Don’t roll your eyes at me.

Scan 17

Imagine if your head was in a metal box and your neck didn’t move. In fact your entire body was rigid, like a quadriplegic locked into a wheelchair. You can only look straight ahead and, at any given time, your eyes are locked on a certain point. Some things are in focus, others are blurry and indistinct.

Fortunately that’s not how you see. But it is how a camera sees. A camera sees only from a one-point, locked perspective that creates a single image of a specific vantage point with certain focal characteristics.

When we look at something, our eyes constantly move about. Even if we are sitting down in a chair, our eyes dart around, passing back-and-forth over different details, noticing one aspect and sliding quickly to some other point, perhaps paying less attention to certain information between. Our impression of what we’re looking at is actually lots of different perspectives all blending into one undulating picture. And because our eyes focus on points that are different distances from us, flexing and bending our lenses, absorbing different amounts of light and therefore changing the quality of information that we absorb, all these different images that we are recording are in fact quite different from each other. One might have a wide-angle perspective, then one might feel like our aperture is more open, while another is focusing more on black-and-white information about edges or shadows, another is saturated by color.

Amazingly our brains take all this information and instantaneously create a sense of what we ‘see’. It’s not a single picture but lots of different impressions that are all blended together. (That’s what the Cubists were getting at, trying to record all those different angles and perspectives into a single painting to simulate the way that we see. They were trying to show the distinction between how humans see and what the camera was introducing. People think of Cubism as abstract art but it actually was an attempt to be even more accurate about literally how we see the world.)

This process of observing is what goes on when we draw too. If we are drawing a landscape, an urban street scene for example, we look at the corner of the building on the left in lots of technical ways quite different from the way we are observing the street sign right in front of us or the blades of grass below or the mass of leaves on a tree above. We look at one section of the view and record it in a certain way and then we change our tools, bend lines, shift focus, let in more light from the shadows, record details all in different ways. An interesting drawing is a record of all those different forms of observation on one place.

Do you see how fundamentally different that is from taking a photograph? The camera is observing everything in the same way at the same instant, with no consideration of what it is. But we observe in a cumulative fashion, first taking the scene quickly and then scrutinizing and observing a myriad of details.  When we draw from a photograph you don’t have the benefit of all those different forms of observation. We are locked into that single view the camera gives. It takes time and lots of  observations to record the rich scene before us. The image unfolds and gets more detailed from the more perspectives you acccumulate as you spend more time drawing. That’s what gives the drawing life, that someone was living when they made, living over a period of time. Photographs don’t have that advantage, that mystery, that richness.

Photos also don’t include all of the information that go into the experience of the moment. The photographer can’t record the smells, the sounds, the movements, the moments, the moods, that he is feeling and experiencing. His camera is just recording the light waves. But when you make a drawing you have the opportunity to convey all of those diverse experiences and impressions as well. The drawing done by somebody standing in an uncomfortable and cramped position is very different from the drawing done by somebody sitting in a plush armchair. The scene they are looking at is the same but the way in which they are seeing it is influenced by their physical comfort. So the person who is rushed, or in love, or worried about paying the rent, will make a different sort of drawing.

If you focus entirely on creating what you think is an accurate representation, it would seem that using a photograph as the basis of your drawing gives you an advantage. But the fact is the camera see the world differently than human beings do.  And that’s why drawings done by people are very different from the mechanical event that is a photograph, or even the mechanical process that is a drawing done from a photograph.

Life is so complex, so rich, so ever-shifting, and the wonderful power of art (that has never been eclipsed by the invention of the camera) is to capture that experience and share it with others who are also alive. See?

