The Lost Wisdom of Childhood
🦊 #59 — How many lessons did we learn as children, only to forget as adults?
I hope you’re doing well and staying safe. This week I’m lucky to have some family visiting, including my nephews. It’s been a long time since I’ve spent time with family. It’s a welcome change of pace, and I’m taking some time off over next two weeks to make the most of it. I wanted to send a short letter before they arrived, but couldn’t finish editing this one in time. So, here I am as the clock approaches midnight, writing to you.
I spent this morning building a Gundam toy with my nephew.
It was good fun, and reminded me of the day I bought him his first Gundam toy.
Back in September of 2019, I was visiting Japan for the first time with a couple of my friends. I had looked forward to this trip for many years, and it more than lived up to my expectations. I fell in love with Tokyo — the food, the trains, the neighborhoods, and all the magic in between. It was such an inspiring trip that I wrote an entire blog post on Tokyo during the flight home. It was the first post I had been motivated to write in several years, and ended up sparking the writing journey that led me to where I am today.
My friends and I were on the subway headed to the famous fish market in Tokyo, which had recently been moved out of the city and into Tokyo bay. By an unfortunate coincidence, the market was closed at the time we visited it (we would return the next day, and yes, it was incredible). We got on the train to go back to our hotel, when one of us looked out the window and saw a giant Gundam.
It turns out that this remarkable statue, known as Unicorn Gundam Statue, is not defending us from an alien attack (at least, not yet). Instead, it’s using its imposing figure to draw googly-eyed visitors like myself to the shopping mall behind it. Inside the mall is (you guessed it) a Gundam Base toy store. We decided to take advantage of our unexpectedly free morning, and got off at the next station to take a closer look. Inside, I saw some of the most remarkable toys I’ve ever seen — these things give Lego a run for their money — and managed to grab one for my nephew.
Looking back, I recall the mindset I had as I wandered around Tokyo. I was in love with the city, and was already dreaming about returning to visit again. I had imagined 2020 being a year full of travel, visiting friends and working remotely from a variety of countries. As it turned out, 2020 had other plans for me (as it did for many of us). But my dream remains alive as ever. I can’t wait to go back.
Back to this morning: As I sat next to my nephew building the Gundam toy, I noticed how disciplined he was with his approach. Each piece needed to be cut, collected, and snapped together with care. Tiny stickers smaller than a fingernail were carefully placed into their respective ridges. For some pieces, he would draw on panel lining with marker, adding a beautiful touch of polish.
Few adults, let alone children, have the patience to craft with such care.
Later in the day, we embarked upon building a second Gundam toy, bigger and more advanced than the first. The process became more complex, but that didn’t phase my nephew. Beyond his attention to detail, it occurred to me that my nephew was practicing the same techniques I’m using for writing my book. Last week I wrote about drawing in scenes, a method I’m using to ensure I make progress every day, while slowly working towards something bigger. For this more complex Gundam toy, it took us about 20 minutes to build a single leg.
We ended the day with two legs and a hip.
Did our slow progress bother him? Nope. Was he getting bored, or ready to give up? Not in the slightest. He reminded me of what was next, and kept building.
I write words. He builds blocks.
One step at a time, a world is built before our eyes.
I remember building Legos as a child. I built castles, slowly. Maybe you did too. Perhaps it was a different toy you built, but I suspect you learned the same lessons. For those of us lucky enough to have them, these toys taught us lessons of patience and perseverance.
As children, we knew not to judge the castle until it is done. Yet as adults, we look at our drafts with scorn.
How many lessons did we learn as children, only to forget as adults?
By recalling our past, we may find a new path.
“All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.” —The Little Prince
I’ll leave you with a few thoughts on drawing with action. Years ago when I was flipping through books on hand-drawn animation, I ran into this invaluable set of visual drawing tips from Preston Blair:
These drawings from Tom & Jerry show us how a strong line of action gives the character’s pose more power, and makes the illustration more believable.
As I’ve been writing my fables, I’ve been drawing a couple of rough sketches with each story to illustrate key scenes. Below are sketches from a recent story showing a frog dipping its toes into mystical water.
In this first sketch, I tried to draw it as quickly as possible, adding some color to get a sense of the emotion I imagined:
In the second attempt, I doubled down on the pose and expression, allowing myself to exaggerate them for dramatic effect. A stronger line of action resulted in a more compelling pose:
What’s interesting about this technique is that it is all about action. When we think of ‘still drawings’ we think of a character sitting idle, posing for the painter’s camera. But that is quite an unrealistic scene. Instead, we want to capture them in the moment, which means they will be in action — walking, running, jumping, and so on. And so the origin of my interest — animation — has turned out to be extremely relevant for my eventual exploration of illustrations.
I’m reminded of a wonderful talk by Bret Victor titled Stop Drawing Dead Fish, in which he argues that “art, not just the artist, needs to be alive.” He takes the concept of drawing with action even further, suggesting that digital illustration techniques should allow for even more interactive expression. I highly recommend watching the talk, as it’s not only filled with incredible content, but also serves as a shining example of how to give a fantastic talk.
Until next time,