Command Z

Day before yesterday, I was working on a painting. A proper easel painting of a still life, as if I was Paul Cezanne or Wayne Thiebaud or someone. It was quite idyllic, a mild breeze coming in the studio door, hounds slumbering on the rug, Badly Drawn Boy playing on Spotify.

I had sort of blundered into the painting as if it was just another page in my sketchbook. I had a bunch of dirty breakfast dishes piled on the table and I plunked a sheet of cardboard on my easel and started making marks. The fact that I had just plowed into it kept haunting me, a little monkey voice in my head reminding me that I’m not Jan Davidszoon de Heem and I wasn’t even painting on a canvas, for crissakes. Before I had even put the second snausage of paint on the palette, a large percentage of me was convinced it was futile.

Nonetheless, soon the whole picture was covered with a first layer of paint. It all felt a little top heavy, the things in the foreground seemed distorted for no good reason, and my palette just seemed to contain shades of brown. I was tempted to stop thinking of it as a painting and get out a big Sharpie and start drawing on top of the paint with black lines that might somehow fix it.

But a little donkey in my head kept on painting. It refused to listen and just kept traveling back and forth to the dishes, then back at the palette, then up to the painting and back to the dishes, ‘round and ‘round.

Every so often I stepped back and walked out into the garden, listened to the doves that loiter on our neighbors’ phone lines, ate a tangerine off the tree, then came back and was pleasantly surprised.  It was starting to look more like, well, a pile of dirty dishes. Fair enough.

Mid-afternoon, Jack texted me, attaching the half-dozen brilliant paintings he’d just done. I fired back a snapshot of my easel and grumbled, ”I am wrestling with a shitty painting at the moment.” He texted back encouragement and support — but what does he know about painting, he’s a kid.

At one point, I got a bit highlight mad and started putting little flecks of white on everything that could be even vaguely reflective. Maybe years of watercoloring have starved me for the luxury of using white paint, but soon my painting was a snow storm and I had to rework it all back down.

The most notable moment, and the reason I even thought to write about it today, was a moment when I was painting the corner of the teapot and the paint I had managed to get on the sleeve of my hoodie sudden slalomed across the painting and left an ugly magenta streak across what was supposed to be white china.  And at that moment (and it was a moment, so fast, so subconscious), I felt my thumb and index finger and some glinting little part of my brain simultaneously type and say, “Command Z”.

Command Z.  That’s the keyboard shortcut for ‘undo’.

What a scary moment, on several levels.  The most obvious being that, despite my new creative odyssey into my garage/studio, I still find myself tapping away at the keys of this infernal machine too many hours a day as I have done since 1983, and I have clearly been reprogrammed like some bloody pigeon in a box in a Psych 101 lab.

But on another level, despite all of the conflict between my mental monkey and my mental donkey, I don’t like to fail. I don’t want to make mistakes. I just want to create effortlessly, perfect paintings with very little work or thought.

The painting I ended up with, for better or worse, was not what I set out to do.  In fact, I’m not sure what it was I had in mind when I set up my easel but I hadn’t imagined this. And again, for better or worse, this painting, like most art worth spending most of the day doing, is a constant negotiation between mistakes and rethinking. You draw something too big or too blue, or your line’s too fat or too straight or too just wrong, and you’ve gotta just keep going, donkey head down, until it gets better. You come up with  a solution and the work gets a bit better and richer and more interesting. You don’t just drive from A to B. You zig and zag deep into adventure and discovery.

But Command Z robs you of that possibility.

Bottom line, despite my weaknesses. I don’t want to undo my mistakes, I want to triumph over them. Because the keyboard of my life doesn’t have an escape key or a delete key or control or command or return.

I blunder on and eventually get to places I’d never planned. And that’s no mistake.

after breakfast painting

The way to work

My last office was about two miles from my home.  I could walk three blocks west, hop on the subway, get off at 23rd Street, then walk the three streets and three avenues to get to my desk in about 30 minutes. I became so used to this commute, that I could read a book the whole way. Not just while sitting in the train but while walking the streets, even when crossing them, eyes down, turning the pages.

Then I began to experiment. Some times I’d take a cab. That would save me five minutes and cost me ten bucks.  When I walked, I’d add five minutes but the trip was an adventure. I would pick a slightly different path each day, because it was grassy and wanted wear, trying to never take the exact same route. I would never read a book when I walked, never wanted to. I might listen to a podcast or some music but most of the times I left my ears as open as my eyes and I just strolled. I walked year round, no matter the temperature, taking mass transportation only when it was pouring with rain.

treeMy commute went from being a drudgery to something I genuinely looked forward to. I saw so many strange and beautiful things as I walked, I connected with the seasons, with the changes in my neighborhood, with the world around me. I would get to my office refreshed and charged up.

