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.

Working it.

IMG_1113Sorry if I seem to have vanished.  I am hard at work on my next book, art Before Breakfast, which I have to turn in to my publisher all too soon.

I love working on this book and it has taken a back seat for far too long. It’s funny how one can love doing something and somehow forget how much, especially when it’s your own project and nobody else is prodding you back to work.

In the old days, when my creative work was being done for large corporations, there were always herds of people in suits thundering in and out of my office, making sure I was being productive.

But now, as I sit in my studio with my hounds and pre-war Swedish jazz on the radio, I’m the only one to remind myself of why I’m here. The most insistent voices are the dinging of incoming emails, the buzzing of text messages, and the growling of my stomach. Like some great Pavlovian dog, my instinct is to respond to them first, dutifully answering emails, updating my calendar, and debating whether I have to go to the gym before or after lunch.

Being an artist or an author or a blogger or an Olympic biathlete requires tenacity and discipline. Creative habits are all too easy to break, especially if there are louder voices in the room to lead you astray. That goes for me in the studio all day but probably for you too, struggling to fit in the time to draw in your journal between chores and obligations and paid work.

What I discovered years ago —but all too often forgot under the pressures of life — is that making art is not a guilty pleasure. It’s as essential to living properly as flossing and getting aerobic. Without it, life is shorter and duller, and the world lacks meaning and beauty. Not to mention it’s fun.

However, no one will tell you to make time for art. No one will find the time on your calendar to draw your lunch. No one will make watercoloring your bagel a priority for you. You must do it — and do it you must.

Speaking of which, I have to get back to work. Scratch that, I want to get back to making stuff. I hope you’ll find the opportunity to do the same.

Welkome to Sketchbook Skool

This may sound selfish but I don’t care.

Art makes my life richer and happier. And I want share that discovery with as many people as I can. The more people I meet who make art and are crazy about it, the more inspired I get to make stuff too.

On Wednesday, I spoke to a group of eighty people in Scottsdale, most of whom had never drawn since grade school. Now, a good number of them have caught the fever to keep an illustrated journal too. It was a day well spent.

I want more days like that. And I want to infect a lot more people with the passion for making art. I can travel around and give workshops and talks and speeches. And I can write more books. I plan to continue doing all those things. But I want more….

I’ve been blogging here for a decade. And I’ve been part of several great Everyday Matters communities, on Yahoo, Facebook, and Flickr. I’ve met hundreds of amazing artists and collaborated with many of them on my books.

And now, finally, thanks to an email exchange with my friend Koosje Koene, I get to be part of one of the most exciting online experiences anyone can have.

Koosje and I have been working with a group of insanely talented sketchbook artists to create an amazing project called Sketchbook Skool.  It’s sort of a high-quality online/video art school dedicated to illustrated journaling — to recording everyday life in a little sketchbook, to discovering how beautiful the world is, to getting a deeper sense of meaning and of creative confidence.

Here’s a film about it.  You can learn a lot more at the Skool’s website.

Our dream is to bring together people who love to draw and paint and record their lives into one large community and together to discover new habits, techniques, opportunities, friendships, and adventures. It starts today as we open our doors with our first online semester of klasses, taught by six artists who love to teach and share what they know. Hopefully you will join us and deepen your skills and passion, whatever your level of experience so far.

At the beginning of the summer, another group of artists will join us and we will begin the second semester of Sketchbook Skool. We already have  commitments from an amazing group, enough to fill the fakulty bench of Term Two. We plan to have four such semesters in the next year — more teachers with more stories, ideas, inspiration to get us all filling a library full of sketchbooks. And we have even bigger dreams beyond….

I know it’s selfish. It’s rare that you get to build a school just so you can take klasses in it with amazing teachers you idolize. Koosje and I think we’ve done just that. We’re lucky . And so are you. You get to join us.

Find out more about Sketchbook Skool.