Seeing the forest, oh, and the trees

tree-1In The Art Spirit, my pal Bob Henri talks about the importance of that original intention which sparks one to make a drawing or a painting. What caught my interest? And, all critically, how do I hold on to that intention so my art is infused with that interest? It’s not enough to decide to draw a tree, one must feel something about that tree and have that feeling right in front of one’s eyes and one observes. His advice is to work fast and furiously, blocking in the big masses while the flame is still burning.
My usual technique is to move slowly, with a blank mind. I enter a meditative state and let my eyes cruise around the contours, laying down every line with equal weight until I have explored the whole object. I rarely try to feel anything as I do this but I must be. I choose certain subjects over others because I like them or am curious about them. So I decided to be more aware and to explore some other ways of looking at a tree a few blocks from my hotel.
I spent a good long time working in ink first. I was very into the carbuncles and folds of the tree’s skin. As I drew, I became increasingly aware of the tree’s colors: it was quite yellow but cloaked in purple, two complimentary colors. I kept thinking about how these colors inter-played and then I painted over my line with watercolors. I was using my new paper, this Yupo pad I picked up on the weekend. The ink went down very smoothly on it but had a tendency to smear. As I painted I was pretty aware of how unnaturally the paint went down, pooling on the paper instead of soaking in. The colors remained pretty vivid, undimmed by the fibers, but it all felt temporary somehow. I couldn’t really let go, worrying that the whole thing would wipe of the page when I was done. I also felt like I had a long lens on — I was only looking at each square inch of the tree but had little sense of the whole as I drew.


While the pad lay drying in the afternoon sun, I decided to have another go and grabbed my trusty Japanese journal with its 100+lb paper ( intended for drawing but it’ll take watercolor pretty well) and my Faber-Castell PITT bold brown brush marker. In three minutes, I knocked out a sketch, thinking all the while about the flow and energy of the tree. I did a caricature of the yellow and violet and capped my pen.


Next I took a black PITT pen and thought about the tree’s architecture, how it anchored into the ground and how the limbs were bolted onto the spine of the creature. I bore down harder on my pen, drawing firmer lines and painting in more defined shapes of color.


Finally I took my cheap Sheaffer italic pen, loaded with dark brown non-waterproof ink and this time I thought about the movement of the trees, how the carbunckly growth flowed like water or vomit from the trees crotch, how the limbs pulled in different directions and how that tension held the tree together and propelled it into the sky. Now the tree seemed almost serpentine to me, writhing out of the soil, phallic, twisting, alive. The watercolors dulled the lines but it felt okay, as if the fusing the whole thing together.

I look at these four drawings and I’m not sure yet what conclusion to draw about them. I like the earthy energy of my last drawing (as if it was made by a goat or a mole) but there’s still something lovely and light about the first bird-like one. Each has something to say in its way, like the varied members of a string quartet, the ingredients of a cassoulet.
One conclusion is clear: Drawing never fails to amaze me; how it can rip open the doors into your head, how it can transform the world and your place in it. Nobody but me can see this process, this unfolding, as it happens to me. All that’s left for others to see are the pages in my journal, the ass wipings on paper — but never the feast.

A good thing (Nancy Howell's story)


From my visit to Martha’s trial last year. The Morning News editors were advised by their lawyers not to run it in my story. I’m sort of glad as it’s a fairly shitty drawing done in the height of nervous anxiety at breaking New York law.

