I like a decent party, but I’m no social animal. The idea of sashaying into a room full of strangers gags me with anxiety, but once the initial ice is broken, I generally have a good time, meet a few new people, have some interesting conversations, and manage to avoid eating or drinking to excess. I generally like to arrive once things are likely to have warmed up a bit and leave before they get ugly.
The last party I attended was on Saturday afternoon. It was in an empty high school cafeteria with 150 adults, 147 of who I’d never met before. It lacked many of the trappings one has come to expect of a good party. There was an empty coffee urn, a Ziplock bag of rather dry homemade cookies, no toilet paper in the bathroom, and no music. In fact, we were instructed at the outset to avoid speaking at all, unless absolutely necessary. We were also warned not to shush anybody who did make noise.
Upon arrival, we were to find our group, sit in a circle and draw each other. This was a portrait party, hosted by the New York City chapter of Urban Sketchers, and it turned out to be a lot less of a grim affair than the invitation suggested.
I was invited to this rather odd party by Mark, the president of the chapter, a nice fellow I’d met at a talk I gave at a library in New Jersey a couple of years ago. When we’d met, I’d promised him I’d make an effort to come to some of the Urban Sketcher outings he arranged. I’m not a huge fan of sketchcrawling with strangers but I knew I’d get something out of hanging out with other sketchbook devotees and the discipline of a few hours of forced drawing invariably pays off in some interesting and unexpected way. Nonetheless, I had to miss the next meeting he invited me to, then the next one, and then the whole thing was too embarrassing to explain away and I just dropped it and he stopped inviting me.
But I’ve always been a little jealous of the camraderie I see in my friends who are devoted urban sketchers, palling around and visiting each other around the world at the drop of a hat. This feeling escalated after SketchKon when I had no way to maintain the warm sense of community I’d felt in Pasadena, being in the company of my tribe of misfit artists. Jack and I attended a few life drawing classes in LA last month and again I felt a bit of that sense of connectedness; but life drawing classes aren’t really opportunities for intimacy, the nudity notwithstanding.
So I contacted Mark a few weeks ago and asked if there were any USK meetups scheduled and he promptly sent me details about the portrait party. There were quite a lot of details (Urban Sketchers generally like rules and organization and insist that people never draw from photos, never embellish their subjects, never critique their own work or anyone else’s, and a bunch of other things I sort of agree with but instinctively bristle at as I am an anarchist at heart and hate the idea of subcommittees and presidents and rule of just about any kind; this antipathy is probably the cause of my no-shows to previous USK events but I do intend to resist it in future to the best of my ability): their sponsor Strathmore would provide watercolor paper, we were to bring a drawing board and art supplies of choice, we’d have ten minutes for each drawing, we should arrive at noon so we could start punctually at 1, no talking … oh, and we were to dress in team colors.
I kid you not on this last point.
I was on Team White and we were instructed in advance to wear white so we could find each other in the crowd. I don’t own a lot of white clothing but I did manage to dig up an Irish fisherman’s sweater (a good choice in any case as it was incredibly cold on Saturday) and some very light grey jeans. I was going to wear my hot pink sneakers but JJ insisted that because my sweater was a warm white and my pants were a cool white I really should go with brown ankle boots to balance things out. I also put on a striped long-sleeved t-shirt underneath so I could strip down in case things were toasty in the cafeteria.
The purity of my ensemble discouraged any thought of toting along my large bottle of India ink or my liquid watercolors. This was no time for staining materials. Instead I packed some markers, pens, a small watercolor set and a big box of Crayolas. I thought I might approach this assignment with a technique I hadn’t used in a couple of years, one I’d invented for the Seeing kourse at SBS called ‘Fast and Slow.’ I’d first do a one-minute sketch of my initial impression with a watercolor brush and a light color, then spend the remaining nine minutes observing carefully and drawing more slowly with a brush pen or fountain pen.
Despite my resolve, I almost hadn’t made it to this party. I’ve had a cold all week, obtained as an extra service from my Chinese masseuse the previous Sunday. I have been coughing and sneezing in a most attractive way and spent Thursday in bed while JJ brought me lashings of tea.
