It may seem hard to believe, upon looking at my current bloated form, but there was a time, years ago, when I went to the gym and lifted weights every day. Seven days a week for over a year, I reported to the gym every morning at 7 a.m. to strain and sweat. I had no Schwarzeneggerian ambitions, no need to pump myself up and strut around the neighborhood, rippling and flexing. No, instead I was driven by a certain degree of self-awareness.
I determined that if I gave myself any wiggle room, I would break my habit. I had to be iron-clad in my commitment in order to persevere. I’m a creative person and I knew that I would easily come up with all sorts of imaginative excuses for quitting so I vowed to deny myself any sort of exit and, rain or shine, I would be at the gym doors at 7 a.m. and do my best to combat gravity.
After several months, my sister noticed the change in my belt size and asked if she could join my Spartan regime. For a while, she showed up daily and grunted and strained at my side. Then, one February morning as I awoke in the dark and listened to the sleet hammering against the window, my sister phoned and suggested that it might be okay to skip a day. In a moment of long regretted weakness, I agreed and rolled back under the blankets.
I never went back to the gym.
This is a scarily pathological story, I know. I think I have mellowed since those muscle bound years and am a little less inflexible in my commitment to developing myself. However, recently, in a moment of self-assessment, I had to ask myself if I was truly as committed to creative freedom as I claim to be in my writing here and in my books. Am I really open to anything? And why, when I give others advice, do I assume that they need the same short leash I do? I am afraid that I hand out far too many ultimata and that my last book, The Creative License is far too rigid and dogmatic. I wrote it assuming that it was for people who needed a friendly but unyielding guide to getting started on the road to self-expression and frankly a little ass-kicking. Since its publication some readers have balked and complained that I am hypocritical in simultaneous claiming to be a cheerleader for creative exploration while laying down all sorts of rules and systems. The thing people rail against most loudly is my insistence that they draw only with a pen rather than a pencil. I have urged this suggestion on readers time and again because it worked for me, strengthening my conviction in how I see and draw, the quality of my line, my confidence in what I am making, and more. But some people don’t like pens and resent my dogmatism.
When Roz Stendahl sent me a handmade book bound with soft, ocher Rivs BFK paper, I decided to challenge myself with a new direction, at least for the length of a single book. The paper is far too soft and absorbent for pleasurable ink drawing and so I decided to fill it with pencil drawings. I bought several boxes of Derwent pencils (12 each of Graphic, Drawing, and Graphitint), a pencil sharpener, and several types of erasers.
Erasers are a new tool for me and gave me the most cause for concern. In ten years of drawing, I have avoided equivocation; if I make an inaccurate observation and lay down a line I can’t take back, I just go with it. If the face becomes lopsided, so be it. I let the initial error mold the lines to follow, telling myself that it’s okay, it’s my style, it’s human. This is how I have always drawn; it’s an anxiety that keeps me on my toes, that is my drawing experience, like a small animal in predator-country, a little wary, senses finely attune, knowing one mistake can lead to disaster or flight into unfamiliar land.
I began with a few drawings around my house, mainly of my sleeping dogs. I started with harder pencils and drew with a light sketchy line, the same sort of pressure I use with my Rapidograph. I did some cross hatching, then added a little color from one of the Graphitints, a sort of soft, muted color pencil. I also avoided erasing, not really thinking of it most of the time. The drawing looked small, crabbed, dim and anemic.
Then I drew some pictures when we attended the Dalai Lama’s lecture in midtown. As usual, when I am listening intently, my drawings were crappy and unpleasant to make.
Then I collected some photos and began to draw portraits. Each evening after work I did a couple, getting bolder and more confident with my lines. I erased a little bit, but not much. Occasionally I would do a straight graphite sketch to note the landmarks of the face then I’d go over them with color and really lay it on.
I began to feel more free as time went by and my drawings became more aggressive though probably les accurate. I felt a little more happy, laying on more and more color, making lines that varied in strength, expressing my feelings by pushing the pencil harder and harder against the page.
After a few weeks of pencil drawings, I stopped and looked back.
I saw several things as I flipped through the pages. For one thing, there is enormous difference in the expressive qualities of different hardnesses of lead. I thought I’d like the “H” pencils for their clarity of line like my pen. However, they don’t work especially well on soft paper. They also leave a faint line that seems uncommitted. I was initially averse to the softer pencils, disliking their tendency to smudge and smear. But there is something quite satisfying about a creamy “B” pencil line gliding often paper with a little tooth; it’s almost like drawing with a lipstick.
Another revelation was the way in which I tended to express light and color. I usually work in two pretty different media: pen and watercolors. With the former, I love doing intricate crosshatching to express shadows and highlights and creating varying patterns to suggest different colors. In water coloring, I like to layer transparent paint and build up tone with many applications. With pencil, I found myself tilting back and forth between these techniques. Harder pencils led me to build up line patterns rather than varying the darkness of the image by using pressure on the lead. With softer pencils, I would layer color upon color, cross hatching one way with one hue, then another way with a different shade. I avoided smearing my lines or softening them in any way but still the effect was more painterly than linear.
Perhaps with more practice I could resolve this schism but the fact is … I really don’t want to.
By and large, I don’t love the way pencil drawings look. They often seem grimy and overworked, smudgy from the artist’s palms. There is a sketchy quality to soft pencil drawings that I don’t like either, a certain lack of clarity that bugs me. Oh, there are exceptions galore of course. I could mention any number of artists whose pencil drawings are masterpieces but I rarely see once I wish I’d made. I had more and more disdain for the pencil drawings I’d made. They were just ugly and weak, and I rarely found even a section of a drawing that I thought was interesting.
Last weekend, I went back to drawing with pen and ink — and what a relief it’s been. I have done dozens of careful ink drawings since, all pen with just a touch of ink brushwork on a couple of images. I felt like I do after coming home from a lousy vacation, eager to return to my familiar old armchair and enjoy a cup of tea as only Patti can make it.
I realize now that I draw as I do not because of inflexibility but because it is me. I can walk a mile in another man’s shoes but it gives me blisters. However, I am glad I took this trip through the land of Graphite. It is wonderful to unstrap the lead and splash free in pools of ink once more.
If you’d like to see selections from my experiments in pencil, visit my new Pencil book gallery