My office is in a large building on Manhattan’s West Side. Our neighbor, one floor down, is the headquarters of Martha Stewart Living OmniMedia, so we expect to see the old ex-con wandering our halls and lurking around the showers any day now. Her stock has been soaring since she went into the clink, so I imagine we’ll hear well mannered caws of redemption from the many willowy blondes we see in the elevator each morning.
I like Martha (though I wish she’d lighten her ass up a tad) but I’m not going to talk much more about her today.
Instead I want to tell you about Nancy.
nancyNancy grew up in the South West, I think it was Albuquerque. She was always a creative person and, over Dad’s objections, she majored in Art at U of NM because she loved to draw. This was in the 70s when, frankly, drawing was not the thing. Instead her instructors were pushing performance art, conceptual art, earth works, that sort of thing. Before the first semester was over, Nancy, beaten, changed her major. She decided to become a physical education instructor., She figured art and PE both had something to do with anatomy, so she’d still be in a related field. When she graduated, she got a job as a substitute gym teacher. She would lie in bed each morning with the pillow over her head, hoping not to hear the phone ring and call her in. She hated being a gym teacher.
Nancy loved playing music. She was in band after band, playing the clubs and bars around town, making a little cash here and there. Not enough cash, however, so she got a job in a bank. She was the teller in the drive-through, sending deposits back to the branch over a pneumatic tube. She hated this job too and sucked at it.
One day, Nancy was on her lunch break at the TGIFridays across the road. It was decorated in that nostalgic style that blossomed in the ’60’s, full of mustache cups and barber poles and merry-go-round horse amidst the spiderplants. Hanging over each table was an ersatz Tiffanty lamp. Nancy deiced there and then that what she wanted to do was to work professionally in stained-glass. She found out that one of the country’s largest commercial workshops for stained glass was right there in Albuquerque and she soon had a job there.
Nancy’s friends were envious. She’d quit her straight job and was making money entirely through creative endeavors — glass in the day, music at night.
Nonetheless, Nancy still wasn’t happy. She realized that despite her field, she wasn’t really an artist. The glasswork she did was not original; she was just working from pattern books, filling orders from templates. And her band, good as it was, was really just a cover band. If they ever played original compositions, the audiences squirmed and the bar owner would complain. Albuquerque ain’t no CBGB and there was little appetite for true originality
So Nancy shed her job, her hometown and her husband, and came to New York City. Soon she had a job with the premier stained glass workshop in the country. She worked on St. John the Divine, on corporate headquarters. She even redid the glass in the Statue of Liberty’s torch. For the next fifteen years or so, she was at the top of her game. She had a new band with her new husband and they played the cutting edge clubs of the City. She had two kids. She seemed fulfilled.
Then Nancy reached the next crisis. She was the #2 person in the #1 firm. If she became #1 she would sit in an office at a computer all day and cease plying her craft. She’d topped out. She also felt past the age when she really enjoyed carrying enormous panes of glass into the grimy tops of old buildings. The work was more physical than she wanted. Time for a new page.
The part of glasswork Nancy had always enjoyed the most restoring or creating the hand-lettered legends that adorn big windows, naming the saints, the dates, the greats of the Church or the Corporation. So she decided to try her hand at something brand new to her. During her last year as a stained glass artisan, she spent each night taking classes and practicing calligraphy. She went to workshops, she learned materials and she worked hard at her craft. When the year was up, she opened her first business. She sent out a small announcement to editors and art directors and she was off doing work for weddings, for publishers, for all sorts of exciting and glamorous clients.
Within three years, Nancy went from a novice to the main calligrapher for Martha Stewart. Whenever you see some ornate lovely penmanship in MS Living, chances are Nancy did it.
Is she fulfilled now? More so than ever. But she tells me she’d still like to push further, to create pieces that are she writes herself, works of pure art that are not commercial but express herself at the deepest. She’s working on that now. Nancy and Mark and her kids are about to move out of the City to concentrate completely on their art, to play more music and to breathe fresh country air.
Nancy is a constant reminder to me that you can get what you want, no matter how far fetched it might seem. First off, know what it is you actually want. Then be willing to work hard, to take risks and most importantly, to listen only to the little voice in your head that first spoke the dream.
I hope Martha got a chance to listen to her voice as she weeded the prison grounds. Sadly. I have less faith in her than I have in Nancy. Or in you.


