What happened to all the drawings I made on our cross-country drive — and other musings.
Playwrights say that if a gun appears on stage, somebody will use it before the curtain falls. Photographers say that the best camera is the one you have with you. The New York Lottery says “You gotta be in it to win it.”
I just spent ten days in a car with a journal on my lap. As result, I did a lot of drawing. Not that drawing in a car is ideal. I am prey to carsickness so jolting highways and juddering views are usually not the ideal environment for the delicate stomach of my muse. Nonetheless, as I looked out the windshield four thousand miles, I was constantly drawn to draw.
Aphorists say when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And as I spent my whole day with a pen lightly gripped in my hand, everything looked like a drawing. The only effort required to start a drawing was to shrug off the cap and, whenever I wasn’t at the helm, I seized every excuse to draw (thank you, Tommy Kane).
The unfolding miles inspired me to use the pen which in turn defined the journey we were on. I saw connections between things, I saw unusual shapes, I saw common things suddenly looking very uncommon. I was hyperaware of the light, of the weather, of the ravages of time. Holding a pen can be like donning polarizing sunglasses, sharpening everything in your field of vision.
Now I am back on terra firma, I want to hold on to that urge and habit. To keep recording all the days that pass under my feet, to keep seeing even the most familiar landscape with the fresh eyes and open mind of a traveler.
I can smell the toast so deeply I can taste it. Not like “I want that so badly, I can taste it” but literally, like the atoms of carbonated bread have drifted through the air, into my nostrils, and pachinkoed down to the floor of my tongue where my taste buds are “Holy cow”ing about the yeasty taste of freshly toasted Italian bread. I have not been eating bread for a while, because I am middle aged and paunchy and this seems likes a smallish sacrifice to make in order to hold on to my boyish charm. I’m not completely convinced this is working, and perhaps I need a chemical peel, some Spanx and a toupee to really push back the years where they belong. Perhaps, but for now, I am just skipping toast.
I didn’t make this toast to eat, but to draw. It’s cooling and hardening and I can quite effectively tell myself that it will taste like cardboard and I should put the smell out of my mind.
I uncap my rollerball, bend back the covers of my sketchbook, look at the toast hard for a minute and then pick a spot to start. It’s in the upper left, my usual point of embarkation. I pick a corresponding point on the page and make my first mark. I move slowly and confidently at first, my eyes mainly snapped to edge of the toast, like a zipper. I slide along, heading right, enjoying a ziggedy path full of toasty landmarks. This is the easy bit; there’re lots of anchor points to reassure me that my line is correct. Then I hit a smooth part, an unbroken stretch, and my confidence wavers. I can deal with this — I pause to measure the length of this flat bit, then backtrack, calibrating the distance traveled, and finding where that distance led me on the path so far. I locate a landmark on the edge of the toast, find its mirror on the drawing, then measure the corresponding distance. Now the flat path isn’t a mystery any more. I can say with certainty how long it is. I fire up my pen again and head down the road. Eventually I have circumnavigated the whole slice and am back in the upper left. On my page is a lopsided rectangle that seems to perfectly map the outer edge of the toast, all its harbors and lengths of coast navigated and known.
Now to bivouac then head inland. I look at the tiny holes that nestle against the crust. A freckle mass of pinholes where hot air escaped from the dough and pushed its way to the surface. I count six in a lopsided star configuration and copy them onto my page. Then I slide a wee bit to the left till I get to the next topographic event, a twig-shaped indentation, that goes down a fraction of the inch. I imagine myself roped up like a miniature spelunker and lowering down that crevasse. I note the footholes on the way down and copy them down in ink. I walk along the bottom of the cave, then spring back to the surface. I move on down to the next gathering of crumbs.
I continue across the toast like this for awhile, recording every indentation and protrusion, my drawing filling up with speckle and dashes.
Then I pause to survey the whole, rising up into the clouds above the island to see what I have wrought. I look around, take my bearings and suddenly feel queasy. The edge that I have been charting does not correspond with what’s on my page. I have been moving too quickly perhaps. Or maybe too slowly. I immediately feel regret, another drawing poorly observed, despite my pledge to be consistent and slow, to check every inch. The little horn that protrudes above the crescent cleft in my drawing is actually a half inch further along on the actual edge of the toast. I have jammed too much information and now my drawing is inaccurate. One mistake and everything that follows it dominoes further off the cliff. One slip-up and everything connected to it is off by more and more. Disgusted with myself, I hop across the toast and resolve to come at it from the opposite direction, hoping to deliberately distort the journey back in such a way that I will meet up in the right places, two wrongs making a right.
