In New York, I had become quiet used to the Citibike program, to having a fresh bicycle waiting in a rack outside my front door to drive wherever I chose. I had always assumed that in LA I would be forced to drive every where — I remember from past visits that if you walk on foot down the sidewalk (where there is a sidewalk) , people look at you like you were covered with blood and dragging an axe. And the thought of toodling along on a bike where people are driving Ferraris at top speed while simultaneously talking to their agents on their blue tooth, sniffing cocaine off the dashboard and eating a double-double In’n’Out burger, well, that seemed pure fantasy.
As it turns out, Venice is something of a fantasy land. You see these bulbous beach cruiser bikes all over the place, and their riders are quite brazen. I’ve often had to yank my truck to the curb to avoid some blithe hipster, high on prescription marijuana, who its talking on his iphone while driving the wrong way up the middle of the road. People never wear helmets or pay attention to stop signs and generally make New Yorker cyclists look like uptight, law-abiding novices.
A friend lent us a cruiser of our own. So far, I have ridden it once and drawn it twice. It’s just not my thing. It would seem too ironic to get run over here in L.A. on a big girl’s bike. To hell with that, I’d much rather go out in a spectacular car crash like James Dean or Jackson Pollock.
A canary sits in its cage, gazing through the bars. Year after year, it watches the world beyond and dreams. One morning, it notices that the cage door is open. The canary catches its breath and waits to see when it will close.
Eventually, the canary hops onto the edge of the door and pops out of its cage. It flies around the room, sits on the back of the couch, perches on the bookshelf. An hour later, it returns to the cage and goes back to gazing through the bars, dreaming. The door is still open. So is the window beyond.
Freedom is not easy. Security, comfort and familiarity are.
Many birthdays ago, long before I had the habit of drawing, my mother and my sister chipped in and rent me a studio for a month. It was the most terrifying gift I had ever received. I went down to Desbrosses Street in Tribeca, and walked into the studio. “Mine, all mine,” I muttered under my breath. The room was about fifteen feet square and empty. I took out a pad and a piece of charcoal and wrote about how I felt having studio all of my own. I filled several pages with writing in charcoal, taped them to the wall, and left.
I came back a week later and made a small collage from cut-up pieces of magazine. I taped that to the wall and left. A week after that, I drew colored lines on the collages with a highlighter marker. The final week in the studio, I brought in a photo of my grandfather and a large canvas. I painted a very bad copy of the portrait onto the canvas. At the end of the day, I left the canvas, the collage, and the charcoal writing on the studio, locked the door, and never went back.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had planned to work in the second bedroom of our house, to sit at a small desk in the corner and write my new book. Then I saw our two-car garage, 300 or so feet of emptiness. Like the garage, I stood with my mouth wide open. I spent the first week, filling it with tables and shelves and cubbyholes. I spent the second week sitting at my desk, writing my new book and rearranging bottles of ink. Occasionally I would draw in my journal, using a fountain pen and a white pencil.
I spent the third week thinking. I realized had managed to reproduce my office in New York. I had a lamp, a rug, a laptop, a phone, a box of thumbtacks. I ate lunch at my desk and surfed the web. I was even filling my calendar with a record of my daily doings in case I had to fill in timesheets at the end of the month. All that was missing was a couple of account executives and a client.
So I went to the art supply store and bought whatever I wanted (if you remember my old essay, “Art Supply Porn“, you’ll know my fantasies are legion). At first, however, that just amounted to a few tiny palettes for gouache and a bottle of ink. Oh, and a block of 14 x 17″ mixed media paper.
Back in my empty garage, I opened the block and did a tentative self-portrait in ink. This simple act I was breaking one of my cardinal agreements with myself. I was making drawing, with no writing , that was not in a book. No wonder the self-portrait looked like I had just eaten something bad. Then I did a gouache painting on the block and pinned it up next to the self-portrait. Then in a fit of pique, I got a house paint brush, dipped it in inks and drew a huge painting of Tim on the back of an empty Ikea box.
I felt slightly winded and rather nauseated. I took out my journal and told it what I had done, revealing my betrayal and the dim feelings I had about it.
The next day, I bought a 64-box of Crayolas and some tempera and did a wax resist portrait. Then I did some more gouache paintings, then a painting of the back of the house in poster paints on cardboard. Soon the garage wall was full.
The following week, I sat on the corner of my street holding the fattest Sharpie I could find. On a big sheet of cardboard, I drew the house across the intersection. When I had filled the whole board, I went back to the garage and got another piece of cardboard and continued the drawing, a big, grubby, dog-eared diptych.
The next day, I continued the drawing, working my way down the street. When I was done, it was eleven and a half feet wide. Then I added gouache, creating a cheerful portrait of another glorious day in my new neighborhood. Just as my hero David Hockney was transformed by the California sunshine, I felt a call to use candy colors and bold lines and to work as big as all outdoors.
