Getting back in shape

The last year has not been a great one for drawing. At least not for me. After being a dad and an employee and a housekeeper, the little spare time I have had left has been consumed with the two books I have been putting together. I’ve had to do a lot of drawing to get those books done, of course, but it’s certainly not been the sort of art that fills my dozens of old sketchbooks. It’s not really a record of my daily life.

A few weeks ago, once the last of my book files was picked up by the FedEx man,I had to admit that I had pretty much lost the habit of drawing and I’d better do something about it. I just kinda didn’t wanna.

Even though it’s been a mild winter, it’s not been conducive to drawing outside so I sat for in the kitchen for a while and looked at the odds and ends on the counter and tried to psych myself up. Instead, I sighed. I just can’t draw my pepper mill again, nor a box of raisins or my knife block. I have a new, great-sounding but boring-looking radio — its a black rectangle with a small monitor and two knobs. Most of the view out my window has been blocked by two newish NYU buildings. They are as dull looking as my new radio and, in any case I’ve drawn them over and again over the years. My mind whined: there’s nothing to draw. But really, beneath my feigned boredom, lurked fear. An anxiety that maybe I had lost my ability to draw. Look at Tiger Woods — even great talent can slip away in the night and leave you swatting the air.

I had to find a way to ease back into the water without scaring the muse away. I didn’t want the pressure of making great journal pages or writing witty marginalia. I just wanted the visceral pleasure of making lines and slowly and carefully studying something, anything. I unearthed an empty, spiral-bound journal with not terribly nice paper and filled my fountain pen. Then I picked up the dogeared copy of last week NY Times Magazine and let it fall open to a random photo. Then I began to copy the picture into the book, focussing on cross hatching, spiraling lines in neat rows, lining up a smooth gradation of micro dots, making ribbons of greys and undulations of silky blacks.

The old pen was a little rusty but not nearly as bad as I feared. And soon the sweet flood of neurotransmitters swept over me, like emptying a too full bladder, and I entered the zone.

So I made a small deal with me. Each morning after my breakfast was chewed and the French press was still half full, I would do one drawing from the morning paper on one page in the book. At least one. If the urge was there and the coffee held out, maybe I’d make a second.

Most mornings I fill a page (and I don’t beat myself up about it if I miss a day to give the dogs some extra time in the park or to make an early meeting). And the fun is back.

Granted, I’m making drawings of unknown faces from news photos, not the sort of things I want to fill books with, but I figure, what the hey, it’s spring training, and the season will eventually  start for real. Meanwhile, just keep loosening up the shoulders, stretching the hamstrings, and shagging those flies.


  1. Addy

    I really do feel you, though. So hard. Some days, I can’t sketch at all. I’ve found that when I hit a block with that, other things sorta work better-like I’ll switch to found poetry or heck, just throw random crap in there, or write to my muse.

    Busy as a fact of life is an understatement-I struggle between two jobs and a teething toddler to squeeze my art in there. Somehow I do, but depending on how frequently I’m called out, that makes getting ANYTHING done in my overly abused journal a real miracle!

  2. Rita Cleary

    This is a great idea… I will try it myself…

  3. Dee

    As a 79 year old widow, I find even with time on my hands I am often in that never never land that screams, ” you’ll never never get out of this boredom”. Fortunately I switch from sketching to photography or to digital painting and soon find some other avenue of expression which always seems to lead back to a better outlook. I am not proficient in any of my hobbies and its far too late in life to attain fame or fortune, but I enjoy them all and isn’t that what it’s all about?

  4. Jacob

    Ive also been looking for a non scary way to start my new journal. Perhaps I’ll follow suit.

    Thanks for being passionate.


  5. Shelly

    Thank you for this post, Danny! I too, know that vortex of boredom that sucks me in and I wonder how to stop from being seduced by it. I never thought fear was the underlying factor for this boredom, but now that you’ve mentioned it, a light bulb has gone off!!

    I will try your method to see if I can get out of my funk….thanks again for the inspiration! And I love these portraits!!

  6. Christine

    It’s sort of comforting to know that even you, who has been a role model to me ever since I picked up Every Day Matters, sometimes hits that no-man’s land. Thank you so much for picking up that pen and doing SOMETHING. I will think of this post whenever I’m flagging and know that the zone has not gone but merely waiting patiently for me to step back into it. My mantra these days has been JUST DO IT!! You have proved that this is so.