I head south and realize that the toast is far narrower than my drawing. My disgust deepens. Perhaps this is a lost cause. Perhaps it will work as an incomplete drawing and I should just quit now. Perhaps I should just eat the toast.
But then, the clouds break. I realize that I have forgotten how much room the thickness of the bread takes up. What I thought was the inner edge of the top was actually included the crust as well. I thought I was in South Texas but I am barely in Oklahoma. I am okay. I carry on.
I come across a large hole, the biggest one, a veritable dry lake that almost goes clear through to the other side. How do I deal with its shadows? I don’t want to cross hatch or simulate the lighting in any way. If I do, I will no longer be mapping and the tiny details will get lost in a wilderness of lines, lines that don’t describe actual observations but instead pretend to be light and dark. I only want to mark lines where there are lines. It’s a rule I set for myself early on in the trip.
So just look for more and more detail in the shadows. I indicate darkness not with the artificiality of hatching but by drawing more complex details in some areas and less where the light is stronger. Details create a sense of volume without pretending to be darkness.
I pull back up to a 50,000 foot view again. I see an area that looks more sparsely populated and head back down to see what I have missed. Another area also lie bald and patchy but i decide to leave it incomplete for the sake of contrast. If you add every detail, you end up with an undifferentiated mass. Pauses here and there to add the contrast that makes for drama and interest. The viewer’s brain fills in the missing details, staying engaged. Less work for me.
I darkening the lowest edge. It’s a conceit and rules violation because I vowed not to indicate shadows, but the drawing needs it, simulating a third dimension and lifting the toast off the page. Rules are meant to be broken, just so long as you acknowledge you know they are there.
The toast is utterly cold and dead now, the smell long dissipated. And so is my need to draw. I recap my pen, flip the book closed and wander back to the kitchen to see if there’s any celery in the fridge.
I’ve always talked to myself. When I was little, I would narrate my doings, describing the astonishing thing I was building with Lego, the culmination of a stellar building career, summarized in grandiose terms by a plummy narrator, like a BBC biographical documentary.
As big, batty person, I talk to myself in the shower a lot, singing, using accents, getting louder and louder, repeating phrases I like just to feel them roll off my tongue and into the tub. Usually someone else in the house knocks on the door and asks if I’m okay.
I talk to myself when I make dinner, pretending I am hosting a cooking show, explaining how to properly julienne.
I talk to myself, less loudly, when I walk, immediately clamming up if someone passes by. Or sometimes I’l wear headphones just so it seems I’m just on the phone.
I dunno, I like to hear my voice in my head, and I like the idea of saying silly nothings that could amuse only me. Those I live with sometimes get irritated by my chipperness. They aren’t morning people. Or morning dogs. No problem, I’ll talk to the sparrrows.
Sometimes drawing is like talking to myself, especially when I am drawing from my imagination. A couple of days ago, I listened to the radio and filled a page of typing paper with hippos, some buck toothed, some with trotters, a giraffe or two, a crocodile in ballet shoes. They spoke to me.
I like it, it passes the time, it is not for anyone but me. But I like to listen to whatever it is in me that wants to say hi.
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.
When I was nine in Pakistan, my grandfather’s chauffeur drove me to school every day. After a year, my grandfather told me that today he wanted me to tell the driver how to get to school. He instructed the driver to follow my directions to the letter and we would see where we ended up. Ninety minutes later, we ran into the Indian/Pakistan border. I had guided us out of the country. I shrugged and the driver turned around and took me to school.
Living in Los Angeles means spending a lot of time almost lost. I am forever heading toward destinations unknown, with no landmarks to aim at, no Empire State to reckon by, no buildings more than a story or two tall, the horizon shrouded in smog or the marine layer. And Los Angeles, even more than New York, has no time for the timid, does not allow you to hesitate and peer around in confusion or slow down to read road signs or fumble for the map. It’s a brutal town that way.
