Going to Van Gogh


Inspired by van G, I have been drawing with a bamboo pen of late.

On Friday, Jack and I headed up to the Met to check out the van Gogh drawing show. It’s the first time that all the known drawings have been assembled in one place — they’re fragile and very sensitive to light — and, after Jack’s school conferences in the morning, I decided that visiting them was a better way to spend my afternoon than revising Chase checking ads. Hooky is good for the soul.
There are four or five rooms full of drawings and a half dozen paintings and they are arranged chronologically so you can get a sense of his progress. Right off, I was struck but how much better he was at the beginning than I’d thought. I have always disliked the Potato Eater period and thought that his early drawings would be hamfisted and ugly. In fact, they are quite accomplished; however, he had the beginner’s anxious tendency to overwork. Most of the drawings are thick with heavy-handed lines. It also seemed that he was so anxious to develop himself into a commercially-viable genre painter that he was unoriginal and struggling. He even spent a very brief period in art school; his academic nude is embarrassingly mawkish — he is clearly not working from instinct but trying hard to fit in. It was only after he’d left Paris and found himself in Arles that his drawings really took off.
I discovered that he was always a bit of an art supply freak — particularly in his first few years, he did drawings that used graphite, ink, watercolors, thinned-down oil, pastel, all in the same pictures. His most lovely works were done in just sepia ink and the variety came from his lines rather than his media. He had so many ways of making lines, swirls, hashes, dashes, circles, dots, capturing the rich textures of the countryside, the soft waving wheat, the dried, gnarled trees, the prickly cypress leaves, the delicate wildflowers… WIth just reed pen and ink, he could capture layers of mists sfumattoing off to the horizon. Most evocative was the way he rendered the harsh, ever-noon light of Southern France; the high contrast and deep shadows makes the heat wave off the page.
I was struck by things he does that I probably should do but don’t. He’d redraw good drawings and perfect them. Back at the studio he’d paint from drawings done in the field. He’d do drawings of paintings he’d done and send them off in letters to friends, relatives, potential patrons; I was interested in how in different drawings of the same painting he would emphasize different aspects of the composition —  making it more abstract, more colorful, more accessible, depending on what would appeal to the particular audience. I just never work my stuff through that way. I like to think of VvG as being very spontaneous and visceral but he was obviously a lot more thoughtful and deliberate than I am.
He gave a couple of the paintings a painted edge which the catalog explained as an attempt to make them special and more ready for sale. One even had a crude marbleized paper matte. SItting on one of the rare benches at the show, I wrote in my journal, “How could people at the time not have bought these? I want to take them all home.”

