Confessions of a rueful geek.

I was just reading an article about the developments in cryptocurrencies (which is really worth checking out — but is not what I want to write about today) and was struck by a section on how the immense power of open systems to spawn creativity and community have been increasingly stifled since those systems were co-opted by big corporations. All of which led me to think about my sketchbook.

At the time I started to draw in a sketchbook — in the pre-dotcom-bubble-burst of the early mid ’90s — I was also exploring the early Internet. Back then, most people were as unaware of the transformational power of networked computers as they were unaware of the idea of illustrated journal keeping or sketchbook art. Now, of course, we all spend hours a day on the Web but, 20 years ago, it was a lot geekier place to hang out.

I loved that geekiness — because geeks are interesting and passionate. They know a lot and they care a lot. The early Internet wasn’t just the playground of tech geeks. I found wheelchair geeks there when I started curbcut.com, a community for disabled people like my wife, Patti. And I found sketchbook geeks too, like Richard Bell and Roz Stendahl.

In those days, the Internet was turning out to be a wonderful place to find people who shared niche interests like old record collecting or fishing gear or classic car restoration or knitting. These sorts of geeks gushed with knowledge that had been long bottled up because no one around them in the real world was even vaguely interested in the passions that consumed them.

But when geeks meet geeks, decades of stored up arcana comes pouring out of their basement lairs and garage workshops and people spend hours and hours talking about minor Star Wars characters or Jane Austen subplots or the best way to pickle kimchi or fill a fountain pen with waterproof ink. What seemed eye-glazing to the rest of the world was endlessly fascinating to some other geek, previously burrowed in obscurity in Croatia or North Dakota or the Bronx.

The first book I wrote, Hello World, was about an intense geek sub-species, the ham radio operator.  In the 1920s, when radio was a hot emerging technology, hams were super cool, but eighty years later, they were just geezers who wore pocket protectors, Vitalis and white socks with black shoes.

But I loved their passion, their willingness to stay up all night trying to reach a fellow ham deep in Siberia or put together dangerous expeditions to literal desert islands lost in the Pacific just to be the first to transmit from a new location. Hams loved the Internet too, helped birth it in fact, but it was ultimately the last nail in their coffin. Why hand build a radio to bounce Morse code off the moon when you could just send a text message from your phone?  Their obscure hobby was now just a silly waste of effort made redundant by Twitter and Google and Facebook, the megacorps their efforts actually spawned.

Anyway, as I read this article, I thought about my own long-time passion for keeping a sketchbook and how it has changed over two-plus decades. What started as a solitary therapeutic activity grew into a network of new geek friends, then into this blog (I wrote the first post over a fourteen years ago just to share thoughts with my pal Richard in Yorkshire), then into a series of books, and then into talks, teaching, and a full-time job and business hiring several people. My geekdom has become as increasingly mainstream as my network has expanded. When you are surrounded by an army of tens of thousands of like-minded folks, you aren’t an outsider anymore. Or a geek.

There have been lots of advantages to this mainstreaming process, both for me and for technology. Back in the day, if I had a tech problem, there were maybe three other dorks I could call on to help solve the problem. Now I can just Google an answer or walk two blocks to the Apple Store.

But all this mass-produced convenience has polished away the magic. My computer, which used to be like a hand-carved wizard staff, carefully assembled and tweaked, is now as personal as a rental car.

And my sketchbooking process, which has become an essential part of who I am, can also get diluted and homogenized if I don’t remain vigilant and true to my origins. It’s essential to hold on to what has made my art process intimate and personal, even if it needs to be shared now and then.

It’s also crucial to remind myself of what has always given the process its power and excitement. That it is an ever-changing creative lab, that it gives me a fresh perspective on the world around me, and that it never become rote.  And equally important, that it remain authentic, made by me for me, that it stays honest and unswayed by others’ wants and expectations, that I am filling pages for their own sake.

There’s a real danger in refining a method, in becoming too polished, and devolving into generic illustration, in being infected by commercialism, by some projected audience, that it goes from a passion, a hobby, an exploration, into a job. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of artists who used to excite me and are now just undistinguished self-promoters questing for likes, Etsy sales  or freelance gigs,

Amateur doesn’t mean second rate or unskilled. It’s derived from amare, to love, an activity fueled by passion — by geekery, if you will. But it can be so much more raw and exciting than the predictable, manicured path that professionalism and corporatism mandate. Just as Facebook grows duller by the day, just as my corporate agency job chafed me, striving for professional standards will dull one’s art and leach it of the passion that makes it moving.

The wild west frontier days of the Internet are now just fodder for TV shows which do no justice to the headiness of random discovery I remember. But every blank page in my sketchbook still has that power to shock and excite me, so long as I remember to stay free and explore.

How do you stay authentic?

14 thoughts on “Confessions of a rueful geek.”

