The Journey Is Everything

The journey to the top of the hill was wonderful.

At Taekwon-Do last night, the instructor took us though kicking moves. He explained the stance we should be taking and the part of the foot we needed to deliver maximum impact. We are beginners, so he found fault with one or other aspect of our moves.

“You’re focusing on the destination,” he said. “Focus instead on the journey. If you get that right, the destination will take care of itself.”

Those words rang true. I’ve known that for a long time.

Then the instructor, Master Fitzgibbon added to his point: “The journey is everything.”

Folks, the journey is everything. Get it right and the destination will take care of itself. With respect and thanks to Master Fitzgibbon, I’m going to borrow that theme to illustrate one of the most valuable lessons there is to learn in any field that requires skill.

For years people have told me of their difficulties with sketching. These are some of the things that come up most often:

“I want to be expressive and loose, but my drawings are stiff.”

“I watch you and you are so fast – you don’t hesitate. How do you DO that?”

“How come you don’t make any mistakes?”

I explain that my drawings were stiff when I started. I explain that I used to be hesitant and that I used to make mistakes (I still do). I explain that there’s no magic trick to mastering sketching. Then I tell them a story.

When I was a little girl, I fell in love with the art of Hergé, who was the main brain behind the Tintin albums. I couldn’t understand how someone’s line could be so perfect. Those hands, those bodies, the cars, the facial expressions. All perfect. When I grew up, I bought biographies of Hergé: if only I read them all, I would discover his secret, and I too would be able to draw like that. In the end, I did discover his secret, but it wasn’t written down anywhere. Hergé’s method was not described in any of the biographies I read. And his secret isn’t really a secret: you’ve probably guessed what it was already.

Hergé’s early work is remarkably inexpert. The drawings in Tintin In The Land Of The Soviets are clunky and childish. How did Hergé go from that to the masterpiece that is Explorers On The Moon?

As a young man, Hergé worked on a newspaper called Le Vingtieme Siecle. It had a kids’ section of cartoons inside called Le Petit Vingtieme. Every Friday Hergé had to have his weekly cartoon ready: no excuses. He did this for ten years.

I put two and two together and came up with Eureka! There was no secret. It was simply the fact that Hergé was given no choice but to produce the goods every week without fail. He must have made unbelievable amounts of drawings. In the end, it was practice that turned Hergé from a talented storyteller into a master.

This all sounds exciting, and something to aim for, but here’s the thing: a lot of ink has to flow under the bridge before your own style emerges. Then a lot more ink has to follow in its wake before your style becomes loose and expressive, and yet more before you find you no longer make mistakes. Think of a concert pianist: they play complicated and intricate music, and yet they never strike a bum note. When that happens you are, by definition, a master: you have mastered your instrument. Or your pen, or your brush, or whatever your tool of choice happens to be.

Does it seem daunting to fill your pen and wet your brush hundreds, thousands of times before you reach that mastery? If so, there’s no need to feel like that. The journey itself is beautiful. Look at the sketch at the top of the post: yes, the view from the top of Abbey Hill in the Burren was breathtakingly beautiful, but the path up the hill was beautiful too. There were tiny spring flowers at my feet. Teeny pools of water in the limestone pavement that the dog drank from. Bright green ferns glinting in the gloom of the grykes between the karstic structures. Lichens on the bedrock that only grow in pure environments.

And so it is with learning to draw beautifully: you will pull smooth, inky lines across your page, mix rich, flowing watercolours, sit in still countryside or vibrant towns as you sketch. You’ll go home with a feeling of pride in the lovely sketch you’ve made, many times, as many as you like, over and over again, and you’ll enjoy every minute, and before you know it you will see that your hand knows exactly what to do – you’ll be a master.

I’m only starting Taekwon-Do. I’m that sketcher who has only just bought their first pen, and doesn’t have a clue what to do with their paints. So I know how you feel. But I am looking forward to my Taekwon-Do journey: the moving, the kicking, feeling my body stretch, strive and sweat, and of course the satisfaction and glow that comes with working your body with a purpose.

The journey is everything. Get it right – and enjoy it – and the destination will take care of itself.

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