Art by another name

Unafraid.

Unafraid.

One thing I keep encountering when I talk to people about starting to draw:  fear.  People are terrified of pens, paper, and brushes.  Art is scary.

So I propose we call it something else. Drawing or journaling or sketching or doodling or sketchbooking or testing your pen. I call it ‘art with a small a‘.

Here’s how I look at it.

There are so many things we are willing to do that we know other people do much better. There are all sorts of amazing chefs on TV doing incredible things with scallops and opening four-star restaurants, but we are all still willing to cook some burgers for dinner without being terrified. We don’t say, I just can’t use  a microwave, I didn’t go to cooking school.

We may not be ready for the NBA but we’ll toss a basketball around with some buddies.  We won’t be headlining at Madison Square Garden or winning any Grammys but we’re all still willing to sing in the shower or whistle while we work.  We may not be on the Pulitzer shortlist but we can still write an email or a birthday card.  We are just doing it to have fun. Or because it’s an essential part of life.  And I think art can be both.

We don’t need to label ourselves chefs, or basketball players, or musicians, or writers.  So why does art have to be so different?

If you want a painless, unscary way to start expressing your creativity, sign up for the best semester yet of Sketchbook Skool. Thousands of people who are rusty as barn door hinges are doing it.  Join us!

A hundred feet of eighth graders

(A somewhat funky video I made in my hotel room in China)

Learning to draw is not like learning to drive.  You don’t have to master the fundamentals, take courses, pass tests, put thousands of dollars of equipment at risk.  You just have to start.

Drawing isn’t a learned skill so much as it’s a process of discovery that starts with skills you have had since you were a toddler. And that process requires a willingness to stretch and practice, things that can be scary or boring if you approach them with the wrong set of expectations.

One thing that has been reinforced with me over the past few weeks that I have spent drawing with kids is that the most crucial thing is to have fun. If you are all enjoying yourself and slopping ink and paint around, well, you want to keep it doing it. As as you do it, you encounter new situations, you have questions, you want to stretch. And that’s where a decent teacher can step in and show you how to make progress. You also start to feel more comfortable with what you are doing so you are willing to make mistakes and take new risks, and that’s how your adventures to new places begin.

We all need to accept that creativity is not about immediately achieving some sort of awesome finished piece; it’s an exploration of discovery, not a straight-line commute to Perfection.

Of course, this insight isn’t just for junior high. It’s the core idea behind Sketchbook Skool: having new experiences, having fun, exploring with friends, and having opportunities to grow. Speaking of which, the new semester is about to begin. I assume you have already signed up, but if not, get over to our site and enroll.

Some stuff I learned in China that could help you too

dragon
  • 3-year-olds have a lot to teach me about drawing.
  • Chinese people rarely eat rice.  Or dog.
  • Digitizing your entire life is efficient and modern and smart. Until you can’t get online.
  • 10-year-olds can draw with a dip pen and a fountain pen.
  • Strangers are almost always helpful and friendly, especially if they have no idea what you are saying.
  • You can live happily without seat belts, helmets, or walk signs.
  • When you’re four, you’ll draw anything fearlessly. When you’re nine, you’d like to learn to draw real things but deep down would just as soon draw stick figure armies.  At thirteen, all that matters is what others think. At seventeen, you are obsessed with technique and your imagination is a liability.
  • Committing to eating new things doesn’t have to extend to donkey meat, bullfrog, or turtle.

If you’d like to learn even more stuff about all sorts of things, hurry and enroll for the best semester yet of Sketchbook Skool.  See you in klass!

Kitchen Confidential

Cafeteria artist

Remember the cafeteria ladies who worked in your high school? Their last serving of chipped beef may still be lurking in your colon but your probably never knew much about the ladies themselves, not even their names.

I decided to do portrait of some of these hard working people when I was in Beijing, to learn a bit about them and share it with the students who are coming by my studio. I’d been looking at a lot of posters of proud workers from the Cultural Revolution and this take on Soviet realism inspired me. I thought about drawing them on location but I would have just gotten in the way of the preparation of the dozens of dishes they make for thousands of hungry kids. The head of catering took me behind the scenes and we got three women to agree to pose for my camera. Those photos became the basis for a cardboard painting in shades of yellow, red and gold.

When I had completed my painting and had written down what I knew about them in English and Chinese, we invited the models to see what I’d made of them. They were flattered and pleased.

The next day, one of the cooks (the one behind the safety mask) returned — with an amazing drawing she had done of me. Our studio assistant explained that the cook had always wanted to be an artist, and when she was young she had applied to the main art school in Beijing. There was just one remaining place in the class and it was given to a man. So she gave up her dreams and went to work in the kitchen — but she still kept drawing. Now she’s a grandmother but her skills are still exceptional.

