How to fight a critic.

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It’s tempting to fight back against criticism. But where does it get you?

Take Manet, the father of Impressionism. Outraged by a critic’s attack, he challenged him to a duel. They met in a forest, hacked ineffectually at each other with swords until they bent them, shook hands, and limped away. Neither man was badly injured and they both went back to work.

Take Whistler, a bad-tempered and thin-skinned genius whose memoir is called “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.” When John Ruskin wrote an especially vicious review of one of his paintings, Whistler took him to court, strenuously defended his modernist aesthetic — and was awarded a farthing for his troubles.

In the long run, both men beat the critics with a different weapon — the brush.

Manet is known for launching impressionism, for making it acceptable to paint everyday life, for Olympia, Le Dejeuner, and the critic, well, his name was Edmond Duranty—ever heard of him? Whistler’s legacy is bit more ironic, due not to his critics but to fans of his most famous work, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1.”  After spending his life fighting against art based on moral lessons and maudlin emotion, he is known for a painting of his mommy. But it is a great painting and, even after the trial, he continued making many more.

Critics, internal and external, can raise any artist’s hackles. They can provoke you into violent defense of your work, into self-doubt, even into halting your creativity all together. One man’s opinion, published in a newspaper, or muttered in a gallery, or imagined in a moment of weakness, can suck up your energy and threaten your creative life.  Few critic’s opinions endure and that’s something to remind yourself of. Because opinions are products of the moment, influenced by current trends, by ignorance, by poor digestion. They are not eternal, objective, blanket truth.

Any condemnation of a work of art, whether it comes from a professional, from a neighbor, from a monkey’s voice in your head, should only be responded to with more work. Prove them wrong — if you have to acknowledge them at all — but never let them get you down.

Forget lawyers and swords. Make your case with a brush, a pen, a blog post.

Why do I like?

ghost-bikeTo me, the most interesting art isn’t necessarily well-rendered, accurate, realistic. Often, quite the contrary.

So, what does make it interesting? What are the qualities that make me like a work, my own or someone else’s?

This seems important, so let me think on it a bit.

First of all, specificity. A drawing that is of a very particular thing. Not just a car, but a specific car with all its dings and reflections.  A car that looks like it was really studied by the artist. It’s true in all art forms, in a documentary, a novel, a record. The little details that make me know more about the subject.

And it’s not just that the artist noticed and captured the specifics of the subject, it’s also the specifics of how he or she did it, the feel of the hand behind the pen, the little eccentricities that make it original, the catch of the pen on the paper, the oneness of the particular piece, the particularity of the personality and the vision behind the line.

That’s why I like a recording where you can hear Segovia’s fingers squeak over the metal strings of his guitar. Or the recognizable grit  of a specific New York street corner in 1970 in Panic in Needle Park when Al Pacino crosses Amsterdam and 86th early in the morning and you can just smell it, taste it. A Ronald Searle drawing that has splashes and blotches of ink and redrawn lines. Karl Ove Knausgard’s amazing novel, My Struggle, bringing to life the tiniest, most specific details of everyday memories to give the mundane deep meaning.

Art that is too perfect, Photoshopped, processed, loses this specificity. In fact, any reproduction lacks these little specifics. That’s why seeing an original is always a completely different experience, even if the image seems familiar.  When I looked at a pyramid of Cézanne’s oranges in a Google image search, I get the gist. But when I see them hanging on the wall of the Met, I get a feeling, a series of revelations as I see more and more through the varnish. I have the opportunity to explore deeper and deeper with my eyes, to see layers and brushstrokes that the “image” alone doesn’t convey, the way the paint that Cézanne chose and placed does when it’s sitting right in front of me. The specifics.

When I draw from a photograph, it’s often impossible to get that deep sense of seeing, to see the particulars on a deeper and deeper scale. All too soon, I hit grain, pixels.

For me, drawing is an opportunity  to avoid the clichés and the symbols and to focus on what is really there, warts and all.

Story is another aspect of specificity.

