Out of the mouths of sophomores.

Yesterday was a bittersweet day, driving up to Providence to help Jack move into his dorm and begin his sophomore year at RISD. Bitter because I am losing my boy again after we had a great summer together, spending a lot of time hanging out, making things, watching lousy movies, and drawing. Sweet because he was so excited about starting the new year, his first as a painting major, raring to get to work. He read several influential books this summer: the recent biography of David Hockney by Christopher Simon Sykes, Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins and Patrick O’Brian’s plump biography of Picasso. They combined to give him a sense that he better get on with it, that Picasso was already an acknowledged genius by nineteen.
One of the many nice things about having a kid who’s also an artist is the impromptu discussions we have about all sorts of art-nerd stuff — meaning in the arts, the roles of galleries, the pros and cons of acrylic over oil, the best way to crosshatch, whether or not Jeff Koons is an idiot, and so on. I feed off his enthusiasm and will sorely miss him, though he’s only a text message away.
On the drive up I-95, we were talking about line quality. I was pointing out to him that when I want to do a ‘good’ drawing, I slow down as much as possible, striving for accuracy in my line lengths and angles, but that when I step back from a drawing done super slowly like this, it can sometimes seem cramped and without expression. When I look at a master of the drawn line like Egon Schiele, there is so much confidence and sweep in his line and I know it was turn in a broad, swift stroke, not a cautious micromillimeter at a time. For me, the real essence of a great drawing is the quality of the line. An imprecise drawing that is full of life and personality is infinitely better than a stale xerox.
Jack’s response was that you need to put in the time making cramped and crabbed drawings in order to develop the confidence to draw like Schiele. That you shouldn’t sit down to make a ‘good drawing’ but just be in the moment. It may turn out well or not but it’s all about doing the ground work and then letting yourself go.
He’s right. If you want to play Bach, you need to do endless fingering exercises. You need to slow down your golf stroke and study each inch of it before you can connect with a masterful drive. You need to train your neurons and your muscle fibers and to train them to be accurate. Doing lots of hasty drawings will just frustrate you in the long run. It’s like driving, you have to start slowly in the supermarket parking lot, inching around orange cones, before you can take the curves at LeMans.
Unfortunately, this can be frustrating if you are counting on amazing results right away. It can take years to have a completely sweeping line. And even if you do get that confidence after loads of practice, a few weeks of not drawing can cause serious backslide. You have to come back, warm up, start again.
However, there is pleasure even in these slow, inch-worm drawings. They are precise, they are accurate depictions of what’s in front of you and there’s a certain satisfaction in that. Next, to raise it up to the level of high art, to draw it with feeling and a sense of abandon.
It takes years to raise a boy to be six foot three and so smart. It takes confidence to drive away and leave him in Providence, RI and know he’s going to do his best.


  1. artquiltgirl

    That was such a lovely article and you are so lucky to have such a great relationship with your son. Sharing a similar interest is wonderful and gives you such fun dialogue. Love hearing your interesting stories!

  2. The Art of Annika

    It is such a special connection between you and Jack. Thank you for sharing :)

  3. Kaisa Mäki-Petäjä

    Wow, we both have been thinking (and writing) about the same stuff though on different subjects (drawing/riding). :) It is true, you have to learn the ropes first and that means you have to keep at it, relentlessly. And it takes faith, doesn’t it, but it does pay off.

  4. excellentwriters

    This is great insight. I hear so often, “I can’t draw.” Of course it’s not true, but I think it’s that people get frustrated that they can’t draw the way they want right off the bat. How much better it would be to be able to appreciate what you can do and to recognize that you will get better with practice. I like the comparison to other high-skill activities – the more you work at improving your skills, the more control you will have over what you want to accomplish. Good luck to your son.

  5. Virginia Hanley

    Isn’t it grand when your child sees and expresses a truth so confidently? You are doing a good job, Danny, in child-rearing and in inspiring other artists. Thanks.

  6. Brenda Murray

    Great article, Danny! Moved my boy into his own place near campus (again) on the weekend. It was almost as hard as the first time! Wonderful that your son is also an artist and you have that in common. BTW, what IS the best way to cross hatch?

