The art of friendship

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My pal, Tommy Kane and his wife Yun just spent a few days with us in California. It was so good to have them with us and we spent a lot of time eating in good restaurants, wandering through Venice and, of course, drawing.
I have known Tom for thirty years and we have drawn together for the last ten. Despite how close we are, when it comes to drawing we are quite different. Tommy is an illustrator, an artist who works toward beautiful finished pages, every one suitable for framing. His journals are immaculate, and each page is perfect from corner to corner. He just put out a lovely book of his work and it is a treat to have all that perfection in one place. The experience of looking at his journals is like looking at a final, published book—so immaculate, so rich.
My style of drawing is far more hasty, slapdash and impatient. And that can be a problem when we draw together. Tom expects to spend hours and hours doing a single drawing. He has a very specific way of doing a page, starting with his uniball pen, putting in loads of careful hatching, then adding watercolors and finally a layer of bright pencil marks. He’d prefer to do the entire thing on location, perched on his little stool. He has a patient wife/traveling companion and has drawn this way all over the world.
When we sit down together, as we did on the Venice Boardwalk and on Lincoln Boulevard, I find myself adjusting to his pace and do horrible overdrawn pages that don’t look like my normal work. I find it impossible with the way I draw to spend hours on a single page, Tom also compromises when we’re together and usually only manages to finish his line drawing before I start squirming and pacing and has to color his picture later on, from a photo.
I don’t begrudge Tom his slow and careful pace. He manages to capture so much detail and observation and yet keep his work fresh and bright. I draw, like almost everything else, at a neurotic pace, and the luxury of time just stirs up the mud.
Everyone has their own speed. Our friend Butch draws at a glacial pace, thinking nothing of spending ten or twenty hours on a page, D.Price, on the other hand, can knock out a drawing in three minutes. We have all drawn together and it’s like a tap dancer, a heavy metal guitarist, a tuba player and a sitarist trying to jam.
Whenever I go on a sketchcrawl, I have to adjust to the group, moving toward the mean of all the people drawing together. And it’s good to challenge that someotimes, to go faster or slower to add variation and stretch. In the long run, though, the work I do with others is never my favorite. It’s more of a fun, communal, social experience than a satisfying artistic one.
I’m not antisocial and I love to hang out with my friends.
But I’d rather pee, nap and draw alone

PS if you’d like to draw with Tommy Kane, join his klass at sketchbook skool.

A Bigger Day

photo A couple of mornings ago I got up a bit early and took a plane, train and a bus to the de Young Museum in San Francisco. I had an early lunch in the cafe with my old pal Andrea Scher and then we began to tour A Bigger Exhibition, David Hockney’s retrospective of the past decade or so.

Color, color, color, color.

The work is traditional in a sense — all landscapes and portraits. But that’s where the familiar ends. Room after room is deluged in color, the colors that are Hockneys signature, salmon, teal, violet, burnt orange, sky blue, fuschia, and every imagine able shade of green. There are rooms full of Watercolors, watercolor that does things mine never do, bright, clean colors that vibrate off the paper, Watercolors that look like acrylics, acrylics that look like television screen, oils that fill the walls as he stacks two, then four, then twelve, then thirty (!) individual canvases to make landscapes that are as big as the landscapes themselves.

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Nine canvases. He painted this scene in every season.

Iphone painting blown up 15 feet tall.

Iphone painting blown up 15 feet tall.

There were several rooms of paintings he made on his iPhone and iPad then blew up into prints that are ten or more feet tall, prints that look like oils from across the room and look like electric squiggles close up.*   There’s a room filled with screens and on each one new iphone images appear. You can watch them unfolding as he layers lines and pure colors. And there are hundreds and hundreds of them, landscapes, portraits, still lifes, … blah!In other rooms, long processions of watercolor and oil portraits, people sitting in the same chair in the same room, all different, all alive.

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Thirty cavases, sandwiched together.

I kept getting waves of inspiration throughout the show, a fizzy feeling in my belly that I had to run away immediately and start to paint, draw, anything.  I love Hockney so much and I learn from everything he does. He’s always the smartest kid in the class, the one genius among we sheep.  His work is not heady and intellectual, it’s right there, familiar and yet, he makes it looks so easy. HOCKNEY-videoSixteenByNine1050 Watch him paint and you think, okay, okay, that’s doable. But he manages to knock out fields of spring flowers while I wade through the mud. He’s a seventy-five year old geezer but he’s working in ten media at once, filling a whole room of sketchbooks, and paintings and making these insane Cubist Videos by strapping twenty high-def cameras to his car and driving through the forest, season after season.

Drawn on a freakin' iPad!

Drawn on a freakin’ iPad!

