Need Creative Inspiration? Danny Gregory Suggests Going Back to the Drawing Board

Adman, illustrator and author Danny Gregory talks about the power of drawing, managing criticism and finding fun in your work.

Danny Gregory was in his thirties and well into a successful career in advertising when he started drawing. Actually, he re-started drawing ­– as he notes, it's a skill that most of us master as 7-year-olds. Gregory chronicled his early efforts at drawing in his first illustrated book, Everyday Matters, which provides creative inspiration to people who want to learn to draw.

Gregory has gone on to produce more books, including two due to be published in 2015: Art Before Breakfast (Chronicle Books) and Shut Your Monkey (HOW Books). He also left advertising to focus on creative inspiration. He's now a teacher with Sketchbook Skool (which he co-founded), speaker and drawing group leader. 

His words of wisdom aren't just meant for illustrators ­– they're gold for any of us who wrestle with our inner critics, want to try something new or deal with external influences (like clients). In fact, my conversation with Gregory inspired me to sign up for my first-ever drawing class.

Can you recall your early attempts to start drawing? What did that experience feel like to you? What was the creative inspiration for you to keep going?

When I was in seventh grade, I enjoyed drawing. And then I had an art teacher who was also the shop teacher. He was really atrocious as an art teacher. I remember that he gave us an assignment to draw birds, so I drew a whole valley scene with lots of birds and trees and a river. He gave me an F; he said the assignment was to draw birds, not a landscape.

I stopped drawing in my teens, and I didn't do it again until my mid-thirties. When I started again, it felt wooden, like my muscles were out of shape. My drawings seemed cramped and awkward, and it was a struggle. They were just ugly, and there was this feeling that I wasn't capable of doing any kind of work that I would show anyone else. But I was also sort of compelled to do it because I wanted to get good at it.

We tend to beat ourselves up about [our artistic talent], but if you think about it, it's an activity that most people reach their peak at about 7 years old. You're picking up this activity that you haven't done in decades, so it's totally unreasonable to argue with yourself about whether you're any good at it. It's like taking a year of high school French, and then going to Paris 20 years later and beating yourself up because you aren't fluent. There are so many examples of great art in our lives, and we consider the fact that we can't reach that kind of level as a sign that we're hopeless.

This is one of Danny Gregory's many, many drawings. "Drawing isn't a learned skill so much as it's a process of discovery that starts with skills you have had since you were a toddler," Gregory notes. 

Do you draw every day?

I don't draw every day, but there are also days when I draw all day long. The key for me is that I don't do it out of obligation.

Many creatives undertake "project-a-day" challenges to keep them going, yet you're saying the key is not making it a chore. So what's the difference between discipline and obligation?

You absolutely have to practice. But it's not the drawing equivalent of playing scales on the piano. That's why I encourage people to do illustrative journaling. If the drawing isn't any good, it doesn't matter because it's still a record of your life on that day.

Draw your breakfast, draw people's shoes on the subway. Integrate drawing into your life; bring a sketchbook with you wherever you go, and instead of playing a game on your phone, do a little drawing.

If you do it on a regular basis, you'll see that you're getting better and you'll start to enjoy it. And then you'll start to give yourself little assignments, like going to the park and drawing. That's one of the reasons we started Sketchbook Skool; it's a way to inspire people each week with different assignments, but also to teach them how other people work and to give them guidance on doing simple things.

You've done many thousands of drawings. Do you ever think to yourself, "Well, that's the best thing I've ever done" or "That's the worst thing I've ever done"?

Yes, but it matters less and less because any given drawing is such a small percentile of all the drawings I've done. I have a good enough sense of what I'm capable of. When I do make a good drawing, it's often difficult for me to determine why it's good. It's really hard to judge it in the moment. I might think something is junk when I do it, and then later when I'm looking at work to include in a book, I might think it's pretty good.

What is good, anyway? What does "good" evaluate? The technical aspects of a drawing, the message it communicates or the memory it captures?

When you sit down to make something, you have an idea in your head of what you're going to make, and as you're making it, you hopefully hit some kind of snag that sends the work in a different direction. If you have the right approach to the work, that's kind of the point. What makes a work good is that it's surprising to me. 

My goal isn't really the finished drawing. It's to have a good time while I'm doing it. I don't hang my pictures on a wall, so what difference does it make as long as I have fun? If you have fun, you'll keep doing it. Which means you'll get better, which means you'll have more fun. If you beat yourself up, it's a self-perpetuating problem.

I can't imagine that someone would criticize your art, but I suppose that's the nature of sharing it online where people feel OK taking anonymous or distant swipes. Any advice for those of us who create for a living to deal with client feedback or criticism?

Client feedback and online criticism are two different things because a client is paying for your work and an online commenter isn't.

Regardless, criticism of your work can feel like criticism of you. You want to put yourself into your work, but at some point you have to detach yourself from it. A client is paying you to do something for them and their criticism is commentary on whether you're meeting their goal. You don't want to be disengaged with what you've done, but you also have to be objective about it.

It took me a quarter of a century in advertising to get good at that, and that's mostly because I moved into management, and when you're managing other people doing the creative work and you're answering to the client, you understand all the different variables.

You have to look at it as a learning experience, and be able to say, "I'm going to trust that this person's objective is to make this better." If you get clouded by emotion, then you don't learn and you don't get anything out of it.

You recently spent several weeks in China teaching drawing to students. What did you learn from that experience as a teacher?

Three-year-olds just like rubbing a crayon on a piece of paper. They like the feel of it. Five- and 6-year-olds love everything they make, but they're not precious about it. If you tell them you're going to hang it on the wall, they say "fine," and if you throw it in the trash they say, "fine." 

We need to get back to the feeling of just having fun. That's what it's all about ­– and it's true about all creative work.

Images courtesy of Danny Gregory.

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