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.

Getting back in shape

The last year has not been a great one for drawing. At least not for me. After being a dad and an employee and a housekeeper, the little spare time I have had left has been consumed with the two books I have been putting together. I’ve had to do a lot of drawing to get those books done, of course, but it’s certainly not been the sort of art that fills my dozens of old sketchbooks. It’s not really a record of my daily life.

A few weeks ago, once the last of my book files was picked up by the FedEx man,I had to admit that I had pretty much lost the habit of drawing and I’d better do something about it. I just kinda didn’t wanna.

Even though it’s been a mild winter, it’s not been conducive to drawing outside so I sat for in the kitchen for a while and looked at the odds and ends on the counter and tried to psych myself up. Instead, I sighed. I just can’t draw my pepper mill again, nor a box of raisins or my knife block. I have a new, great-sounding but boring-looking radio — its a black rectangle with a small monitor and two knobs. Most of the view out my window has been blocked by two newish NYU buildings. They are as dull looking as my new radio and, in any case I’ve drawn them over and again over the years. My mind whined: there’s nothing to draw. But really, beneath my feigned boredom, lurked fear. An anxiety that maybe I had lost my ability to draw. Look at Tiger Woods — even great talent can slip away in the night and leave you swatting the air.

I had to find a way to ease back into the water without scaring the muse away. I didn’t want the pressure of making great journal pages or writing witty marginalia. I just wanted the visceral pleasure of making lines and slowly and carefully studying something, anything. I unearthed an empty, spiral-bound journal with not terribly nice paper and filled my fountain pen. Then I picked up the dogeared copy of last week NY Times Magazine and let it fall open to a random photo. Then I began to copy the picture into the book, focussing on cross hatching, spiraling lines in neat rows, lining up a smooth gradation of micro dots, making ribbons of greys and undulations of silky blacks.

The old pen was a little rusty but not nearly as bad as I feared. And soon the sweet flood of neurotransmitters swept over me, like emptying a too full bladder, and I entered the zone.

So I made a small deal with me. Each morning after my breakfast was chewed and the French press was still half full, I would do one drawing from the morning paper on one page in the book. At least one. If the urge was there and the coffee held out, maybe I’d make a second.

Most mornings I fill a page (and I don’t beat myself up about it if I miss a day to give the dogs some extra time in the park or to make an early meeting). And the fun is back.

Granted, I’m making drawings of unknown faces from news photos, not the sort of things I want to fill books with, but I figure, what the hey, it’s spring training, and the season will eventually  start for real. Meanwhile, just keep loosening up the shoulders, stretching the hamstrings, and shagging those flies.

Self Distortraits

As I flip through my last few journals, I see that I am more and more drawn to drawing faces. Maybe that’s just a function of winter — when the weather is warm I can go out and plunk down on the sidewalk somewhere and draw landscapes, buildings, dogs being curbed. When the weather is inhospitable, I sit at my dining table and after I’ve drawn every object in the room, I flip through magazines and start drawing faces.

I tend to draw a lot of self-portraits — not become I am so fabulously handsome but because my face is always handy, right there, wrapped around my eyes. I’ve done hundreds, none of them even remotely alike. This winter, fiddling with my computer, I started taking distorted pictures of myself with my laptop’s built-in camera, then distorting them further with dip pens and brushes and sumi ink.

They’re part of my effort to do more than just draw exactly what I see but to add some feeling to the exercise. Of course, it’s impossible for me not to inject some subjectivity into any drawing. That’s enhanced when I keep it loose and free, the flaws enhancing my point of view.  But I find that when I start with something that’s unfamiliar, like the bulges and twists the computer puts into my face, I tend to pay more careful attention, take nothing for granted, create something that looks like a photo in the degree of detail; and yet feel free to push the lines further and add more sweeping grotesqueries.

I’m done with series for now as the sun has come out and my park beckons

Brush Twice a Day

Maybe I’m my own worst enemy. Or maybe I just love being a novice. Or maybe I’m bored too easily. But if I gaze back on the course of my passage across the infinite drawing landscape, I look like a veering drunkard, swerving between POVs, pens, paper, subjects, experimenting like Dr. Hyde. When I talk to people I know who are successful professional illustrators, they seemed to have done all this experimentation back in art school and then settled on a style, a technique and a set of tools long ago, so their work is predictable and knowable — that’s what make it commercially viable. When it comes to tools and techniques, I tend to be a serial monogamist. For a while I was madly in love with drawing with grey markers and white pencils on butcher paper. Then I was passionate about using the teeniest possible Rapidograph point on watercolor paper in the smallest size Moleskine, colored with water colors. I went through a period of just doing comic strips in pencil and shades of grey ink. I have always liked the effect of rough, indifferent or spidery marks, splattered with ink, grubby, and wild. In part, that’s a necessity because I am impatient and incapable of neatness. But I like it in others too, from Ronald Searle to Francis Bacon.

My newest journal is big, about 8″ x 12″. Normally I would never use such a large journal because it’s too big for my scanner. Now I’ve decided not to care. Its paper is pretty crummy, too, just ordinary stuff you’d cram into a Xerox machine– the ink easily bleeds through it. And I am not using a pen — just a plastic brush which I dip in a bottle of sumi-ink. It’s a waterbrush but it’s too clogged for the reservoir handle to work properly so I dip it in a puddle of drinking water which I pour on the pavement in front of me. And instead of writing careful, ornate captions with my dip pen I just write some sort of crappy looking note with the brush on the opposite page.

As I describe all this, I wonder is it a matter of some sort of artistic self hatred that’s making me work in this slovenly way? Or am I bored? But no, I really like the feeling of freedom I get from slashing at the page in this way. The drawings have yet to reach any sort of aesthetic that I am completely pleased with but I feel nice and loose and unfettered. I don’t care if the pages are perfect ( I had been becoming so anal in my last book that I was drawing less and less, rarely having the time or mood to be so deliberate) and I like how they are warped and winkled. This may be a summer fling but it’s already forming sweet memories.

Jack Ckomicks


My comic drawing style is still developing. I’ve given myself three handicaps: I’m drawing small, with a brush, and from my imagination. Despite my reservations about my drawings, I do like the look of these wee moleskine pages filled with greys.

I have also set myself another task. Every day, Jack tells me some story from his day and I try to turn it into a comic. I am working to develop a Jack-like character that I can repeat frame after frames, story after story.