The man jumps onto every new thing as soon as it half emerges.  He made fax drawings in the ’70s and Polaroid collages.  He drew on the computer before any one. I hope he keeps living and showing me what it can all be.

By Andrea Scher

By Andrea Scher

Then, on the way out, Andrea and I found a fairy door in a log in Golden Gate Park.

The perfect end to a magical day.

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* I looked at my own iPhone in disgust and showed it these works of genius. “All you seem to do is send texts and visit Facebook all day,” I sneered, “Why don’t you make some art?” Siri just said, “Okay” and showed me a website about making Valentine’s Day hearts. Why can’t you be more like Scarlett Johansson?

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P.S. I would urge you to go but the show closes this weekend. :(

Koosje!

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Vincent van Gogh was not the only Dutch artist I met in Amsterdam. I also had a lovely time with Koosje Koene, a wonderfully talented illustrator who has been my online pal.  Koosje draws amazingly well — I am especially amazed by her work with color pencil — but also has a lovely sense of wit and wisdom. She creates cartoon characters, illustrates food, tell visual stories, and has become the mentor for lots of people in the EDM community.

We met at a teahouse in the Vondelpark, shared stories, tea, and a stack of journals, then drew together.  Our styles are different but complementary, doncha think? Then we met up with Pascal, Koosje’s musician husband, and had a sumptuous Indonesian feast.IMG_0844Koosje is also one of the first people to offer really great online classes in drawing and she has been really helpful with advice on my budding efforts. I urge you to check out her work, watch her free weekly drawing tip videos,  and sign up for her next class. She’s awesome!

Vinnie’s balls.

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A mural in my ‘hood foreshadows my trip to Amsterdam.

The conference and Amsterdam’s cold, damp (I miss LA!) didn’t leave me a lot of opportunity to roam around the city but I did get to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

Vincent van Gogh has alway been a huge inspiration to me. I love his colors, his ferocity, but most of all, the whole journey of discovery he took trying to beat and bend himself into being an artist. In just ten years, he went from painting awful brown crap into changing art for all time. I’ve always even a kindred spirit because of the way he went about teaching himself, how he absorbed so many influences, how he went down one path after another to get clearer and more direct in his work.  He spent a few months in art school, studied under a couple of professionals, read loads of instructional books, but most of all he just painted and painted, often filling a canvas a day, day after day.

As you can imagine, I was really excited by the enormous show called “Van Gogh at Work”. It focusses entirely on this process, showing how Vincent learned and evolved through more than 200 drawings, paintings, and sketchbooks. There are exhibits of his easels, his paints, palettes, preparatory drawings, and loads of completed masterpieces, in a sweeping chronological exhibit covering four entire floors.

I learned a huge amount in the hours I spent there.

First, there was the shock of seeing all these amazing paintings as working examples, rather than “Priceless Masterpieces,” giving them an immediacy that made me understand how Van Gogh himself must have seen them.

Have you ever had the experience of seeing an artist with his own work, how he might rub the paint with his thumb, or want to repaint a corner, or throws them onto a stack in the corner?  Artists  have such a different relationship with their pieces than curators or gallerists who tiptoe around with white gloves and X-ray machines, because artists value the process of their art as much, if not more, than the actual products of that process. Van Gogh would paint on the back of old paintings, or just scrape them down so he could make something new. He would knock out stacks of paintings of the exact same subject, trying new and different things. When you see, for example, both paintings of his room at Arles, two version of an iconic image hanging next to each other, similar but different in a hundred ways, you feel the living artist behind them, how he thought and developed, what he was considering, where he saw mistakes that became lessons. How often he would make copies of his paintings so he could give them to other people or just to brighten up his room. All those priceless sunflowers — he made them just so Gauguin would be happy in a cheerfully decorated room when he came to Arles.

And he was such a thirsty sponge. He was always studying others, absorbing, mimicking, incorporating, and then surpassing a long list of painters who seem at first to be him betters but ultimately look regressive, formulaic, and only of their moment, now past.

You get the sense that people are always telling him, “No, this is how you must make Art,” from the one professional teacher in his hometown who briefly mentored him, to the teachers at the Académie who gave him the worst marks, to the Impressionists who opened his eyes in Paris to Gauguin and on and on. Everyone knows better and he seems to listen, guilelessly. But, unlike them, he is never satisfied, never thinks he has the final answer, and keep pushing on.

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You could sense how hard he was working and how he kept pushing himself onward. Even if he liked a painting he’d done, he would try something new. A new approach, a new subject, new materials, different canvas sizes… new, new, new. He never felt like the journey was over, that he had arrived; there was so much more to discover. I love that hunger and enthusiasm.