The Museum of You

Scan

For most of the history of mankind, mankind had little time for Art. People spent all their days just trying to survive, tilling the soil, tending to their herds, struggling to turn raw nature into subsistence. Then we invented machines that could do a lot of that work and time opened up a bit. A hundred years ago, ordinary working people were finally able to afford musical instruments in their home, then they could buy radios, cameras, televisions. For the first time they actually had time to entertain themselves and to look for the beauty around them. Not just the beauty that they saw when wiping their brows and peering over the handle of the plow at the setting sun, but time to go to museums, to watch films, to listen deeply to music just for its own sake.
Of course, people have been making art for hundreds of years before this. But they’d been making art for the select few, those very wealthy people who had the time to enjoy it and pay for it. Royalty, then the rich burghers, and of course the church, art to tell stories to those people who had the time to come into the Cathedral on Sunday, and to be appropriately wowed and cowed by the display of gold, marble, and fresco that showed the true history of God’s works here on earth.
Artists used to be hired to perform, hired like gardeners, footmen, and stableboys. But since industrialization, being an artist who created works for his own satisfaction became possible. Artists could paint what was in their minds, could paint the things that they chose, humble subjects, everyday things, accessible beauty, and then those works could become commodities and be sold to those people of means who could afford them.
And the number of people who could actually be artists was limited. Being an artist has always been a struggle, a self-selecting profession, and very few people manage to survive. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Mozart, van Gogh, all died penniless. Ironic because the economics of the art world means that there are always limits to the amount of product available, limits that drive up prices, and generate profit for someone. And as today there are more wealthy people than ever, the limited supply of art becomes more expensive. That’s why these days we see record prices for art, for art that was created centuries ago but also art that was created last year. And we see certain people creating tighter and tighter markets for certain artists’ work, therefore those prices escalate, artificially. We are reminded time and again that art is to be made by Artists, by trained professionals, but certified by the establishment. The rest of us don’t have talent worth cultivating, can’t make anything of value.
But what about the rest of the emerging middle classes? What about all the other people who have moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and for the first time are able to afford art and entertainment in their lives? They bought movie tickets, import recorded music, and the technology with which to enjoy it. And they bought museum tickets, tickets that now cost $25 or more. Access to museums full of art that was originally created for people far wealthier than them, people who did not share great art with the great unwashed but kept it behind their high gates and guarded walls.
What do you do if for the first time you have the leisure and the disposable income that will allow Art to fill a part of your life, a part that wasn’t available to your parents or your grandparents and ancestors before them? Well, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to afford any of the art made by professional artists these days. Long gone are the days when one could travel to Paris and buy the work of the young Picasso for a few pennies on the dollar. Even today’s Picassos are already out of reach. Today there is simply not enough art being made by the system of Galleries and professional Artists to satisfy the needs of the more and more people who want and can afford art in their lives. That’s by design of course, making sure that demand will rise by artificially suppressing supply.

But there’s good news, for all of us who now have the time to make art a part of our lives. Because we don’t need to invest in the works of art that has been credentialed by the art establishment, we don’t need to look for art that is been marked up by Galleries, or bona fide by museums. We don’t have to believe the limitations of the established wisdom that identifies art made outside of the system as outsider, naïve, amateur, hobbyist, inferior. We may have just a little bit of spare change or spare time, but we don’t need to invest tens of millions of dollars in order to have beauty in our lives.
Instead we can start to value the art that appears in formerly blank sketchbooks, on empty canvases bought at the local art supply store. We can find inspiration by doing a Google image search. We can find instruction by looking at YouTube or enrolling in an online course.
The wonderful thing about the world we live in is that we all now have the time to appreciate art and we all can be free to make it for ourselves. You don’t need to buy into the same conceits that ruled the art world for all of those years, namely that artists were journeymen to be hired by the rich, the value of their work artificially inflated by critics, gallerists and curators. Know that we are free to take our leisure time and do what our ancestors did — till the soil, sow the seeds, and reap the rewards of homegrown art. Art that we can give as gifts, swap with our neighbors, share in our communities and enrich our lives. If we make it, it is good. It is a reflection of who we truly are —not passive shoppers or customers — but an inherently creative, expressive and productive species.
We are now entering the time of art with a small a, not Art that goes under the gavel and hangs in the hallway of billionaires, but art that is of us and is therefore infinitely more valuable to you and me.
We’ve moved from a time of no Art to a time of consuming Art and now to the time of creating art.
Have you gotten with the times yet?

Toast master.

toast closeup
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.

Kiss all frogs.

