Sarah Nisbett of Drawn: “This is going to be really hard”

If you decide to be an artist, you’ll discover your reasons why it’s this or nothing. And those reasons will help you stay on the path when you encounter the obstacles that will most definitely come your way. As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became […]

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If you decide to be an artist, you’ll discover your reasons why it’s this or nothing. And those reasons will help you stay on the path when you encounter the obstacles that will most definitely come your way.

As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Nisbett.

A former professional opera singer, Sarah learned how to draw by sketching strangers during her daily commute on the New York City subway. A totally self-taught artist, she has drawn over 5,000 strangers and turned her hobby of drawing “on the way” into a successful illustration career, Instagram account, blog and book. Her Drawn On The Way drawing project is dedicated to helping people find the extraordinary in the everyday and to see themselves and those around them as works of art.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan with my parents, my brother and our dog. I’ve always been a mixture of a really shy person and a total extrovert. Growing up, we would spend a lot of time in our family cabin in Northern Michigan. We didn’t have a TV and there were no kids to play with nearby — it was just books, art and nature to keep us entertained. I think that had a really big impact on what I do now: I’m interested in the power of quiet observation to bring interest to an otherwise “boring” day or place. My brother was an amazingly talented artist, and from a really young age he would draw these super detailed, realistic illustrations. I was always musical, I played piano, cello and sang. Since my brother was already the artist of the family, I think I decided that I would be the musician. The extroverted part of me loved being onstage, but I wouldn’t be brave enough to audition for musicals until college when I started singing and performing a lot. But once I got on stage, you really couldn’t drag me off of it and I pursued a career as a professional opera singer (that is what originally brought me to New York). I think my love of performing inspired my interest in a live illustration which, because it’s done on the spot, has a really performative nature to it. My mom was a journalist and my dad is a social psychologist, so having a strong interest and curiosity about the people and things around me is kind of in my blood.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I accidentally started Drawn On The Way while commuting on the F train one night in 2012. At the time, I was navigating the transition between being an opera singer and finding a more conventional office job. I had no idea that in the midst of my evening commute I was about to start a daily live-sketch project that would generate thousands of sketches and kick off a whole new career.

Riding home that night on the subway, I was feeling bored, uninspired, and desperate not to spend any more time staring at a screen. So, instead of pulling out my phone, I pulled out the blank notepad I’d stashed in my purse and a pen I’d stolen from the office supply closet. I thought I’d just doodle something, but nothing came to mind, so I looked up for inspiration — something I’d never really done before.

An older gentleman in a rumpled, brown three-piece suit and matching fedora caught my eye and I sketched him. When I was done, I realized two things: time had flown by and my drawing wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. So, the next day, I drew on my morning commute, and then again on the way home. And then the next day and the next, until I learned how to draw.

But more importantly, I learned how to see. To see the world with more empathy, and curiosity: to bring the background into the foreground, and see the world as a place filled with stories and works of art just waiting to be noticed.

I began sharing my daily drawings, first by giving them to the strangers who inspired them, then by letting fellow commuters watch over my shoulder, and finally by sharing them on social media. The way these sketches created community and connection, inspired me to keep drawing.

Although Drawn on the Way was born on the subway, I take this project with me wherever I go — whether that’s my kitchen table or another country.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In some ways, I think the most interesting story is the story of how I came to have this career.I am a totally self-taught artist who began drawing people as a secret hobby. I was an opera singer and then I found myself in an office working 80-hour-weeks in marketing. The only thing that was truly sustaining me were these small daily moments of drawing the world around me. When I decided to take the leap to see if I could make this my career, the only thing I knew was that I was totally burnt out, and I couldn’t keep going the way I had been.

Slowly, I started finding my own path. I got invited to draw at live events in NYC, I crashed fashion week, I drew at Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and found myself sitting in the press section on the floor of Madison Square Garden. Then someone invited me to draw their entire wedding because they were too camera shy to have a photographer, and that gig became the inspiration for my wedding live-illustration business, Drawn On Your Day.

Then one day I opened up my email from my now editor asking me if I’d be interested in writing a book. Even though writing a book has been my lifelong dream, I almost said no because I didn’t want to control anyone else’s creativity by telling them what to do. When I said yes, it was because I realized I had an opportunity to give this joy to other people simply by showing them they are capable of so much more than they think.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am so excited about my biggest project yet — my new book! “Drawn On The Way: A guide to capturing the moment through live sketching” is coming out in November 2021.

