Essay: Drawing during quarantine

I picked up an old hobby during the pandemic.

Over the pandemic, drawing in the park every evening was one of the things that saved my sanity. I wrote this essay about how it feels to look back on those sketchbooks now as quarantine is lifting, and how the drawings became connected in my mind with the ideas behind Impressionism in the 19th century. It’s also published on ARTnews.

Purgatory, Golden Hour

A month or two in to the pandemic in 2020, when the spring was breaking into an anxious summer and the weather made it blessedly easier to be outside, I took up a hobby. Or maybe I revived a long-lost part of myself: I started drawing every day, which I hadn’t done since high school, the better part of two decades ago. Back then I attended figure-drawing classes and loitered in the school’s art rooms — I even painted a mural that still hangs in the school. But my commitment faded in college with the pressure to study for a non-art major.

To pick up where I left off, I ordered a box of 12 recycled colored pencils in light pastel colors, a German sharpener with an attached container; and a new hardcover, ring-bound sketchbook, the first one in so long. It felt a little intimidating: colored pencils were never my chosen medium, but they were convenient to carry around and didn’t create much mess. Every afternoon around 4 or 5 PM, when being on my laptop even longer seemed pointless, not to mention the world was ending anyway, I would take a short walk to Kalorama Park near my apartment in Washington, D.C,, and draw from life, whatever was going on there.

Looking back at the year-old sketchbook pages now, the early doodles seem both simple and effortful, the kind of drawing where the artist is trying too hard to produce a realistic image instead of letting the marks be themselves — too stiff and careful to be graceful. I sketched small, tight figures in the midst of stretches of blank paper. They were each in the same pose that I was, sitting or laying on the hill of grass, in sunglasses or baseball caps, each alone and quite distant from everyone else. In the spring, we were all surrounded by empty space.

The figures read books or listened to music on headphones, sprawled on towels or blankets. A few experienced park-goers began bringing folding chairs. Like being a regular at a coffee shop, I could tell who, as I did, came to the park on a near-daily basis for that sunset moment of respite. When I would draw people, they would often simply be staring into space above the line of rowhouses that bordered the park, as if trying to comprehend the profundity of what was going on across the planet, in the air that we were breathing.

Drawing might have been my way of understanding COVID-19. I started out wanting to document the park in that moment — a bustling center of pandemic life that had become vastly more crowded and used. The increasingly packed scenes that I looked out over as the summer deepened started reminding me of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” from the 1880s, that masterpiece of Pointilism depicting a calm bourgeois crowd enjoying the lambent sunlight on an island in the Seine. The difference was that the peaceful Sunday mood was gone, made impossible by anxiety. Relaxation was replaced by a mania of escape, with people working on laptops outside; previously illicit drinking and smoking; and panicked parents setting up group children’s yoga classes.

There was a rigid pictorial order to the people in real-life Kalorama because each small group had to stay separated from the next for social distancing. The effect was painterly, as if the scene had been composed. Maybe it was more reminiscent of Poussin or Jacques-Louis David, the crisp logic of Neoclassical space in grand history paintings. The genre was apt: The image of the pandemic-era park captured one sense of what it was like to exist in this historical moment, the combination of total placidity and stillness with frenzy, the turmoil of having no idea what will happen next. I began thinking of the sketches as a series entitled “Purgatory, Golden Hour.” If you didn’t know what was actually going on, you might think the park scene was lovely, even utopian — just a neighborhood enjoying its public space.

As I continued my daily drawing, filling small sketchbooks and buying new cases of colored pencils, my hand loosened up and I drew larger scenes, filling in the landscape of the park and charting the movement of the thick, yellow sunset light on the bright-green grass. I drew dogs that wouldn’t stay still, picnics that looked like Alex Katz paintings from the 1970s, and trees in full leaf. From the pastels that I had started with, my palette expanded into more naturalistic colors and layered blending.

It reminded me of my high-school satisfaction with getting better at realism, the more exact rendering of a still life or body that looked on the page as it did in front of me. A drawing practice provides its own track record and motivation since you can observe your own quite literal progression by flipping the sketchbook pages back to the start. Each day is a chance to see something differently, to catch a new angle of an increasingly familiar scene. By drawing them over and over, I got to know Kalorama Park and the people in it. They’re fixed in my mind in a way that few things are from the lost year of 2020.

Extra motivation came from Instagramming my drawings, sharing them almost as soon I made them. It was a way of encouraging myself not to be too precious, to avoid worrying about them as careful finished work. But it was also nice to get positive reinforcement in the form of messages that friends would send in response. In mid-2020 it seemed that everyone was taking up new housebound hobbies — gardening, ceramics, rollerskating, dog training, baking — and we all needed the support to know that our efforts were alright. Of course the initial results might not be great, but at least they were something, a form of accomplishment in an otherwise changeless time. There was pleasure to be found in learning a new skill as an amateur, or regaining a lost skill, especially in the vacuum of quarantine.

The innovation of the Impressionists in the 19th century was to take their paints, palettes, and easels outside and document what was around them — not important scenes or historical locations but the mundane moments that comprise normal life. They painted the sunlight on cathedral facades, raucous boating parties, new factories rising over old rivers, the flowers that bloomed in their home gardens. Since we now think of Impressionism as an aged, kitschy style thoroughly digested into mainstream culture, it’s easy to forget that these were scenes from the artist’s lives, their contemporary milieu. What’s more, they saw and painted their surroundings in a new way, illuminating the variegated, sometimes clashing colors of light and the haziness of looking at something — maybe a sight you usually ignore — for a long time.

Something about that form of sustained attention became more meaningful to me during the pandemic. Instead of moving through my surroundings as quickly as possible, I had to slow down and notice them. There was no alternative but to study my neighborhood closely, to get to know every inch of it. If the pandemic quarantine can be said to have even a single bright side, it was this enforced engagement, a renewed focus on locality and community that also motivated mutual aid groups and the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Now, in the wake of the vaccine, restaurants are fully reopening and our social lives are gradually recovering; it’s possible to make semi-normal plans. The pleasant distractions have returned and I haven’t gone to the park to draw as often, though it’s still more crowded than it was in 2019. Having lost some of my fluency, I’m back to stiff doodles. Looking at last year’s drawings from the vantage of 2021, I can’t quite remember how I did them, much like I can’t remember how I got through the endless days of rising case numbers and the lack of any expectation for a solution. Now it all seems impossible.

Yet I value my drawings as artifacts of that difficult time and a way to recall how I passed it. Artists, writers, and other makers of culture are only just beginning to respond to what happened to us, making the things that history will eventually point to as representative of the period. These sketchbooks will be my personal version, the drawings a fragment of what 2020 looked like at the time, how we saw it.