As drawing becomes a habit, the way I draw can become habitual too. I go through periods of being in love with the same brand of pen, using the same colors in my watercolor box, reaching for the same shades of colored pencil. In some ways that’s a good thing. Working with the same approach and the same media over a long time give me more and more proficiency. I become more efficient, more adept, and able to get my tools to work just as I want them to.

But that rarely lasts. I shake things up every few weeks. In part, it’s because I get bored with the same playmates. When I grab some new media, my drawings astonish me again. They looked like someone else, someone new drew them.  I’ll study a new illustrator, a new artist, and find their influence popping up in my own work. The journey continues over new terrain.

The deep reason for my promiscuity is that I don’t want to walk through life with my nose in a book. I want adventure and I want clarity.  It’s too easy to slide into a rut and grind out more of the same. But with novelty comes a renewed awareness, another bucket of ice water over the head, the shock of the new.

Drawing is seeing is living. Keep it real. Keep it fresh.

Drawing away the veil.

like drawing because it helps me to see. It shows me what is actually in front of me. That is important to me because I’ve tended to live in my head a lot. 

I think that started when I was very small, when a lot of time the world around me wasn’t very nice and the hard walls of my skull offered me protection. I disappeared into books. I constructed theories about the world that would explain a lot of things that even to this day are inexplicable. The seismic changes in my life that were beyond my control, peoples’ disappearances, the random and selfish behavior of grownups. In my head, things could become rational, orderly and manageable.

toaster reflection

But my constructions weren’t accurate. They couldn’t be. They were purposeful distortions that worked to protect me, at least for a while.  I didn’t really want to live in the real world, to face reality, because it wasn’t a good place for me. Reality didn’t use to be a friend of mine.

As an adult, when the world did mean things to me, it was very tempting to move deeper into my intellectualized view of the world.  By creating my own logic to explain the world, I could save myself from random acts.  But one pays a heavy price for disconnecting. It’s impossible to understand other people, to get a real bearing on one’s life, and ultimately to be happy. Because when you live in unreality, you can never trust your feelings.

And that’s where drawing has come in. When I hold a pen and look hard at something, I am piercing the veil and stepping out of the Matrix. It may not last for long, like diving deep to see a coral reef. But the bursting of the bubble, again and again, means breaking the temptation to disassociate from reality and run away. Instead of making habit out of fantasy, I force myself to see.

I’ve learned that being here now is not as scary as it might seem. I find now that it is easier to face even awful things things than to dwell in a fog of denial and fantasy. Some things in the world are harmful, most aren’t. Clarity makes it easier to distinguish them rather than establishing a blanket policy that keeps everyone and everything at arms’ length.  Anxiety comes from repeating old patterns when they are no longer appropriate. Treating every noise as the approach of a saber tooth tiger may have protected our ancestors but it can leave us as quivering messes. Better to face your fears, one a time, and vanquish them.

Drawing has made me look the world in the eye. That’s the only way to do it. That’s why I rarely draw from my head any more, rarely draw the cartoony faces and silly monsters that filled the margins of my high school notebooks. Now I look at a half-eaten piece of toast, a pile of bills, a broken tree branch and I boldly examine its every inch. And I do it with a pen, like an upright sword, compelling me to advance out of the shadows, to see and be seen, to take my punishment if I must, but to never again run away in fear.

On making shit.

turd

A recent turdlette.

It’s so easy to despair. You sit down, uncap your pen, start drawing and then realize you have drawn a large, stinking turd. It’s inescapable and it’s bad. So bad that the stench drives you from your sketchbook for days.

Congratulations, you are on your way. The fact is, crap is the inevitable byproduct of the creative process. It’s supposed to be. And it happens to us all.

(And now you know why the background of my blog is brown).

Let’s get some perspective. I recently took a huge book out of the library that contained all 2,137 known works by Vincent van Gogh. It almost broke the rear axle of my truck. Now, bear in mind that those are the 2,137 pieces that have actually survived for 125 years. You just know that there were several times as many that Vinnie or his brother or some skeptical landlord trashed, burnt or flushed long ago. So, maybe van Gogh made five or ten thousand drawings and paintings over his ten years of art making. Three a day. Sounds reasonable considering the tear he was on.

