EDM Challenge #6: Draw your favorite well-loved object … or a childhood toy

Today I took my old Ted down from the shelf in my bedroom where he watches over my sleep and asked him to model. He slumped in agreement.

On my last visit to the art supply store, I impulsively bought a chunky rod of graphite and it has been lying patiently on my desk waiting to be called. I havent drawn with a pencil in ages but it seemed a good choice to capture Ted’s fur. It’s soft and smooth to draw with and the lines vary as I push down, seeking sharper edges sometimes, or just gliding with the broader facets of grey. My hands got rather grimy as I drew and I pulled out a pencil with an eraser tip to try to clean things up. The eraser couldn’t really eradicate the smudges but the pencil let me emphasize some finer details than the nub-nosed, crayon of graphite.

My brain flipped back and forth while I studied the tones before me. Should I blend the graphite to make shadows or should I crosshatch like I do with a pen? As you can see, I never made up my mind but went back and forth.

I do hope the drawing doesn’t blur away when I close the book. Maybe I’ll add a coat of fixative and a sheet of tracing paper to protect it.

Drawing trash

In the process of my endless rearrangement of my apartment, I managed to reveal a completely bare wall in my living room, one of the few in my home, and realized it called out for a big square painting. I mentioned this emptiness to my pal, Tommy Kane, and yesterday he appeared with one of his masterpieces, a lovely canvas of the Lone Ranger. Tom even hung it, as perfectly as only such a talented art director could do.

It was a beastly hot day, so, once the ladders and hammers were put away, we decided to visit the NY Sanitation Department’s maintenance garage on the banks of the Hudson River. We set up our folding armchairs in the shadow of some especially fragrant trucks and unwrapped ham and cheese croissants. After lunch, we broke out the drawing gear and spent an hour or two drawing the grimy complexity of rows of ailing trucks.

Tom is capable of spending weeks drawing a single scene so I tend to take my time too whenever I draw with him. As a result, these drawings tend to be very thick with lines, dark, layered, probably overworked. But there’s nothing like sitting with an old buddy in a garbage garage parking lot on a sweltering day, pen in one hand, book in the other, croissant crumbs in one’s whiskers, cawing seagulls overhead. Try it sometime.

Spring: a new Sketchbook film about, well, me

I really enjoy making our little series of Sketchbook Films. With each one we become more ambitious and discover new techniques and gear to use. Last weekend, we decided to make a fairly simple one — no dollies, Winnebagos or helicopters.  I got in front of the camera again and left Jack to man the lens for the action sequences then Jenny covered off my drawing process (the fourth Beetle, Tommy Kane, was off doing something productive and couldn’t join us on this one though he approved the final cut as being Sketchbook Films worthy).

I wanted to show a simple pen and ink drawing, done outside on a gorgeous day. The weather didn’t cooperate and instead of gorgeous we got clouds and rain which meant things got more complicated and technical and we actually had to shoot bits and pieces over the course of four days and in three different parks.

It was still fun to make though horrifying as always to see myself on screen. It may surprise you to know that no aging makeup was used on this production — that’s actually how decrepit I now look.

Further Providence

Jack and I are just back from our first post-acceptance trip to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where Jack will be spending the next four years. We ate in the dining hall, prowled the dorms and had in-depth tours of the department Jack and another prospective freshman are considering.

First of all, I am consumed with jealousy. I want to spend ten hours a day in drawing class, I want to build furniture prototypes, I want to work in the lithography studio, I want to learn to set type and study art history and read novels. I want to be eighteen again!

Instead, I’ll have to be happy with the fact that my boy will get to do all those things and more.

I was impressed by the dynamic between teachers and students. We sat in on several classes and they weren’t big droning lectures or didactic prescriptions. The teachers seemed genuinely interested in working with each creative person, discussing their work one-on-one, giving specific pointers and encouragement, bringing in other opinions from the class, cajoling, inspiring, illuminating.

One of the teachers in the furniture design department took us on a tour of the work that the graduate students are doing — so imaginative and gorgeously crafted. Then we talked about the overall perspective of the school and what it hopes to accomplish for the people who graduate from RISD. Of course, the type of focus of the students and the school on professionalism and post-graduate career opportunities varies with the economic cycle, but he said that the goal is not on getting graduates a job but making sure that they can earn a living doing the things they love. That takes many forms, many directions. Sure, some may end up as baristas but most have creatively constructed creative careers, solving problems, making things.

Our day at RISD opened my eyes to the  real purpose of a great art school and of pursuing life as an artist. I guess I hadn’t thought about it enough or in my most cynical moments had settled on a vague and not very convinced view of the purpose of art school: a sort of self-indulgent playground, filing students with jargon, pomposity, and convoluted rationales for abstract art forms, a mill for perpetuating the institution of the gallery establishment and validating the views of artists who couldn’t make it as such and so had become art teachers.*

Here’s the revelation I had: RISD’s purpose is to give students the skills to discover and distill their creative viewpoint, to give them the confidence and ability to communicate it clearly to others, to develop their creative problem-solving skills, to find where they fit in the world and how to apply their skills to be useful.

