Before I begin a new piece, I lay out an arsenal of tools to be kept within arm’s length. Front and center is the foundation- a sheet of expensive, magically bleed-proof mixed media paper where the completed work will live. To the left is a far less exquisite pad of drawing paper, probably acquired from a nearby discount store, which serves as a safe haven for testing lines and colors. A bit further from my reach are a few tubes of paint, a mixing palette, a couple of fine-tipped brushes, and a vaguely dirtied cup of water. Finally, my right hand men: a sketching pencil to lay the basework, an ink pen to set it in stone, and an eraser.
I have selected this particular set of tools through experience, largely trial-and-error. For the substances that will carry on to the finished piece, I have gone to great lengths to meticulously research and test various brands, carefully identifying in my subjective opinion which products produce the brightest, cleanest, or crispest results. I have tinkered with both the overpriced high-end varieties and the “value” versions, a study that often concludes with the genesis of a deep-seated brand loyalty to the overpriced (or perhaps rightly high-priced) model.
The “behind-the-scenes” tools- the pencil, testing pad, and eraser- are given much less fuss, existing as a matter of interim function rather than permanent frill. A classic wooden yellow pencil and pink rubber eraser, the elementary classroom staples, do just fine. After all, their work is only temporary.
To observe me in process might be maddening- the hasty graphite scrawls and dashes and even quicker removal consume me, only to redraw nearly identical forms in the same place seconds later. Over, and over, and over again. I abuse time with my pencil and eraser in hand, striving to greet the unicorn of “perfection.” It’s why, despite identifying as an artist, I will never win a game of Pictionary. And, this obsession with drawing, redrawing, and redrawing again, suggests that it’s not the designer ink pens or exorbitantly priced watercolors that are paramount in my toolbox- it’s the humble eraser.
The unsung hero of every piece, the eraser grants the ability to create without permanence. It has given me a certain inexplicable freedom in my craft, a sort of safety net as I shakily gain my footing with each and every new artistic challenge. And it has occurred to me that the humble eraser has defined my experience as an artist more than the smoothest, inkiest pen ever could.
This, because baked into an innately loose and subjective outlet, the eraser has given way to the formation of a particularly rigid structure and routine. It has bound me to a set of guidelines and expectations, ultimately barring both the deeply creative spontaneity and the learned mastery of a craft. By permitting numerous retries, it has both prevented the experience of managing irreversible mistakes (which, theoretically should not exist in art), and encouraged an unattainable notion of perfectionism.
I wondered upon this realization, what would happen if I were to discard my eraser? If I were to cut out the initial period of trial and error and began every piece in permanent ink, would there be a discernible difference in final product? Would my lines become looser and freer, dancing across the paper with whimsy? Would my forms become braver, less inhibited by the fear of flaws, less contrived? Or would my attentiveness then become heightened, making each mark with excruciating intention, acutely aware of the persistent threat of irreversible consequence?
Perhaps it would result a pretty swirl of both extremes, lending itself to a thoughtful spontaneity. And then, with time, maybe I’d find my skill level considerably improving, reaching a level I previously never dreamed possible. Could it be that my harmless habit actually has stifled my growth?
Safety nets are wonderful, life-protecting equipment when you are a novice. Training wheels are appropriate for the wobbly beginning rider and flotation devices are necessary for the aquatic newcomer. An eraser is immensely helpful for the fledgling artist who is developing fine motor skills, but only for a time. Just as the wee cyclist must shed his extra wheels and topple in order to master the bicycle, it is detrimental to our own growth and advancement to live with the falsity that we can cling onto our safety harnesses everlasting.
How would our lives look if we applied this principle universally and discarded every variation of our “erasers”? If we truly believed our choices and decisions could not be undone, would we become more aware of the lasting consequences of our actions? Would we then become kinder, more gracious, and more appreciative? Would errors and regrets come fewer and further between as we became wiser and more practiced? Would we feel lighter, a heavy burden lifted, because as we take greater accountability for our actions, we also must learn to rest in the peace that a life cannot be lived flawlessly?
I’m not certain I can live without an eraser, but I’m certain I want to try.