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 to aid its effort to keep you in check and on the reservation, it has a hundred tools up its hairy sleeves.  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

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.