Yesterday was a bittersweet day, driving up to Providence to help Jack move into his dorm and begin his sophomore year at RISD. Bitter because I am losing my boy again after we had a great summer together, spending a lot of time hanging out, making things, watching lousy movies, and drawing. Sweet because he was so excited about starting the new year, his first as a painting major, raring to get to work. He read several influential books this summer: the recent biography of David Hockney by Christopher Simon Sykes, Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins and Patrick O’Brian’s plump biography of Picasso. They combined to give him a sense that he better get on with it, that Picasso was already an acknowledged genius by nineteen.
One of the many nice things about having a kid who’s also an artist is the impromptu discussions we have about all sorts of art-nerd stuff — meaning in the arts, the roles of galleries, the pros and cons of acrylic over oil, the best way to crosshatch, whether or not Jeff Koons is an idiot, and so on. I feed off his enthusiasm and will sorely miss him, though he’s only a text message away.
On the drive up I-95, we were talking about line quality. I was pointing out to him that when I want to do a ‘good’ drawing, I slow down as much as possible, striving for accuracy in my line lengths and angles, but that when I step back from a drawing done super slowly like this, it can sometimes seem cramped and without expression. When I look at a master of the drawn line like Egon Schiele, there is so much confidence and sweep in his line and I know it was turn in a broad, swift stroke, not a cautious micromillimeter at a time. For me, the real essence of a great drawing is the quality of the line. An imprecise drawing that is full of life and personality is infinitely better than a stale xerox.
Jack’s response was that you need to put in the time making cramped and crabbed drawings in order to develop the confidence to draw like Schiele. That you shouldn’t sit down to make a ‘good drawing’ but just be in the moment. It may turn out well or not but it’s all about doing the ground work and then letting yourself go.
He’s right. If you want to play Bach, you need to do endless fingering exercises. You need to slow down your golf stroke and study each inch of it before you can connect with a masterful drive. You need to train your neurons and your muscle fibers and to train them to be accurate. Doing lots of hasty drawings will just frustrate you in the long run. It’s like driving, you have to start slowly in the supermarket parking lot, inching around orange cones, before you can take the curves at LeMans.
Unfortunately, this can be frustrating if you are counting on amazing results right away. It can take years to have a completely sweeping line. And even if you do get that confidence after loads of practice, a few weeks of not drawing can cause serious backslide. You have to come back, warm up, start again.
However, there is pleasure even in these slow, inch-worm drawings. They are precise, they are accurate depictions of what’s in front of you and there’s a certain satisfaction in that. Next, to raise it up to the level of high art, to draw it with feeling and a sense of abandon.
It takes years to raise a boy to be six foot three and so smart. It takes confidence to drive away and leave him in Providence, RI and know he’s going to do his best.
Information. The world is just jammed with it. I’m not talking about Facebook posts and texts from your besties; I mean the sort of analog information that is constantly flowing into the holes in our head and all over our skin.
But how much exactly? What would be the equivalent in terms I am familiar with — dpi, mexagpixels, gigs, etc.?
Well, the Internet has loads of answers but none are really definitive. The best I can make out is that if our eyes were digital cameras, they would each have the equivalent of around 600 megapixels and the resolution of the images we receive is about 530 pixels per inch (as a reference, the resolution of images we get on the internet is 72 dpi). Our ears are also constantly receiving sound data, and we can distinguish differences in the ~160kbps range. Our skin can feel vibration, touch, pressure, temperature and of course, pain. We have 20 square feet of skin, all studded with zillions of receptors — Our fingertips alone have 2,500 receptors per cm2.
In short, our bodies are getting a huge amount of data every second. A commonly quoted estimate says that our brains receive 400 billion bits of information each second. That’s 400 gigs, enough to fill my laptop’s hard drive, every second.
But…we have this enormous data stream coming in, and what are we doing with it? According to a recent study in the MIT Technology Review, our brains can only process 60 bits of information a second. And we are only conscious of about 2,000 bits per second. That means that .000000000015% of what comes in actually gets responded to.
Obviously, the vast majority of the time, we are screening out almost all of what is around us. How is that even possible? Well, we are living in the preconceived patterns we built for ourselves long ago, the patterns that put most things into categories that require very little data. We simply don’t need to see every pixel of every face we encounter because we know immediately, “that’s Mary”. We may not notice that Mary is wearing a knee-length, ocean blue floral print dress with six pearl buttons, etc. because that data has no immediate value. It wouldn’t help us to survive in the wild. Those of our ancestors who couldn’t quickly form observations into categories would have been overwhelmed by data and couldn’t have responded quickly enough if Mary turned out to be a pouncing saber-toothed tiger.
Relying on these quick sorting algorithms has been a useful way to survive, what with terabytes of incoming data and the fairly slow processors in these 3-pound, neck-top computers we were all issued.
