Too Often, We Confuse “Can’t” with “Don’t”

This Summer, my sixteen year old and I started taking a drawing course at the Evanston Art Center.  Zoe is a remarkable artist; she creates vivid and complex line drawings that vibrate with color, but she’s never had formal drawing instruction. Her high school art professor encouraged her to take a course over the Summer, so now every Wednesday night, the two of us spend three hours filling newsprint pads with charcoal and ink brush and pencil.  It’s my favorite night of the week.

Dennis Ryan, Element 79, Chicago AdvertisingI’ve always thought I could draw.  In the third grade, I sold awkward crayon renderings of Snoopy on pieces of construction paper for ten cents.  I won 4-H art awards, drew cartoons for the school paper and regularly gave my parents illustrations for Birthdays and Holidays.  It was just one of those things I could always do, unlike climbing a rope or bench pressing my bodyweight.

In the same way, many people think they can’t draw.  They can’t capture a likeness or control their line or create any sense of volume or proportion.  Perhaps this describes you…

And yet, going to this art class every week and pounding out sketch after sketch of fabric and boxes and artist’s stools made me realize something.  At any point in the evening, someone might capture the magic.  Someone you’d never expect to demonstrate artfulness might be the one who hits the long ball.  The least likely sketcher might limn that magical line with the one gesture that captures the essence, that seizes the soul of the subject.  And whether by accident or serendipity, the evidence of their halcyon moment shines from the newsprint–a flash of brilliance captured in their own deeply idiosyncratic visual idiom.

Not because they are long on talent.  Not because they have some Dürer-esque facility with the medium, but simply due to repetition and effort.  Through the sheer act of doing, any one of us might stumble upon the sublime, might wrestle genius to the mat and capture a moment we never imagined was in our grasp.

And so our failure doesn’t lie in we can’t.  It’s mostly because we don’t.

Which means the greatest lesson from this drawing class is to try.

Whether successful or not, we should always respect effort.  Effort is a brave and glorious act.  An act that is only available to those that try.  And dare.  And do.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


4 thoughts on “Too Often, We Confuse “Can’t” with “Don’t”

  1. Leah Barrett says:


    This is magical. I’m inspired. I like the kool-aid. Sign me up! Zoe will have this memory with you always. Very special.


  2. Joe says:

    Does this extend to the ability to write?

    By the way I remember you climbing a big vine and it wasn’t you that couldn’t make it happen, the vine let go from the tree.

Leave a Reply