I can’t wait to share the joy of drawing “on the way.” I want to encourage people to trust their own creative instincts, get over their inner critic, and see the world differently — all without ever having to take time out of their day to make art.

We’re all so plugged in, anxious and overwhelmed — I know this book is an antidote to that kind of uniquely modern stress (combined with a pandemic…) that has so many of us feeling tired and disconnected.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Because I share my portraits with the strangers I draw, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to meet new people.

Some of my favorite encounters have happened by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. Like when I stumbled across a wedding in the middle of Central Park. It was during the pandemic and I was out for a walk when I stopped to draw the view from a bridge that leads into The Ramble. Suddenly, I realized that something way more interesting was happening in front of me. At first, I thought it was just a photoshoot, because it was just the bride and groom, and the photographer — and then I realized there was also an officiant with them and it was a wedding!

I was able to make a few quick sketches during the short ceremony which I surprised them with afterward. It was such an awesome moment. Though I don’t know much about who they are, I was so glad I was there for that huge moment in their story.

Oftentimes, the thing that inspires me to draw someone directly relates to what makes them unique. I drew someone wearing a fabulous hat, and discovered that they were an amateur milliner and they had made it themselves. I drew someone at a cafe writing a letter and learned that they were writing to a penpal in Ireland and their correspondence began as two strangers looking for a way to practice calligraphy. I recently went to a local Renaissance Festival, and I drew some of the jousting. When I gave a drawing to one of the knights, I learned that he grew up in a family of professional jousters! I have found that everyone has something interesting about them and it’s always nice to reflect that back to them.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

I love to imagine the stories of the people and things I see. So I find my greatest inspiration in the world around me. Not only does it inspire what I draw, it also inspires me to keep drawing.

Once, while riding the train on a rainy day, I sketched a lovely woman who seemed untouched by the soggy weather. I gave her my drawing and shared the title I gave it, “Weather the Storm.” I don’t often get to hear what happens to my portraits once I’ve given them away. But months later I heard from her. She wrote that she’d been having a terrible day, but when I gave her that sketch, the gesture restored her faith in herself. She may have been struggling that day, but the truth of who she really was — someone with resilience and grace — shone through anyway. Moments like that keep me coming back to the drawing board day after day.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Every time I give my drawings to the people that inspired them, I see how that small gesture — showing someone they are worthy of being seen and of being turned into art — makes a huge impact. I have had people write to me to say that my project has changed how they see themselves.

Out in the real world, I’ve seen so many examples of this happening in real-time.

A couple of years ago, I was at a farmer’s market in a really small town in Arizona. While waiting in line, I spotted an interesting man leaning against a truck, wearing a cowboy hat and a long ponytail running all the way down his back, bound with bands every few inches or so. I made a quick sketch and when I looked up he was gone. I never had a chance to give him the drawing. A couple of years later, I found myself back at that same farmer’s market. I looked around and saw that same man, standing next to a truck, wearing that same cowboy hat and long ponytail. I walked up to him and introduced myself and managed to find a photo of the drawing on my phone so I could share it with him. He was so moved by having been the subject of my drawing. He told me, “I was having a real upside-down day, and you just turned it right side up.”

That, to me, is why I do what I do. And it’s why I try to keep the way I create and share my work rooted in a personal connection. It’s not about virality or “content creation.” If I reach one person with this message, I’m happy.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1 — You do you. (Because you just might be the next Picasso)

When I first started drawing on the subway, I loved how I felt while I was drawing. But when I stopped to look at what I had drawn, I didn’t feel so great because I thought the only worthwhile way to recreate the world was to do it with perfect fidelity, which my wobbly lines and scratchy sketches didn’t seem to do. Then, one day, while staring frustratedly at yet another drawing, I had an epiphany which went something like this:

“Hey, you were an art history major, right? So you know art isn’t about perfectly recreating what you see. We celebrate Da Vinci, Picasso, and Van Gogh because they recreated the world as they saw it. If you do the same, aren’t you actually following in the footsteps of the greatest artists?”

And from that moment on, I decided that maybe I was the next Picasso. And I started focusing on expressing a view of the world as I saw it.

You might be the next Picasso, and you might not. But what’s the worst that could happen if you believe in yourself as if you are? Your creative instincts are there to guide you, so don’t discard them. My greatest and happiest moments as an artist have all stemmed from that initial instinct to create in my own way and trust myself.

