraged by this, because once they have gotten their image on the paper, they look at what they’ve drawn, and they look again at the item or the person in front of them, and they think, “This does NOT look right.” The idealized filters in our brains can end up disappointing us.

In a way, this art challenge is the mirror-image of Daniel Caesar’s conundrum. He lamented that the stylized people in his brain would always be better than reality, while the discouraged art-newbies will look at their drawings and lament that their stylized people are not as good as reality. But in both cases, it’s our preconceptions that are getting in the way of what’s really there in front of us, in all of its complexity.

The majority of the art that I do these days is graphite portraits in a realistic style, usually working from a photograph. Through lots of practice (and plenty of erasers used down to nubbins), I’ve gotten better at recognizing the filters that my brain creates which are really just getting in the way of a true representation of the person I’m drawing.

But here’s the amazing thing that I find: in every single portrait that I have ever drawn, all these everyday, normal people with their everyday faces and normal bodies, I have had a point where I have been so struck by the beauty of some part of their image that I have to set my pencil down and just take a moment of reverence to appreciate it.

The unidealized, unfiltered person IS the beauty. Her smile crinkles? Gorgeous. That big laugh captured that gives him a double chin in the photo? Perfect. That tousled hair? Don’t even think about smoothing it. There is glory in the ordinary lines. I look at them and love them.

The host of the radio program, Tom Power, responded to Daniel Caesar, building on yet redirecting Daniel’s comments in a way that felt gently instructive, almost parental. “True love is loving a person, not your idea of that person,” he said. “If you can’t do that, you don’t value human beings as much you value a sort of narcissistic myth.”

Absolutely. And the wonderful truth is that in all our normalness, with all our quirks and idiosyncrasies, what is real and true is always more amazing than the flat, stylized ideal that we have envisioned. Your ordinary lines are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Header photo by David Perkins on Unsplash
All other photos by the author

Kathryn Vilela

Kathryn Vilela lives in Kingston, Ontario, and is an enthusiastic amateur in many areas, including writing, theology, art, singing, Portuguese cooking, and being a mom. Kathryn is happiest when she’s in the middle of a good book, a good conversation, or a good hike through the forest.


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