Small Steps

Small Steps

The 50th anniversary of the moon landing recently passed. On that incredible day, Neil Armstrong said the famous line, "That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." (There's been some debate over whether he said, "a man" or just "man.") Even though the first human foot landing on the moon was celebrated, the actual step onto the surface was one of many on the journey to get to that moment. Without the countless "small steps" of the many people involved, there would have been no "giant leap for mankind."

Our lives are filled with little decisions and choices that can have far-reaching effects on our future, even if they aren't anything near as momentous or iconic as the moon landing.

I went to CodeStock back in April. One of the many talks I sat in on was by David Neal, also known as ReverentGeek. He's the one that created these avatars for me:

Two avatars of my face created by David Neal

His talk was all about using art to communicate and how anyone can do it. I have long been one of those people that summarized my artistic talent by saying, "I can barely draw a stick figure!" Yet his talk inspired me: he said that artistic ability has much more to do with practicing it as a skill than being born with it as a talent. He also claimed that you don't even have to practice all that much to communicate the basic point you are trying to make.

His assertions directly contradicted my trite disclaimer. The truth is that I had wanted to be an artist when I was a young kid, but I was discouraged by my lack of "natural talent." Had I given up because it hadn't come easy? Was there something to what David Neal claimed? He had shared his own story of going from "no talent" to being someone that was sought after for the style of avatars that I twice had printed as stickers and have now dispersed throughout Knoxville. As someone who also relies on personal stories as examples, would I be a hypocrite if I didn't at least test what he said?

Since that day, I have been drawing daily. Some days, that's only for a few minutes. Others, I've spent hours working on a project. During that time, I also bought a budget drawing tablet for digital art, which required me to start watching and reading tutorials about how to use it effectively. One of the tutorials argued that a stick figure is the perfect place to start: like the foundation of a house or the skeleton of a living creature, the stick figure lays out the very basics of the figure's position.

After witnessing a demonstration of that principle, I decided to tackle something I had been putting off. I had an idea for a talk to be delivered at next year's CodeStock, and I wanted to create a specific slide that would grab the attention of attendees. Part of that slide required a cartoony figure that I felt too unskilled to even attempt.

Still, how hard could making his stick figure be? With that done, how hard would it be to add a couple joints and a very rough outline of his head? Doing a rough sketch of the general shape of his body shouldn't be too hard now that I had the joints, right? Doing the line art is almost trivial with the rough sketching out of the way, isn't it? I'm not doing anything fancy with color, so I can do that in a few minutes. Now that I have his body, the proportions of his suit won't be too difficult. Well, all that's really left is to add some shadows for a bit of depth and...

Six stages of the lizard man

I had my little cartoon figure of a reptile wearing a business suit. It wasn't anything close to the best cartoon character ever, but it was mine. I had made it with my supposedly non-existent artistic ability. I had a StickerMule order for square stickers that was awaiting art. I knew exactly what I was going to use it for.

50 stickers of my weird, reptilian cartoon

I like stickers.

When the stickers arrived, I was excited. I posted on Instagram, which led to a few people saying that they definitely wanted one. A few went to my coworkers; one of them told me that his kids loved their stickers, both of them finding the design hilarious when lacking context. I gave ten to a friend to disperse to his coworkers because they all liked to joke about conspiracy theories such as the lizard Illuminati. (You don't need to click that link; it's exactly what it sounds like.)

Neither the design nor the execution are perfect, but I've made progress from that first day I sat down and decided to put David Neal's assertions to the test. I have a lot to improve on, but my inane, little lizard-man, even with his faults, brought at least a little bit of positivity into the world. If that's possible with the skill I have at this point, what will I be able to do as I continue to grow and improve as an artist? What might I have been capable of if I hadn't given up as a kid?

I'll never know the answer to that second question because I didn't go down that path, and I have no way to double back. The first though? I'm looking forward to seeing that answer develop over time. Because it will take time. And effort. And practice. No matter how much I wish or hope, I will never wake up one day magically able to draw.

No matter what it is—trying to draw, agreeing to teach for the first time, leading a small group just this once—sometimes the smallest steps are the beginning of our journey down a path we never knew was available, never knew we needed, never knew we longed for.