No matter how long were have been making art, it’s still important to revisit the basics. In this essay, I explore why — and how even dogs need a lifetime of learning.
Image: Dawn at the Newark airport. I’m going on vacation.
These are times of worry, stress and anxiety. History is thrashing around like an avalanche, the solid ground is shifting, the familiar landscape is collapsing.
We shrink when a stranger coughs. Wildfires. Politics. Economics.The news cycle is unrelenting.Continue reading “How to cope.”
This is a photo of a life-changing moment. I took it on November 23, 2013 at 4:23 PM. I had posted on FaceBook that I was going to be speaking at a conference in Amsterdam and Koosje Koene invited me to tea when I was in town. We’d never met in person, only online and we were both a little nervous at meeting a total stranger.
I’m glad we did. Well, that’s an incredible understatement. That glass of tea led to lots of emails to a business idea to our first kourse …. to over five years of SketchBook Skool.Continue reading “The power of a glass of tea.”
It was the end of yoga class and I lay on the floor in corpse pose. Suddenly a rich, deep voice in my head spoke to me out of the candlelit darkness. It spoke slowly and distinctly and said, “Your body is the dog of your mind.”
I thought about this cryptic phrase for the rest of the day. I even Googled it. Slowly I came to an answer.Continue reading “How to feed your soul.”
When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I had to pick a major. It seemed like the one crucial decision that would determine my life’s path. I sweated over it for months.
There were certain disciplines it was easy to eliminate, the ones that had always seemed like Greek to me. Math. Physics. Chemistry. Greek. History was sorta interesting but I couldn’t stand memorizing dates. Economics? Of course not, I wasn’t going to become a businessman. Art? Give me a break. Who majors in art at Princeton?
English? Well, I loved and devoured books but I wasn’t sure what an English degree would give me. I didn’t want to be an English teacher. Or an academic writing books about other people’s books.
But I’d always loved to write. Stories. Essays. Articles for the school paper. If I could write for a living, I knew I surely would be happy.Continue reading “How to become a professional.”
I love New York but it can be way too much — and the last few months have pushed me to the limit. The streets have been too damned jammed with holiday tourists and texting millennials. The pre-dawn construction project down the block had been going on for too damned long. And winter came too damned early and frigid this year.
JJ and I concluded we had to get out of Dodge, sit in the sun and eat clementines. Now we’re in LA for a month and my sluggish brain is starting to thaw.Continue reading “How to make your imagination work harder.”
This week on the podcast author/coach Jill Badonsky gives me sage and funny advice on breaking down creative barriers and getting to work.
COMPLETE TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE (transcribed by robots, vaguely checked by humans) Continue reading “Podcast 13: Breaking Creative Blocks”
You need to go way out to a cabin in the woods to write a great novel. You must move up to a garret on the top of floor of a tenement to paint masterpieces. Do not disturb. Genius at work. The myth of the solitary artist, toiling alone, far from the madding crowd. We’ve all heard it. And yet I wonder, is solitude really the key to creativity?
Case in point.
In 1866, Vincent van Gogh left the Netherlands. For three years, he had been trying to teach himself to paint, essentially on his own. He briefly had a mentor who then grew tired and rejected him. He enrolled in an art school but clashed with his teacher for his unorthodox style of painting. Two months later, he quit to move to Paris.
Within 18 months, Van Gogh went from dreary, ham-fisted brown paintings to bright, lively, emotional masterworks that are some of the greatest paintings ever made. What made the difference?
Paris. Or more specifically the community of artists he found in Paris.
For the first time Vincent was exposed to Impressionism, Symbolism, Pointillism, and Japanese woodblock prints. He befriended Pissarro, Signac, Bernard, Seurat, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin. His palette changed. His painting technique changed. His line quality changed. His sense of himself as an artist changed.
When Van Gogh finally found himself in the company of artists, he discovered what being an artist truly meant. He borrowed ideas and discoveries from them. He modified pointillism, he painted with complementary color, he discovered light, and in two years, he made over 200 new, fresh paintings.
Marinating in all those influences, helped him discover a unique and utterly personal approach to painting. By associating with great and generous artists, Van Gogh found himself.
Many of our teachers tell me they love being a part of Sketchbook Skool, because they usually spend so much time working alone. They love to commune with other creative minds, to share ideas, to talk shop, to find new solutions to common problems. Some of them set up shared studios. Others travel to conferences and conventions. Others use social media to share their works in progress and find input and support.