Not an illustration per se but a drawing that captures my imagination and starts a movie in my head. A captured moment that evokes a bigger context, like any painting by Hopper. Or shows the marks on a object that tells you where it’s been or what’s done. The lines and wrinkles on a face that are a roadmap, a drawing that become a biography.

Scale is another way to add interest.

To zoom in tight on something and see it afresh.  The details of a butterfly’s wings, a bagel’s crumbs, a bicycle’s greasy chain. Or to stand way back and see it in a different context. To look at the Empire State Building poking out on the horizon from behind a row of four-story brownstones. Giant blades of grass on a lawn and a tiny plane in the sky way above. A page crammed full of tiny drawings of giant trucks.

Interesting art also contains a surprise.

It could be in the lines themselves, lines with an unusual but true thickness or movement. A variety of sweeping brush strokes and then details in fine pen lines. Inconsistencies that draw my eye and, with a moment’s reflection, become a revelation.

In color: Complimentary colors, A wash of liquidy teal watercolor and a tiny, sharp spot of orange gouache.  Unexpected shades. Purple cheeks, orange eyes, a green sky.

A wall of perfectly drawn bricks and then a hastily drawn broken window. A third ear that lets me in on the artist’s process, a reconsideration, a redrawing.

Elements that make me pause, break my assumptions, jar me into reconsideration. The art in startle.

None of the above are rules, just springboards that can turn ho-bummery into something fresh and exciting. Or can help guide me in understanding why I like or don’t like the art in front of me.

Are there more? You tell me.

Black & white

black n whiteyOne of my most unattractive traits is my need to reduce things to the starkest terms. To force things to their conclusions, label ‘em, deal with them in their simplest terms and file them away.

I can do that with people. Friend or foe. Genius or fool.

I can do that with movies, books, food, pens. Thumbs up or down.

I can do that with opportunities, trying to figure out what something might amount to, whether it’s worth doing from the get-go. I know what it will be like to go there on vacation, to eat that, to watch this, to do that.

1 or 0. The binary life.

In some ways, this is an efficient way to live. I can sift through things, sort ‘em, leap to conclusions and move on. In other and more important ways, it’s dumb and limiting.

When you thing you know what some thing will be like, why live it? But no matter how smart I think I am, I don’t really know how things will actually turn out.

The most interesting things happen in the grey areas, in the open spaces, unpredictable, chaotic and fecund. Fecund because they aren’t gridded out and regimented. Because they follow the laws of nature which are chaotic and random and constantly shifting.

Learning to live with ambiguity is one of the toughest things I have done. But if life has taught me anything, it’s that you never really do know what’s going to happen and it’s self-defeating and ridiculous to pretend that you do.

Hard confession

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years convincing people that making art is just as natural as breathing. And as easy. 

But maybe I’ve been avoiding the hard truth. That making art can be hard. It can be hard keeping to a habit. Hard pushing past blocks. Hard mastering new media. Hard facing your mistakes. Hard being your own cheerleader. Hard seeing clearly. And hard putting yourself out there.

I’d convinced myself that if I make it seem like the barrier to entry is just a bead curtain that I will be doing people a favor. But when I make it seem easy and you find it hard, you might worry that you are exceptionally untalented or lazy or dumb. Which is far from true. 

The fact is that sometimes making art can be very demanding. 

And that’s okay.

Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s scary or to be avoided. Hard can be good. It can make the corpuscles course through your veins. It can make you stand taller. The things that are hard to do are often the ones worth doing. Success isn’t meant to be easy. 

In my own life, I have many things on my plate, but I’ve been working to eat my vegetables first and save dessert for last. Just because something is easy to tick off the list doesn’t mean I should do it first. Instead, I try to crack at least one tough nut a day.

At times, I’ve had the reverse approach. I told myself that it is better to have a sense of accomplishment by plucking low-hanging fruit and doing something easy — making the bed, answering email, emptying the dishwasher — than it is to tackle the things I dread.

But Ive learned that the pleasure of having won the hard battle is far greater and worth the pain. 

Now I start the day by thinking and writing and inching ahead, and end it in front of the TV with a basket of towels to fold. Life is easier when you scale the mountain first and coast down it the rest of the day.