  7. sandra mac diarmid

    today is my birthday… age that really surprises me…read ‘wow, am I really THAT old?’..and your to me…was a perfect gift..we all struggle, and we are all in this together….my love to all of you out there who need the kick in the pants and ideas and shared muse….kisses and lets DO ART !!!!!!!..thanks so very much, sandra…

  8. Bryan Castleman

    I finally found a personal reason to draw. My interest in genealogy and seeing old photos my ancestors made, inspired me. I now want to leave a nice paper trail of my life behind. I feel like there’s some real validity in creating things. I haven’t drawn with enthusiasm for 15 years. It’s been mostly just an exercise. Sometimes it’s a puzzle to see if I can draw something well. Now, I want to draw well, so I can have a nice piece representing a moment in time. It’s been a breakthrough for me. I needed it. Inspiration came when I finally stopped looking. I’m so happy to have a reason that means something to me. That was so hard for me.

  9. Stella

    Thanks so much for your honesty about this, Danny. We all go through these doldrums for one reason or another and I, for one, always think i have lost the ability. But you are right – if we just take the baby steps again, it usually comes together. I give myself permission to do really bad art for a while and even run Bad Art Nights in my home town – it really works! You can see my latest blog on the subject at Love your work BTW and I have all your books – looking forward to the next one.

  10. joyce

    Well, it happens to us all I guess. From the looks of these portraits, you are climbing out of your rut quite nicely!

  11. Jill

    I’m so glad you also have these breaks from drawing. My last proper drawing was while I was sitting with my Mum who was passing over to to the other side. I did the sketchbook project to try and get me out of the funk but really didn’t enjoy doing it. I have been doing embroidery recently but can feel the stirrings of thinking about drawing again. It will be great to see your drawings again as it was you that inspired me in the beginning. I even raved to my Mum about you and she did a little drawing. I am going to get one of your books out now and be inspired again, Thankyou

  12. Tina

    Glad to read about your getting back in shape! Looks great. As always!

    I have had My own excuses, but tomorrow I’m travelling to India to celebrate turning 50. And in My handbag I’ m bringing 3 journals. And my fave pens. All thanks to you & all the inspiration you’ve given me this last year since I fell in love with your Great books!

  13. ejmordasky

    I love the fellow in the sketch looking to me (and I assume the pose, to get the feeling) that he is listening and wanting to hear more…I remember a wonderful artist telling us that these lean creative times have to be there… to do the things we hate to do when we are in a the whirl of doing—such as stretching canvas, sorting out God only knows how many things and so on…I just came upon a unique pitcher in a covered basket, weighted down with a couple books…and voila!—it clicked that THIS is what I should be drawing for
    as long as I get a page done featuring it from different angles….as when I spied it in an old antique shoppe it it cried out for me to buy it…now it is wailing again—made me feel like all’s well and so forth….new books from you will be much awaited by so many …

  14. Kathryn Dyche Dechairo

    Creating definitely has its ebbs and flows and there are times when it feels as those the muse has packed up its bags and taken a hike. I love that you found a way back . . . sometimes its just about creating something, anything, until that surge of inspiration takes hold.

  15. NIkira

    Wow, great solution! Happy inking. :-)

  16. Rosemary

    thanks for this post Danny. I also have been feeling a bit out of sorts. I started my “painting a day” after the new year and was happily humming along. Then BAM after about 25 paintings I feel empty too. Like I don’t know what to paint, what to sketch. But I’ve made this commitment to myself and my blog readers. I love that you found something that got your attention. I’m hoping mine will show up too.

  17. Jane LaFazio

    glad to see you getting back in the saddle! xoxo

  18. Irene Branch

    I love your honesty. I feel your ‘pain’ but your pain brings me comfort in knowing that even the pros and experienced artists can have bad times too. I’m still working at my art and at times, many times it seems, I question my talents and drive. But the trick is to keep doing it even when you’re not feeling it. Thank you.