But … over time, the price we pay for this has grown higher. As the data becomes more intense (iPhones, laptops, 2000 channels, etc), we have retreated more and more into categories and preconceptions and further and further from all the stuff that’s going on around us in what we oldsters quaintly call “the Real World”. The problem is what happens when you decide that your Facebook stream is so much more manageable than the 400 gigs of real data. You will be utterly oblivious as you cross the street, lost in your smartphone, and a saber tooth tiger pounces or an SUV squashes you flat. End of your gene line.
Which brings me to drawing.
A few days ago, I was walking on the Lower East Side and I saw this building festooned with painted signs. I sat down on the pavement, leaned against a wall, and pulled out my Lamy Safari. I spent the first hour or so just drawing the building underneath the signs. I started to see that the building itself was quite interesting, that it had curved windows and lots of interesting brickwork. I discovered how the building was constructed, how the windows lineup, where the structural underpinnings were arranged. I noticed all the stores on the ground floor, their merchandise and the ways that their awnings were hung. It seemed I was tapped into the full data stream (though oblivious to my dehydration, cramped buttock, and sleeping right leg).
Finally, I pulled out a white pencil and start to letter the signs.
Here’s the thing. I had spend a couple of hours starting at this building but now I realize how much I still wasn’t seeing. Yes, I had studied its structure but I had skipped over a lot of the details, I had missed air conditioners, reflections, broken bricks and more. I had approximated so many things based on the patterns I could divine. And I had not observed the perspective or the lighting at all.
But what really blows me away was this weird mistake I made. I misspelled “Entrance”. It’s certainly a word I know how to spell. And I was looking right at the letters on the wall, paying careful attention to the letterforms, to the kerning, the condensed type, the wear of the paint, and then I misspelled “Entrance”. I can’t explain it (Oh, and to cover my goof, I purposefully misspelled it again on the left).
My brain, despite all the time and care I was taking, still had to jump to conclusions. And to a conclusion that I knew was wrong. I somehow drifted away and came back to see my hand adding that ‘E.’ Some other thing was inhabiting my skull, hands on the controls, driving along, a barely-literate lizard brain that just took over while my conscious floated away and debated what I should have for dinner. It’s literally, mind-boggling. Maybe it was a full blown right-brain thing, drawing what was in front of me and disengaged from the rational world of letters and numbers. But then why the mistake? Was I just overwhelmed by the raw data flow?
All this information. And all this human frailty. What we really need is a little wisdom.
In the interest of trying something new, I’ve recently taken to spending my mornings in a basement with a naked person and a pencil. The oddest part (if you’ll forgive an old copywriter the observation) is not the graphic nudity but the graphite.
As you may know, I have been a loyal pen man ever since I took up drawing last century. When I draw with a pen, I have always said, I am committed to my mark and so I draw more slowly and am fairly sure of my stroke. My line is decisive and, if it’s wrong, I must live with it and work my way out of the problem I have created.
But now, I have this pencil. Actually it’s usually a stick of graphite in a wooden handle with a little set of gripper teeth to hold it in place. And I must say, it feels sort of right for now. First off, I like the feeling of it in my hand, the chunkiness of it. And I like the organic variations, the way the mark gets soft and grey or bold and dark and everything in between. I like the range of hardnesses, the Hs and Bs with all their numbers and degrees of yield. I am least fond of the ends of the spectrum, the super hard H pencils that rip into the paper like cat’s claws or the utter spinelessness of the super soft high number Bs, malleable as turds in my paw. But in between there are a nice number of notes to play, combinations, of soft and smooth, hard and precise.
A long pose is a process and it starts by ogling. I stare at the model and paint him or her with my eyeballs. Then I take a few measurements, the overall height, midpoints, widths as a function of head heights, that sort of thing. Then I do a blind contour, my eyes slowly coursing over the edges of the body while my hand, unattended, records the line. I may look down at the page once or twice or not at all. Surprisingly, this first automatic line is usually pretty damned accurate, capturing the mood and balance of the pose, and it remains the basis for the several hours of drawing to follow. Maybe the knowledge that this is just a pencil line lets me feel comfortable and willing to take this blind risk. In any case, I can also go back in and correct here and there. I like being able to erase. It’s a relief after all those ink spattered years, like letting out my gut after I pass my reflection in a shop window.
Then I start remeasuring and seeing if my proportions will hold. I may have to erase an entire shin or redo the foreshortening on an arm — the first hour is all about tweaking and nudging until I can drop down on any point on the body and see that the angles and relationships are right.
The next hour or so is all about light and volume, trying to get a sense of the dimensions and weight of the body. I go back and forth, using the pencil sometimes as a tool that can blur and blend, and then one that makes hatches and crosshatches, creating tone out of marks. I still have one foot in the world of pen and ink, working in line as much as tone.