pen-sunbathersThe only downside to my vacation (and this will give you an indication of what a hopeless nerd I am) were a few pen problems. First of all, though we packed virtually everything in the house into our car for the trip, I left my trusty Rotring Rapidoliner in my bedside table drawer. The only reason for such an oversight is that I had just begin to use a device called the Rotring Art Pen — a sort of fountain pen that Richard Bell uses all the time and seems to swear by. I have been interested in drawing with a fountain pen of late because I like the more variable line it gives (I love my Rapidoliner because it flows so smoothly but the line can seem a little mechanical and rigid at time) and so I have been two-timing the Rapidoliner with this long, black stranger.
The Art Pen has one obvious design flaw, the back end tapers to a near point which mean that when you take off the cap, you can’t snap it onto the back and have to lay it down somewhere and then be mildly distracted about whether or not you’ve left it behind which may effect your drawing in a sort of stone-in-your-shoe sort of way.
Then, poolside, I discovered a more significant problem.
The Art Pen comes with a half dozen little prefilled plastic ink cartridges. The ink, I discovered after laboriously drawing this geezery couple and then beginning to slather on the old water color, is not waterproof. The ink began to branch out into spidery tendrils and my lines became fuzzy.
Fortunately I had bought a special bladder, the “Piston Fill Ink Converter”, that allows me to fill the pen manually and later I tossed out the feeble cartridge and pumped in some India Ink.
Another minor problem arose which is that the bladder, which is a sort of syringe that you advance and withdraw by rotating a little stick at the end, doesn’t seem to draw entirely of its own accord and one must ocasionally recrank it up and refill the nib. If you don’t do this very carefully, big drops of ink fall onto your drawing.
All that having been said, I continue to use the Art Pen but plan to send Richard a nasty note.
I’ll admit, I am a fickle pen owner. I search for years, find perfection, but my eyes keep roaming. Another pen I keep on the side is called the Grumbacher Artist Pen (there’s not alot of creativity in the pen naming community, it would seem) which has the teeniest needle point and the same pointed-end, cap-losing design as the Art Pen.
It is not refillable but the line is so fine it seems to last forever anyway. I did a drawing or two with it on my trip and still quite like it but for optimal performance, use very smooth paper.
Finally, the Art-Pal Creative pen — a very groovy-looking, gold pen with a brush nib that you fill with the ink of your choice. Looks, however, are horribly deceiving. It is a piece of junk. I filled it, used it briefly twice, and the nib sort of crumbled and the tip broke off. It might be possible to replace the nib but the pen came from Jerrys Artarama with no instructions and no way to buy new nibs. I’ve written to them for explanation but so far they have been mute.


And finally, I am determined to pick up some gouache today. I tried working with watercolor and no line drawing but the results felt wishy-washy. I need to be able to add a layer that is more defined and sharp and bright on top of watercolor and I have resorted to white ink put on with a dip pen and then tinted the ink with watercolor which works okay but is fiddly and hard to control.
I’m sure if I paid better attention to my lessons from Roz I wouldn’t have this dilemma but it seems easier to just buy more art supplies.

By George

up5thWhile I was drawing this, after dropping Jack off at school and sitting under the Washington Arch with its two newly restored statues of the general/president/slave owner/lumberjack, I heard something soft land on the ground ahead. Then, through the proscenium of the Arch, a man strode onto the stage – a 30ish black man in a tuxedo, sans the jacket, which he’d just thrown at the arch. He yelled at the top of his lungs: “Fuck you, George Washington!” Fuck you!” Then he picked up his jacket and strode offstage.
Another morning in New York City.

I drew the lines with my Rapidoliner and inked in the trees with Dr. Martin’s.

John Hancock

jacks-noteWhen you’re designing a book that will be entirely handwritten, you have two choices. You can be as patient as Frederick Franck and get a bunch of pens and set to work, writer’s cramp be damned. If you are as inconsistent and sloppy as I am, better to follow SARK’s example and have a font created based on your handwriting. So when I made Everyday Matters, I worked with Alexander Walter to turn my vaguely cursive upper/lower case writing into a font.
The font worked well for the book but I was troubled by the fact that the point size is set by the height of the tallest letter, including descenders and ascenders. That meant I was also ways having to scale up the letters and that if I cranked down my leading, I would have letters from different lines bumping heads and tails.
Recently I decided to try a new one, based on my other style of handwriting, a printed uppercase face with slightly larger letters for caps. I wrote out the alphabet and all the punctuation and numbers, then copied out many surreal sentences like “You hope havoc and chaos will ebb when you tattoo a kiwi at the zoo” and “A yoga guru will hew the yucca with a hacksaw.” I made a high res scan of all this palaver and emailed it to Alexander and a couple of weeks later, he sent me a link so I could download the font. Alexander also gave me a macro that runs in Microsoft Word to randomize my text. This useful feature takes all of the variations on a given letter that I have printed and randomly substitutes them in to my text. Instead of the same exact Y, for instance, it will insert one with a longer tail, an angled shaft, uneven tines, etc. This helps to give the font the little bit of chaos that makes for verisimilitude.
Jack immediately asked if I would load it onto his computer. I wonder why.
PS: About 50% of Everyday Matters, captions, some of the nuttier pages, is handlettered.