How many are great? Ten? Twenty? Let’s go crazy and say, a hundred — that still means his hit rate was, generously, 1%.

I love the movie Amadeus. But let’s face it, it’s fiction. The idea that Mozart just sharpened a fresh quill and wrote down the Requiem or the Jupiter or Don Giovanni or any of his other 623 works of varying quality as fast as he could take dictation from God is just nonsense. He  squeezed out turds every day, just like the rest of us.

Picasso left behind 50,000 works. On some days, he made five paintings. The Cahiers d’Art, the complete catalog of his works, takes up 33 volumes and costs $20,000! Did Pablo think all 50,00 were genius? Did his gallery owner? I doubt it. So, these are some of the greatest geniuses of all time and even they didn’t hit home runs every time at bat. That’s why they worked on paper — because it can be crumpled up and hurled against the wall in frustration.

We have good reason to be afraid of failure.  Even if we actually are great.

In our commercially rapacious world, we don’t allow for crap (although there’s certainly plenty of it). The minute we set someone up on a pedestal, we start working to pull them down. If you write a great book, have a great show, make a great record, expectations will be immediately ratcheted up. But your initial success will probably be followed by something that isn’t quite as good. Overnight, you’re the Knack or the Stone Roses or Terence Trent D’arby. Or Skeet Ulrich. Or Lindsay Lohan. And once you stumble, you’re dead Meatloaf. There is little tolerance for failure.

Better to just be Harper Lee and quit while you’re ahead.

You are different. Because you are learning (hopefully for the rest of your life).To succeed in the creative process, you need a long-term view. Thick hide. And you need to keep working. You can’t get hung up with self-doubt and give up at the gate. You can’t mistake a failed drawing for a failed you. You aren’t your turds. You just aren’t.

And stop insisting on perfection as the price of moving on. Even Tiger Woods isn’t Tiger Woods. You have to swing at lots of balls, before you slowly inch your way from van Gogh’s brown potato paintings to Sunflowers and Irises. It’s a battle of inches. Slowly but surely, your turds will smell sweeter.

Learn from your mistakes. Otherwise all the pain you endured from making that bad art was just a pricey ticket you never got punched.

Bottom line: If you’re going through a period of making bad art, you must go on. You can take a break, but eventually, soon, you must go on. Because otherwise what you’re running away from isn’t the way you put pen on paper. It’s fear of who you are. And you’ll never escape who you are. Instead learn to accept and to love it. Flaws and all. And then to go on. Trust me, you are more together and less smelly than Vincent van Gogh.

Don’t be tripped up by a few bad drawings.  Keep them and learn from them and let them improve your future art and your future self.

People who never produce turds die of constipation.

Dutch doors

car-and-bike

Since I first started drawing again, more than fifteen years ago, I’ve discovered that drawing in a book is a lot more than making nice pictures. 

Observing one’s life, recording one’s days, contemplating the details of the everyday, being more present, finding the beauty all around me, these are powerful experiences that have been transformative for me, particularly in difficult times — and I have always hoped that I could discover how to share this discovery to help others. I’ve long wanted to go beyond the world of Art and illustration and talk to people in schools, hospitals, and prisons about how drawing can help them discover the world as it truly is: beautiful and full of meaning.

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Since leaving my job in advertising, I have been thinking about and working on how to do this. I’m not there yet, but this week I took another step forward.

IMG_0798I’ve just come back from five days in Amsterdam, where I gave the keynote address at an educational conference, addressing 1800 teachers from 213 schools in 37 countries.

IMG_0767 After my presentation and workshops, I had loads of interesting conversations — about the true meaning of drawing, how to encourage teens to reignite their childhood creativity, how to get children to express their inner lives in their own journals, how drawing can go beyond the art classroom to be a part of all subjects, and much more.

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These conversations opened new doors. I got invitations to come  talk with students, teachers and parents in Germany, Czech Republic, England, Tanzania, Malaysia, Switzerland and the Netherlands. I don’t know what will come of all this but it’s very exciting.

Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.  — Aristotle 

Many of you were enormously helpful over the past few months as I prepared for the conference. Dozens of teachers generously shared their experiences with illustrated journaling in the classroom and sent me the wonderful work their students had created.
Their stories and images helped build a bridge between the work I have done and the needs of the teachers at the conference.  It was invaluable and I want to thank you again for collaborating with me. 

Teachers rock.