Thinking outside the books.

gallery garage

A canary sits in its cage, gazing through the bars. Year after year, it watches the world beyond and dreams. One morning, it notices that the cage door is open. The canary catches its breath and waits to see when it will close.

Eventually, the canary hops onto the edge of the door and pops out of its cage. It flies around the room, sits on the back of the couch, perches on the bookshelf. An hour later, it returns to the cage and goes back to gazing through the bars, dreaming. The door is still open. So is the window beyond.

Freedom is not easy. Security, comfort and familiarity are.


Many birthdays ago, long before I had the habit of drawing, my mother and my sister chipped in and rent me a studio for a month. It was the most terrifying gift I had ever received. I went down to Desbrosses Street in Tribeca, and walked into the studio. “Mine, all mine,” I muttered under my breath. The room was about fifteen feet square and empty. I took out a pad and a piece of charcoal and wrote about how I felt having studio all of my own. I filled several pages with writing in charcoal, taped them to the wall, and left.

I came back a week later and made a small collage from cut-up pieces of magazine. I taped that to the wall and left. A week after that, I drew colored lines on the collages with a highlighter marker. The final week in the studio, I brought in a photo of my grandfather and a large canvas. I painted a very bad copy of the portrait onto the canvas. At the end of the day, I left the canvas, the collage, and the charcoal writing on the studio, locked the door, and never went back.


When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had planned to work in the second bedroom of our house, to sit at a small desk in the corner and write my new book. Then I saw our two-car garage, 300 or so feet of emptiness. Like the garage, I stood with my mouth wide open. I spent the first week, filling it with tables and shelves and cubbyholes.  I spent the second week sitting at my desk, writing my new book and rearranging bottles of ink. Occasionally I would draw in my journal, using a fountain pen and a white pencil.

I spent the third week thinking. I realized had managed to reproduce my office in New York. I had a lamp, a rug, a laptop, a phone, a box of thumbtacks. I ate lunch at my desk and surfed the web. I was even filling my calendar with a record of my daily doings in case I had to fill in timesheets at the end of the month. All that was missing was a couple of account executives and a client.

So I went to the art supply store and bought whatever I wanted (if you remember my old essay, “Art Supply Porn“, you’ll know my fantasies are legion). At first, however, that just amounted to a few tiny palettes for gouache and a bottle of ink. Oh, and a block of 14 x 17” mixed media paper.

Back in my empty garage, I opened the block and did a tentative self-portrait in ink. This simple act I was breaking one of my cardinal agreements with myself. I was making drawing, with no writing , that was not in a book. No wonder the self-portrait looked like I had just eaten something bad. Then I did a gouache painting on the block and pinned it up next to the self-portrait. Then in a fit of pique, I got a house paint brush, dipped it in inks and drew a huge painting of Tim on the back of an empty Ikea box.

I felt slightly winded and rather nauseated. I took out my journal and told it what I had done, revealing my betrayal and the dim feelings I had about it.

The next day, I bought a 64-box of Crayolas and some tempera and did a wax resist portrait. Then I did some more gouache paintings, then a painting of the back of the house in poster paints on cardboard. Soon the garage wall was full.

michael-ave-hi-resAThe following week, I sat on the corner of my street holding the fattest Sharpie I could find. On a big sheet of cardboard, I drew the house across the intersection. When I had filled the whole board, I went back to the garage and got another piece of cardboard and continued the drawing, a big, grubby, dog-eared diptych.

michael-ave-hi-resBThe next day, I continued the drawing, working my way down the street. When I was done, it was eleven and a half feet wide. Then I added gouache, creating a cheerful portrait of another glorious day in my new neighborhood. Just as my hero David Hockney was transformed by the California sunshine, I felt a call to use candy colors and bold lines and to work as big as all outdoors.

Click to see it bigger.

Now I am working on a drawing that is as big as my garage wall, fourteen feet in all, a broad panorama of all the crazy houses arrayed along the Venice canal. I even added a gondolier.

My sketchbook now looks a bit small and grey but, despite my sudden expansiveness, I love it still.

If you are getting little set in your ways, check out the door of your cage. The world is wide and a little terrifying, but it’s wonderful out here.  You don’t need to chuck your job, your home and all the rest, but try flying around the living room a bit and enjoy the view. There may be a cat out there, but if you fly high and far, you’ll be safer than you are trapped in a cage with an open door.

