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.
Two summers ago, I bought a new iPad. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it because, frankly, I’ve spent a long time drawing in a sketchbook with pens and brushes and the idea of making digital art seemed kind of icky.
But the Apple Pencil intrigued me, so I made it my summer project to learn to use it to make some art. I figured, worst case, I’d give up and just use it for Facebook and Netflix.Continue reading “Me, myself and iPad.”
Last week we went to Florida and basically sat on our pasty butts by the pool, guzzled cheap beer, ate fish, read books, played cards, and napped.
I read:Continue reading “What I did on vacation.”
A little video about a little dog.
I just uploaded a zillion sketchbook tours from various random points in my library. They’re all on my YouTube channel now and now magically embedded here too.
It’s to celebrate the launch of our new kourse, A Zillion Ways To Fill Your Sketchbook. This kourse is pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. It’s basically an encyclopedic review of what is so freaking amazing about sketchbook art. Trust me, my feeble tours are a mere blip in the firmament of this vast masterwork. Hope you’ll join us.
Meanwhile, here’re the trailer and a dozen tours.
Why do you want to start drawing?
Wait, let me rephrase that — you probably don’t want to start drawing. You want to be be really good at drawing.
To pick up a pen, grab some paper, and effortlessly draw anything, perfectly, beautifully, dazzling your friends and confounding your enemies. You want to be the next daVinci, to knock out portraits indistinguishable from photographs, to replace your vacation snapshots with breathtaking watercolors, to have gallerists, collectors and reviewers clamoring outside the doors of your sunswept Tuscan studio. And you have to start somewhere.
But deep down, you fear that you’ll never get to be great. It’ll be too hard, you’ll just give up, and instead of pride, you’ll be besieged by self-recrimination. Your dust-covered sketchbook will be just one more reminder of your failed attempts to achieve your dreams.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Seriously. Here’s how I know. I’ve been helping folks to start drawing for ages but more importantly, I have helped myself to start drawing. And by teaching myself, I have learned a few things that could help you to get past those first few challenging steps. So this story is less about drawing techniques than it is how to incorporate drawing into your life, how to keep yourself motivated, and how to learn to learn.
How to accurately measure progress: So many fledgling artists focus on the horizon, then trip over their own feet and fall flat. They began by focussing on the end result of learning, that perfect drawing, then despair when each line they make fails to achieve that goal. What they are overlooking are all the individual steps they are making towards that objective, the small but crucial improvements they are making every day. I know this because it happened to me too. Early on, I’d flip through my first handful of pages and grimace. They all sucked. I sucked. And I’d never get any better.
But, had I been paying attention, had I been willing to be objective instead of brutally critical, I would have noticed how much actual progress I’d been making. That my lines were more confident. That I’d tackled complex new subjects. That I was starting to see how to really see. When I look back on my early sketchbooks now, I can see that, even after a month or two, I was getting better and better. But at the time, all I could think was: “I will never get there.”
Why? Because instead of comparing me with me, I was comparing me with da Vinci, with my friend the professional illustrator, with all the artists who’d inspired me to want to start to draw. The first bar was way too high. I’d just started to jog and was beating myself up for not running a marathon in under three hours.
It’s essential to recognize that your judgement of your own progress is far from accurate. I guarantee you are doing better than you think you are because again, your perspective is distorted by the dream you have of where you want to get to. And because you feel like an impostor who’s pretending to be an Artist but can’t draw a stick figure. So stop obsessing on on how far you have yet to travel and check out the ground you’ve already covered. Spend less time on self-criticism and more on your next drawing.
How to draw like a natural: Another crucial lesson: don’t skip ahead. Keep working on the basics. Draw simple objects. Draw your lunch. Draw a shoe. Just stick to using a black pen. Don’t plunge into portraiture or three-point perspective or advanced watercoloring. Develop your confidence in the building blocks of drawing: lines, angles, measurements (I explain more in my kourse, How To Draw Without Talent).
And if you can’t quite capture what you’re seeing yet, write down your observations. Draw an arrow to the drawing that explains how the shadow looks, point out the highlight, record what you are learning. Just the act of writing information down, helps your memory retain it. Then look for other examples of what you have observed.
The more actively you engage, the more the lessons become second nature. And that’s really where you want to be, to draw without having to think, to intuitively translate what you see into line son the page. But, like learning to walk, to tie your shoe, to throw a ball, to drive a car, it takes lots of repetition to build the neural connections that make a new skill feel natural.
How to motivate yourself: And of course, if you don’t want to practice, you won’t. It’s crucial to stay motivated, even if you’re not on the verge of a career retrospective at the Guggenheim.
One way is to set yourself small goals that you know you can achieve. For instance, do a drawing every day. Even if it’s just for two minutes, pick up that pen. Or commit to filling an entire sketchbook in the next month. Then celebrate by buying a new art tool. I spent a year drawing with one type of black pen. Then I allowed myself one grey brush marker. A month later, I added a different grey, and slowly worked my way up to a bag full of color markers over a year. The next year, I bought myself a cheap watercolor set. The year after that, a really good watercolor set, and so on.
Try focussing on a single daily subject for a month. Pick a subject you find interesting but don’t try to make an “art statement”. It’s just a theme to practice variations upon. I drew my teacup every single morning. I drew a selfie every day. The view out my kitchen window. Cars on my block. A photo from the front page. Now I draw a dog every day. I get a sense of accomplishment when I see how much I am drawing, not just how “well” I am drawing.
