Look, I’m going to tell you some thing pretty embarrassing. I need to get it off my chest so I’m just telling you, but please don’t let it get around.

A couple of weeks ago, I realized I was horribly, horribly out of shape. I’ve been pretty busy this summer and haven’t had a lot of time for much, but this is no excuse. I know better but frankly, I had just plain let myself go.

jenny-shoesOne afternoon, I sat down, brushed the dust off my sketchbook,  uncapped my pen and began to draw Jenny’s shoes.

I couldn’t believe what came out. It was awful. And even worse, the act of drawing was awkward and crabbed, like I had three left hands and they each had sprained wrists and five thumbs. I tried slathering on some gouache to cover my mistake but that just made matters worse. The prognosis was clear and so was the cause.

I had forgotten how to draw.

I felt humiliated. I mean, I have been so busy all summer writing books, giving talks, blogging, making stuff for Sketchbook Skool that I had become that archetype: he who can’t, teaches. I felt really awful. And I wasn’t sure how to fix it. Well, I sort of was but I wasn’t sure it would work.

I had three left hands and they each had sprained wrists and five thumbs.

My first impulse was to get down all my old favorite, sure-fire drawing instruction books. Sketchbook for the Artist. Work small, Learn big! Creative Ink Drawing. then all the artists who’s inspired me. Crumb. Searle. Gentleman. Hogarth. Kane. Ware. Jean. They remind me how to do it. But my mentors just made me feel more inept and hopeless and lost.

Next, I decided I’d better go to the art supply store. Maybe, I just need some thicker pens. And  a new type of sketchbook. I bought a painfully expensive one that claims that ink never bleed through its page. Cool, I could finally draw with Sharpies. I’d seen Jonny Twingley doing that to great effect. And the Basquiat notebook show at the Brooklyn Museum was full of big bold lines and flat colors that seemed just the ticket. I came home with an armful.

That was another mistake. Thinking that switching everything up would provide instantly good results. Not only had I forgotten to draw, I was now setting out to learn how to use a bunch of new materials and simultaneously ape someone else’s style and POV to boot.

The first few pages in the book continued down the disastrous path. I kept thinking and thinking about how to reduce things into shapes, struggled with how to add tone, drew far too fast, and then, to cap things off,  the cap came off one of my fat new pens while it was in my pocket, scrawling a tattoo of india ink down my leg, my pants and even my good salmon Lacoste shirt.

Early one sweltering morning, I sat in my boxer shorts and made a self-diagnostic comic. Time to get to work.

parkThe weekend arrived and Jenny and the dogs and I went to the park. While my family dozed on a picnic blanket, I drew people. Fat, tall, crazy, slow-moving, sleeping, texting, skateboarding people filled my pages. Even the slowest were too unpredictable for me to do a lot of strategizing. I just drew and, if they got up off the bench, I started drawing the next person who sat down. The shadows grew longer, people got sweatier, Jenny and the dogs when back to the air-conditioning, while I kept going.

fightThe next day, I started my morning in the window of the Lafayette bakery, drawing a couple seated at a sidewalk table and having a long argument. Over and over I drew them both, as they gesticulated, accused, sobbed, then paused to shovel down almond croissants. Then I went to church and drew the choir and the congregants, page after page of earnest reverent faces.

tennisI spent the rest of the day watching the U.S. Open on TV. I drew the players, the  commentators, the actors in the commercials. Occasionally, I would hit the pause button and to freeze and study a gesture.

As Federer rejected half the balls the linesmen lobbed him, squeezing, bouncing, assessing, until he found the right one to serve, I grabbed new pens from the pile, testing out different weights until I found my way back to an old favorite, a Stabilo pigment liner, but a fatter one than I’d ever used before, a 0.7.  I was feeling my old line start to flow again and it had picked up a bit of weight from the influence of Jonny and Jean-Michel.

“I am the one who knocks!”

Monday, Jenny went to work and I began to binge. Summer rains had rolled in, and I started to rewatch Breaking Bad on Netflix. Episode after episode, season after season, I drew bald heads and grimaces and dramatic lighting.