Scan 18

When I was running a creative department a few years ago, I decided to make a film about creativity at the agency. Not about my department, but about people in accounting, account services, production, catering, media, and human resources. When I first put out the request for people to tell me about their creativity, the silence was deafening. Wasn’t that the job of my people?  But I insisted, and soon uncovered lots of examples of hidden creativity.  People who never saw fit to mention it in the office, went home and cooked incredible pastries, played the banjo, wrote sci-fi stories, won prizes for their roses, build radio-controlled helicopters, were in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The film was a smash and it opened all of our eyes. By removing labels, we discovered the hidden assets in our company. And we started using those assets in new ways, inviting new people to brainstorming sessions, giving them problem-solving assignments, asking them to help us crack the tougher nuts. Soon the whole agency was a creative resource. Instead of a few dozen people in my department, I could call on the whole staff.
We just don’t know where answers will come from. And when we insist on judging situations prematurely, we limit ourselves and our potential. Instead, we need to open up and stow the labels.
Invention doesn’t land neatly. We have ideas and don’t know where they go or what their purpose is yet. We need to honor those ideas — especially if they seem like mistakes.
For example, misconceptions are a sort of mistake that can lead to innovation. You mishear the assignment, you misread the brief, you misunderstand the problem, and 1+1 don’t make anything coherent.  Because the puzzle won’t snap neatly together, you really scrutinize the pieces. You come up with all sorts of explanations for this perplexing situation. You dream up new theories, new explanations for how things work.  Maybe you get a new tool and you toss away the instructions unread. You find a box of paints you’d forgotten about in the back of the cupboard and discover they don’t mix like they should. You visit a new country and can’t understand how they can eat what they do.
Most of these musings lead nowhere — after all, they’re built on a foundation of error.  But some of them, maybe just one, pivot your thinking, open your eyes to a whole new perspective. Your imagination struggles, flails and then comes up with a link no one has ever seen before. If the pieces fit too neatly, you’d be stuck doing the same old same old.
Sometimes knowing too much means not having room for the answer. Out of the mouths of babes (of all ages and all departments) come surprising insights, based not on experience, but on a fresh point of view.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t shun your mistakes. Don’t burn bridges.
Our wastepaper baskets contain the seeds of revelations and brighter tomorrows.

P.S. Happy 616, PL.

On beginning

Intersection_dog

Beginning starts with a dream.

A dream to draw.

A dream to create.

A dream to play the ukelele. Speak Portuguese. Ride a bike. Lose five dress sizes.

A dream to be what you always wanted to be.

A dream to finally face that part of your life that you’ve avoided so long because it shames you or makes you feel weak.

You hold that dream in your mind, you caress it at night, you turn it over and over and wish it would come true. That you could do this thing you dreamed of, effortlessly, fluidly, joyously.

And with that dream of doing this one thing come dreams of doing other things, of being other things, of feeling strong, and competent, on top of your game, happy. Complete.

Achieving this one dream feels like it could mean achieving all those others as well.

This dream means so much to you that you hold it delicately, like an egg that could shatter and dash all your expectations of yourself. To pursue this dream could mean to fail and so you take a long time before you muster the courage to take the first step towards reaching it.

So, beginning, starts with a lot—too much—at stake.

And beginning starts in a realm you can only imagine, because you haven’t ever been there. You’ve seen other people achieve that dream. You’ve seen the drawings they’ve made, heard theme singing that aria, tasted the soufflé they whipped up so easily. And you think you know what that must be like. You think you know what the journey there must entail. If only you had the courage to actually begin.

But so far, all you really have is that dream, turning slowly in your mind, lit by thousand candles.

And then a day breaks, more sunny than the rest, a day that fills you with a new type of hope, and so you decide to begin. You breathe deep and pick up that pen. You sit down at that piano. You dive into the deep end of that pool.

You are filled with exhilaration and hope. Your dream glimmers on the horizon

And then as soon as you leap, you flounder and flinch. You gasp. You sink beneath the waves.

The water is colder, deeper, and darker than you’d ever imagined.

That first line that you have imagined in your head is finally on paper. That first chord thunders across the strings…

And it is flat and leaden and ugly, the work of a fool. Nothing like what you had seen in your dream. You flail and struggle on, despair sinking like clouds over the moon, plunging you into darkness.