Whenever you complete a sketchbook, spend some time with it. Look back at each page, study what you did, how your work has changed. Get out your phone and make a video as you flip through the pages. Share it online with friends you can trust. Their support and encouragement will help keep you going.
Three facts to write in the inside cover of your sketchbook:
1. Never compare yourself to other artists. Don’t compare your first drawing to their reproduction in a coffee table book. Let their progress inspire but not intimidate you. Compare you to you. That’s all that counts.
2. You’re making more progress than you think. You may not see it but it’s happening with every page. Guaranteed.
3. Everyone struggles at the beginning. Check out early van Gogh drawings. Awful. Struggle is normal, inevitable, a positive sign that you are working things through. Your early drawings are zero indication of what you will achieve in time. Zero.
I hope this helps. Remember, you can do it.
This post was originally written for the Sketchbook Skool Zine. If you liked it, consider subscribing. It’s free and full of interesting stuff.
When I was nine, my first stepfather would let me tag along to the computer room in the basement of Australian National Uni. It was a big room with lino floors and rows of clacking mainframes. Bill would hand a big cardboard tray full of index cards over to a grad student with muttonchops who would feed his math program into the computer’s maw. Tape reels would whirr, lights would flash, printers would clatter, while we would sit and wait for the results.
On the wall over the computer bank, there was a gigantic picture of a naked lady printed out on green and white striped computer paper. Upon closer inspection (and I inspected it very closely, it being a naked lady and all), it turned out to be made entirely of numbers and letters, what was known as ASCII art. To nine-year-old me, this piece of early nerd porn was both fascinating and terrifying. And that sentiment has more or less characterized my feeling about computer art ever since. I want it — and I am repelled by it.
In 1984, I got my hands on my first 128 K Macintosh. It came with a super crude application called MacPaint (it cost $125!) that let you draw in black and white. No color, no grayscale, just a bunch of simple textures. It was like painting in tweed holding a cinderblock with a catcher’s mitt. I fiddled around with it for ten minutes, then went back to the miracle of wordprocessing.
Later that year, I came upon a ground-breaking book called Zen and the Art of the Macintosh: Discoveries on the path to computer enlightenment which introduced me to the idea that you could somehow get all kinds of photos and calligraphy and textures (Woodgrain! Thumbprints!) into your computer and add them to your desktop publishing. Seriously, ye people of the 21st century, this was a Gutenberg moment for me — it rocked my world.
Next revelations to come down from the mountain in the later ’80s: Quark Xpress and Illustrator 88. The first helped me churn out reams of books, posters, and fake magazine articles, on my purloined laser printer. The latter confused and frustrated me. I couldn’t figure out how to cut paths or turn lines into curves, there was no preview mode, and drawing with a mouse was still as alien and annoying as Jar Jar Binks. I could write and publish entire books but I couldn’t draw even a smiley face to serve as an author photo.
Through the 1990s, I admired and hired illustrators who worked in Photoshop and Illustrator, making gorgeous airbrushed looking paintings with style and character and I’d beg them for tutorials only to stop them midway and throw my mouse down in disgust. This wasn’t drawing. It was engineering.
Next potential breakthrough, the holy tablets of Wacom. Finally, I had a thing that was sort of like a pen (only super-stiff, unresponsive, and plasticy) but I’d have to draw down here on the tablet while looking up there at my screen. Then I’d have to constantly reposition my cursor, right click things, open windows, command- this or that, and it all felt unnatural and mawkish. Worst of all, I would draw like I was word processing, putting a line down, then immediately going back to erase and redo it, then make it bigger, then lasso it and nudge it over, then look through some filters, then reduce it, shift the colors, blah blah… It was nothing like the directness and simplicity of a pen in a sketchbook, my own true love. Again, I met loads of artists who strummed their tablets like Andrés Segovia but I just tied my fingers into knots.
Ten years ago or so, my boy David Hockney started sharing his first iPhone drawings. He drew them in bed with his index finger while still having his first cuppa. Then in 2009, Jorge Colombo, a guy I’d met around town and who seemed like a regular human being, published the very first New Yorker cover drawn with his index finger on the iPhone. Come on! A New Yorker cover?! With the finger?
Next up, the first iPad. I got one days after it was released in 2010. I immediately downloaded a drawing app called Brushes, cracked my knuckles, polished my fingertips — and made utter, breathtaking crap. I tried a couple more times but it was awful. I hated the lag, the feeling of the glass, the garish colors, the interface…. I went back to using my pen to draw with and my index finger to scratch my butt and pick my nose.
Ever so often I would see some insane masterpiece drawn on the iPad and I would whine, whimper, and order a new stylus. They all turned out to invariably to be metal sticks with felt balls at the end, like spindly QTips that balked and scraped, a long cry from my favorite drawing pens. When France Belleville Van Stone showed me her digital sketchbooks done with the Paper app and a plastic thing that looked like a carpenter’s pencil, I broke down and spent too much money buying my own. It broke the first day I used it. Back to the sketchbook.
(To be continued…)
A few years ago, I had great fun making a series of Sketchbook Films with my old pal and genius, Tommy Kane. After bugging him for months, I finally got Tom to join me in making a brand-new film about Marcy Singer.
I first met Marcy when I taught a class at the Open Center in New York and apparently I gave her an idea that led to an enormous project. I said, “why not draw while you watch TV? Just use the DVR to freeze the frame and sketch what’s on the screen.”
An ardent hockey fan, she decided to draw every single game the NY Rangers play and has now filled many sketchbook with wonderful drawings and watercolors. It’s a great story about how drawing changes how you see things and deepens your experience and your passion.