Now I am working on a drawing that is as big as my garage wall, fourteen feet in all, a broad panorama of all the crazy houses arrayed along the Venice canal. I even added a gondolier.
My sketchbook now looks a bit small and grey but, despite my sudden expansiveness, I love it still.
If you are getting little set in your ways, check out the door of your cage. The world is wide and a little terrifying, but it’s wonderful out here. You don’t need to chuck your job, your home and all the rest, but try flying around the living room a bit and enjoy the view. There may be a cat out there, but if you fly high and far, you’ll be safer than you are trapped in a cage with an open door.
I am journaling these days in a way I haven’t been able to in years, just recording the day as it flows past, honoring the moments I am living and trying to be as present as possible. In doing so, I realize how far I have drifted from my original intentions with my journals, and how sporadic my practice has become,. Now I can easily fill up several spreads a day and it is a rich and fun experience.
I am also experimenting with my line quality, going for a bolder, more immediate feel. i am using Sharpies, my wider Lamy Safari, bamboo pens, and a juicy “Big Brush” PITT artist pen from Faber- Castell.
And finally, thanks to my new garage/studio, I have the luxury of just reaching down into a handy drawer and grabbing a palette loaded with gouache and painting myself a fresh glass of lemonade.
I repaired to the gym every single day at 7 a.m., rain or shine, Sunday to Sunday, and after a year, I became a muscular beast. I didn’t have a trainer, I didn’t take steroids or HGH, I didn’t wear a little posing pouch or wax my chest. Key to my success was my ironclad will, my insistence on never, ever missing a day, or being even five minutes late to the gym. I utterly refused to give myself an excuse to break routine. I was a brutal and inflexible taskmaster. And, like it or not, it worked.
My sister, impressed by my progress, joined me at the gym. She would be there every morning at 7 too, ready to get to work. Then, one rainy February morning, she called me and said, “it’s a lousy day, let’s skip it for once.” I did, and the next day, came up with another excuse not to go. The habit was broken and I never went to the gym again.
Soon, I was back to being a 190 lb. weakling.
Obviously, I can have a tendency to black and whiteness (not just in my journals), but, as I grow older, I am working to be more nuanced in my decisions and commitments. I have joined a gym out here in LA and I am resolved to be less crazy this time, trying to stay committed without needing to be committed. I have a trainer who I see a couple of times a week and then I try to go most days and work out on my own. At first, pushing myself was hard, and I felt nauseated and weak. But one day, my body seemed to remember our bygone 7 a.m. routine and perked up. I felt the old surge of adrenaline through my muscles and it went from being a chore to being fun again. Now I look forward to exercise. However, I’m not a slave driver anymore and if I skip a day here and there, I don’t let it break my commitment to myself and my health. I just go the following day instead and keep going.
Journaling is another one of my healthy habits. At times over the years, I have insisted on a strict regime, like a drawing every morning before breakfast, or filling a whole book in a month or on a week’s vacation. Pushing myself to draw whether I want to or not eventually makes me want to. It also means I make a lot of lackluster pages on the way to falling back in love with my book and my pen. There have been times when, overtaken by the stress of work and other commitments, I have fallen completely out of the practice and eventually forgotten how much fun drawing can be, and how important it in helping me stay relatively sane.
But I can recommit. (Like the old joke says, “It’s easy to quit smoking — I’ve done it a hundred times”). Still, I don’t have a drawing trainer and there are no steroids I can take to make me get instant results. Drawing just takes practice and patience and commitment and the more I do, the better I get, and the more I want to draw. Drawing depends on muscles too and if I don’t use them they atrophy quickly. WIthin a couple of weeks of breaking my habit, my ability to draw well suffers enormously. Fortunately, picking up the pen brings those muscles back pretty quickly and they don’t forget all the have learned over the years.
There are incentives I can give myself to keep going eve if the monkey in my head urges me to just sleep in or watch TV. This blog is one of them and my desire to keep it a regular thing can push me to do a drawing when I feel lazy. But, no offense to you, my readers, that’s not really enough. Writing books is another one; if I have a deadline I have no choice but to fill the pages. The same goes for presentations and speeches.
But the best incentive is art. Going to a museum. Rereading a great book on illustrated journaling or watercoloring. Spending some time with the work of artists I love. Talking to an inspiring friend. Going back through a journal I filled years ago.
Another carrot is to give myself an assignment. Like drawing every tree on my block, drawing the cars I’d like to drive, drawing from my collection of of mug shots, drawing what I am doing every hour for an entire day.The EDM list is another favorite, challenging prompts that get my gear rolling and make me want to start again.
