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.

Vinnie's balls

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.

A conversation with Richard Sheppard from “An Illustrated Journey”

Here’s the next interview with the contributors to my new book An Illustrated Journey: Inspiration From the Private Art Journals of Traveling Artists, Illustrators and Designers

Interview continues here….

Richard Sheppard is a longtime illustrator but only started drawing on location about three years ago. I love his work and his interesting color palette. aWWGKiUMpGaVC8H4lXCBgTWbbDbZn_E2GMKE8_hmaK8%2C_TX-HLe2l2fS1TCgRGhlz8EeP8fEFduLarOlaDwnsvY%2Cm6Gu5OJ4mAElWj1oItxPezmRQyd1VUmnvv29rD-MQuA%2CabP29pigHuo3YPZyiqG4X4yP1GS7MyhEQzOQJlqjeRo%2CUFkBTsPOiftIJ1RN8BBkIk9i3fV5cWPMgICp7Ko2aRQ%2CcA0Dp14dUuyQzxdSTnb Karyatids F_F_Coppola-Winery

_aSCuQZ_tuLZyJUnOT6uit-jL830VxYh8b_lD_Obnyw%2CoaeznTTmweh-ddS_HJo1s-BWATmn6EMz4IH9W8BHyTs%2CGCO8nwE4zddx_T1HBSsA_elkqV6lUDYZign7WZRZKFY%2CVLH4giQUTs43KchTz8DL0CfM_jmsjLPIf1yJPj2pifs%2CH2aZsxjnl9720LZqSbRTVYA5Nsp_a4B3FaMpBMih6MYRichard shares a lot more in my book. Here’s an excerpt:

“But upon arriving in Ireland, I found that sketching from photographs didn’t prepare me for anything other than sketching from photographs. I was too self-conscious to draw in public and ended up taking photographs the entire time. I kept telling myself that I could paint from the photographs when I returned home. It never happened. There is no substitute for learning to draw from life, out-of-doors. You can’t fake it.…” (continued)

Please don’t forget to check out Richard’s work.

Go, Trev!

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My pal Trevor Romain (you may remember him from An Illustrated Life) is a huge-hearted and talented artist in Austin, Texas and I was so excited to get the following email from him:

Hi brother Danny -

I hope this e-mail finds you well and happy.  My new book, ‘Random Kak‘, was just released in South Africa. I wanted to share this exciting news with you as one night in your flat in New York (many years ago), while pouring over your journals (and pouring vanilla vodka) you urged me to document growing up in South Africa as an illustrated memoir in my journal. Patti nagged me about it every time I spoke to her.  Some time later, I finally posted some of my journal entries on various Facebook and blog pages and it went viral.  Then I was approached by Penguin Books in South Africa to do a three-book series based on my little drawings and notes.

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Your last blog post with Cynthia Morris was a wonderful validation and reminded me once more of how much you have inspired  and supported me over the years.  I am now using this illustrated memoir technique to help children in refugee camps in Africa and children who are terminally ill, share and express their feelings, and their story, even if it’s just in stick figure style.  When I met Nelson Mandela a number of years ago he said, “When a person dies, their library of stories dies with them.  So they must share their story so that it is not forgotten.  Even the most simple story can teach and inspire other people.

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I can honestly say if it weren’t for you this book would still be an idea waiting to happen. Thank you again for unlocking the door and inspiring me to walk into my past where I gathered arm-fulls of great memories and turned them into my newest book.

Hope to see you soon,

Trev

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I believe

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Because he made making art a pleasure to watch, because he inspired zillions of people to just start making stuff, and most of all because he was infectious with his belief that making art was something anyone could do and that it would transform the way you see the world around you, let’s remember Bob Ross today.

I got a letter from somebody here a while back, and they said, ‘Bob, everything in your world seems to be happy.’ That’s for sure. That’s why I paint. It’s because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it. Shoot, if you want bad stuff, watch the news.”

Please watch and share the following loving tribute. And from all of us here, I’d like to wish you happy painting, and God bless, my friend.

Finding your groove

The need to make something can be a tenacious itch, clawing to be released into the world. You can try to forget it — like an early summer mosquito bite — refusing to scratch it, aiming your mind elsewhere, hoping it will just go away.
If you suppress it too often, maybe you’ll succeed in dulling your senses, in refusing to heed that inner call. You’ll have managed to wrap yourself in a cocoon, impervious, detached. Congratulations, you can focus on what’s “important,” undistracted  — for now.

Sometimes, the reason you ignore that call is because you haven’t yet found the right way to scratch it. Not every medium is right for every artist. For some reason, maybe it’s physical or aesthetic, we may need to keep shopping for a while ‘till we find the right instrument.  Bassoon players are somehow different from conga drummers, dancers are different from print makers.  (I think it’s sort of strange that in high school band, teachers will often assign instruments to kids, rather than letting them find their perfect musical partner). You need to find your perfect groove.

A few years ago, I visited Creative Growth in Oakland, CA. It’s an amazing hive of artistic activity, all coming from people with various disabilities. I will never forget the energy in that room, with dozens of artists working all day, every day, making paintings, subjects, ceramics, mosaics, prints… it was overwhelming and beautiful. Creatively, these people seemed to have no disabilities or challenges; they’d all found their groove.


When we visited the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore recently, I re-encountered an artist who I’d met at Creative Growth years before. Judith Scott was born deaf, mute and with an IQ of 30. She was also a twin. When she was seven, she was sent away to an institution. She was separated from her sister (who was not disabled), and because of her low IQ, she wasn’t given any training of any kind. So she just sat and festered, neglected, alone.
After thirty-five years in the institution, her sister Joyce managed to spring Judith from the institution and bring her home to live with her. Soon Judith started going to Creative Growth. But at the start, she could not connect. She had no apparent interest in drawing or painting, drawing aimless scribbles and little more. She didn’t speak so no one knew what she needed to take off.

Then, one day, Judith wandered into a class given by a textile artist named Sylvia Seventy. She saw the skeins of yarn and spools of thread and suddenly found her passion.  But, instead of following the projects that Sylvia was leading the rest of the class through, Judith began to make her own sort of art, something radical and new. She wrapped objects in yarns and cloth, binding them together into cocoons and nests and complex interconnecting forms.  Much of her art seems to be about connection and twins,  binding together networks and forms into a powerful and non-verbal  emotional message. I can look at her piece for ages, following the colors and lines, and somehow feeling something so sweet and strong and comforting.
I’m not the only person who responded to Judith’s art. Her work is in the permanent collections of several museums and has been the subject of books, films and gallery shows. She made hundreds of amazing pieces in the last two decades of her life.

Judith passed away in 2005. She had lived to be 61, which is extraordinary for a person with Down’s syndrome.  I like to believe that her art and her sister’s love kept her going.

I love Judith’s story because it feel so familiar to me. I can identify with what it must have felt like to go from being abandoned in an institution to suddenly seeing the light, to discovering one’s medium, one’s voice, and to see it grow richer and more complex and expressive. And how easily she might never have found her medium and remained mute and locked down. Judith didn’t have the ability to wander through an art supply store, a museum, to trawl the web, and to find her groove.

True love doesn’t just appear. You have to keep your eyes open and look for it.  Just because you don’t yet know how to scratch it, don’t ignore that itch.