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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
I 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.
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.