2 — Evaluate everything you do by joy, not excellence

When I was a professional opera singer and people would ask me what my job was, the most common response was, “Oh, I can’t sing at all! I’m so bad at it” To which I would reply, “If you are physically capable of making sound, then you can sing. How good you are doesn’t matter, as long as you’re enjoying yourself.”

It always made me sad to think of a world full of artists who have been silenced by judgment — someone else’s or worse, their own. I think that silencing starts so early in life when we’re told, often by well-meaning people, that if we’re not immediately excellent at something we’re not allowed to do it. This means there are so many people out there who could be made happy by drawing, or dancing, or singing or any kind of pursuit but they’ve cut themselves off from it because they aren’t “the best.”

This is why I think it’s important to uncouple the product from the process and redefine what “good” art is. Does it make you happy? That’s the question you should ask yourself, not “Is it “good?” (What does that even mean, anyway?) Your creativity is a precious thing. Don’t let anyone — let alone yourself — contaminate the joy it can bring.

3 — Your mistakes are your best teachers

With all the bumping and jostling, the subway is a terrible place to draw. Which is why I’m so thankful I pulled that office pen out of my purse that first day. If I had found a pencil instead, I would have erased my greatest teachers: my mistakes.

The first lesson my mistakes taught me was to accept them and that loose, free and wild linework — originally co-piloted by the bumpy train ride — is now a part of my signature style no matter where I draw.

Drawing in pen is a good metaphor for the power of embracing your mistakes. So, whatever your eraser is, maybe it’s your inner critic, or your fear, or your self-doubt — imagine that you have chosen a pen to connect the dots of your journey as an artist.

4 — This is going to be really hard

When I was singing, I heard this advice over and over, “To have this career, you have to love singing more than anything else.” At first, I thought they meant that this was how you got good. Then, I realized they were actually saying that you have to love singing more than anything else because if you don’t, you will always feel that you are sacrificing something to have this career.

You don’t have to be a professional artist to call yourself an artist. I came up with my own saying, “If you can do the verb, you can claim the noun. If you can make art, you’re an artist.”

If you decide to be an artist, you’ll discover your reasons why it’s this or nothing. And those reasons will help you stay on the path when you encounter the obstacles that will most definitely come your way.

5 — Don’t try to be anyone other than yourself

One of my favorite quotes is this one credited to Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I would add to this saying, that comparison is also really confusing. When you compare yourself to others, you lose your internal compass and you can’t fully create what you are meant to.

It’s easy to feel disappointed in your own efforts if you’re always looking at what everyone else has. (At this point, I’d like to quote my mom who always used to tell me to, “keep my eyes on my own plate” when she caught me in a state of upset thanks to exactly this kind of petty, self-sabotaging comparison.) I remind myself of this every day, especially with social media which makes it so easy to compare yourself to others.

If I had given in to the pressure of comparison, I would have missed out on so much.

Whether it’s finding your style, or your reason for creating, or simply keeping your chin up when your favorite piece of art doesn’t sell or get a million likes. Don’t look to others to find reasons to judge yourself. Be yourself and you will always find your way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would love to start a movement of “on-the-way” artists, who use their creativity to create a kinder, more connected world.

Drawing from life is a great way to inspire curiosity, and I believe that curiosity creates empathy, and empathy creates love. By wondering about the people we share this world with, we imagine their lives and stories, and in doing so, we become connected to them.

This can happen not only with people but with anything we see in our world. The pile of shoes in the front hall stops looking like a mess and instead reveals the joyful chaos of family life. A minute spent drawing your favorite mug, remembering the story of how you got it, can bring an oasis of meaning and interest into an otherwise dreary day.

Perhaps, with enough people seeing the world in this more empathetic, kinder way, the world we draw will manifest in the world in which we live.

We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.

I would love to have lunch with Dolly Parton. I love that Dolly calls herself a “song teller” because she sees her songs as a kind of storytelling. I think the literacy program she has built with the Imagination Library is an extension of her desire to share the power of stories. I believe drawing from life can do the same thing, and I would ask her to help me get a sketchbook and pen into the hands of every American who wants one so they can tell stories about their world, too.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

You can find me on Instagram, Tik Tok, and Facebook as @drawnontheway.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

My pleasure! Thanks for letting me share my story!

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