That’s true whether you are a painting major or a printmaker, photographer or industrial designer. In fact, by declaring a major you are not just embarking on the road to developing the skills that will make you a better designer or sculptor. No, you are picking a passion. When you are passionate about drawing or painting or carving, you will hang in there to develop the commitment, focus, and perseverance  to learn the larger life lessons about how to be a fully-formed creative person. They take lots of time and hard work and tough setbacks to acquire and you will only stick to it through this discomfort if you are in love with what you are doing. You will learn how to take criticism and use it to make your art better, or stay up all night to polish your idea, or scrape your canvas after weeks of work and start again, because you passionately want to make great furniture or fashion or photography. Passion +  perseverance = greatness. As Milton Glaser says, “Art is Work”.

All RISD freshmen spend their first year doing the same thing: Foundation studies. Each week they spend a full day each (from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m. plus a night’s worth of homework) on drawing, 2D design and 3D design. They also get a taste of all the other disciplines so by sophomore year they are ready to choose a direction to specialize built on this solid layer of disciplined hard work.

Our visit confirmed what I have learned over the past decade and a half of illustrated journaling.  From the get-go, I chose to draw things that interested me, not just bowls of fruit and naked strangers. This subject kept me engaged so I could develop the skills of drawing. I didn’t get bored before I established the habit because I wanted to record the things of my life and everydays. Nothing is more interesting to me than me and so I could carry on past all the lousy drawings and ink blots until I achieved facility. This is the principle behind a great art education; I’m fortunate to have stumbled upon it on my own.

Jack already knows it — witness the dozens and dozens of sketchbooks he’s already filled. But now he will learn to make art as if it mattered, to fall in love with it on a professional level, and  to reach amazing new heights. I’m so proud of him and lucky I get  a front row seat to what he does next.


Cross training


My drawing muscles are out of shape after a few months of underuse. As I get back to the habit of journaling again, I am taking my tools out one at a time to see how I want to work, how to express myself, how to become fluid and unconscious once again.

My first drawings felt scratchy and inept to me, so I put down the pen and picked up the brush, wanting to work in color and built up layers of perception. I drew my stuffed pheasant with my little winsor newton paint set and a sable brush.

My first attempt felt too stylized in the face and I didn’t capture the iridescence of the neck feathers.

This is more like it. He has a chckeny expression in his eye which is right. My brush also feels good in my hand and I can make all sorts of marks with it in a controlled fashion. Let’s have one more go.

My colors are nice and bright here. My little watercolor set, while filled with high quality paints, can sometime lead me to make murky and muddy paintings as I over mix.

I turn the page and the pheasant and get out some other media.

Roz had been extolling the virtues of gouache lately so I dust of my set of opaque watercolors and give it a whirl. It’s so different to work with colors that aren’t translucent; I’m used to layering and layering until things come into focus. These paints force me to commit much earlier to my tones. I also have to work from dark  to light, I think. Or maybe it’s the other way round. II dunno, I just can’t get the hang of it and cant be bothered to figure it out. Lots of other tricks in my bag to play with.

I have been using my Lamy Safari fountain pen for most of my drawings over the past year. I like the feel of the pen’s flow and the blackness of its line. It’s mildly flexible but I wish it was even springier. Drawing with a pen forces me to pay far more attention than does the brush; I am committed to every mark and I can draw much more specifically. My crosshatching is a little less even than I’d like it to be but I quite like this drawing.
I liked drawing this one more. It’s done with a dip pen and a steel nib (no idea which one — I have a big box of randomly collected one and I know by feel which ones I like best). This pen gives me much more variation in my lines and it’s more interesting to draw with. It’s trickier to control too. My lines are a less regular and perfect and I never know exactly how the nib will behave. The springiness also means it can spring back and attack the wielder, spraying splotches and drips or suddenly scarring the page with a dark irregular line. It’s an adventure.

I pick up my sable brush again and dip it into my India ink. It’s a feeing experience, like drawing with a super liquidy marker and also has a fair degree of unpredictability (Or is that just a function of the fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing?) I make a specific kind of graphic image with this brush, almost comic booky, and unlikely to become my everyday way of capturing the world around me. A fun detour nonetheless.

Colored pencils are just too much work. I don’t like swapping pencil after pencil to find the right color and then being limited to the hues I have ( and I have a huge collection of pencils, none of which are exactly right). I cross hatch and layer them to reproduce the colors I see but I don’t like the process or the results, I don’t like seeing white paper showing between the lines either. I am trying to approximate what I do with water colors and I may well be doing it wrong. Pencils do give one a fair amount of control and the colors are fairly bright but they are also smudgy and fiddly.

My love for Lucinda Rogers‘ work inspired me to combine a sper fat (B) Faber Castell PITT pen  with a super fine one (XS).  I’ve done a few drawings like this but I have  a lot to learn about this technique. I dont fully understand when to use the fat one and the XS doesn’t glide on the rough watercolor paper of my Moleskine.Still, it has a nutty quality that I like.Finally, I unpack my huge collection of Doc Martin’s super electric translucent water colors. I just love these colors, so bright and bold, but they need to be handled with care. Like colored pencils, they come in zillions of hues (I have over a hundred little eyedropper bottlesfull) but they can be mixed. They tend to be much more fluid that pan watercolors so it;s easy to overload the brush and make things gloppy. This isn’t the best example, but generally I love the ways paintings come out when I use this stuff.

This was a liberating experience and gave me lots to think about. I also got to know my pheasant roommate better, always a smart idea.