Over the next few days, we saw more and more of her art and the school began to celebrate her. Soon there will be articles and videos about her story and hopefully she will be able to live her dream and share her at with the world.

What a strange serendipity. And a wonderful one.

BTW, you’ll find lots of people who are looking to get their art making back on track at SketchBook Skool, those whose skills are rusty as an old barn hinge and those who have been let their love of drawing stay buried beneath a distant failure.
Ready to get out of the kitchen and join us? Come over and enroll.

All the t-squares in China

stuck-in-traffic

Some clichés are based in truth.  The one I encounter a lot in China is the Asian student who drives her/himself super hard and who is forced by expectant parents to be overachieving and highly pragmatic.

These kids have been coming to me, one by one, to ask for my advice on their future plans. A classic was the senior who said she was picking colleges to study art based on whether they also had a  great physics programs — in case she had to switch directions.

I understand their anxiety.  They live in a country that is going through a massive transformation and there’s a lot resting on the new generation.  They want to be as prepared as possible, to dot every ‘i’, take every course, ace every test…

Here’s my message to them and it might be useful to you too.

It’s good to be prepared, but what are you preparing for? I think the only thing you can intelligently anticipate is change. And no number of degrees or job offers at investment banks will prepare you for the unknowable. That takes creativity. An ability to adapt. A willingness to live with ambiguity. Resourcefulness. A knack for collaboration.

I encountered their core problem when they made art. They were so afraid of mistakes.  Kids would go to rip up their work if they encountered any sort of screwup, a bent line, wonkiness. And I would say to them, “Hold on! Try to turn that into something. Work with it. Solve the problem. It’s okay.”

mistake

I love this. It says it all.

When the teachers asked their students what they got out of my stay at their school, they say things like:” Danny taught me to make masterpieces our of mistakes” and “I tried making drawings unique instead of exact.”

Learning to live with (and embrace) our essential fallibility. It’s what I learned at Clown School earlier this year.  And I hope I managed to pass it on to all those kids who will be contributing to our imperfect future.

Speaking of mistakes, if you miss the greatest semester yet of Sketchbook Skool… well, we wouldn’t want that would we.  Enroll today!

Meanwhile…

I am enjoying my (hopefully) last day in Beijing.  I’ve been using the time to writing about the lessons I learned here and make a little film or two will be sharing them here over the next few days.

Meanwhile, here are two nice pieces on my visit to Beijing by Rena Tang, a lovely person who I met there:

 

My glass is half full. But can I drink the water?

In PEK

So much contemporary fiction these days, especially the stuff for kids and YAs, is dystopian — people trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world in which electricity and information technology have disappeared. I think that’s because we all know deep down that we are relying on this stuff too much.

That’s been brought home to me over the past couple of weeks here in China.  A hundred times  away I reach for my phone or pull up Google on my laptop … and am stymied in some way (FYI, Google, Facebook, YouTube, and lots of innocuous websites are all blocked here. You need a VPN to get access to them and that is far from reliable. And the powers-that-be are supposedly just randomly choking the life out of people’s bandwidth too).

Under certain circumstances that can be a relief, a way of getting off the maddening treadmill of emails and texts, and I am all for it — when it is self-imposed.  But it can be a real drag when you are lost in a hou-tong (a labyrinthine Beijing neighborhood of twisting lanes and dead ends), Google maps is blocked, and have no way to ask anyone for directions because you can barely say ‘hi’ in Chinese.

And it actually becomes a little scary when you spend two hours sitting on a United plane on a Beijing runway only to be told that your flight has been cancelled and you need to get off the plane, get your bags and find yourself a new flight. Which is what happened to me last night. The flight attendant muttered a phone number over the PA which I scrambled to write down — but my phone (not really working here to make calls, get texts or get data — thanks, Verizon) only reached some incomprehensible Chinese message. 

Eventually another passenger helped me connect but the only flight I could get on would be in forty eight hours, i.e. tomorrow. I made my way to a hotel, tried to make some calls to get an earlier flight, reached lots of dead ends and people who don’t speak any English, and then finally resolved to just chill out here, a dozen thousand miles from home and twenty miles from anything but the airport. 

I left my phone charger in my other hotel, the wifi is spotty (in fact, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to upload this post), a volcano blew up in Japan, there are demonstrations in Hong Kong, a madman apparently burnt down the control tower in Chicago, and my throat is raw from two weeks of Beijing smog.

However, I have a bagful of pens, ten blank pages left in my journal, a really good breakfast buffet, the Discovery Channel, a decent charge on this laptop and there are no zombies or vampires or nuclear plumes out my hotel window. 

It’s all good.

Oh, and I’ll also be polishing my best-ever klass for Sketchbook Skool. It’s all about how to make art when you travel, even just on a trip to the grocery store.  Join me and enroll at Sketchbook Skool.com