Let them draw cake.

alliknow tshirt

I never paid much attention in art class in high school. I never went to art college. I’ve never gone to a single weekend watercolor workshop. I’ve just blundered along for a decade or more, spilling ink, contaminating my palette and painting on non-archival cardboard.

I’m uneducated. And so when it came to teaching other people how to make art, gulp.

This year though I’ve committed to shedding my “aw, shucks, I never lurned nuffin” guise and start trying to be a decent teacher. At first, that was like sitting down with a delicious, lavishly decorated three-tiered German chocolate cake and trying to work out the recipe. I thought I’d have to retrofit everything I have layered onto my brain through all these years of experimenting and dissecting art in museums and talking to people whose work blows me away and weeping bitterly at another god-awful journal page.

I like talking about ideas and all of the experiments I’ve done and the discoveries I’ve made but when I taught classes I thought to give folks their money’s worth I’d better start with the basics of drawings as they come out of all the how-to books in the library. Contours, negative space,  proportion, etc. That is useful stuff to know, in hindsight, but it can be awfully dry. Like starting to learn a language by spending a few semesters studying grammar or learning music theory before you pick up your first guitar.

My old hobo pal, Dan Price would say to me, “I just draw a shape, then the shape next to it, then the one next to that and before long you got a drawing that looks like something and then we can go have  a beer.” And that’s probably the most valuable art lesson I ever got. Just start somewhere and keep it interesting so you keep going.

Keep it interesting.

What’s been so incredible about working on Sketchbook Skool is seeing all the ways my friends approach the assignment we have given them all: to boil down everything they know about drawing and journaling into a one-time, one-week klass. And they’ve all done completely different things! Nothing you’d find in a  textbook. Just the stuff that comes out of them when they sit down to draw, as varied as they are. There’re no detailed recipes, but there’s lots of delicious cake and, by watching them bake it, you come away just knowing how you will do it. And that’s the key, how you will do it.

All of which has made me do two things: one, rethink the workshops I’m going to be doing, starting with the one at the Open Center in New York as the beginning of next month.  and two, have really fun doing it. Because instead of teaching others how to do what I  was never taught to do, I’m just going to grab them by the scruff and toss them into the deep end. I’m thinking of all kinds of ways of getting people who are deathly afraid of drawing and stabbing a syringe full of adrenaline into their artistic hearts. And the same and more goes for people who think they all know there is about drawing but want a little something to spice up their marriage to the muse.

I have had that feeling so often with drawing, when you sort of sigh and the pen feels like it’s made of lead dipped in shit and then suddenly there’s a hairpin turn that rattles my bones, and I’m off on some wild groove through a place I’ve never been before and it’s all very new and energizing and the page I’m making is fresh and sparkly. Hey, and don’t forget, at this point I am a clown school grad so I know first hand how to slip on a red nose and get embarrassing.

My revelation: it’s not about showing people how to read a map and use a compass and where to get their shots and what to pack and where all the tourists go for pizza. It’s about flinging open the door of the plane, grabbing hold of them and jumping the hell out in the middle of the jungle.

So I’m thinking of weird and silly things to do that will either send them off itching to draw every waking minute of every day or lining up at the registrar’s office to get a full refund. (Hey, and if you have any genius thoughts I can totally steal, let me know.  I still have twenty-three days till the workshop).

I think there’s a week left on The Open Center’s Early Bird rate so if you like worms, fly over to their web site and sign up.

30 thoughts on “Let them draw cake.”

  1. A person can tell you’ve spent your life in marketing. This is a masterful buildup you’re building! Luckily I’m still finishing up another online class, or I’d be too excited to sleep.


  2. Ideas for you to steal:

    Don’t let your participants know ahead but once in class you could ask them to empty their pockets, purses, or bags and draw the contents.

    You could do a “round robin” of drawings with participant’s sketchbooks. Pass sketchbooks from person to person to build on a drawing. Allows for the energy of other artist’s work to be on the page and also allows participants to “Draw and Let Go,” and “To Trust Their Page to Another Artist.” A specified amount of time is allotted to draw, then a bell rings, and the sketchbook is passed to the next, and next,…

    Wish I could be in that class with you. Cheers for a grand day of teaching and drawing.


  3. Great idea. Here are my thoughts which you can steal.

    1. Take a big piece of paper that can be plastered on the wall or floor. (Huge!) Then take each person one by one and allow them to draw a shape, then add to it, one by one, not expecting an outcome other than just drawing the shape. Also, use different colors. One exercise can me in painting to drawing a shape, then using color. Just to learn how to let go and just do it.


  4. Your workshop will be wonderful. Anyone can learn the nuts and bolts of drawing… but what they really need is confidence. That’s where YOU come in. You are the best cheerleading motivator I have ever read. Have fun!


  5. You’ve got me journaling and drawing:) I just draw what I see and don’t let the critic dominate. It’s for fun! Just like when my friend and I golf, for fun. Often that means not keeping score and actually golfing much better because we just enjoying ourselves.


  6. As a teacher at uni and in hospitals, and as you say, it’s not all about the technique but the journey, the war stories that you can bring in are what people want to hear. I think what I have learnt from you is that it’s about giving it a go, there are no mistakes and to not be so critical on yourself. These have been the best tools. Yes it may be an uncomfortable place.
    Try this.
    Clasp your hands.
    Look at your thumbs, are you a left over right or right over left.
    Now take your hands apart and clasp them the opposite to what you do.
    How do you feel? Uncomfortable? But you get used to it, it doesn’t harm you. Trying things new can be the same. (Also works with folding your arms)

    If you enjoy teaching the session then the participants will enjoy


  7. I will steal your “flinging the door open…” analogy next time I have to explain my approach to teaching a world language at back-to-school night. It is spot on.