For many beginners, sharing art can seem like a scary business. We fear being judged or seeming to be presumptuous by donning the artist’s mantle. But remember the explosive effect of creative community on Van Gogh. Nothing he’d made before 1886 deserved to end up in a museum. He couldn’t find a single customer for his flat, amber landscapes and dimly-lit, mawkish still lives. But by stepping out, by daring to expose himself and ask to learn from other artists, he was transformed.
You may think you are not a Van Gogh. But have you gone to Paris? Have you taken advantage of the impact a creative community can make?
Speaking of creative communities, this piece was originally written for the Sketchbook Skool Zine. Didn’t see it in your inbox this morning? Sign up now.
A question from a new artist: When I was young I used to draw all the time. Now , thanks to Sketchbook Skool and all the amazing work in our Facebook group, I really want to start drawing again — but fear is holding me back. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to draw decently, even with practise. So I just don’t start. I’ve signed up for multiple Sketchbook Skool classes but never finished more than a few lessons because I see how bad my drawings are and feel very disappointed. People told me to just start and not care about the results, however that doesn’t seem to be working. I still hate the few drawings I made and don’t want to look at them. I hope that you don’t mind me asking for some advice on how to deal with this. I really want to be able to enjoy drawing again. — Suzanne
Suzanne, I hear you. I make so many awful drawings. I have for twenty years now. It’s most disheartening after I have stopped drawing for a period and decide to start again. I buy a fresh sketchbook, turn to the first page, and make something so ugly I just want to put it away and give up altogether.
Here’s what I do instead.
I get some scrap paper and a big fat marker and I just draw something with big and fat lines. I do that a bunch of times. Something about those big fat lines loosens me up. My drawing feels bolder and more confident and has a personality to it that I find appealing. The drawings that disappoint me are overly ambitious, they have crabbed and shaggy lines. I am hesitant and unsure of myself and it shows in the drawing. But somehow drawing with the big fat marker or a crayon gives me faith in what I’m doing and I believe once again that I can get to a better place.
These big fat drawings are just fun and have style and look like something appealing. I keep doing this for a few days and then I start to add a bit more detail with a slightly smaller pen to one of these big fatties. This helps me transition to drawing with more control and assurance.
It’s tempting, when you get back into drawing to put a lot of stock in every drawing you make and to come back to them again and again for proof of ones ability. They actually contain no evidence of that at ll. If you look at early Van Gogh drawings you see how ugly and crude they are. But when he pushed past those overworked disasters and kept going, he got looser and more confident and eventually became the master we revere. That took him a few painful years.
I know that “keep practicing” is not what you want to hear. Instead I suggest you keep playing. Play with fat lines. Play on scrap paper. Throw away ten drawings a day. Literally toss them in the bin. Commit to playing for a month and then see how you feel about drawing.
We call it “drawing” not “having drawn.” So enjoy the process and worry less about the results.
If you’d like to see the suggestions others made for Suzanne, here’s the post in the Sketchbook Skool group on Facebook.
Jürgen writes from Germany to ask,
When I start to draw a simple thing like a cup or glass of wine, that’s not a problem, because the lines are “clear” BUT when I try to draw a plant, a tree or something which seems to me complex, thanIfeel a very, very strong resistant in me, which blocks me and frustrates me. I tried to train to overcome this feeling, but I feel tired. It takes a lot of energy of mine.
Lovely to hear from you.
I think your problem lies in the phrase “something which seems to me complex.” The monkey in your brain is saying,”this is too hard. I can’t do it. ” You need to eliminate that sort of thinking by changing the lens in your brain.
Instead of seeing a tree, look at a branch. Or the intersection of two branches. Or where a twig meets a branch. Or the shape of a group of leaves. Study it for a minute and then draw just that section, leaving room on the page to continue the drawing beyond. If you need to, tell yourself, “I’ll just draw that little part of the tree and that’s all”.
Once you start examining this section you will gain confidence and be able to add more and more of the tree.
Here’s another approach: Square not your eyes so the tree is blurry and you can’t see details. Draw that shape. Then go in and add the biggest details. Then get smaller.
So, one approach is small to big. The other big to small.
Yet another way is to draw the negative space around the object. The sky behind the tree for instance. Do it slowly and accurately. Then go into the shape and start to add details. Again big to small.
Remind yourself that complex subjects are just a lot of simple objects joined together. Break them down, draw them one by one, and there’s nothing you can’t draw
I hope that’s helpful.