Jack and I took up life drawing a couple of months ago. Virtually every Tuesday we go to a basement in Soho and spend two or three hours drawing a model or two. When the weather is freezing and we are bored with drawing things in our apartment or in photo books, it’s nice to have something new and challenging to sketch. But there are all sorts of drawbacks too.
The process has forced me to break my habit of drawing only in ink in small books. I now have a huge sketch pad and boxes of graphite sticks and conte crayons and a new appreciation for erasable media.The whole process is very different form my usual process; sort of student-y and contrived and academic, with lots of negative associations about right and wrong ways to do things. Maybe it’s putting me back into a beginner’s mind, but the worse sort of self-conscious feelings of ineptitude rather than a fresh tabula rasa.
Drawing from life forces one to think about drawing quite differently. The human body is so familiar and so strange; one can detect any flaw in the proportions of a drawing immediately and yet it is hard to know intuitively how to draw the curve of a calf or the length of a forearm. There is no substitute for simple, intense observation.
The drawings end up having little value to me. They are not observations from life really and the subjects themselves have no meaning to me. I find much more emotion in my drawings of apples or chair legs in my home than in these studies.
Watch this video tour of some of my life drawings and you’ll sense the critical way in which I look at them. I dont know if we’ll keep doing this when the weather gets warmer, it’s really up to Jack who seems to enjoy the experience ( not surprising — he’s a fifteen year-old boy who gets to sit with his dad and stare at naked bodies all evening) but often ends up getting bored after a couple of hours and ends up drawing just details of bodies or staring into space. He is extremely good at drawing under these circumstance ; even though he’s the youngest person in the room by a mile, his drawings are usually among the best.
I’d also like to recommend Walt Taylor’s self-published book “Naked People and the people who draw them“which has been very inspirational and shown me how far I have yet to go. I urge you to check out the book, buy it, and support an extraordinary and unheralded artist.
One of the many wonderful things about where I live is that’s just a block from Washington Square Park — 10 acres of trees and benches and squirrels. It’s where we walk ourt dogs there several times a day. It’s where Jack learned to skateboard. It’s where we read and draw and chill. We’ve written books about it, made films about it. It’s our front yard.
Almost two years ago, we learned that the park was going to be renovated and, in short order, a huge ugly cyclone fence encircled most of it. Ever since we walked around the perimeter, like kid’s outside of Willy Wonka’s factory. I took to drawing what I could see of the park from my kitchen window, asecond rate substitute. Last summer was the hardest leg of the exile: no fountain, no concerts, no lolling on the lawn.
Last week, I got an excited text message from Patti: the fence was coming down! We’ve flowed into the park and discovered it was (almost) worth the wait.New flagstones, rich lawns, lovely plantings, new benches and lamps. The fountain has been moved to line up with the Arch and Fifth Avenue and the park seems a lot less ramshackle and scrappy but still like home.
Here’s a collection of drawings done before after and during our years in exile. (Click on a thumbnail to open the gallery)
Patti had a birthday last month, the 22nd we’ve celebrated together. When you’ve been together as long as we have, you have to think a little hard at birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas time to keep things fresh, to make sure that you can still express how much you love each other without falling back on the tried and trite.
Anyway, this year, I decided that one of the ways I would commemorate our history together was to take our ancient home movies and transfer them onto DVDs so we could watch them over and over. We have scads of old video tapes but the cameras that recorded and played them are long defunct. In fact, we have never looked at any of them since we initially shot them – films of our first trips together, of our wedding, of Jack’s early days and so on, all moldering in shoe boxes. Now we have a dozen gleaming DVDs, a box set of our lives up to about 1997 or so. We have all watched them together over and again, particularly the ones when Jack first learned to use the potty and his first big argument with us on a trip to Nova Scotia.
One of the more profound DVDs is the one I made when Patti had her accident and I was alone each night at home with the baby. For two months, I made videos of our daily life to take up to the hospital to show Patti that we were okay, that life was going on, that she had something to come back to. These are the hardest tapes to watch because I feel so sorry for the me that was, giving Jack a bath, rocking him to sleep, listening to music (Teddy Bear’s Picnic, The Ugly Bug’s Ball, Let’s Go Fly a KIte…) that was once so sweet and important to us but forevermore will signify the hollowness of those days.
Funnily, the more I got into drawing, the less video tape I shot. As the films peter out, my journals expand, so our whole life is recorded but just in very different media — and with very different effect. I read recently that when you look at old photos, they stir up old memories, facilitating recall. But when you look at old home movies, those images tend to actually replace your memories of the periods being recorded. When you think back on those times, your brain tends to pull up scenes from the films rather than organic (but not necessarily as reliable) memories. My mum had an 8 mm. movie camera when I was a baby and the images from those old reels are the only scenes I can remember from when I was two or three or four. Maybe nobody has much memory from that time, and mine are quite vivid, but I know they are all just scenes from one movie or another.
When I watch these old movies, I sort of vaguely remember the times when they were taken. When I look at these old videos, my experience is often of surprise. I think about how young well look, or weird my hair was, or how I seem to speak out of the side of my mouth. The experience is from outside — I am watching myself but not as myself. In fact I would venture that most of my experience is not radically different from what a total stranger or an acquaintance might think of the same footage.
The drawings in my journals, however, summon up a completely personal and intimate feeling. It’s more like a time machine than watching TV. I am in the moment, I am me now and also the me I was then.The act of drawing, painting and writing rather than just pushing a button on a machine, forms completely different sorts of memories, When I look back at a page, even one that’ s more than a decade old, I remember so much about what I was doing that day, my mood, the weather, even the smells in the air. The experience itself is deeply embedded in my head and just glancing at the drawing takes me back there.
I am so glad to have both sorts of records of my past (not to mention dozens of photo albums and zillions of digital snapshots). I can travel back to any period of my life now and see my life as a continuum. There are so many lessons to be learned by looking back and seeing where one has come from, who one has known, how one made choices, how one felt.
Creating these records, particularly the ones that consists of just some feeble drawings and a few scratchy notes, is probably one of the most important things I’ve done. That sounds odd perhaps, that recording and observing one’s life could be of the most important things one can do with it, but that is the true purpose of art — at least to me. The value of taking a step back, of putting a frame around a moment so that it can stand for a thousand other moments unrecorded, to learn from one’s mistakes and to cherish one’s blessings, to hold up one’s experience so that others can share it and learn from it, these things seem like the very purpose of art — and of life as well.
I’ve just marked five years of keeping this blog. The milestone prompted me to think about how much time blogging, corresponding, promoting, writing,self-justifying and so on have absorbed of my free time. It has been a wonderful experience, but the very thing that started me on this road has suffered the most — namely, time for my own drawing.
So I have decided, for an indeterminate period, to take a break from scanning and posting and uploading and monitoring and responding (and I’ve been pretty lax at even at doing that recently). I will be using that time instead to draw and paint and write and think and learn and be.
I shall keep a bit of a record of how that’s progressing on the right hand side of this site, a mini blog within a slumbering blog where I can ruminate on what I am doing and learning with no intention to make a mark on anything but the pages of my journal.
Eventually, I shall probably return, recharged, refreshed, and newly resolved.
In the meantime, feel free to read the 842 posts that precede this one or any of these books. Or better yet, join me in getting off the computer and doing some drawing instead.
Until we meet again, I remain,