On making shit.

turd

A recent turdlette.

It’s so easy to despair. You sit down, uncap your pen, start drawing and then realize you have drawn a large, stinking turd. It’s inescapable and it’s bad. So bad that the stench drives you from your sketchbook for days.

Congratulations, you are on your way. The fact is, crap is the inevitable byproduct of the creative process. It’s supposed to be. And it happens to us all.

(And now you know why the background of my blog is brown).

Let’s get some perspective. I recently took a huge book out of the library that contained all 2,137 known works by Vincent van Gogh. It almost broke the rear axle of my truck. Now, bear in mind that those are the 2,137 pieces that have actually survived for 125 years. You just know that there were several times as many that Vinnie or his brother or some skeptical landlord trashed, burnt or flushed long ago. So, maybe van Gogh made five or ten thousand drawings and paintings over his ten years of art making. Three a day. Sounds reasonable considering the tear he was on.

How many are great? Ten? Twenty? Let’s go crazy and say, a hundred — that still means his hit rate was, generously, 1%.

I love the movie Amadeus. But let’s face it, it’s fiction. The idea that Mozart just sharpened a fresh quill and wrote down the Requiem or the Jupiter or Don Giovanni or any of his other 623 works of varying quality as fast as he could take dictation from God is just nonsense. He  squeezed out turds every day, just like the rest of us.

Picasso left behind 50,000 works. On some days, he made five paintings. The Cahiers d’Art, the complete catalog of his works, takes up 33 volumes and costs $20,000! Did Pablo think all 50,00 were genius? Did his gallery owner? I doubt it. So, these are some of the greatest geniuses of all time and even they didn’t hit home runs every time at bat. That’s why they worked on paper — because it can be crumpled up and hurled against the wall in frustration.

We have good reason to be afraid of failure.  Even if we actually are great.

In our commercially rapacious world, we don’t allow for crap (although there’s certainly plenty of it). The minute we set someone up on a pedestal, we start working to pull them down. If you write a great book, have a great show, make a great record, expectations will be immediately ratcheted up. But your initial success will probably be followed by something that isn’t quite as good. Overnight, you’re the Knack or the Stone Roses or Terence Trent D’arby. Or Skeet Ulrich. Or Lindsay Lohan. And once you stumble, you’re dead Meatloaf. There is little tolerance for failure.

Better to just be Harper Lee and quit while you’re ahead.

You are different. Because you are learning (hopefully for the rest of your life).To succeed in the creative process, you need a long-term view. Thick hide. And you need to keep working. You can’t get hung up with self-doubt and give up at the gate. You can’t mistake a failed drawing for a failed you. You aren’t your turds. You just aren’t.

And stop insisting on perfection as the price of moving on. Even Tiger Woods isn’t Tiger Woods. You have to swing at lots of balls, before you slowly inch your way from van Gogh’s brown potato paintings to Sunflowers and Irises. It’s a battle of inches. Slowly but surely, your turds will smell sweeter.

Learn from your mistakes. Otherwise all the pain you endured from making that bad art was just a pricey ticket you never got punched.

Bottom line: If you’re going through a period of making bad art, you must go on. You can take a break, but eventually, soon, you must go on. Because otherwise what you’re running away from isn’t the way you put pen on paper. It’s fear of who you are. And you’ll never escape who you are. Instead learn to accept and to love it. Flaws and all. And then to go on. Trust me, you are more together and less smelly than Vincent van Gogh.

Don’t be tripped up by a few bad drawings.  Keep them and learn from them and let them improve your future art and your future self.

People who never produce turds die of constipation.

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.”