Drawing with numb fingers

Re-learning to draw

Losing feeling in my fingers put a damper on my recent decision to start drawing again. But that wasn’t the only obstacle.

I had already made up my mind not to draw cartoons, but to try something new: watercolor sketching and painting. This was already a huge challenge — I’d always used pens and ink; I never felt comfortable with a brush or paint.

Plus, I was terrible with color. My father owned 100 cameras and converted our basement into a darkroom where I grew up helping to develop pictures, always black and white (and of course film; digital was way in the future). He had a saying: “In photography, black and white is for art, color is for snapshots.” In hindsight, of course, I recognized this was nonsense. Nevertheless, perhaps this willful color blindness was hereditary. If I needed color, I had other people help me.

And now I faced the biggest stumbling block of all: I couldn’t feel a pencil, pen, or brush between my fingertips. How was I supposed to draw or paint?

I made up my mind that this would become an essential part of my therapy. As long as I had this new challenge of working around my handicap, why not make it three-in-one? Retrain my fingers, plus learn a new medium and new materials, all at the same time. If the results were awful, at least I had multiple excuses to fall back on.

My first terrifying, terrible drawing

Of course I procrastinated. I was extremely depressed about my condition, all the more discouraged by the doom-and-gloom conversations on Peripheral Neuropathy support forums. Every spare waking moment was spent researching supplements, neuropathy diets, and alternative therapies. Anyway, I was in no hurry to see how execrable my drawings would be.

I vowed that I would sketch during our forthcoming Thailand trip, maybe compose a full travel journal. A few days later Cathy and I were cycling 60 to 70 km (37 to 43 miles) daily through rough back roads in the Golden Triangle. Cycling all day was no problem, even with numb hands and feet. But by evening they felt as if they’d been dipped in cold fire. All I wanted was a drink, which my condition forbade me. My bag full of art supplies sat untouched.

Back in Chang Rai for a few days, I was unable to walk more than two minutes without tripping all over myself. So we spent hours sitting in food stalls and cafés. It was finally time to confront the promise I’d made to myself.

Tuk-tuk napperA tuk-tuk driver napping across the street from our café made a cute, easy subject. He would be my first attempt to draw with numb fingers.

Chiang Rai Tuk-tukThe plain awfulness of the resulting artwork defied description, and it took Cathy’s perceptive eye to come up with one: “You’re trying to draw a cartoon.”

She was right. I’d been aiming for my usual slick, immaculate inked line, but ended up with a flaccid pile of string. The color was hastily dabbed in. The driver, the vehicle — everything — lacks energy, personality, depth, and focus.

I couldn’t blame it on my fingers. I realized that in cartoons — my favorite cartoons, at least — it’s the line quality that gives a drawing vitality and style, while color is something filled in later.

The opposite is true with painting. If there’s an outline at all, it’s a guide that you hardly notice. It’s the application of color and the energy of the brushstrokes which give a painting life and interest. In this piece I’d accomplished neither.

It was me I had to blame for this failure, not the numbness, which was actually kind of reassuring. But man, I was having to relearn everything from the beginning!

Loosening up

Chiang Rai street
Chiang Rai people

The first task was to rid myself of all vestiges of cartooning. Like learning to walk before you can run, I had to loosen that pencil line before I dared try a brush. It was a struggle to control my drawing implements without being able to feel them respond to my fingers. Yet that was precisely the point! I had to stop trying so hard to command the pencil, and what better motivator than the fact that I was unable to?

Chiang Rai shops

Rainy day failure

Back home in Hong Kong, I parked myself in a Starbucks one stormy day and spread my art supplies across the table. Outside, people battled the weather while waiting for buses.

Rainy day in Central HK
Rainy day in Central HK

Well, this was interesting. Lots of great postures, the guy in the white shirt hunching against the driving rain, people struggling to balance umbrellas and armloads of shopping bags, cute kids, and big, bright primary colors in the backdrop. Back in my cartooning days, I’d have been laughing as I captured all these lively characters in this wholly relatable scene. But now? I can’t show you my first drawing attempt, because I tore it out of my sketchbook and ripped it to shreds. I attempted a second study, but hated it before I got too far.I pressed my face to the window, dabbed my eyes with a balled-up napkin, and pouted like a child. Who was this little old crybaby blubbering like an idiot just because he couldn’t immediately pick up where he’d left off nearly twenty years ago? Many people had overcome much greater handicaps than mine and gone on to become champion athletes, musicians, and world-renowned scientists. I had to rediscover my small strengths one baby step at a time before I could hope to reinvent myself. Which I immediately set out to do. A few quick people sketches in that Starbucks gave me a glimmer of hope. I will recover!

A slice of success on a plate

One Sunday at home, stuck inside during another downpour, my fingers were icing up, my feet felt like balloons. My neuropathy was getting worse, despite gorging on supplements, homeopathic tinctures and Chinese medicinal herbs, while denying myself the jewels of this earth: chocolate, bread, coffee, even honey from our garden beehives. I was angry at the world, furious at myself. Freelance work had tapered off, the book I was trying to write was going nowhere, and my new supposed pastime of making art still gave me more frustration than joy.

Craving sweets as a release, the closest thing I could find which my diet allowed were some fresh papayas. As I prepared one for my snack, I thought, How hard could this be to draw? Either I paint these papayas or I quit lying to myself that I want to be an artist again.

Garden papayas

The result will never earn a place in the Louvre. But I was able to let go of the line and let go of the brush, despite (or maybe helped by) my fingers feeling like frostbitten chunks of decayed wood. I could do this!

The papaya, by the way, was delicious. I think its enzymes reduced my inflammation just a little. This beautiful fruit soothed my fingers and my soul.


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