  8. some ideas for you if you like them. When I teach watercolor journaling, I have them start with something non-threatening, like a leaf or a piece of fruit. Then, another exercise I use is to put some small toys or keys or things of that size in a paper bag and have them each pick something without looking, then draw that with it in front of them. A very fun exercise i did in Ray Pierotti’s class was to tack large newsprint paper on the walls of a hallway, then we were each given a different color crayon and given a couple of minutes to draw our version of an event. Then he called time and we passed to the right and tried to figure out what the person was drawing and add something to it. We did this until we had each drawn something on it, then we had to tell what our original idea was, then people had to say what THEY thought it was and what they had added to it. We had tears rolling down our cheeks by the time we were done, we were laughing so hard. One started out that they were cooking a dinner, then the next person for some reason thought something else was happening and drew a bear coming towards him and he pissed hhis pants, then the next person of course thought it was something completely different. The other one we have done, like the person above was to start a sketch for a watercolor painting, then pass it to the right when they called time, then the next person added something to it and by the time it got back to you, 10 people had painted on it. Both really free you usp from being “stodgy”


  9. “stabbing a syringe full of adrenaline into their artistic hearts” – the Pulp Fiction approach to drawing! I am Uma Thurman, ready to flail & boogie! Boogie on drawn!


  10. Sketching blindfolded is always fun! Or upside down. So too is pen in the weakest hand or turning to the next page every minute. Twigs in ink, or frotting if need be, anything, just to getting that first mark on the page! Once you begin the journey everything seems easier from there. Looking forward to starting Sketchbook Skool can’t wait to see where the journey takes me (and all of us!) Thanks for leaping out of the plane and creating it. 🙂


  11. Proportion and perspective drawing always made me nervous. I love that philosophy of drawing one shape next to another next to another and then having a beer. Sounds like my kind of art lesson! Have a great klass…wish I could be there!


  12. I am very excited. I am going to be in your class at the Open Center. I know the basics of drawing but still struggle as everyone does. All this sounds very fun and like a good direction to go in. I do hope you will talk a little about how you start a complex scene, like an outdoor scene. I still struggle with how to fit things on the page. Sometimes I work out where the big things are on the page and sometimes I just start with a detail and build out from there. I just kind of do things and the picture turns out to be what ever size it is almost by accident without a whole lot of regard for how big my paper size is. I understand the concept of proportion but applying it to my page hurts my brain. I agree that you can’t teach people to draw in a day but you can teach them to persevere and I think the people who are coming are interested in your process. I think the progressive drawing is an interesting idea. My family has done that since our kids were little. One person starts something and then passes it on. Sometimes we have rules like you can only add one line or one object and other times it’s a free for all. Always interesting results. We’ve done the same thing by drawing on a postcard. Everyone adds something to the picture using whatever medium they want. Anyway, I’m sure the day will be fun. Maybe you could talk a little about filling up a sketchbook, using one or skipping around to several, how that makes you feel, what prompts you to draw in one over the other, is there value in using just one and seeing your drawing in a sequence as opposed to having your work scattered…

    Also, I’m not from NYC and I’d love to check out some art stores while I’m there. I’ve googled some but I’m wondering if you have any favorites. Looking forward to a fun day.


  13. My muse is invited with the thought “It would be fun to draw _______ “. Eventually I discovered that anything can go in that blank. Once I had some done, I had a list of stuff that went “It was fun to draw _____”. Then I thought, “How many different ways can I draw ___?” Etc., it works. I also dread to admit it despite the fact I have originals as well, but I copy a LOT. If it was good enough for the old masters, it’s good enough for me, that is a lot of how they became old masters.


  14. Tear a pic from a mag in 1/2 & glue to paper. Then draw the other half! Or, use the graphite on the back to trace a pic to a page…just the outlines…then fill it in. Take a giant roll of paper, paint up your body & smash it on the paper! (OK…I guess that was just for a women’s group!) LOL! Also, I used to make kids scribble fast on some newsprint just to get them slowed down enough to SEE! Blind contours are funny…especially of hands! Using crayons. Using sparkly pens. Drawing cartoons. Anything just to start…even if it’s on the back of an envelope! Have FUN!!!


  15. Having the good luck of being born into a family in which my mother was an artist, I was in high school, I think, before I realized that most of my friends thought that drawing was something you could “do” or “not do”. It was something they had learned along the way. We all come into the world naked and have only our own birthright of being anything, doing anything. I think my mother added a diaper early on, but at some point I grabbed a crayon and set about adding to the illustrations in all my little books, I even did a major work in a mural in crayon on the fresh new wallpaper in the dining room. What we need to do is dip your workshop students in a special tub of unlearning suds and then give them a crayon…or a pen…and do what your friend suggested…draw on shape, then the next! Can’t wait for Klasses to start….well, I’m not waiting, drew the flowering plant on the table at breakfast! Let the games begin!!!!


  16. Danny, great post! It’s so comforting for me to know that you’ve had no formal art training and you’ve had the same feelings as I currently do. I’m so new to all this and really didn’t pay much attention in highschool art class either, mainly because art was never considered a career choice in my family. So I’m so ready to jump in, play and have heaps of fun! I recently read Michael Nobbs book and the thing that stuck in my head that he said was “draw bad” , ‘wake up and draw bad”. So that’s what I have been doing …and my sketches aren’t as bad as I think they are 🙂 . I’m really looking forward to Sketchbook Skool! Counting down the days. I love your work too Danny!


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