35 thoughts on “Thinking outside the books.”

  1. I don’t know how you manage to consistently write in such a profound way, but thank you. I feel that this story could have been written just for me as I am about t embark on a very adventurous (and scary) journey.


  2. Hi Danny,
    I love your new “cardboard-painting”, this looks so “sunny” and I guess, your feeling a little bit semiliar like your hero David Hockney … “transformed by the California sunshine”…
    I need this “sunshine-therapy”, too. 🙂
    These days, the warm sun is back again in Germany and my colors become more shiny while painting…

    By the way: “Cardboard-Painting” is a good inspiration!


  3. Wow! I LOVE these paintings.
    Hockney-esque yes, but also very Danny. The colors, the pieced together perspective – I want one of these!!!


  4. Please never stop writing Danny. Feeling “trapped,” reading about the bird in the cage is an inspiration to step out, fly around the room, and get a different prespective. Your writing is inspirational, thanks for sharing your works with us.


  5. magnificent! These are so delightful to see, and your process is much appreciated! Thank you for this post, and those lively big colors!


  6. You have a way with words and an artful hand. Sometimes we just need to know the door is open…thanks for a message we all need.


  7. Thank you for your writing and sharing your art, Danny. I stumbled onto your blog after reading An Illustrated Life, a book that I pick up and wander through at times. I’ve always wanted to paint a mural kinda thing.. Now I’m thinking, cardboard is a great place to start! Thank you!


  8. I have to say you have taken the reuse, repurpose idea to a higher calling. 🙂 I do think we are creatures of habit and it’s good to shake things up now and then. Great post and love your triptitch. I was sure you were going to say you hung it all on the wall and went back to your little room. 🙂


  9. I hope you never have to creep back into your cage if this is how you fly. I’m wishing for protective gesso over the cardboard and good paint so these paintings could be preserved for the next 100 years, but it’s really a next step, like your first drawings when you went around your kitchen showing us how to draw beauty out of mundane things in the cupboards. Get some more cardboard and keep going. Your authentic voice is showing.


  10. Hey Danny,
    I have been watching your blog recently and thinking that there were some time gaps since you moved to California. I guessed there was some “project” lurking in the background. The huge cardboard painting was sure worth the wait!


  11. Do you know Plato’s Allegory of the Cave? That has a life’s worth of reflection in it.

    Thank you Danny. What a rich inner and outer life! Kathy


  12. This IS exciting and Inspiring too! My cage door opened this past week when I decided to stop one art form that took up my time and energy for 7 years (art quilt making) and devote time instead “just” to drawing/painting. Outside my cage looks different as I fly between my desk at home to the streets of Italy (this week) at Somewhere to Sketch via Street View. It’s all fun. After two years drawing religiously in the same restaurant it was time to shift gears.

    Your huge expansive painting on cardboard is a colorful roadmap to many new things to come I bet!
    Enjoy the journey!


  13. Wished the canary had come with you as your camera man, and had filmed everything you so infectiously describe. Your writing & reporting create an (almost) as satisfying documentary. Fabulous post. Thank you.


  14. If I was the canary… First thing I’d do is have a big poo on top of the sofa… And then I´
    ‘d dip my brush on it to start painting on the walls. After that I ‘d fly away onto the ocean and hoping seagulls would not eat me or something!


  15. I’m more intimidated by the small space of a sketchbook than large painting. Almost phobic. 🙂

    Good to see you freaking out on a large scale. I sometimes think that what you paint and the way you paint is a reflection of your mind at that time.

    Looks like you are in a happy, colourful, expansive place. 🙂


  16. Very cool stuff here: Did you know that Strathmore toned tan paper comes in big rolls? I just got one for my class and it might be something you want to investigate. These drawings are experiences….like your sketchbooks are experiences….but these take place in a parallel universe: one in which you can almost physically enter the spaces. NEAT.


  17. I love both the energy and the esthetic of these paintings. It’s no coincidence that I am also a big David Hockney fan. I saw his exhibit “A Bigger Picture” in Cologne last winter. His iPad paintings were great too, pure joy of painting. But even more than his gigantic paintings, what I liked best were his sketchbooks and his charcoal landscape drawings. You never know what will speak to you, I think the main thing is to be responsive to whatever does.


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