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.

A Bigger Day

photo A couple of mornings ago I got up a bit early and took a plane, train and a bus to the de Young Museum in San Francisco. I had an early lunch in the cafe with my old pal Andrea Scher and then we began to tour A Bigger Exhibition, David Hockney’s retrospective of the past decade or so.

Color, color, color, color.

The work is traditional in a sense — all landscapes and portraits. But that’s where the familiar ends. Room after room is deluged in color, the colors that are Hockneys signature, salmon, teal, violet, burnt orange, sky blue, fuschia, and every imagine able shade of green. There are rooms full of Watercolors, watercolor that does things mine never do, bright, clean colors that vibrate off the paper, Watercolors that look like acrylics, acrylics that look like television screen, oils that fill the walls as he stacks two, then four, then twelve, then thirty (!) individual canvases to make landscapes that are as big as the landscapes themselves.

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Nine canvases. He painted this scene in every season.

Iphone painting blown up 15 feet tall.

Iphone painting blown up 15 feet tall.

There were several rooms of paintings he made on his iPhone and iPad then blew up into prints that are ten or more feet tall, prints that look like oils from across the room and look like electric squiggles close up.*   There’s a room filled with screens and on each one new iphone images appear. You can watch them unfolding as he layers lines and pure colors. And there are hundreds and hundreds of them, landscapes, portraits, still lifes, … blah!In other rooms, long processions of watercolor and oil portraits, people sitting in the same chair in the same room, all different, all alive.

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Thirty cavases, sandwiched together.

I kept getting waves of inspiration throughout the show, a fizzy feeling in my belly that I had to run away immediately and start to paint, draw, anything.  I love Hockney so much and I learn from everything he does. He’s always the smartest kid in the class, the one genius among we sheep.  His work is not heady and intellectual, it’s right there, familiar and yet, he makes it looks so easy. HOCKNEY-videoSixteenByNine1050 Watch him paint and you think, okay, okay, that’s doable. But he manages to knock out fields of spring flowers while I wade through the mud. He’s a seventy-five year old geezer but he’s working in ten media at once, filling a whole room of sketchbooks, and paintings and making these insane Cubist Videos by strapping twenty high-def cameras to his car and driving through the forest, season after season.

Drawn on a freakin' iPad!

Drawn on a freakin’ iPad!

The man jumps onto every new thing as soon as it half emerges.  He made fax drawings in the ’70s and Polaroid collages.  He drew on the computer before any one. I hope he keeps living and showing me what it can all be.

By Andrea Scher

By Andrea Scher

Then, on the way out, Andrea and I found a fairy door in a log in Golden Gate Park.

The perfect end to a magical day.

______

* I looked at my own iPhone in disgust and showed it these works of genius. “All you seem to do is send texts and visit Facebook all day,” I sneered, “Why don’t you make some art?” Siri just said, “Okay” and showed me a website about making Valentine’s Day hearts. Why can’t you be more like Scarlett Johansson?

———

P.S. I would urge you to go but the show closes this weekend. :(

In production.

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FIlming an action sequence on ink spatter.

Teaching used to be a fairly simple business. You get some chalk, a dunce cap, a book with all the answers at the back and you’re in business. In 2014, it seems to be a little more complex.

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Tommy Kane and special guests on the set.

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In production with “Lord of the Pens”

When I first started thinking about doing online classes, I wanted to make sure they were as exciting and interesting as possible. So, being me and living a couple of miles from Hollywood, I immediately started to go overboard. I started to talk to my friends, many of whom you know and who are among the best sketchbook artists in the world. We decided that it wasn’t enough to just slap together some recycled lessons, a couple of PDFs and some poorly lit snapshots. We wanted to make sumptuous, hilarious, inspirational, instructional films that would get you so fired up you’d have to start drawing night and day. Our inspiration was first of all, Bob Ross, then the Cooking Channel, then National Geographic, and now we’re thinking Spielberg and Peter Jackson.

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Our mission: To boldly go where no man has drawn before.

So while everyone else was drinking eggnog, we have been deep into production.

DOG demo 2

Warming up some ink.

Tommy and I spent several days in the depths of Brooklyn in production on his klass. Then we turned around and finished up filming my workshop. Meanwhile, Prashant is heading to India to rendezvous with a production team that will capture his insights about watercolors. Koosje is setting up lights and camera in Amsterdam.

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In the kitchen set, Tom gets his head into a drawing

Deep in a Minnesota snow bank, Roz is furiously pecking out epic scripts about paper and pens. And next week, I’ll be heading to San Diego to collaborate with Jane on her films.

Meanwhile, an elite team of even more amazing teachers are arrayed around the world, beavering away on the next wave of klasses. More on them soon.

If you want to know more about all of this flurry of activity when it is ready to launch, do sign up for our mailing list. Meanwhile, scrape together your pennies and polish your 3D glasses.

Happy New Year!

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