Robin Learns To Draw

A writer at the easel

Preface: Blick

I had only just stepped into the art supply store, taken in the rows and rows of colorful goods and the young customers crossing my path, when the thought seized me: I am a fraud.

I was not an artist; could never really be an artist. I was a writer. They’d get one good look at me and I’d be caught out.

I had been to Blick twice before, but with Lena. The first time, she needed to buy supplies for her high school AP art class; the second time was to get her set for college– the Art Institute of Chicago.

Now I stood frozen for a moment inside the entrance. My eyes were drawn to my left, to a display of notebooks and pens. On that first visit, I’d bought myself a moleskin-covered notebook of lined paper. But no, not today. I forced myself to look again down the long aisles that held floor-to-ceiling supplies of paints and glues and pastel sticks, blocks of clay and boxes of tools, stacks and stacks of multi-colored paper of varying weights and sizes. Giant, empty, unlined sheets of paper.

My mother would have liked it here. Her sculptures had taken form from impenetrable rocks of marble or huge lumps of gray clay. She was too old now to lift a mallet. But at 88 she’d picked up a pencil and made a simple drawing — creating in a few lines a distinct and unique apple, a particular apple. I’d found the feat so astonishing that I’d asked to have the drawing. She framed it and sent it to me, somewhat puzzled that I prized this small item. It hangs on my kitchen wall.

Apple (by my mother)

I had been bracketed by these two natural artists – my daughter and my mother – surrounded by their works my entire life. I myself had shown no sign of an easy gift. I could draw, of course, in a practical way. I could copy the lines of things I saw in front of me; I could make a record of an object’s existence. But I could not invest the drawing with any feeling or meaning. And so I never tried anything more ambitious than an idle sketch, each time reminded by the awkward effort that I had no talent for it.

Now at Blick, I felt a fool, a list in my hand of the supplies needed for a class I had signed up for at our local community art center: Introduction to Drawing.


You will need the following supplies for all classes:

18” x 24” pad of white drawing paper

Several different pencils: for example HB, H7, H4, 6B, 2B, B

Erasers—I recommend one white plastic eraser, and two kneaded erasers.

Vine charcoal––a package with six or more sticks will do.

Compressed charcoal––3 sticks is probably all you will need.

Some newsprint paper—at least 18” x 24”

A few sheets of light-medium gray or beige paper (Canson is a good brand)

Conté crayons in white, black and brown


I began to roam the aisles, looking for the pencils and charcoal, but found myself in front of a row of tubes of acrylic paint and boxed colored sticks that apparently could be moistened and used like paint. I was bewildered and soon to be lost. I needed help.

I approached a sales girl wearing a black smock. She had glossy black hair and red lipstick and I noticed, embedded in her left eyebrow, a thin metal bar. When Lena had pierced her tongue I’d laid my head against a wall and cried. I was long over that now.

I held out my list to the sales girl. “Can you help me find these things; I don’t know what I’m doing.” The admission was probably unnecessary. My self-consciousness was itself embarrassing to me. In this store, I was ignorant. What did “vine charcoal” look like? And how was a “Conté crayon” different from Crayola? I recalled my mother making a fuss when Lena had mentioned Conté crayons. “Oh, I love them,” my mother had said, the way you might say you love a certain dish of food.

The sales girl was energetic and kind. She briskly gathered up my materials. I followed behind her with my shopping basket, like a child. She handed me a white plastic eraser and then two “kneaded erasers” – they were flat gray squares that looked like clay. She pulled out loose sheets of beige drawing paper and grabbed an unwieldy, spiraled pad of white paper. The vine charcoal sticks were long and straight, not the twisty burnt pieces of vine I’d imagined. And Conté “crayons” were thin and rectangular bars. Did I want chocolate brown or rust brown, she asked. I shrugged. “Most people use this color,” she said, placing a box in my basket.

At the checkout counter, with all my materials piled up, I realized I needed some kind of portfolio envelope — like Lena had – to carry everything. The sales girl retraced our steps and brought me to the shelves that held the portfolios. There were black nylon zippered portfolios like Lena’s and beautiful leather portfolios priced at more than a hundred dollars. I chose a cheap, russet-colored cardboard envelope with nylon handles.

The sales girl rang up my purchases. “And since you’re an art student,” she said, as I rummaged in my handbag for my wallet,  “you get a 10 percent discount.” I looked up from my bag. She was holding out a plastic card that read “BLICK art materials PREFERRED customer.”

I  suffered a moment of confusion. I was not an art student or a student of any kind. I had finished school decades ago. What did she mean? But then I recalled — I was in fact enrolled in an art class. Had I not presented this sales girl with a list of supplies required by my instructor? Didn’t I have a class to attend on Tuesday? As far as Blick was concerned, I belonged in the store. I was an art student.


* * *

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3 Responses to “Preface: Blick”

  1. I’m waiting to learn if you draw as well as you write.

  2. John Donnelly said

    I love the details in this piece, and the honesty.

  3. "Kristin" said

    It is so interesting to read your take on our class, particularly as it is so beautifully written and thoughtful. You can certainly use my real name if you wish, though I don’t think it would enhance your story. In fact, the anonymity appeals more to me because it makes the story feel more universal.

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