  7. Eileen Korponay

    Well said Danny!

  8. Christine

    What a great post. I agree entirely. My Dad always said to me.. “Learn to do something properly first and then you can express, improve or mess up however you like and no one can criticise”.

  9. Mary Ellen

    I like the comparison you’re making here–never really thought about the overlap between raising a child and developing an art practice. Both require tremendous commitment, no small amount of frustration at times, and, in the end (at least for me), an abiding sense that this is what life’s really all about.

  10. Elsie Hickey Wilson

    Hi, Danny, hope that both Jack and you have a great year! Growing up with an artist mother was a treasure for me! Long after her voice was stilled, she still is there in memories of those discussions…shop-talk that have still prompt me to think and feel about my art and my life. Your boy said such a marvelous thing when he mentioned being there in the moment, drawing. Great young man he is!

  11. Lynn Cohen

    You are a good teacher with years of experience teaching yourself and also teaching Jack. Just by writing about this you in turn are teaching us (readers)! Now can you see how all of this will be incorporated into your proposed classes?

  12. rakshnna

    Reblogged this on Roads to Nowhere and commented:
    beautiful! :)

  13. Ann

    Beautiful, thank you -

  14. Loretta

    Such a great connection between you both. My youngest is entering her senior year at MICA and I love that we share a love of art – and indie bands. You gotta give them a reason to keep calling and coming back!

  15. Joy Corcoran

    One of the great lessons you’ve taught us all is that drawing takes time. I pass on your philosophy of better living through bad drawing to everyone I can. Studying, making cramped drawings leads to a better way to see, and then, remarkably, better visions about life. Thanks for the post and the drawings are amazing.

  16. Don McNulty

    Oh, that bloody supermarket parking lot.

  17. Cheryl Bakke Martin

    Thank you Danny, for sharing your father-son journey with Jack here for all of us to enjoy. It is to me as if you are forging through unknown territory carving a path that I see myself and my son traveling one day a couple years in the future (he’s in grade 11 right now). I take comfort in hearing how you navigate the emotional challenges, and how Jack is eagerly and confidently figuring out how to make his way in the uncertain art world. With his growing confidence, skill and wisdom and your easing in to parenting from afar…the surrendering and letting go of a beloved growing son, I am seeing a glimpse of what is possible for me and my son. I wish you both peace on your journey and thank you for helping to replace my anxiousness and worry with a bit of peace, courage and hope for the future. Blessings, Cheryl.

  18. Lynn Cohen

    I forgot to comment on the terrific drawings both. Is this mench your son Jack? Handsome fellow he is.

  19. Laure

    Reminds me of the old say, an overnight success—20 years in the making. Adding to that—whether you’re making a boy into a great man or a line drawing into high art.

    • Laure

      Should have said saying…not say. (What I would not give for articulate fingers!)

  20. Hanna

    why have you added a german phrase? :)

    But I think you’re right, “jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler”, he just has to ignore his inner monkey.

    Thanks for inspiring me every time and a great year to your son!

  21. Sarah Ann Smith

    There is so much wisdom in what you said, AND what your son said!

    I teach free-motion machine quilting, which is sort of like drawing with an electric needle. In my classes, I ALWAYS stress: give yourself permission to be a beginner! None of us started out being brilliant at free-motion. There is only one way to get there: the dreaded “P” Word. Practice is twice as bad as a four letter word (it is eight letters LOL), but it is the only way to get from where you are to where you want to be (and only you can decide where that is).

    And our youngest is a sophomore also, but in high school. I am aching already at the thought of him heading off to college. Thank heavens we now have cell phones, texting, email with photos and Skype. Personally, I’d recommend consolation in the form of a drawing–accompanied by caffeine of preference and chocolate.

  22. Holly Kreag

    Beautiful entry, Danny. How lucky you are to have such a connection and common bond with your son. :) My dad and I had the same common artistic bond and I’m forever thankful for that.

  23. barbara Parker

    There’s no better feeling than a deep connecting conversation with someone you love with all your heart, and then being ok with letting them go because you know that distance could never seperate you. You just inspired me to make an entry in my own blog.

  24. Peggy

    Bittersweet…such a perfect word. You are so obviously an excellent father.

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