My journal is a forgiving companion. It doesn’t wonder where I’ve been or chastise me for the gaps in its pages. It always welcomes me back with open pages and I am grateful for its friendship. Just as exercise keeps me healthy and energized, so does keeping up my art.
Soon I’ll be thin and wiry and rippling with new muscles. And the most developed ones of all will be in my right wrist and fingers, bulging as they choke the life out of my pen and squeeze every drop of its ink onto the page. Grrr! Aaargh! Grunt!
There was a book I was just obsessed with when I was eight. It was called Hans and Peter by Heidrun Petrides (originally Swiss, “Der Xaver un Der Wastl“)and it told the story of two boys who find an abandoned workman’s shed and convert it into a playhouse.
They cover the walls with newspaper and then whitewash it, they install an old wood stove, they plant geraniums in a windowbox, and make gaily colored curtains. The book was Swiss and had bright pastel paintings on every page (they were done by a 15-year-old girl!).
There was just something about this idea, of these boys making their own house, that was incredibly appealing to me.
I guess it’s the same instinct that had us building forts out of sofa cushions and making a pirate ship out of the linen closet. I yearned for a treehouse or a tent or an empty refrigerator box — something domestic I could call my own.
When I was nine, I was sent to live with my grandparents in Pakistan for a couple of years. I had gotten a small tool kit for my birthday and when my grandmother promised me my own small patch of land in her garden, I had intense fantasies about using the tools to build a shed with a padlock at one end of my acreage. I was enormously disappointed when I arrived in Lahore and my grandmother pointed to a bed of snapdragons and said, “That can be your garden, Danny. You can water it whenever you want.”
The only apartment I ever had entirely to myself was my first one on Clinton Street in the Lower East SIde. It was the most dangerous neighborhood in the blighted New York of the early eighties but I was incredibly proud to have my own minihouse. I built a loft bed, a couch and cupboards, then upholstered them and sewed pillows in fabrics straight out of Hans and Peter. A year later I was gone from the ‘Hood and living with roommates, then Patti and I moved in together, and now I live with Jenny in this microhouse in Los Angeles.
However after all these years, I have finally achieved my Hans and Peter fantasy.
Our house has an old two-car garage, built in the 1940s and made of wood with a big swing-up metal door. Since the day we arrived in LA, I have been busily turning it into a studio of my own, a cubby house, a man-cave.
I spent a day on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor, half chipped lino, half cracked cement. Then I built myself shelves, tables, and drawers to hold all my paints, pens, inks, and journals. I installed lighting, a sound system, and a grass green shag rug for the dogs to lie on while I work.
It’s wonderful. I can work any size I want, a true luxury for someone used to painting in the space between my laptop and the edge of the dining table. I can work on a project, then at the end of the day leave it out, and resume work the next day. I can shoot videos in here and completely control the lighting and the sound.
I am realizing that my whole approach to art — small books, tiny watercolor sets, etc. — is probably a function of having had so little space and time. Who knows where this newfound freedom may lead?
Yesterday was a bittersweet day, driving up to Providence to help Jack move into his dorm and begin his sophomore year at RISD. Bitter because I am losing my boy again after we had a great summer together, spending a lot of time hanging out, making things, watching lousy movies, and drawing. Sweet because he was so excited about starting the new year, his first as a painting major, raring to get to work. He read several influential books this summer: the recent biography of David Hockney by Christopher Simon Sykes, Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins and Patrick O’Brian’s plump biography of Picasso. They combined to give him a sense that he better get on with it, that Picasso was already an acknowledged genius by nineteen.
One of the many nice things about having a kid who’s also an artist is the impromptu discussions we have about all sorts of art-nerd stuff — meaning in the arts, the roles of galleries, the pros and cons of acrylic over oil, the best way to crosshatch, whether or not Jeff Koons is an idiot, and so on. I feed off his enthusiasm and will sorely miss him, though he’s only a text message away.
On the drive up I-95, we were talking about line quality. I was pointing out to him that when I want to do a ‘good’ drawing, I slow down as much as possible, striving for accuracy in my line lengths and angles, but that when I step back from a drawing done super slowly like this, it can sometimes seem cramped and without expression. When I look at a master of the drawn line like Egon Schiele, there is so much confidence and sweep in his line and I know it was turn in a broad, swift stroke, not a cautious micromillimeter at a time. For me, the real essence of a great drawing is the quality of the line. An imprecise drawing that is full of life and personality is infinitely better than a stale xerox.
Jack’s response was that you need to put in the time making cramped and crabbed drawings in order to develop the confidence to draw like Schiele. That you shouldn’t sit down to make a ‘good drawing’ but just be in the moment. It may turn out well or not but it’s all about doing the ground work and then letting yourself go.
