Pulling my head out of my head.

brown paper packages

Miles Davis’ quartet is working How Deep is the Ocean a few feet away. I have an almost drained but still frosty glass of pilsner next to me on the window sill. There’s a slight breeze coming through the open window, 76 degrees, just a hint of humidity. My neighbor is roasting a chicken, smells like some tasty ‘taters and broccoli too.A cab pulls up to the stoplight downstairs, and I can year the Yankee game on his radio, there’s a pitch, a swing, and then the light changes and the game pulls away.  I am just a teeny bit light-headed from the cold beer, the first I’ve had in days.

This is the sort of moment I dreamt of in January, or in a too-long meeting, or in a middle seat to Godknowswheristan, this exact sort of moment — living is easy, all’s right with the world, summertime, deep sigh.

But this moment is only here because I suddenly let it be, put down my book, closed my eyes, felt the breeze, smelled the chicken, heard the ball game. I hadn’t noticed ten breezes, ten chickens, ten cabs before this one, hadn’t heard Miles’ last ten tunes, hadn’t tasted the last ten sips of beer.

And that’s the danger of living in my head, of not being here and now, of wishing for summer when summer is here, of missing her when she is in my arms — the voracious tyranny of imagination and distraction, of the mental life, of modern life, of mature life, of the whole parade passing by as I am busy making plans.

Time to wake up and smell the chicken.

A major new interview

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 11.19.54 AMThere’s a major new two-part article/interview with me about SketchBook Skool.

(Click here to read it).

We really got into the ideas behind the Skool, what I think about art, why it matters — a lot of new stuff. It was an interesting process and I am really pleased with the piece.

How to fight a critic.

critic

It’s tempting to fight back against criticism. But where does it get you?

Take Manet, the father of Impressionism. Outraged by a critic’s attack, he challenged him to a duel. They met in a forest, hacked ineffectually at each other with swords until they bent them, shook hands, and limped away. Neither man was badly injured and they both went back to work.

Take Whistler, a bad-tempered and thin-skinned genius whose memoir is called “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.” When John Ruskin wrote an especially vicious review of one of his paintings, Whistler took him to court, strenuously defended his modernist aesthetic — and was awarded a farthing for his troubles.

In the long run, both men beat the critics with a different weapon — the brush.

Manet is known for launching impressionism, for making it acceptable to paint everyday life, for Olympia, Le Dejeuner, and the critic, well, his name was Edmond Duranty—ever heard of him? Whistler’s legacy is bit more ironic, due not to his critics but to fans of his most famous work, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1.”  After spending his life fighting against art based on moral lessons and maudlin emotion, he is known for a painting of his mommy. But it is a great painting and, even after the trial, he continued making many more.

Critics, internal and external, can raise any artist’s hackles. They can provoke you into violent defense of your work, into self-doubt, even into halting your creativity all together. One man’s opinion, published in a newspaper, or muttered in a gallery, or imagined in a moment of weakness, can suck up your energy and threaten your creative life.  Few critic’s opinions endure and that’s something to remind yourself of. Because opinions are products of the moment, influenced by current trends, by ignorance, by poor digestion. They are not eternal, objective, blanket truth.

Any condemnation of a work of art, whether it comes from a professional, from a neighbor, from a monkey’s voice in your head, should only be responded to with more work. Prove them wrong — if you have to acknowledge them at all — but never let them get you down.

Forget lawyers and swords. Make your case with a brush, a pen, a blog post.

Why do I like?

ghost-bikeTo me, the most interesting art isn’t necessarily well-rendered, accurate, realistic. Often, quite the contrary.

So, what does make it interesting? What are the qualities that make me like a work, my own or someone else’s?

This seems important, so let me think on it a bit.

First of all, specificity. A drawing that is of a very particular thing. Not just a car, but a specific car with all its dings and reflections.  A car that looks like it was really studied by the artist. It’s true in all art forms, in a documentary, a novel, a record. The little details that make me know more about the subject.

And it’s not just that the artist noticed and captured the specifics of the subject, it’s also the specifics of how he or she did it, the feel of the hand behind the pen, the little eccentricities that make it original, the catch of the pen on the paper, the oneness of the particular piece, the particularity of the personality and the vision behind the line.

That’s why I like a recording where you can hear Segovia’s fingers squeak over the metal strings of his guitar. Or the recognizable grit  of a specific New York street corner in 1970 in Panic in Needle Park when Al Pacino crosses Amsterdam and 86th early in the morning and you can just smell it, taste it. A Ronald Searle drawing that has splashes and blotches of ink and redrawn lines. Karl Ove Knausgard’s amazing novel, My Struggle, bringing to life the tiniest, most specific details of everyday memories to give the mundane deep meaning.

Art that is too perfect, Photoshopped, processed, loses this specificity. In fact, any reproduction lacks these little specifics. That’s why seeing an original is always a completely different experience, even if the image seems familiar.  When I looked at a pyramid of Cézanne’s oranges in a Google image search, I get the gist. But when I see them hanging on the wall of the Met, I get a feeling, a series of revelations as I see more and more through the varnish. I have the opportunity to explore deeper and deeper with my eyes, to see layers and brushstrokes that the “image” alone doesn’t convey, the way the paint that Cézanne chose and placed does when it’s sitting right in front of me. The specifics.

When I draw from a photograph, it’s often impossible to get that deep sense of seeing, to see the particulars on a deeper and deeper scale. All too soon, I hit grain, pixels.

For me, drawing is an opportunity  to avoid the clichés and the symbols and to focus on what is really there, warts and all.

Story is another aspect of specificity.

Not an illustration per se but a drawing that captures my imagination and starts a movie in my head. A captured moment that evokes a bigger context, like any painting by Hopper. Or shows the marks on a object that tells you where it’s been or what’s done. The lines and wrinkles on a face that are a roadmap, a drawing that become a biography.

Scale is another way to add interest.

To zoom in tight on something and see it afresh.  The details of a butterfly’s wings, a bagel’s crumbs, a bicycle’s greasy chain. Or to stand way back and see it in a different context. To look at the Empire State Building poking out on the horizon from behind a row of four-story brownstones. Giant blades of grass on a lawn and a tiny plane in the sky way above. A page crammed full of tiny drawings of giant trucks.

Interesting art also contains a surprise.

It could be in the lines themselves, lines with an unusual but true thickness or movement. A variety of sweeping brush strokes and then details in fine pen lines. Inconsistencies that draw my eye and, with a moment’s reflection, become a revelation.

In color: Complimentary colors, A wash of liquidy teal watercolor and a tiny, sharp spot of orange gouache.  Unexpected shades. Purple cheeks, orange eyes, a green sky.

A wall of perfectly drawn bricks and then a hastily drawn broken window. A third ear that lets me in on the artist’s process, a reconsideration, a redrawing.

Elements that make me pause, break my assumptions, jar me into reconsideration. The art in startle.

None of the above are rules, just springboards that can turn ho-bummery into something fresh and exciting. Or can help guide me in understanding why I like or don’t like the art in front of me.

Are there more? You tell me.