Growing Calm: drawing leaves in lockdown

The first leaf drawing.

If I don’t have any big ideas, at least I can make a big effort. This has been an important strategy under the colossal stupefaction of covid lockdown. My mind is livelier when my pen is already moving. Drawing leaf patterns causes me to move through space with plantlike intelligence. I do not know how the final work will look, or how I will solve the upcoming spatial problems, I just know that I’m growing in this direction, around these obstacles. And it scales up and down without incident:

It’s hard to express the guidelines in words, but basically there are a few fundamental units:

Building blocks

There is an underlying frame of lines, a series of curves or points, or a word or name. Then the leaves grow outward to cover the area. No matter how rigid the shapes or straight the lines, the leaves bring softness and a slightly chaotic unity.

I’m learning ways to negotiate all kinds of intersections, and the biggest guideline, or really the only RULE is that I can’t do it wrong. There are obviously more and less elegant solutions, but the leaves join how they join and I move on. There are no mistakes. And in this way the leaf drawings are the most direct protection I have against the critical, editorial function in my mind. The editorial bicep is overdeveloped and bulging: drawing leaves is like working my triceps.

Drawing with Grant Lee Phillips

Despite the automatic start, what emerges is clearly my own, the unique product of my own hand. Anyone could use the same process, but they’d be using their own hands, and get different results. If you try it, please show me how it comes out.

The line is mutating through recognizable natural forms, from leaf to petal to feather to scale, and while it often resembles a wall of ivy or a bed of creepers, it has also aspects of flowing water, the radiating center of a sunflower, wave topography and air currents.

It’s been a good quarantine habit because it quells anxiety and connects me to friends in the ongoing gift exchange. It respects boundaries and limited space but offers a window and connection to the natural world, to the ways nature thinks and behaves. The phrase walled garden feels relevant here.

This inch-along process has much in common with quilting, and other practices of imbuing love through effort, which is one reason it’s good for making gifts. The drawings feel mulled over, prayerful. As a yearlong house guest in my mom’s office, there is no room to cut and piece fabric these days. But as I draw I think about the person whose name is leafing out, just as I did when I pushed needle through cotton at home.

And I can draw while I listen to audiobooks. Leafing out prevents me from growing bored and distracted or falling asleep while I take in stories and ideas through my ears. Audiobooks are privacy tools in a small crowded home, a way to make myself scarce. And this combined activity pays a toll to the productivity agent that supervises all my time. At least I have this to show for today, I say quietly to myself.

The most concentric.

I like to use gold because it keeps sending motion through the pattern, which can both disrupt its flatness and emphasize its unity as a lattice, depending on the light. Also because it doesn’t reproduce perfectly, which keeps the drawing precious, an object, not an img.


  1. Love this, the images and the words. A rich practice indeed! I think immediately of Frank Wilson’s excellent book “The Hand,” have you read it?

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