Finally, I’ll bring out my bag of colored pencils. I quite like all the colors and the fact that every color has so many permutations and degrees of intensity. though they don’t have the agility or smoothness of my sable brush and watercolors.
If you have had any sort of art training, you might be appalled by my technique but it works for me, these stages and homemade techniques, and I am reasonably happy with the process and my progress.
So I quite like the pencil, but it’s a summer romance, not marriage material.
The fact is, pencils make me feel like a wimp.
Maybe that goes with how i’m feeling these days, a little wimpy, a little less confident about my view of the world because I am evolving and changing. So maybe I want to record my life in pencil right now, and not to commit for the rest of time. I will not be getting a tattoo this month either.
Ink is forever. Pencil lines are more like thoughts, fleeting, evanescent, unreal. Any pencil drawing I do in my sketchbook is bound to blur and fade with time. Generally, I want to be confident and see and record the world as it truly is, but in times like these, when my life is turning a corner, and the view out of the window seems to blur, then maybe it’s more appropriate to render them in this fragile and temporary way.
This period of being soft and fragile and hopefully isn’t a permanent one. I’m in transit shuttling between one life, one coast, and another. Transit is a time of indefiniteness when you aren’t sure which suitcase you put your sandals in and if you left your toothbrush behind. But that’s okay, because when you get to your destination you can put everything in its right drawers and hang the pictures and reshelve the books. In the meantime, it’s okay to live with a little blur, to have erasers standing by just in case. Mistakes made in pencil are still lessons, but gentler, less consequential ones. Nonetheless each one helps me improve, perfect my line, tighten my observation, be in the moment, which is what this whole thing is about, this thing called drawing, and this thing called life.
As our plane swooped down over Mexico, endless green filled the windows. My first instinct was to wonder what sort of farming this could be, dense, unbroken and stretching to the horizon in every direction. As the wheels touched down, I saw it was jungle, an impenetrable mass of unruly, complex life. The runways had been cut out of the wilderness but no attempt had been made to cultivate the creepers and trees. Nature was too vast, man too small.
Mexico is a mostly modern country with drive-through Starbucks and TGIFridays. But many Mexicans accept the unrelenting power of nature, impossible to dominate completely when the air is humid and the sun shines brightly all the live long year. Grasshoppers the size of iPhones, careen through the sky with chartreuse scales and hot-pink wings. Raccoons wander into four-star restaurants and take corn chips off the bar. Cars are sun-faded, concrete is cracked, donkeys walk slowly. It’s not a rich country, but that’s not the reason things seem shop-worn and resigned. It’s because Mexicans accept the inevitable encroachment of Nature, that it’s pointless to be fastidious when geckos will wander onto your kitchen counters and carpets of kelp will wash onto your freshly grouted patio.
I like it.
In New York, we have been beating Nature back for 500 years and we think we’ve won. So we can’t help but freak out when mice nibble on the organic granola box, when mosquitos find their way under our 600 thread count sheets, when Hurricane Sandy knocks out our wifi for a week. If Nature gains the slightest foothold, we take it as a sign that our entire civilization is crumbling.
I like that in general Mexicans are so much less uptight about perfection. They are cool if you do things that are a little risky — but hardly dangerous. Things that would have flocks of lawyers descending anywhere in the States. Unsecured seatbelts don’t have those annoying warning alarms. There are packs of cigarettes in the minibar. People build restaurants out of driftwood and light them with masses of candles. Some cars are missing fenders or bumpers and are painted patchily by hand. Most streets have no sidewalks or street lights so walking at night under starry skies can be an adventure.
We sat in a beachside restaurant that served food that would have been the envy of any entry in the NYC Zagat. But before our appetizer arrived, the waiters patrolled through with smoking pails, emitting clouds of burning citronella so chokingly dense we could barely see our $12 artisanal margaritas. The mosquitos and gnats were barely dissuaded but no one bothered to complain to the Health Department, pausing only to reach under our designer linens to scratch the welts.
Mexicans don’t value their lives less than their Northern neighbors. They just accept that we can’t control everything all the time. And that this acceptance makes life easier and preserves resources for more important things. Insisting on perfection makes thing a lot less interesting and spicy. It’s also a losing battle.
Maybe it was the heat or the Negro Modelo but my pen line was a little looser in Mexico. I did a number of scrawled pages in my journal, drawn half lying down, book propped against my spreading gut, mango juice on my unshaven chin. Maybe this was how Gauguin felt.