But I felt that it would be terribly impolite to not show up this time after promising Mark I would so I packed up several white handkerchiefs and brunched on Mucinex and cough drops. JJ packed up a nice box lunch and made sure I was out the door and on the subway with time to spare. I sat sniffling on the #6 train, listening to my white earpods, wearing my backpack and clutching my drawing board in my gleaming white outfit, like a sacrificial virgin on the way to the rosy pyre.
First off, I was the only one wearing white.
Yes, one of my team mates had a beigish sweater and another seemed to have a white t-shirt under layers of dark hoodies and fluorescent thrift store castoffs but all the rest had completely ignored the dress code. This is what I get for following the rules.
Years ago, Patti asked me what I planned to wear to a friends’ wedding. I said I hadn’t given it much thought. A suit maybe? You look so nice in your tuxedo, she said. Okay, does the invitation say it’s a black tie affair? I asked. I think so, she replied, I’m going to wear my blue dress. When we arrived at the wedding, I was literally the only man in a tuxedo. The only one. Even the groom was wearing a regular business suit. I felt like a complete and overdressed idiot. At one point, one of the brides’ relatives asked me if I could bring out some more champagne for their table. Apparently, I’d been mistaken for a waiter.
Anyway, we pulled our seats into a circle and got to drawing. Each of us was to take one turn posing for the other eleven. And at the end we’d arrange a grid of drawings on the floor, 12 by 12, missing of course the ones we hadn’t done when it was our turn to pose. Sounds like a party.
The thing about drawing with strangers is you have no idea how good they are. I generally assume that they are all much better than I am and my first drawing was of course burdened with low esteem and hesitancy. I slapped down my quick sketch in a light sienna, then picked up my brush pen.
The first line seemed horribly black and heavy on top of the delicate brown and I immediately knew I was in dark trouble. But there was no backing up. The clock was ticking. We each had a single piece of Strathmore paper per portrait and I had to turn out all eleven or I’d ruin the grid. I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t course correct, I couldn’t leave. The only running would be my nose. I picked up a brown Crayon and made the best of it.
The next drawing went a little better. So did the third. The fourth was a nightmare and my flickering confidence was doused once more. Then we took a 10 minute break. I strolled around and saw how much better everyone else’s work was than mine. Oh, well. I can always start taking banjo lessons.
The afternoon stretched on and slowly my monkey dozed off. I started to enjoy myself. It was rather nice being in a room with 150 people drawing, even if they were all much better than I am. The quiet squeak of markers, the scrub of waterbrushes on Strathmore paper, the rhythmic pulse of crosshatching. Every so often I’d look at my subject and realized I’d actually nailed the bridge of her nose, the angle of his glasses, the light on the cheek, the texture of the beard. It was coming together.
On my ninth drawing, I decided not to combine media any more. I’d just draw Andy with my watercolor brush. I’d put down diluted paint for my first impressions, then heavy up the color for some volume and more considered lines, and I could wash away any egregious lines and start again when necessary. The Strathmore paper could take it. This decision made me a lot happier with the remaining drawings and then it was my turn to be the 12th and final model.
I picked a spot on the wall and slipped into a meditative state. As I usually do when I am trying to clear my mind, I imagined strolling through my grandparents’ garden in Pakistan. I walked down the driveway, around the garage, past the compost heap, under the window of my grandfather’s study. And then bing! went the timer and my ten minutes were up,
We stretched, packed up our supplies and built the grid of drawings on the floor. Each artist’s worked was arranged on the horizontal and each subject’s portraits were lined up along the vertical. I could compare all of the interpretations of a single face, turning slowly in space and see the similarities and the differing styles. It was fascinating.
Then we signed our masterpieces and swapped drawings with each other. I soon had a glorious stack of interpretations of my bald head and rosy nose.
It was a party however and I hadn’t spent the whole time with my nose in my sketchbook. During the breaks, I’d stretched my limbs, rinsed my brushes and struck up conversations with so many interesting people. I was invited to be on a podcast, met a person to record sound for my next shoot, got a card from a woman who organized urban sketchers in Chile, and got lots of tips and tricks from people whose work I’d admired. And I met a surprising number of people who had heard of Sketchbook Skool and many who were enjoying kourses.
As the sun set, I rode home on the subway with my pal Jason Das and we talked about art, theatre and network software. It was a lovely ending to a wonderful party.
I need to get out and socialize more. Take some risks. Meet and draw more people. And buy a pair of white shoes.