As our plane swooped down over Mexico, endless green filled the windows. My first instinct was to wonder what sort of farming this could be, dense, unbroken and stretching to the horizon in every direction. As the wheels touched down, I saw it was jungle, an impenetrable mass of unruly, complex life. The runways had been cut out of the wilderness but no attempt had been made to cultivate the creepers and trees. Nature was too vast, man too small.
Mexico is a mostly modern country with drive-through Starbucks and TGIFridays. But many Mexicans accept the unrelenting power of nature, impossible to dominate completely when the air is humid and the sun shines brightly all the live long year. Grasshoppers the size of iPhones, careen through the sky with chartreuse scales and hot-pink wings. Raccoons wander into four-star restaurants and take corn chips off the bar. Cars are sun-faded, concrete is cracked, donkeys walk slowly. It’s not a rich country, but that’s not the reason things seem shop-worn and resigned. It’s because Mexicans accept the inevitable encroachment of Nature, that it’s pointless to be fastidious when geckos will wander onto your kitchen counters and carpets of kelp will wash onto your freshly grouted patio.
I like it.
In New York, we have been beating Nature back for 500 years and we think we’ve won. So we can’t help but freak out when mice nibble on the organic granola box, when mosquitos find their way under our 600 thread count sheets, when Hurricane Sandy knocks out our wifi for a week. If Nature gains the slightest foothold, we take it as a sign that our entire civilization is crumbling.
I like that in general Mexicans are so much less uptight about perfection. They are cool if you do things that are a little risky — but hardly dangerous. Things that would have flocks of lawyers descending anywhere in the States. Unsecured seatbelts don’t have those annoying warning alarms. There are packs of cigarettes in the minibar. People build restaurants out of driftwood and light them with masses of candles. Some cars are missing fenders or bumpers and are painted patchily by hand. Most streets have no sidewalks or street lights so walking at night under starry skies can be an adventure.
We sat in a beachside restaurant that served food that would have been the envy of any entry in the NYC Zagat. But before our appetizer arrived, the waiters patrolled through with smoking pails, emitting clouds of burning citronella so chokingly dense we could barely see our $12 artisanal margaritas. The mosquitos and gnats were barely dissuaded but no one bothered to complain to the Health Department, pausing only to reach under our designer linens to scratch the welts.
Mexicans don’t value their lives less than their Northern neighbors. They just accept that we can’t control everything all the time. And that this acceptance makes life easier and preserves resources for more important things. Insisting on perfection makes thing a lot less interesting and spicy. It’s also a losing battle.
Maybe it was the heat or the Negro Modelo but my pen line was a little looser in Mexico. I did a number of scrawled pages in my journal, drawn half lying down, book propped against my spreading gut, mango juice on my unshaven chin. Maybe this was how Gauguin felt.
I am sloppy as a rule, but I’m not always loose. I value looseness because it feels more organic and expressive, more human, more natural, more the way life is. Less uptight, less gringo. Jack tells me his drawing teacher insists they draw standing up, with their pads on an easel, and that they draw from the shoulder, not from the wrist, to make bold and sweeping lines with their whole bodies. Flat on my back on my chaise, I am far from that, but I feel integrated, natural, in tune with my surroundings. My body, immersed in sweat and heat and verdant richness, feels sensual and at ease. My inner critic, the monkey is dulled too. He is chewing lazily on a mango in the shade, indifferent to my drawing. He can’t be bothered to nag me when we have the jungle at our doorstep. In Mexico, monkeys sit on your roof, squat on your car, hoot from the trees above your hotel window. But it seems they stay out of your head.
Over this past week in Mexico, I haven’t been as insanely productive as I might have been. But I have been more in tune with my nature. I’ve dismantled waves, I’ve counted grains of sand, I’ve listened to grackles eat French Fries, and I’ve felt the walls of perfection erode. Rules, goals and expectations, it turns out, may not help me make as much stuff as simply sitting in the sun and letting the world grow on around me.
I spent last week in a basement in SoHo, looking at great length at naked people. I’ve spend the past two days looking as intently at the sea. I watch the waves and try to understand how to draw them, to turn their ceaseless roiling into lines on my page.
This close to shore, a wave’s life seems to last for five seconds, rarely more than ten. It emerges from the surface as a slowing building wall, some twenty yards wide. The pressure builds from both ends towards the middle and it becomes narrower and sharper at the peak. When I pull myself off my chaise and galumph into the sea to stand waist deep and cool off, from the side it is a narrowing triangle that reflects the sun as its angle grows more extreme. Its leading edges are dappled with bumps and ridges of energy that shimmer like the frosted glass on a public bathroom door, shadowy figures moving behind it, flashes of light bouncing of its front. The sun shines through its knife edge as it rolls forward, gleaming. Webs of foam are swept back from the ruins of previous waves and rise up to adorn its front wall, a white trellis quickly shredded in the wave’s rapacious path.
When the wall has grown as tall and thin as it can, it begins to collapse. A crest of foam appears along its battlements. The energy that was coordinated in the wave’s big charge now grows chaotic and splinters into fingers of white. The tongue of foam laps down the front of the wave and plunges into the surf, wrenching down its keystone and dragging it all down behind. Some of the froth ping-pongs on the surface, leaping to and fro, and then dives deep into the sand. The grandeur of the surge turns into a mad dash towards the shore, each water particle for himself.
How the hell do I draw that?
Leonardo tried. So did Hokusai.