Thank God for Roger L. Easton, the inventor of GPS. For nearly six months, I have relied on that computer lady to tell me exactly where to go anyhow to get there. Actually I have three computer ladies, one of whom is an Australian man. They dispense wisdom from our two phones and our car’s built-in sat nav system. When I am feeling especially disoriented and insecure, I sometimes have them all on at the same time, barking out conflicting commands in various accents or recalculating in disgust at my inability to follow the most basic orders.
All these decades later, I am just as lost behind the wheel of my truck as I was in the backseat of Gran’s Mercedes. All this step-by-step guidance is now as useless as last summer’s directions for assembling my Ikea bookshelves, in one ear and out the window. I barely know my way around town, have only the vaguest sense of where Hollywood is relative to Downtown and that there are lots of town and cities and neighborhoods in between with names that are familiar from the movies but which I couldn’t begin to drive toward if my cel service went out.
Which brings me, inevitably of course, to drawing.
For the last few months, I have gotten more and more deeply into teaching people how to make art. I’m doing workshops, I’m writing a new book, and I’m pretending to be the co-headmaster of Sketchbook Skool. So I have to figure out how to tell other people, sometimes in just a couple of hours, how to do what I have taken a decade and a half to do.
I never learned much of anything from those step-by-step diagrams in art instruction books or in “watch me paint” demos on YouTube. Following someone’s suggestion to first draw a circle and then draw two more circles and then add a triangle and then erase this bit and that till it looks like an old sea captain just has nothing to do with why I draw. I love Bob Ross’ voice and his Afro but I never learned anything about picture making from watching him paint the reflections of pine trees in a tranquil lake.
I think the way you have to teach people is by releasing a catch hidden deep inside of them. That catch that’s locking them down with the fear of making a mistake. They are so concerned that their drawings won’t look exactly like what they are trying to draw that they can’t get off their duffs and start making some marks on paper. They so badly want to be able to pick up a pencil and draw like da Vinci that anything less unrealistic seems pointless and defeating. Instead, they waste a bunch of time saying they have no talent, can’t draw a straight line, are so stupid, and so on.
But if you can just reach that catch and unlatch it, the world of possibilities swings open. Suddenly you see that drawing isn’t a way of making wall decorations or proving you have some innate gift, it’s how you see the world. And the funny thing is, there are as many ways of seeing the world as there are see-ers of the world. All cameras make the same sorts of images but all artists make things differently. As Oscar Wilde put it, ”Be yourself. Every one else is taken.”
One man wrote to us at Sketchbook Skool and said, “Before I sign up, can you guarantee that you’ll teach me to draw?” I told him, um, absolutely not. Only he can guarantee to teach himself to draw. One less customer, I guess.
So how do you teach people to make art? Well, you start by turning off the GPS lady. You can’t draw if I’m holding your hand. Instead of turn-by-turns, you start by inspiring them with some postcards of wonderful places other people have sent back from their travels and then you let them start off in a random direction.
In the driveway, you might teach them a couple of simple principles like negative space and how to take measurements but you explain that these aren’t really rules, they’re just helpful suggestions to grasp at when you worry you’re going off the rails. You hang on in the back seat and encourage them to keep going, and make a few gentle suggestions, to maybe slow down on the curves a bit, and to stop pumping the gas and the brakes together. You tell them to loosen up and not clutch the pen so tight. You point out where they made an interesting turn and you console them when they think they are hopelessly off the road. You show them that if they just keep going, they will always end up somewhere new and interesting and probably not where they thought they were headed. And the driving metaphor finally runs out when you tell them that they can and should take risks and be brave, that no one ever died making a drawing, no matter how ‘bad’ it was.
The key is to build their confidence. To let them know that they can do it. If you have confidence, then you can start to let your self come out, the self that has been watching the world through your eyeholes all these years, that has noticed odd little things. that feels deeply about certain matters, that doesn’t necessarily speak in words, and that wants really badly to share its POV with the world, if only you will let it. You can’t force that voice and vision or even describe shortcuts to it. You just have to let it feel safe and have ample opportunity to stick is head out from that deep hole in your soul.
It’s up to you. Your mom taught you to walk. But you taught you to run. Your dad taught you to drive in a parking lot. But you taught you to drive down the 405 while checking your email, singing along with Pharrell, applying lip gloss, arguing with your husband, and remembering to buy milk.
There are no shortcuts or instruction books to being a human being or to being an artist. Every single day is a lesson and the skool year never ends.