Why I Draw With a Mechanical Pencil: A Tale of Successful Rebellion

My art teacher in junior high didn’t understand art at all.

In one of our first classes, he told all of us never to draw with mechanical pencils. His explanation?

“Because you can’t shade with them.”

Guess who drew with mechanical pencils all the time?

Yeah.

I loved mechanical pencils from the first moment I understood how they worked. They kept their point, allowing me to focus on the fine, precise lines I prize so much without having to break my concentration to sharpen the darn thing.

See, for me, art is about rigour, the detail that makes up great beauty. A chord played at the right moment has far more of an impact than the very same chord played perfectly in tune, but at an inappropriate moment. Of course, this right chord at the right time can can often happen serendipitously, just as the melody that was played perfectly can fall to disharmony by sheer misfortune. Skill does not guarantee beauty; it only equips us to better recognized and take advantage of the opportunities that arise.

This definition has grown and adapted over time, but the core of it has always remained the same. Always that attempt to capture beautiful serendipity.

So, when my teacher told us that about mechanical pencils on that day of days, he was basically saying that I’d been doing it all wrong my whole life. It’s always very exciting when something like that happens. Not only that but, after seeing him placing an inordinate amount of focus on shading throughout the rest of the semester, I can say with certainty that he was telling us that art without shading was bad art.

My psychedelic dragon begs to differ.

The ironic thing was that he never actually taught anyone how to shade. He just assumed that everyone already knew how to do it, and taught us various other things with various levels of helpfulness.

He also had this focus on real things. Everything he taught us to draw or make existed in reality, and there was always a sense of having to draw things as they really were. I suspect this comes from how well he could draw various things accurately, and being proud of his ability in that area, but it was hard to be in an art class and know that drawing anything fantastical would be frowned upon (it was downright bizarre, now that I think about it).

Anyways, for my final project, I did what I could to create something that fit his standards. I drew something only mildly fantastical, as opposed to my usual, which was more like this:

 

Or this:

Instead of just doing whatever the heck I wanted, I included a person, as was required, as well as a foreground, midground, and background. I shaded to the best of my ability, but without smudging because I could never get the hang of that method, and with a mechanical pencil, because I had been trying since that firstish day to prove that mechanical pencils could make good art. It ended up being flat to my eyes, because it didn’t have any of me in it, but I did the darn thing, and I included all his darn specifications.

You will never, ever see that drawing because I threw it in the garbage the day I got it back from him, with a big, fat 65% written on the back of it. Granted, my fore- mid- and background were all pretty bad, but the thing he also mentioned as a big factor when I asked him about the mark was that my shading wasn’t very good.

But that wasn’t even the big thing. The big thing was that I had hated doing that drawing. I had hated making this terrible, lifeless thing, because a living thing wouldn’t have gotten marks. And then the thing that I did to get marks didn’t really even come through anyways. I was done with that class, done with that teacher, and done with trying to live up to his expectations. I cried that night before I went to bed.

Over the next few months, I thought really hard about his assertion that you can’t shade with a mechanical pencil. You see, when people tell me that I can’t do something, I immediately want to prove them wrong, especially if that something is something I already wanted to do in the first place. This thought came up often and, one day while I was at church, I decided to do something about it. For the first time ever, I started drawing something on purpose and purely from my own mind that would be properly shaded, and with a mechanical pencil no less.

I was thirteen years old.

This was the result:

Since then I’ve done more drawings with mechanical pencils that incorporate shading. Sometimes, it’s subtle:

 

Sometimes, it’s not:

 

The point is that I discovered that my art teacher was wrong about a lot of things, even if he did actually teach me the proper proportions of a face and could draw eyes rather well.

The first thing he was wrong about was that he assumed. He assumed that the students entering his class had certain skills, even though that class was made up of students from grade 7 to grade 9, and even though some of those students (I included) had been homeschooled for however many years previous to that, and so hadn’t been in an art class for a long time, if ever.

The second thing he was wrong about was the kind of atmosphere to bring to an art class. I wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable doing art in his class, and I know that there is a much better way of doing things because I’ve had art classes before and since with teachers who inspired me to improve and try new things simply by how they interacted with me.

But the third and biggest thing that he was wrong about was what he had decided couldn’t be done.

Just because something’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Let the rebellion continue.

Let’s do the impossible.

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