Art Supply Porn


I didn’t even know I had a great aunt Greta (twice removed). But I was happy to take the call from her lawyer, the executor of her estate. Now I am the lucky owner of a 5,000 square foot studio loft not far from our home.
It is a quiet space but when I open the floor to ceiling French doors, the birds’ twittering can be heard from Central Park below. The ceilings are high, about 18 feet and, but for a few graceful, sculpted columns, the space is open and expansive with freshly painted white walls and well varnished, wide plank floors. The most notable feature is the enormous skylight overhead that floods the room with sunshine on even the gloomiest days.
Greta, who apparently enjoyed my drawings when I was six, also left me an open ended, unrestricted trust fund for art supplies and furniture, so I have been busily organizing and shopping for the past few days.
First, I had my friend Dean help me plan out the space. We covered the eastern wall with cork for pinning up drawings and things torn out of books and magazines. Next to it, we erected twelve foot high bookshelves with one of those sliding ladders. In the corner by the door, I have a seating area with a Mies leather couch (for afternoon naps) and three Eames chairs and walnut stools. There’s a large kitchen and we just had to have some of the counters redone (I love to draw at the kitchen table) and a new fridge with an ice maker installed.
There’s another wall for storage with oak flat files and cabinets for storing supplies. I have two different drawing tables, one of which is a BF23 from Italy and can be angled, and raised with a foot pedal. I have a wooden print rack and several taborets that roll around on the floor and hold pens and stuff. They’re delivering the G5 Mac tomorrow afternoon and the server, which will hold my MP3 collection. Then the guys from Harvey Electronics just need to hook the system up to the Niles Audio AT8700 speakers they installed in all the walls and we’ll have Miles playing in ever corner.