I am sloppy as a rule, but I’m not always loose. I value looseness because it feels more organic and expressive, more human, more natural, more the way life is. Less uptight, less gringo. Jack tells me his drawing teacher insists they draw standing up, with their pads on an easel, and that they draw from the shoulder, not from the wrist, to make bold and sweeping lines with their whole bodies. Flat on my back on my chaise, I am far from that, but I feel integrated, natural, in tune with my surroundings. My body, immersed in sweat and heat and verdant richness, feels sensual and at ease. My inner critic, the monkey is dulled too. He is chewing lazily on a mango in the shade, indifferent to my drawing. He can’t be bothered to nag me when we have the jungle at our doorstep. In Mexico, monkeys sit on your roof, squat on your car, hoot from the trees above your hotel window. But it seems they stay out of your head.
Over this past week in Mexico, I haven’t been as insanely productive as I might have been. But I have been more in tune with my nature. I’ve dismantled waves, I’ve counted grains of sand, I’ve listened to grackles eat French Fries, and I’ve felt the walls of perfection erode. Rules, goals and expectations, it turns out, may not help me make as much stuff as simply sitting in the sun and letting the world grow on around me.
I am traveling again, this time on the 6 a.m. train to Washington DC. And again, I am thinking about the Voice in my head (I first wrote about it a couple of days ago) and the other ways in which it can monkey with my creative plans.
This jabbering voice doesn’t resort only to vicious critiques to stymy my creativity. It likes to concoct diversions to distract me too:
Like, why make a drawings with the pen that’s in my pocket when I could plan a trip to the art supply store, and burn up money and energy instead? That’ll make sure I end up on the couch, dozing, my new art supplies still in the bag by the door.
Or, maybe I should just check out some of my pals’ blogs, see what they’re up to. Man, they are so creative and productive. I really do suck by comparison.
Or how about a snack? Maybe we should go out for a donut?
Okay, back to work. Wait, I should get some inspiration, do some research. Let me try to find that David Hockney book I have on the shelf somewhere. Ah, here it is. Hmm, so Hockney mentions a Franz Hals painting here, what did that look like exactly? Let me just pop open Google Images and see… Oh, look, that cat is cute…
All this activity makes it seem like I am doing something, but I’m not really. I’m just pissing away time and defeating my creative impulse with thoughts of fine art, chocolate, naps, sex… The illusion of productivity is the bone the monkey throws me. We’ll start tomorrow, I swear .
Negotiation is the monkey’s ploy. If it isn’t condemning or seducing, it’s bargaining.
But remember, the monkey doesn’t want what’s good for me. He is selfish and vindictive. He wants me slow and weak and distracted so he can have his way — uncreative, status quo,
Here’s another ploy: “There’s no point in starting until you have your act together so let’s get the ducks in a row”. A good stalling tactic but I wont fall for it. Back off, chimp. There are way too many ducks and rows are for accountants. Organization is irrelevant to making stuff. Art needs to be messy. A neat stall is the sign of a dead horse. Sure, it’s a good idea to know where you keep your pencils but being anal doesn’t help you create shit (as it were). The random juxtaposition of stuff and chaos is the seeds of art. If oysters were prissy about keeping out all the sand, we wouldn’t have pearls.
The fact is order, security, and perfection are all illusions. Life can never be perfect and again I am just wasting time.
(For some reason, I am reminded of those boat owners who sit in the marina drinking beer on board and never raise their anchors and head out to sea. Rather than adventures, they have the most expensive bar stools in town.)
The ape loves a good fight too. If I find I am quarreling with others and venting emotion inappropriately, chances are that I am not drawing, not writing, not thinking. Or alternatively, I may find myself overworking, nights and weekends (on projects fueled by drudgery and obligation not passion) living out of balance, out of harmony, out of fast food containers, far from my true self. The monkey loves french fries and insomnia.
In my job, I often encounter people who are driven to melodramatics by their inner monkey puppeteers. They act out, drawing attention to themselves, making excuses, having fits, being prima donnas, making demands, when they could just put their heads down and make more stuff. Client questions your decision? Throw a fit. Need to cover up a blunder? The best defense is a good offensive speech of self-righteous indignation. Not.
Making more stuff is the best revenge. Put your creative energies to work coming up with more ideas, not with histrionics. Get back to work.
Another monkey game is monkeying with my health, mental and physical. Am I not productive because I am depressed? Or is the other way round? Is this cancer or hypochondria? Start doing and see what happens to your mood. If something indeterminate ails me, I hang it up for long enough to write or draw a page or two of my dream. See if I feel better, less blue, more energized. My back won’t hurt, my allergies will recede. When I wake up at 3 a.m. with the ape chattering in my ear, I can only take so much lying there in the darkness. So I crawl out of bed, go to my desk and draw or write something, anything, Then my mind is eased, the chimp goes back to sleep and so do I.
How does the Voice monkey with you? I’d love to know…