I didn’t try to draw accurate portraits, I just let my pen slide over their heads to take me to new inventions. I didn’t write clever quips, didn’t compose my page, didn’t add color, didn’t judge. I didn’t think. Just drew the scene, turned the page, and moved on.

Fortunately there are five seasons of Breaking Bad and there are still some empty pages left in my expensive sketchbook. After a week of intensive workout, drawing has started to become second nature again. The lines flow. I’m  still not thinking but I can just plunk down the pen on the page and it starts to move. And generally in the right direction. For better or worse, the drawings look like mine. And best of all, I love it again. I can’t wait to keep going.

I’m back.

36 thoughts on “Mortified.”

  1. ’bout time, Danny.
    🙂 Just kidding of course — but again, a piece I needed to read. Yesterday, I didn’t draw and it felt pretty dreadful. The day before that, I had come up with something pretty catastrophic (the view from my new place) BUT NOW, before the shower and BEFORE BREAKFAST, I will draw. Now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dan, I have no idea what you’re talking about, your Bryan Cranstons look great. He’s a lot of fun to draw and easy to get recognizable. I love Searle too and his school colleague Ralph Steadman.


  3. Ha ha Danny… have just chronicled all of us….what a shot in the arm…I going to see if I can find some people arguing in cafes today!


  4. And there it is. I have not drawn for weeks, maybe months. It has been a difficult year with several family deaths (both parents to start) and work demands and my self has been overcome with the selves and dramas of family and work. Sketching has seemed like a self-indulgent afterthought that I am not very good at anymore. It is not alone. Reading, exercise, all manner of self-saving activities have gone by the wayside. The stack of un-used sketchbooks looks at me sadly – occasionally impatiently joined by pens, pencils, watercolors all looking petulant as they wait to show me their magic. But now I sit here on the morning of my 63rd birthday out of shape and tired, knowing I have to pick up the pen, open the book, ignore the results and begin. Scary stuff… beginning…scary stuff

    Liked by 2 people

  5. We are told over and over to find balance, to find time to relax but I am terrified of pausing. If I pause working out because I’m sick or injured I know that getting back into it will be an uphill battle. Same with drawing. I feel the minute I “take a step back” I will fall out of the habit and then all that I’ve worked for will just fade. So I try to avoid pausing. I rather stop doing things that don’t require skill – leaving my studio messy – avoiding meeting people just for the sake of it. But I don’t take pauses in the things that are easy to lose practice.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Nice to know that even an Artist I admire suffers with drawing and time. Thank you for reminding us what the solution to this as well. Draw!


  7. Funny, when I started reading this, “I’m out of shape” remark, my first reaction was, “No he’s not! I was just thinking how thin you looked in your most recent video!”

    Since I still consider myself a new artist (of about four years now) I don’t get too hard on myself when I think I’ve drawn something really badly. But yesterday I had an interesting experience. I’d first drawn in ink, (asi learned from you to do) and I really liked it! But went ahead and added color, but thought it had looked better before I did that! Then that evening I drew at Tacos Jalisco and thought it was really lame. My people didn’t have their more recent boldness or personality at all. So I slathered them in bold colors with my colored pencils and that brought them to life! Made them stand out! Made me happy! I’m sure I’m my own worse critic!

    What I know is there isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing than drawing!
    I’m still in awe of the fact that I can! I have over forty filled sketchbooks to prove that … to myself. Progress! And a short stack of empty ones to fill. Not to mention more pens, paints, and colored pencils to start a small art academy!

    It is helpful to hear that the likes of you, my initial artist guru, hero, has to sometimes push himself to do more, to get better, to sharpen his skills. To get back in shape. Your humanness allows me to have even more patience with my on going journey with drawing, Danny, so thanks for sharing this! I doubt you really realize the extent to which your writing helps others. But it really, really does!!

    Happy drawing today!


  8. Inspiring, as always. I am not alone when this happens to me!! Yahoo. I have to say that I especially liked the “Nude Drawing Critique”. Lol


  9. Well, a sure cure for this is a book written by a friend of mine…..he went through tough times and drew his way through… might know him….lives in NYC, has a couple doggies and a sweet sweetheart….the book is called “Everyday Matters” ..his name is Danny Gregory…..yes, everyday!!! Hugs!