So I watch a hundred waves wash in. Some are green, some blue, some auburn with kelp. My mind’s eye looks for a freeze frame, the single moment that explains the wave but is also of the wave. But though the waves arrives in a somewhat even rhythm, they are not purely cyclical. They follow similar patterns but each has a variation. Overeager waves shoulder past each other, jostling and disrupting the regular flow of energy, crashing the transition from hill to wall to blade to foam to shore.
So each drawing becomes an abstraction of waves in general. It’s impossible to track a single one perfectly. My pen’s not that fast. Nor’s my brain. I can record only the averages of my observations.
The best life-models aren’t the best looking or those with the best bodies. They’re the ones who can hold perfectly, unnaturally still and come back from their rest breaks and hit the exact same marks. They can look the same for three hours straight while I try to bolt down my powers of observation to notice the exact angles of their limbs, the creases in their hide.
Cezanne rarely painted cut flowers in a vase. He preferred pears and oranges that could sit in a still life for weeks without changing shape. His favorite subject was a mountain.
I am impatient, but training myself to be less so. To slow down and study, to be here and see what really is. Man, that’s hard. Especially when your subject jumps and changes its nature every millisecond. But the truth is, it’s not the sea I have to contend with. I am changing constantly. My eyes flit, my lungs expand, my heart pulses. I am all aquiver too, pulsing with nature’s rhythm,
Even if I drew Cezanne’s Mt. Ste. Victoire, or one of my beloved pieces of taxidermy, or a frozen photo of a great tsunami, I would be changing and moving. I change with every heartbeat. And even if I could control my breath and slow my eyes, the world would keep turning, the stars would keep dying, the universe would keep expanding, and life would move on. I learn with each line I make. I am different than when I began observing. The wave moves me too.
The Buddha told us long ago: Change is inevitable, suffering is optional. Roll with the flow.
All week-long, I had been running through the things that could go wrong. Rain was foremost on my mind. I imagined 45 of us sitting in a humid wooden dining hall, drawing each others’ feet, like a bunch of overgrown summer campers, praying for this blighted weekend to end. Then I worried about cicadas, crawling out from their 17-year hibernation to drown out my lectures with their screeching. Oh, and may flies are supposedly virulent this time of year in Northern Massachusetts. Them too.
I worried about my ‘students’ too, of course. When I set up a special Facebook group for us and invited them to start drawing in the weeks before the workshop, they began uploading amazingly good sketches which made me sure I had nothing left to teach them. I had been hoping for people who didn’t know how to uncap a pen and instead I had graphic designers and architects and art teachers and people who had been in the EDM community for a decade or more. Gulp.
JJ and I drove up from New York on Friday morning. The weather was perfect and the air smelled of freshly mown grass and late Spring. We parked, unpacked, and headed up to the large wooden building that was to be our HQ for the weekend. Then I discovered an obstacle I hadn’t been imaginative enough to dread — the projector didn’t work. I had several hundred Powerpoint slides and videos I’d made and now I might be reduced to just tap dancing and making stuff up. By dinner time, fortunately, a new projector was in place.
Before dinner we had a little mocktail party and I got to meet the folks who traveled in from all over, some from neighboring spots in Massachusetts, others from far way — Baltimore, Chicago, New Mexico, British Columbia and England.
We had dinner and then trooped up the hill to our classroom. We had arranged rows of chairs and cushions and fans (it was damnably humid and hot) and introduced ourselves. Everyone took a turn talking about their creative wishes and then I lit into my presentation, explaining what I hoped we’d accomplish this weekend, my view of art, my life story, the magic and power of illustrated journaling and more.
After breakfast on Saturday, we started to draw. I explained some basics, we did some exercises and people started to unwind. There were loads of great questions and I managed to choke out some sort of answer to most of them. Our group was wonderful— open minded and enthusiastic— and we struggled long together through contours drawings, negative space, measurements, plumb lines and the like.
We took a break after lunch and I collapsed under a tree. It was exhausting! Meanwhile everyone else seemed full of energy. They drew their sandwiches then hiked into the woods to draw frogs and trees and things.Mid afternoon, we headed into the town center where the fire department and hauled out their fire engines so we could draw and paint them.
During a brief sunshower, some of us retreated into the fire station.The attic was full of old fire suits and extinguishers and musical instruments and piles of chairs from the local school — an endless treasure trove of stuff to draw.
Others drew the church, the gazebo, the hills and trees, or strolled back up to draw in the barn.
After dinner, I talked about composition and calligraphy and then hauled out my trunks of journals. I brought about fifty different books and we spend the rest of the evening talking and sharing our work.
On Sunday morning, I described what steps people could take next to further develop their creativity and then we shared what we had learned over the weekend. I was amazed and touched at what a profound effect it had on literally everyone as people shared emotional stories about the discoveries that they had made in these short few days.
It was a wonderful experience for me and I realized yet again what a profound effect drawing can have on one’s life, and how developing a creative habit is so important and rewarding.
This is just a brief description of what we experienced. I hope those who were there with me will leave their comments below to round it out further. Also, JJ and I are working on a little film about the weekend that we’ll share with you soon.
Here’s a little video I made about how to approach drawing complex things. If you can’t make it to my workshop today, this may inspire you to do some drawing this weekend nonetheless.
What do you think?
I was fortunate to get a lovely review on slate.com this week.
I was also invited to illustrate all of the articles on their book review section this month. I haven’t done drawings for hire like this in a while but it was great fun. You can see all nine of them here.
I am traveling to Bangkok right now and writing this post in the Hong Kong flight club so it may take me a while to post all of the actual drawings here. Meanwhile, check me out on slate.