My Summer Romance

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.

On drinking the water.

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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.

The Voice continues

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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.

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(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…

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.