He’s right. If you want to play Bach, you need to do endless fingering exercises. You need to slow down your golf stroke and study each inch of it before you can connect with a masterful drive. You need to train your neurons and your muscle fibers and to train them to be accurate. Doing lots of hasty drawings will just frustrate you in the long run. It’s like driving, you have to start slowly in the supermarket parking lot, inching around orange cones, before you can take the curves at LeMans.
Unfortunately, this can be frustrating if you are counting on amazing results right away. It can take years to have a completely sweeping line. And even if you do get that confidence after loads of practice, a few weeks of not drawing can cause serious backslide. You have to come back, warm up, start again.
However, there is pleasure even in these slow, inch-worm drawings. They are precise, they are accurate depictions of what’s in front of you and there’s a certain satisfaction in that. Next, to raise it up to the level of high art, to draw it with feeling and a sense of abandon.
It takes years to raise a boy to be six foot three and so smart. It takes confidence to drive away and leave him in Providence, RI and know he’s going to do his best.
I have been mulling over giving an online class since mid-Spring, when a number of people wrote to me to say that they couldn’t come to my workshop in the Berkshires and asked if I’d consider doing something on the Internet instead.
First, I did a bunch of research and talked to friends who are great teachers like Jane LaFazio and Andrea Scher and Brenda Swenson and Roz Stendahl. I had technical concerns and had to figure out the best platform, then I had to decide what the class would be like and about. So I futzed around a lot and made very slow progress, especially for me, a person who tends to barrel into things like a bull in a china shop.
Recently, I got an email from a guy who runs workshops and manages a major teaching platform and he was asking me (well, not really me but anyone on his email list who had expressed some interest in his program but hadn’t gotten around to launching a class) what the hell I was waiting for. His question was about perfectionism, wondering if I was so intent on making the class perfect before I open it up that I might never get around to doing it at all. And he had a point — I do want it to be as good as it can be even though it’s the first time. In fact, because it is, as I assume that if it’s half-assed, no one will be back for the second better one I do, and my ambitions will be thwarted on the launch pad.
Anyway, in needling me about this he said :
“As you sit on the sidelines, waiting for the “right moment”…
People who NEED help are MISSING OUT on your unique information, your potent coaching, your ability to encourage and support, your brilliance.
People are missing out on opportunities to grow, to develop, to learn new skills, to seek happiness…
… In Judaism (my heritage), there is a beautiful idea called Tikkun olam, which means “healing the world.” Tikkun olam evokes humanity’s shared responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world. It gives meaning and purpose to our individual strivings, putting them in service of a greater good.
You could be helping to heal the world.”
Well! That’s a far loftier ambition than I had — I certainly don’t think I am on the verge of healing the world or anything like it. But I acknowledge that every day my class isn’t out there, someone may not be learning whatever the hell it is I have to teach them.
However, I have been thinking about his point in a different context. What happens when one is so fixated on perfection that one never begins? Never begins drawing. Never begins making stuff. Never begins pursuing any sort of passion for fear of not being able to do it incredibly well. Nothing you do will be good enough even for you.Why bother if you can’t be great?
A variation is fiddliness. Constant reappraisal, erasing, tweaking, reconsidering. Taking your drawing into Photoshop and cleaning it up, coloring it, recoloring it, sharing ten versions of it, asking for comments, on and on, never done, never good enough.
I love James Lord’s book on Giacometti in which he describe sitting for a portrait in his studio for weeks which he paints it over and over, only stopping when his gallery owner shows up and forcibly drags it away from him. The book contains reproductions of each day’s work and, honestly, he could have stopped after a day and had a decent painting, but he goes on for ages, always dissatisfied, putting himself down, rethinking the idea, scraping it down again and again. Giacometti was the same with his sculptures, paring away at them so they kept getting thinner and thinner, until they were barely there. Maybe his perfectionism made him great. Or Swiss.
One of the problems with perfectionism is that you think you can conceive the destination before you embark on the journey, that you can plan it all out in advance, and that nothing else can intrude and change the outcome you have conceived. But, first of all, the world doesn’t work that way; unless you are doing something extremely simple and banal, something you can actually hold in your brain all at once, it will invariably intrude and change your well-laid plans. And, secondly, you should welcome that intrusion. The accidents, mistakes, serendipities and ink splatters that the universe throws in your path make your work and your life more interesting. Perfection isn’t organic. It can be constipated and lifeless.
So, be forewarned, my class isn’t going to be perfect. Fat chance of that considering that I am behind it. But I do at least want it to be good, not slapdash and reasonably thought through. So I’m working on it everyday and hope it will be good enough to go soon.
Meanwhile, if you are waiting to make stuff because you haven’t got the perfect pen or book or subject or teacher, get over it. We all make shit every day. If we didn’t, we’d die. Or at least be really cranky.