  19. Richard Sheppard

    Great to hear you are back at it Danny! I know what it’s like when you’ve been away from sketching for a while, particularly in public places. It’s seems like it’s not even possible to do it again. But I’m sure once you get out sketching again, you’ll get the creative fire back in your veins and you won’t be able to stop! How about a new book published with only YOUR sketches and stories in it?!

  20. Debbie Holt

    Nice post Danny. Great little portraits too. When I had a similar problem I began drawing little portraits from friends profile pictures and other photos on their facebook pages. I finished up with 30 little portraits of friends and when each was completed I posted them on facebook for everyone to enjoy. I can always go back to this now if I feel stuck again.

  21. Victoria

    Great portraits Danny, thanks for sharing. You raise many valuable points and articulate particularly well the effects that lurking fear can have on inspiration.

    I spent a year copying pictures and illustrations that I liked to teach myself technique. I also found it a useful way to counter the anxiety that I often found myself bringing to drawing. I discovered the lovely calm space that comes from – as you say – ‘the visceral pleasure of making lines’. After a while something clicked and I started to branch out and create my own original pictures, finding that applying the same discipline of focussed scratching of pencil onto paper loosened up the stories I wanted to tell with my drawings. The first of these pictures is here:

    Thanks for everything you do to encourage!

  22. Sandra

    I am SURE that there must have been something going on with the moon on the 7th and 8th March! I also made the decision to start sketching again and I made the promise to my self to sketch at least one ordinary object, as quickly as possible, every single day!
    I’m a painter and so when working on finished pieces I can sometimes go weeks without holding a pencil. I also had the same feeling as you when I opened up my sketchbook and picked up the pen – as though it was completely alien to me! But, as I put down some lines, I realised how much I missed the freedom of the sketchbook! So, I posted about it too along with my own sketches. What’s so strange is that a lot of the blogs I follow seem to have also posted on the subject of ‘starting to sketch again’ too, and all posted around the same date!
    Hmm… Yep – Definitely the moon!
    Anyway – Clearly you hadn’t actually become rusty in the slightest! :0)

  23. Laura

    Hi Danny. Nice to see you drawing again. One question that has been occupying my mind the past few days, spurred by my own work. Do you worry about copyright issues when you draw from NYT photos? I don’t usually draw or paint from photos, unless they are my own, but recently I’ve started a painting series on a subject I, literally, can’t access on my own and have had to consult others’ photos for visual reference. I understand that there are pretty clear rules on ‘derivative art’ and as long as I keep those rules in the forefront of my mind as I plan and execute paintings, I should be okay. You may have addressed this issue in the past, so forgive me for the possible redundancy here. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this, if you have the time and inclination.

    • dannygregory

      I don’t think about it at all, Laura. If the NY Times wants to come and look through my sketchbooks and then launch a suit against me, well, I guess I’d think about it then. I have bigger problems to concern myself with, like how do you draw really good dog fur with a fountain pen.

  24. Liz Adams

    I appreciate very much your drawing chops! I teach art workshops to adults, often beginning artists, and I see here and there on your blog and website references to a drawing challenge. But I have not found the actual challenge. Can you please post a link to it? thanks so much.

  25. Rosie

    Thats funny, that last response.
    I reckon drawing is drawing, however you get to the page!
    Sometimes I go thru a kind of funk where – especially when Im making sense of intense/ challenging things, – and when I’m meditating perhaps, I seem to work thru things in my mind rather than express them on paper, for a while. Maybe some people have more access to that stuff and the pen, but I dont always…
    As though theyre unspeak/undraw -able, perhaps. Not every bit of us is to be harvested, as it were. Not such a bad thing really! the silence and the speaking, all of it precious.

  26. William Ternay

    Any excuse to put pen or pencil to the page is good enough for me. As usual, Danny, your interpretation of your reference (portraits) becomes something else completely, that is uniquely yours. A problem that occasionally haunts me is my suspicion of being too “facile”in my sketches. I know how that sounds, but as one who has done courtroom art for TV for over 45 years, I have no problem working in public, with people looking over my shoulder. Everyone seems to be dazzled by us “sketchers”. but there are moments when I fear my ego could be quite content to just sketch…and not put egual amounts of time and energy into what I consider to be my “Fine Art.” Kinda’ “schizophrenic,” for sure.

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