So, off to the store.
Let’s start with watercolors. I want all the colors that Daniel Smith makes, every series, big fat 15 ml. tubes. Then I’m also going to try out a few other brands, so I’ll get all three of the Maimeri sets that Catherine Anderson advertises. I’ve had fun with the Dr Ph Martin’s transparent liquid watercolors I own but I want to move up a notch to their Hydrus colors so I’ll pick up all24 colors they make. I see Schmicke makes powdered metallic watercolors – they could be fun to use in my journal so I’ll take those: rich gold, pale gold, copper, silver and aluminum. Here’s something called Ox gall Liquid; no idea what its for but I like the sound of it. In the basket.
Next, I want the best brushes money can buy. Really great watercolor brushes always spring back to a natural, razor sharp point and I think male Kolinsky red sable is considered the best (they’re made from the tips of animal tails which is mildly disturbing but maybe they just trim off the tip and it grows back like a lizard’s. In any case, I’ll ask the lawyer if the trust fund can make a contribution to PETA or something). Here’s a #14 brush for $311.95. I’ll take three. It’s by Isabey and they’re nickel plated. But the #14 is pretty chunky; for safety’s sake, I should get the whole line, 00 though 12. And, for fooling around with, maybe those Squirrel quills. And a 2″ squirrel wash or two. Oh and some fun brushes: a few of those filberts and fans, a set of lettering brushes and those weird angled tear drop brushes.
I’ll need some good new palettes, the big English glazed porcelain ones. Grab half a dozen. That watercolor bucket looks interesting – it has water basins and palettes inside it and there are holes in the hadles to keep brushes upright. Oh, and this Rinse-Well thing is cool. You fill the big bottle with water, it fills a basin with clean water and when it’s dirty, you press a button and it flushes it into a hidden reservoir. Cute and just $30. I need three. Might as well get this Sta-Wet palette with the lid that seals the paint like Tupperware. It seems a bit fiddly and I can always just get fresh paint but, oh, what the hell… in the basket.
Watercolor canvas? Apparently it has a special coating that takes the watercolor, you can lift off mistakes or even wash the whole image off the surface and start again. It doesn’t rip or shred and comes in huge rolls so you could do paintings that are 4 and half feet by 18 feet! Wow.
I also need loads of Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper. I want to try the hot press too and both 140 and 300 lbs. I love the Canon Montval Field books for journaling but also want to try out these Michael Rogers books with 140 lb. cold press acid free paper. Take a half dozen of each. This Nujabi journal looks good too: 25 130 lb. deckled pages in a Royal blue cover. In the basket. Lots of empty pans and half pans and an enameled steel box to hold them. Some nickeled brass palette cups. Check. One of these steel tube wringers that squeeze out paint. Check. A few dozen empty jars and squeeze bottles. Check.
I’ve never used a Mahl stick to rest my hand on while painting. It’s very Rembrandt looking. In the basket. And a thing called an Artist Leaning bridge, a transparent shelf that sits right on top of your page so your grubby paws don’t get on the work.
Here’s a very cute and must have item, the art traveler, a combination back pack and stool, with aluminum legs and lots of pockets and padded straps.
I like these huge art bins with the casters on them, full of individual boxes that neatly stack. Even a pocket for my wireless phone. Do they have to be such an ugly shade of purple?
I’m getting a huge paper cutter for bookbinding. I am used to the arm cutters (which could live up to their name an sever a limb) but am intrigued by the Rotatrim that rolls the blade along a bar. They have a massive 54″ one here that’s a bargain at just a little over a grand.
I need pencils: These Faber-Castell Polychromos come in a box of 120 colors and , for some reason, a CD-ROM. I like the idea of pencils so sophisticated you need to use a computer to work them. I’ll take the matching Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils too. In a wooden box, just $300 a piece. I’ll also need an electric eraser, just in case I ever make a mistake. These triangular TrioColor pencils looks interesting. Oooh, and these color pencil easels that organize everything in rows behind elastic straps and Velcro closures. Very nice.
I want to try some new media too: Encaustic crayons that you apply with a special electric iron. British scraper board for beautiful cross hatched drawings tat look like engravings. I’ll take some in black and some in white. And foil too. Oh and a set of cutters and scrapers you need to work on them.
No pastels. I never like drawing with them and I never like the look of pastel drawings. Except for Degas. And Lautrec.
Some gold leafing. I’ve used cheap stuff and it’s very dramatic but I’m going for the real stuff this time, 22k Double Gold and Pure Palladium too. The perfect way to class up a humble line drawing.
I’m going to have to order some clay for sculpting but I might as well pick up the armature set, the metal mesh and the riffler tools for shaping. This rotating sculpture stand is cool. It goes up and down and has a little adjustable shelf for tools. And this clay gun extrudes different shapes of clay, like a grown up play do maker, only in steel. Ultimately I want to get a welding setup and a kiln but this’ll do for now.
I love pure pigments, no idea what to do with them, but I want a few jars of them sitting around: Sennelier sells a nice starter set for just $1250 in a handsome wooden box.
I want some gouache to try out for the first time. This Lukas brand looks sort of interesting but I think Roz urged me to get Schminke. Better ingredients, less chalky and dull.
Now that I have all this space, I’m going to do some oil painting. I have painted on canvas before but always hastily, using a dining room chair as an easel and acrylics because they dry fast. I’m intrigued by Williamsburg paints. They’re made here in New York by an artist who based his recipes on research into the paint houses that supplied Monet and Cezanne. I’ll need 150 ml. tubes and the colors go from $25-145 so I should probably get the whole range, looks like about 150 colors. I can’t stand the smell of turpentine and how it gets into everything so I better get some Turpenoid and a citrus based thinner.
Brushes: If in doubt, buy the most expensive. In this case, more Kolinsky Sable. I’m getting a set of flats, of rounds, of filberts and of liners: grand total, a mere $1802.15. Hang on, these color shapers look like fun. They’re silicone brushes which I can use for applying and scraping paint, sort of like more elegant paint knives. But I should get paint knives too. Here’s a set of 60 different ones for $450. Done. Oh and a smock. Here’s a nice black one, cotton, lots of pockets. And though I won’t be getting a beret to go with it, I like this life sized human skeleton made of wood. Beautiful, and look, life sized posable manikins. They have men, women, boys and girls. A lovely family for just about two grand. And a posable giraffe too. Other miscellanea: a reducing glass les for looking at my canvas without having to step back and … duh, an easel, I’ll get two: one for plein air, a french easel that folds up into a little box to strap on my back like Van Gogh did. And then a big one made of oiled oak wood with cranks and shelves and casters. Here’s a nice one, called appropriately, the Manhatttan and it’s just $1707. Greta would approve.
Finally, canvas, double primed cotton duck to start with, and then a roll or two of Belgian linen and loads of stretcher strips and canvas pliers and a really good staple gun. And a few maple panels for painting on too, the really thin kind, satin smooth. Oh, and a Bob Ross video, maybe “More Joy of Painting”.

(This grotesque fantasy of excess was inspired by the arrival of Jerry’s Artarama catalog in our mailbox. In the real world, I ended up buying a bamboo sketch pen, for $1.79).