Clarification

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I’ve been following a discussion on the Everyday Matters group and it has gotten my wheels turning. The talk has been about the utility of specific drawing assignments suggested by others, whether there’s really utility or purpose to everyone deciding to draw a piece of fruit one week, a pair of shoes the next, and then sharing their work and discussing it. While some people love it and have made it the main business of the group, others have complained that it has diverted the purpose of the group and distracted it from its original intention.
I’m not interested in taking sides because I think any sort of drawing is a good thing. However, I’d like to clarify what I’m up to with my drawing. While I have done some nice drawings here in Rome, I’m not interested in being a travel writer or an illustrator or a fine artist.
I want to live my life to its fullest and I find that drawing what I encounter deepens my appreciation. While I share my work with others, I make it for me. When I have unusual and interesting experiences like I’m having in Rome right now, my drawings seem to have a wider interest. But my core philosophy is that every day matters. Every single day. The day you meet the president. The day you have a baby. The day you find a special on sirloin at the supermarket. The day you get your shoes back from the cobbler. I find that drawing helps me to commemorate those events, large and small, dull and transformative. For me, that’s the point of art. To deepen my understanding of my life.
If someone else’s suggestion that I draw a particular thing opens my eye to fruit or glasses or the pattern of sunshine on my counterpane, then that’s great. But ultimately, we all live different lives and are handed assignments by each dawning day. Each day we’re handed a new set of challenges, new rivers to ford, new choices and wonders and pains and lessons. If we think the day is full and familiar, we need just dig deeper into it, look for fresh insight, peel back the layers of the onion. I find that drawing helps me do that.
Art lessons familiarize one with the tools but they are not a substitute for digging one’s own ditches, constructing one’s own nest. They are just abstractions and life is very concrete. I enjoy what I learn in life-drawing classes, but learn far more by drawing my wife’s sleeping body, my reflection in the bedroom mirror.
To draw, one must draw. Exercises and academic and books provide examples of what one might do, but experience is the real teacher. Take tomorrow as your assignment. Draw your breakfast, your bus stop, your bathroom wall while you’re shitting, your laundry as you fold it, your children as they watch TV, your pillow as you wait for lights out.
Be bold with your exploration. Capture what you do and have always done. Then push yourself to new experiences if only to draw them. Visit new neighborhoods and draw them. Meet new people and draw them. Try new foods, read new books, smell new flowers, do anything that will deepen your understanding and your appreciation of your world and your place in it.
I don’t care if you think your drawings suck, if you are ashamed to show them to anyone else. What matters is that you pause and contemplate. If your record of that contemplation is inaccurate, try again. Feel deeper. See deeper. Slow down. Relax. And tomorrow, do it again. You aren’t being graded or evaluated on your drawing. No more than you are being evaluated on your life itself. The only thing that matters is you. What you experience. How you experience it. How much you get out of this day and the next. This is your life. Dig into it. Embrace it. Notice its curves and angles. Explore its corners. Feels its edges and put them down on paper. The pen, the page, are just tools for you to take time and slow it down. I can’t make you do it my way, any more than I can force you to live your life my way. You decide, you forge your style, you pick the line that draws your life.
Take tomorrow and instead of hesitating and questioning and doubting and fretting, draw your breakfast, draw your day. Then try it again the day after. With each successive day, you’ll be clearer and deeper. If you miss a day, don’t freak out or beat yourself up. Just take on the day after that.
Share the results if you’d like. By sharing you will find commonality and support. But maybe you don’t need more than self sufficiency. In that case, keep your drawings for yourself. Or toss them out as you do them. The drawings don’t matter, the drawing does.

The Art Spirit

police-car

“Genius is not a possession of the limited few, but exists in some degree in everyone. Where there is natural growth, a full and free play of faculties, genius will manifest itself.” — Robert Henri
I have always been a fan of Walt Disney. Not just of his animated films but of a certain image I have of the man himself. It’s not the dictatorial egomaniac that some biographers have depicted but the gentle, welcoming character who appeared at the beginning of each episode of the Wonderful World of Disney — small moustache, grey gabardine suit, warm smile, standing in his book-lined office.
When I flew home from LA for the weekend, I decided to re-screen one of my favorite videotapes for an infusion of inspiration. It’s an episode of the Disney show that I Tivo-ed a couple of years ago in which Walt answers letters from art students seeking direction in life. His advice to them is to read a book called “The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri. Henri was a painter and art teacher in the early part of the twentieth century, a terrifically inspiring guy who taught the generation of American realists that emerged in the 20s; people like Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis and John Sloan and Rockwell Kent, many of whom I like a lot. He encouraged his students to paint what they saw around them, urban scenes of everyday life — gritty, bold, and true. Henri’s students collected their noted from his lectures and assembled them into The Art Spirit and it has been a valuable guide for artists ever since, full of observations and ideas that are accessible and encouraging.
One of Walt’s correspondents asks him how he can develop style and Disney responds via Henri, with something like, “Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.” To demonstrate how individual vision is really at the heart of style, he takes four animators form his studio, men who by day are paid to subvert their individuality in the service of creating a unified look for Disney movies and films them, of a Sunday, painting a tree. Each has his own way of painting, but more importantly his own way of seeing. One describes the tree in terms of architecture, like a solidly engineered structure on the landscape. He paints the tree as if it were made of steel pylons. Another artist is fascinated by the movement of the tree’s bark and studies the surface textures in detail. A third sees the tree’s relationship to the sky behind it and studies the negative space of the branches. A fourth observes the entire tree as unified shape and works on its relationship to the rectangle of his canvas.
Then we see how each artists interprets his vision in different ways through his materials. One paints of a big slab of plywood thrown down on a rock, painting with long brushes in a muscular way. Another draws in charcoal and then fills in with casein. When the paintings are done, they are juxtaposed and we can really see the varieties of worldviews in the four men. Even though they are talented artists, the real lesson comes from their willingness to put their own characters in their work.
It’s all shot in muddy black and white, typical old TV images, and the painters are not fine artists showing in NY galleries, just modestly paid artisans working for the Man. But the little film demystifies the process of art making in a wonderful way. It’s also a reminder of how the world has changed. Hard to imagine these days prime time Sunday night TV being devoted to something as ethereal as this. And the Disney Company, marred by well-publicized corporate battles and an surfeit of marketing and promotion, seems pretty far removed from the gentle art lesson on this show.
If you can, Tivo the Wonderful World of Disney, and see if you stumble on this gem. Or pickup a copy of The Art Spirit and be directly inspired by a great teacher. Try to keep in mind the wisdom of this thought from Robert Henri: “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”
— Written in a rental car in a rainy parking lot by the Rose Bowl, a few miles from the Walt Disney studios.