And, as the chronology of the show takes him (and you) from milestone to milestone, you can see his work progress and yet retain certain things that make them all Van Gogh. He copies and copies and copies — Impressionists, Dutch masters, Japanese Woodcuts, all of his friends from Lautrec to Seurat, absorbing each influence, going down by ways and dead ends, accumulating new ideas and ways of seeing, and yet each brush stroke can’t help but look like his. He couldn’t help being Van Gogh.

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. — Vinny vG.

His passion and his passion never abate and the miracle of what he is making himself into through sheer force of will is exciting and inspiring. No matter how familiar the images look, seeing them in the flesh makes them new and exciting.

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Oh, and he is always drawing. 

There are lines over and under the paint, that give everything definition and clarity.  That’s been my desire with my paintings too but it didn’t seem “painterly” and he shows how it can be.  His influences in this are those Japanese woodcuts, Lautrec, and Gauguin — lines that are sometimes black or in contrasting colors or just darker shades or hues of the blocked-in shapes. Or lines that graduate in color and tone along their length. Sometimes the lines are picture elements: a branch, a window frame, a doorway, the edge of a petal, but often they are just there to separate planes and outline color fields.

Also: I was surprised to learn that he used store-bought, pre-stretched canvases. And that for a long period, he relied on a wire perspective frame to help him draw more accurately. And that he would used lengths of colored wool to plan out the color compositions of his paintings. They displayed the actual box full of balls of yarn that corresponded to many of his most famous works.

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And finally, I saw that his work is a record of his life. He painted the people he knew: lovers, friends, neighbors, postmen, landlords. The places he lived. The cafés he ate in. The landscape all around him.  His subjects had meaning to him and it shows in his best work.

When he does academic work, painting from professional models or plaster casts, it feels dull and lifeless. But when he paints sunflowers he picked, irises he wants to decorate a room he will live in, the difference is palpable. I have always loved his painting of almond blossoms against a teal background, a background that he painted last, carefully outlining every branch. Now I know that he painted it so carefully for his newly born nephew, blossoms for a fresh life, and there is love and care in every stroke.

Great art isn’t scary and imposing and “Important”. It’s personal and full of feeling. At some point, van Gogh gave up making paintings to be sold — that seemed like it would never happen. Instead he made so many paintings because he had to, he wanted to, he had problems to unravel and the world around him was beautiful and cried out to him to be embraced.

The last two paintings in the show left me with a lump in my throat, like the ending of a great 1940s movie. The wheat field aswirl with crows, big wet-on-wet strokes that he slapped down in the baking sun, is well-known as a symbol of his tortured state. But the very last painting was one I had never seen before.  It’s of the roots of trees, tangled like snakes, and it’s unfinished. It was his last lesson and he never completed it.

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What must that last day have been like, him stopping in the middle of a painting and deciding that he’d had enough, that it was hopeless, and putting a revolver to his chest? One can never know. But as I walked down from the fourth floor of the museum, after seeing all of his hard work over the years, all of his experiments and discoveries, his catching up to and then surpassing so many other great artists, it was so sad to think that, in the end, van Gogh felt he had failed.

The monkey got him.

Skateboards and mousepads in the gift shop.

Skateboards and mousepads in the gift shop.

Imagine if Vincent had known how loved he would soon be. How we would all learn from his lessons and discoveries. How his works would become icons and decorate tea towels and boxershorts. And that the voice in his head was utterly wrong, despite how it seemed that one lousy day.

The monkey is almost always wrong. And the only answer is to keep trying and pushing and learning and discovering. The road has no end, just lots of twists and turns, and it keeps moving upwards even if we can’t feel it all the time.

Seeing the light.

lacmaOnce a week, usually on Friday, I check out one of LA’s museums.

Two weeks ago,  I went to the James Turrell at the LACMA which really dazzled me. I’ve seen his piece in Phoenix but missed the show at the Guggenheim. The Skyspace at ASU’s Tempe Campus is a rectangular room with an open donut ceiling. You sit on a bench against a wall and if you are patient, the relationship of that hole in the ceiling to the room you’re in changes. It soon starts to seem continuous with the walls and you begin to notice the shifting colors of the light. Soon the walls and the sky are on the same plane and it is startling and hallucinogenic when a cloud drifts by or a planes slices the sky.

As Hector, one of the museum guards said to me in LA, “His work rewards your patience.”.

Several of the piece in LA were really mind-altering, making me feel like Wile E. Coyote with spinning kaleidoscopes for eyeballs. You stand in a room like something out of Kubrick’s 2001 and gaze into pure color which slowly shifts; when you look away everything is now bathed in the complimentary color as your rods and cones go nuts.

If you have never heard of Turrell or seen his work, I urge you to soon. There have never been as many opportunities to experience his work as there are this year.