  10. Thanks for sharing the “bump” in the road. Reading the comments reminds me of the best of sketchbook skool. We just gotta push the pencil, pen, brush, whatever. The sharing helps a lot.


  11. How about your new monkey book?…. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You r probably stress eating. Best thing to do is relax. I think your comic is helpful because it’s good to know you are just like us small a artists! Relax


  12. Danny-
    Sketching is what I used to do. Everyday on my train ride to work. Just like my book said: Everyday Matters. Heck, you even did a magazine cover and story about the importance of sketching… And you quoted me in your article.

    How things have changed. I have had 4 pretty bad, depressing years, and sketching was the thing I let go of. After all how important could it be compared
    To the real crises in my life.

    I have tried to jumpstart my sketching life… I think about it. I buy sketchbooks. I miss it… But I can’t do it anymore. The lack of control is frustrating… No positive feedback.I swear I’m better than this.
    I sit hear waiting for it to return… Not sure if it will.


  13. I go through this a LOT, in fact for very extended periods of time because I find it hard to get out of the ‘funk’ of having ‘lost’ the ability to see with my pen. In the last ten years the monkey always wins in the end! Not this time. Interesting recently I have been getting out of in in the exact same way you have – not chucking myself an enormous challenge but starting with something I felt comfortable with that I could do quietly. I am using ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ DVD’s (Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie) as it’s both really funny and all the suits and costumes and scenery make for great drawing. I think there’s something to be said for sometimes not chucking yourself in at the deep end, but beating the monkey down a bit, enough so you’re back in a bit of a groove and enjoying the process, and then you can bring on a challenge…


  14. It takes a lot of guts to come out with a confession like this. But your writings have shown over and over again that this is the way you face life…with guts! Very inspiring to the rest of us mere mortals.


  15. Your post resonates with me so much! I own a business ( a shop that sells hand crafted items made by artists and vintage finds as well as copies of your book! ) I love my business but I have had very little time to create anything of my own (which truly makes my soul so very happy). So tonight I pulled out paper clay and created for the first time in 2 years. There wasn’t a purpose to it, I just rode on my inspiration and knew in my heart that I was in my element. I found my mojo. Loved your post.


  16. It’s affirming to know that this happens even to the “pros” sometimes. I put myself on track recently by taking up Brenda Swanson’s 75-day ink-only challenge. It made me push myself out of my pencil-setup comfort zone, and I was usually a few days behind, but I finished the entire challenge, filled 1.5 sketchbooks in 2months, and came out the other end seeing an actual improvement in my sketching. I appreciate the inspiration that you and others provide this way … Huge thanks.


  17. Well you have just described my summer as well. Playing and entertaining, kids, friends, grandchildren, and not taking the time to draw or I should say making excuses to draw. Your story was exactly what I did …..I had to look over my shoulder to see if you were there, lol. Thank you for the kick in the butt Danny….. I also enjoy your words of inspiration on this blog….


  18. I also let it go this Summer – for different reasons. I have a huge vegy garden and i decided to give myself less stress by just concentrating on the garden for the 6 weeks summer holidays. Every time I have a break like this I vow I will never let it happen again – it is SO hard to start back up – still really trying to get back where I was; – and this time I vow I will NOT stop so long again; – let’s hope I can keep to it!


  19. Congratulations. You’re back.

    A friend send me your link because, after more than 20 years of letting my skills lie fallow, I am back to drawing. I used to be quite good and now . . . not so much. With practice, I’m getting better. Since I have a full time job and a book to finish editing so I can get paid and the author can incorporate my suggestions and corrections, I don’t have the luxury of drawing everything I see, but I sketch and paint every single day. Mostly just sketch. I’m not ready for all the lovely pencils I bought to learn to use.

    Thank you for sharing your story and reminding me I’m not alone. There are other artists with skills lying fallow who need to practice once in a while.


  20. Thank you for sharing. It is as valuable (and maybe more so) than any of your other lessons. If you haven’t figured it out yet, you can use rubbing alcohol to get the permanent ink out of your clothes.


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