My advice: Your days are numbered and there’s loads to learn — so don’t be afraid of something because it seems difficult. Rather, seek out the toughest challenges and fight your way through them.

It can be done. And you are the one to do it.

Father’s Day

boothHow do you convey what it is to feel pride in your child? It makes one’s own accomplishments pale. Because it is your doing — and so much more.
It is the sum of the love and work you put in over the years, the lost sleep, the dilemmas, the improvisation, the fear that your own failings would leave scars. And it is a second chance at your own life, a do-over that lets you rewrite the decisions you came to regret. It is the high road.
But of course it’s not so simple. A child is not a puppet to toe a well-laid plan. Every child has her own intentions, his own hopes and flaws. And yet when things turn out well, when they amaze, there is no height more exhilarating.
I grew up without a dad and had to write my own handbook. And becoming a father was a scary business at the start. Every setback seemed so high stakes, so unutterably bleak. But I was fortunate to have a boy who rarely disappointed or scared us. Quite the contrary. And now I feel him pass me on the track, surging ahead to make his own brighter mark. For what more could I hope?
Being a father is a dance — step forward, step back; lead, follow; hold, then let go. You are investing your all in a person who is destined to fly away and then (you pray) to return.
And the stakes of that dance are so high. Of all the jobs you can fail at, none is more significant than being a parent. And we all fail. How we dance back from that brink is a test of our mettle and our ultimate effect on the world to come.
When your child is suffering or lost, there is no deeper fear or sharper pain. ‘Take me instead,’ you inevitably say. Because only parenthood reveals the awesome power of unconditional love, of how much even your feeble heart is capable of.

Another human that makes us more so.

On beginning

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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?

The art of friendship

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My pal, Tommy Kane and his wife Yun just spent a few days with us in California. It was so good to have them with us and we spent a lot of time eating in good restaurants, wandering through Venice and, of course, drawing.
I have known Tom for thirty years and we have drawn together for the last ten. Despite how close we are, when it comes to drawing we are quite different. Tommy is an illustrator, an artist who works toward beautiful finished pages, every one suitable for framing. His journals are immaculate, and each page is perfect from corner to corner. He just put out a lovely book of his work and it is a treat to have all that perfection in one place. The experience of looking at his journals is like looking at a final, published book—so immaculate, so rich.
My style of drawing is far more hasty, slapdash and impatient. And that can be a problem when we draw together. Tom expects to spend hours and hours doing a single drawing. He has a very specific way of doing a page, starting with his uniball pen, putting in loads of careful hatching, then adding watercolors and finally a layer of bright pencil marks. He’d prefer to do the entire thing on location, perched on his little stool. He has a patient wife/traveling companion and has drawn this way all over the world.
When we sit down together, as we did on the Venice Boardwalk and on Lincoln Boulevard, I find myself adjusting to his pace and do horrible overdrawn pages that don’t look like my normal work. I find it impossible with the way I draw to spend hours on a single page, Tom also compromises when we’re together and usually only manages to finish his line drawing before I start squirming and pacing and has to color his picture later on, from a photo.
I don’t begrudge Tom his slow and careful pace. He manages to capture so much detail and observation and yet keep his work fresh and bright. I draw, like almost everything else, at a neurotic pace, and the luxury of time just stirs up the mud.
Everyone has their own speed. Our friend Butch draws at a glacial pace, thinking nothing of spending ten or twenty hours on a page, D.Price, on the other hand, can knock out a drawing in three minutes. We have all drawn together and it’s like a tap dancer, a heavy metal guitarist, a tuba player and a sitarist trying to jam.
Whenever I go on a sketchcrawl, I have to adjust to the group, moving toward the mean of all the people drawing together. And it’s good to challenge that someotimes, to go faster or slower to add variation and stretch. In the long run, though, the work I do with others is never my favorite. It’s more of a fun, communal, social experience than a satisfying artistic one.
I’m not antisocial and I love to hang out with my friends.
But I’d rather pee, nap and draw alone

PS if you’d like to draw with Tommy Kane, join his klass at sketchbook skool.