Chillin' with Dylan

stones

Last week, I was hit by a sniffling cold midday. I spent the last few hours of the workday back at home, in bed with tea and Bob Dylan’s new memoir. By the next morning, I’d bounced back and finished reading the book.
For most of my life, I really had no interest in Dylan until about seven years ago when my friend, Bob Dye, more or less forced me to listen to The Freewheelin’ and Highway 61. The music softened my resistance but Pennebaker’s movie, “Don’t Look Back” triggered the sort of instant conversion usually limited to evangelicals. I haven’t paid much attention to the albums from the mid 1970s to the mid 90s but own and play most of the early and late records fairly regularly.
Despite all this enthusiasm, nothing prepared me for Chronicles, Vol. I. I had long assumed that , though I admired the music, the man was arrogant and withdrawn, the sort of person one would never want to spend ten minutes with. Instead, I discovered that Bob Dylan has all the hallmarks of the quintessential creative person (and I’m surprised that this surprised me).
First I was struck by how much he knows about music, all sorts of music, from classical to bebop to rap to doo-wop to the cheesiest sort of pop, and is able to extract something useful and inspiring from all of it. Like Picasso, he believed in borrowing from everywhere … but himself.
Secondly, he has always challenged himself — not to be successful financially and critically — but to constantly grow and branch out in new directions. Except for a period where he admits he was in some sort of creative stupor, he has always been motivated by some flickering notion in the back of his head that slowly grows and blooms as he feeds it. It’s not to ‘show the world’ or provoke the industry, but because he is always feeding himself with new influences that spark fresh ideas and directions.
Thirdly, despite the fact that he is such an important maverick, he has deep roots in those that came before. His love for and appreciation of roots blues and folks music has always been the core of his art. He has solid foundations, ones he forged himself, and he has been layering on top of them for fifty years. Reading about his early record collection had me revisiting mine, pulling out Sleepy John Estes, Dave Van Ronk, and Harry Smith’s American Folk Music once again.
Next, I was struck by his enormous generosity. He is lavish in his acknowledgment of all the influences on his art. He talks about what he learned from all sorts of surprising influences, everyone from Frank Sinatra, Jr. to Daniel Lanois.
It was fascinating to hear how he first came to write music, how content he had been to simply play others’ compositions, and how hesitant he was to compromise the body of folk music, sort of like if Horowitz began playing his own piano sonatas rather than Ludwig Van’s. Slowly Dylan began to introduce his own additional lyrics to folk standards and then eventually to create his own from the staff up.
While he was committed and hard working, Dylan never comes off as terribly ambitious. He wants to keep moving forward, to play for larger audiences so he can have new creative opportunities but he never set out to be a superstar. In fact, in his admiration for pop singers and Tin Pan Alley composers, he acknowledges that playing Woody Guthrie songs hardly seemed the road to fame and fortune, even in the folk-mad days of the early 1960s. Even recently, when he has been touring a lot, it’s to stretch himself creatively, to play music publicly that should be played, to shed the nostalgic classic rock trappings and talk to new audiences in new ways. Miles was much the same way. The still-touring members of the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, etc. have no such creative ambitions.
I’d urge you to read the book and see how it strikes you. I believe it has a lot in it for anyone contemplating their own creativity.
——————
A number of people have written to me for a certain kind of advice. Typically, they’ll ask how they can become professional illustrators or, even more frequently, how they can get books published. I tend to answer such letters less often than I used to because I realize that I don’t have the answers. But I think Bob does. Here are a few landmarks:
1. Figure out what you’re about. What do you like to do, what are your media, your subject matter, your style.
2. Explore. Getting to #1 requires flexibility, openness, a willingness to explore and to try on lots of costumes.
3. Focus. Spend less time on success and more on art. The more you work, the better your art, the more likely things are going to happen. And figure out what you really want. At one point, I just wanted my name on a book jacket, any book. Now I have a clearer sense of what I am willing to spend my time on. And consider your work from the point of view of those who you want to want it. Learn about the industry you are trying to break into and the audience you are talking to. Don’t just send off stuff to inappropriate and uninterested publishers. Understand the market.
4. Move to New York. You may have to make some sacrifices but if you’re not where it’s at, you’re not where it’s at. This applies to those hellbent on commercial success (but, of course, there are many other ways to be successful). But most importantly, when you are in the deep end of the creative pool surrounded by others full of energy and ideas and examples, you learn to swim a lot better.
5. Be generous. Seize every opportunity to thank people and include them in what you’re doing. Give your work away then make more.
6. There are no small parts. Play the coffee shops, pass the basket, don’t just hold out for the Garden. Be willing to illustrate school play programs or diner menus, publish a zine, start a blog etc. whatever will get your work out into the world.
7. Meet like-minded folks and be actively involved with them. Meet other artists and creative people but don’t just talk about the business of art (god, how dull) but share your passion for making things and infect each other.
8. Never complain, never explain. Be yourself and be glad of it. Creativity needs light and nourishment.
9. Above all, do what you love and love what you do. Don’t try to figure out what you should to to be successful but how to successfully express what’s makes you you. There’s nothing more pathetic and boring than those who have done everything they can to mold themselves to the prevailing notions of what is popular. That already exists (it’s on Fox and it’s called American Idol). You need to blaze new paths, your own paths. No one does what you do. Keep it that way by expressing the true you, the inner you.
Remember, Art’s most important job is to light the viewer’s fuse, to create new feelings and insights, to create by sharing. By sharing yourself, you make the world a better place. The important goal is not to win gold records or Hummers or groupies. It’s the same as the goal of every share cropper who picked up a Sears guitar and wailed the blues. To be authentic, to express yourself. That may lead you to Cleveland and the Hall of Fame or, even better, to an enriched feeling of what it is to be human.