  1. I read that article too and thought I found long stretch of it too arcane for me to grapple with I was nevertheless fascinated – because like you I remember the early days of the internet (and yes, it was wonderful, though the connectivity wasn’t) – and because I too have always kept sketchbooks. You’re so right, about authenticity. For me the way has been to keep reinventing myself about once a decade – without a change of direction I always fell into the trap of losing the freshness and excitement of discovery. Long live new horizons and may we find some every day! PS thanks for the link to Richard’s blog; I’m also from Yorkshire.

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  2. That’s an interesting question- and the answer seems to come from a few different angles. Regarding the Internet, I guess my measure is- do I stop a line of artistic inquiry just because I don’t deem it post-worthy or if I post it and nobody likes it? Or do I carry on with a style or method that is boring me just because it will get comments on instagram? Personally I tend towards artistic ADHD and am far more guilty of the former than the latter! So I suppose my authenticity benchmark is ensuring that I’m passionate about what I’ve created even if nobody else is, and making sure I embrace the ‘failed’ pages. I guess authenticity requires a bit of Monkey wrangling! I find the authenticity issue had a cultural edge as well- I’ve been traveling through Polynesia and sometimes draw on Polynesian designs in my art work. Sometimes I find that gets my head in a twist- am I guilty of cultural appropriation or is it inauthentic to ignore what’s inspiring me? The worry comes from the Internet- I’ve had only positive feedback from the people I’ve met but am waiting for the day I pay something and get slammed for not having the right to use it.

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  3. Funny, I was talking last night to somebody about the good old days when a nemi was a nemi and had no urge to be friended or ❤️ed or 👏ed. Perhaps the internet is trans-ing, from the purely masculine not-especially-communicative beginning to the saccharine needy endless femininized soul-baring of today. I realize this doesn’t take into account the threatening, hostile part of the internet. As Sebastian Gorka menacingly said: “The era of the pajama guy is over. and the alpha male is back.”

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  4. I’m fairly new to sketchbooking and I am not secure or really grounded in my abilities. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to try to express my experience each day. Trying is cathartic I think.

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  5. What a fantastic post!! Thank you for writing and sharing it. I stay authentic by way of digital and social media detox. If I do not share sketchbooks pages, it does not have to feel like the tree that fell in the forest, with no one listening. It is more like, if no one else is looking, what will my pages look like, and why? And how positively exciting that can be! Much more exciting than checking and rechecking a feed to see 9 more likes pop up on the screen. Always.

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  6. This was great, and as I reflect upon the entire story…..your comment “striving for professional standards will dull one’s art” …pretty much said it all. Or at least, exactly what I needed to hear at this moment. And I Thank you!

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  7. Hi there

    Yes I too am old enough to remember sketching all the time- I still do. For me, the computer is still a tool towards my art in sketching only, I prefer not to use it as the only means to create. I rather use the computer and the internet only as a means of communication between fellow artist or bloggers that have the same ideas but done in different ways. I know that perhaps I am the only person that think this way.

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  8. This post is a banquet of food for thought. Probably deserves an essay or chapter to respond. Thank you. I do agree that authenticity is a virtue however virtue is found during tribulation (isn’t it).I want to leave you with two questions. Is Illustration Nation your attempt to establish a “platform” for a worldwide community which will employ blockchain technology to establish identities and ownership for creators? Do you have any concerns that SketchCon like Bitcoin will “attract a veritable goon squad of charlatans, false prophets, and mercenaries?” As I always say and believe that you will ‘be true to your skool.’

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  9. I remember my discovery of the parallel universe of sketchbooking. It was so exciting to find books and websites dedicated to the practice! I lost whole days (at work) down artsy rabbit holes. I thought, “how did I not know this?!?” It was so fun, something new every day. It was right up my alley: set aside dedicated time to draw in a book. Who knew so many other people did it too? I learned to scan and upload, and then take photos with my phone. I felt so savvy, so hip. Sharing was fine until I started to worry more about how something looked instead of simply getting it on the page. I noticed less and less wonkiness in the images I saw shared online. Why am I so wonky? Shouldn’t I be better by now? Why does everything I see look like it’s been done by professional graphic designers? It’s easy to be discouraged. I ask myself every day, “Why do I do this? Why is this important?” I have my own answers, like everyone. It’s for me, like always.

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  10. Thank you, Danny, for this article. As I was reading, I feared you were going to say you’d had enough, that the all the commercialization of the tech was killing off your love of sketching and sharing your passion & knowledge with us. I was so grateful you didn’t!

    Ways I try to stay authentic include: being honest to others (and myself); spending time outdoors in the largeness of nature; and learning from, rather than trying to be like, others. As a pretty new sketchbooker, I have discovered yet one more front to do battle with the Monkey. The Monkey robs me of my authenticity at times. You help restore it!

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  11. That was an engaging post. Authenticity – is such a powerful place to work from, but to be honest, I stray sometimes, just so I can fit in, or avoid criticism. I draw what people might like, or I’ll rush through it (esp. for work), just to get it done. But… it’s a new year… and I no long have a desire to please others and will see how that unfolds….

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