And then, through the shadows, you hear the first righteous wails of the monkey. Wails? Or hoots and cackles? That voice in your head that delights in holding you back has finally fought its way through the lavender  bushes and daisy fields that surround your dream, bringing with it an icy dose of ‘reality’. It delights at your failure, your hubris at thinking you—ugly you, stupid you, hopeless you—could do this thing.

It wraps a protective arm around your shoulder and starts to lead you back to safety.

“You don’t have to keep doing this,” it tells you. “It’s too hard. Your talents too meager. The teacher’s too  incompetent. This isn’t really your fault. Just don’t try it again.”

That monkey is in your head to keep from risk, from new experiences, from growing. That monkey voice was implanted in you when you really needed it, when you had to have a warning voice to say, “you’ll put your eye out with that, you’ll break your neck, you’ll catch your death of the cold.”

New things still make that monkey scamper out of the darkness with alarm. The unknown, the challenging, the scary, the hard. Things that could make you cry.

And it has a hundred tools up its hairy sleeves to keep you in check and on the reservation.  It can make you panic. It can make you beat yourself up.  It can make you lash out at those around you. It can make you freeze and suck your thumb.

  It can make you panic. It can make you beat yourself up.  It can make you lash out at those around you. It can make you freeze and suck your thumb.

This what happens when your dream first meets reality. A rude awakening.

You feel shocked. You feel hopeless. You feel humiliated. You feel blind to the path ahead.

The monkey says, “See, this is why you haven’t done this before.  Because. You. Can’t. Do. It.”

The monkey says, “Stop now, stop the pain, crawl back on shore. Go back to where you were.”

The sense of failure spreads beyond the task at the hand, this particular challenge.

The monkey uses this opportunity to tell you what a failure you have always been, at so many things throughout your life, at every new effort you ever undertake.

The monkey, of course, glides over all of the things you have accomplished, all the battles you’ve won since you took your very first step at 11 months. The monkey edits your life down to show you that you have done nothing but shit since birth.

You cry yourself to sleep.

You wake up, the sun shining. You are still you. But now you have learned one lesson.

That lesson might be if you try and fail, it hurts.

That lesson might be if you try and fail, it hurts and you should neverever try again.

That lesson might be that the pain is temporary. That you can weather it. That you are now a day older, a day wiser and that challenge is still there to be conquered.

You regroup. You uncap your pen. You charge once more.

And this time (or the next time or the tenth time after that), you suddenly feel a shift. You look down at your sweaty paper and one part of one corner of one wretched drawing gleams with hope.

It’s good, that bit there.

Through all the mangled notes, one cord rings true. Amidst all the collapsed and burned cakes and pies, one crumb of one cookie tastes sweet.

You can do it.

You have seen the first shred of evidence that you don’t utterly suck to the core of your marrow.

Now, that glimmer of proof may actually have been there in your first or second drawing or concerto or cookie. But you missed it. That first shock the monkey dealt you, that first brutal wakeup call, made you temporarily blind and deaf. When you first stumble and crash to the ground, your head is ringing, your nose is bloodied, and you can’t see straight. You can’t assess your work, you can only cringe and cover your head.

But when the day comes that your vision clears, your objectivity returns, you will discover the value in what you have made, the beauty, the reward.

And now you can clutch on to that one sign of hope.  You can continue even as you blunder through more mistakes, more beautiful, educational mistakes that teach you lessons galore with every ham-fisted stroke.

And that dream that started you off? It wasn’t wrong to have. Even though getting to that castle on the hill is harder going that you’d dreamt, you can look over your shoulder and see that you are getting higher and soon you are walking through clouds. That dream remains essential because it is the thing that keeps you going, especially when the going gets tough.

The monkey is still hanging on for dear life.  He still claws at your shoulders and ears as you struggle forward. But his grip is weakening. His voice is dimming. He is wrong. You can do it if you will do it.

You just need to begin and keep on beginning and discover that it’s the journey that is the reward. The dream is just to keep you moving forward, a mirage, fantasy. It’s the journey makes you smarter and stronger and better and happier.

Now, what would you like to begin?

My way or the highway

readingWhen 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.
blind-handI 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.

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