Idol worship

crumbI was about fifteen and my idol was Eric Drooker. He was in the eleventh grade, the first boy in school to have an earring, to wear black Danskins and clogs and eyeliner and modeled himself on David Bowie. We would hang out at his place in the East Village and talk about comic books and girls and listen to Frank Zappa records. Over his bed, Eric had a bookcase full of underground comics in individual plastic sleeves. Before long, I shared his obsession with Robert Crumb.
Crumb was bold, scandalous, loved old records and voluptuous women’s bodies, hated the hypocrisy and materialism of American culture, and drew like an angel. We studied his crosshatching and adopted his spelling and his politics. It’s an obsession I’ve continued to feed for thirty years, though my Crumbiana is all dog-eared and well thumbed rather than in pristine collector’s condition.
Eric went on to publish his own graphic novels and draw covers for the New Yorker and I’m sure people keep his work in plastic bags of their own now. You can check some of it out here. My own path was more humble.
However ….when we talked to Crumb tonight (he and his wife Aline are visiting NY from their home in the South of France), Patti asked him, “What was the best butt you ever saw?” which threw him into a paroxysm of revery and he waxed eloquent about Serena Williams. To me, he said “I love Everyday Matters. Thanks so much.” and my fifteen-year-old self died and went to heaven.
Now, I wonder, is his signed copy of my book in a plastic sleeve?