What I did this Summer

It’s been a while. The last you heard from me, I was whining about my extraordinary good fortune, that I had rented a painting studio for the summer to share with my son and how challenged I felt by this enormous hot fudge sundae.

And, while it may have appeared on this blog that I had disappeared into that studio and locked the door behind me for two months, I actually was absent because I gave myself an even bigger gift.

A summer off.

It wasn’t a deliberate plan at first. But despite my industrious and responsible nature, I decided to shirk more and more habits and rutware and see what grew in their place. And to see how much trouble I’d get in to for not showing up.

Studio.

I made a bunch of paintings and some sculptures. Despite my initial trepidation, I let myself go fairly wild with how I made them, experimenting with new media and working much bigger than usual. Most of the paintings were fairly large and the sculptures were all knee high but were installed in various sites as if they were monumental. In a few days, I’ll write a detailed post about what specifically I did and what I learned by doing it, but suffice it to say for now that going to the studio was a refreshing departure that helped me examine and combat a lot of those fears I had expressed to you a few months ago. I drew some but less than normal and didn’t keep any sort of illustrated journal at all.

Reading.

Usually, the summer is a great time to go to the movies. But over the past few years, the cinema has lost its appeal for me. I find most of the films really forgettable. I can think of two I have seen this year that I liked (Hunt for the Wilderpeople and The Lobster) and, because so many of my friends don’t seem to go the movies any more either, even they haven’t been good fodder for dinner party conversation.

Instead, I have watched TV and read books.

I made time to read a lot. I’d get up early and read before breakfast and go to be early and read for an hour every day. I read a fair amount of escapist crap as one should in the summer. I also read some fantastic books, many of them new. Many of these are memoirs and others are novels that feel like memoirs. Here are the ones that have really stuck with me, creating moods and insights that I keep coming back to as the best books do.

Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, Vol.4 of Karl Ove Knaussgard’s My Struggle, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Nix by Nathan Hill, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Ahmad.

I read some books about business and about creativity. The better ones include How to Fly a Horse by Kevin Ashton, Makers and Free, both by Chris Anderson, The Prize by Daniel Yergin, Let the Elephants Run by David Usher, Choose Yourself by James Altucher,  and Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Watching.

We watched a fair amount of TV when staying in the air-conditioned living room seemed the sanest plan. We watched the ABC series Lost on Netflix, a strange and endless tease which I hadn’t watched when it was first broadcast. It took the better part of the summer.

We watched the Olympics, although our initial enthusiasm waned over the two weeks of breathless coverage. Partly because living with a millennial for the summer who doesn’t get the Olympic quadrennial ritual and wonders why we need to watch hours of gymnastics and swimming when there 700 other things on to watch instead. And partly because I started to wonder the same thing.

The Election.

(Note: One thing that I have learned in a dozen years of blogging: avoid talking about religion or politics; it just ruins the party. But I’ll break that rule today to share how I have felt watching the election this summer.)

Since high school, I have always been a deeply committed election follower. I was a political science major at Princeton, a White House intern, and devoured all the classic books about campaigns like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter Thompson, The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, The Selling of the President by Joe McGinnis, and the various edition  The Making of the President by Theodore H. White.

I like following the campaign strategies, the unfolding dramas, the twists and turns. And, in at least four elections in my adult life, I have felt pretty passionate about one of the candidates running for office.

This election has been a gobsmacking, rubbernecking train wreck but it lacks the usual pleasures. There’ve been no real discussion of solutions, no traditional campaign strategy, and the result, despite the media’s shrill thrashings, has been forgone for some time. It’s like the 1972 Olympics in Munich — instead of watching a match of amazing accomplished competitors, we are watching a highjacking. It’s disturbing that at a time of such change in the world, this important opportunity for discussion has become just a referendum on two individuals. Like a lot of people in this country, I don’t feel much enthusiasm for either candidate, and I am just waiting for it to be over. Nonetheless, it’s hard to tear one’s self away from the spectacle. I just hope I can get back to enjoying the race next time.

Okay, back to more important things we can all agree on, like Sketchbook Skool.

Sketchbook Skool.

We are entering a new phase in the Skool’s development. It may not always be apparent from outside, but we do a lot of thinking and planning and replanning and rethinking about what the future of the Skool should be and if it should even continue at all. What began as an experiment almost three years ago grew into a business. And a passion project became a job. There are times it has been the best job I could imagine. At times, I have felt like I work for the worst boss ever: me.

This year, we had lots of ambitions, tried lots of experiments, and finally came to a maturing in the early summer that has made us all feel both excited and in balance.

We have created a number of new kourses this summer. We released Andrea Joseph’s Creative Lettering klass, one of our biggest launches
ever and people really love it.

We filmed another intensive kourse with Veronica Lawlor that we will be launching later this year. I am in the midst of creating a kourse called “How to Draw Without Talent” that I am having loads of fun with. And we have several new teachers segments in the can for another 6 week kourse to launch in the winter.

Jack and I even made a film (to be released soon) called “How to Draw Your Dog” featuring our two favorite canine mascots, Tim and Joe. We’ll share that soon.

We are also advertising on Facebook for the first time which has been a great way to welcome new people and has made us completely rethink how we present ourselves and what our Skool can be. It has also been fascinating, as a person who created advertising for thirty years, to be marketing my own business, and to be using new tools and technologies that work in such amazing ways. I can’t say I ever knew exactly how any ad I ever write really worked. Now I know on an hourly basis.

This summer we also committed to doing a Study Hall video for every single week of every kourse, a daily blog post that’s useful and inspiring, a weekly newsletter, a weekly video roundup of everything that’s going on in the community and to our first wave of Teaching Assistants, recruited from our alumni.

Our growth has had some pains. We have come to terms with the fact that our platform may not be right going forward and in the next few weeks, we will begin to transition in a hopefully seamless way to a new technology that is faster, more secure, and has lots of new features that will improve the Skool. It’s one of the most essential and most disruptive things we have to do (we changed platforms last year and it was like moving to a new country) and it’s taken many months to finalize the decision but it’s gotta be done.

We are also getting better at doing our jobs. For the first time, we are regularly getting planning and things done long before they are due, sticking to proper production and marketing schedules. And we are being realistic and focused in what we take on so we can get things done, and grow in the way we want to, to accomplish our personal and business goals.

Sketchbook Skool is a great part of my life and the lives of lots of other people, my colleagues, fakulty, and students. Keeping it viable and thriving is challenging but rewarding and this summer has been one of our most important chapters, even though much of that work has gone on behind the scenes.

Advertising.

I signed on to do a three-month project for a former client which will take me through early October. I can’t discuss the deets but it involves a sizable budget and a fair amount of autonomy.

It has been interesting to fire up those sections of my brain that have been under a tarp for three years and see if they still work. They do.

It has also been interesting to see how I have changed in the past three years, how differently I work, how differently I view the processes of big corporations and of the advertising business. I must say I much prefer how we do things at SBS. So much less bureaucratic, more decisive, more flexible — but so it goes. I don’t miss working full-time for the Man but an occasional visit is fine.

Jack.

My boy graduated this summer and has spent a couple of months working to save up for his move to Los Angeles in the fall. It has been great to have him here with Jenny and me but bittersweet because we all know it’s the last time he’ll really be living here. Soon he’ll start his new life, far away, and I am savoring every one of the moments we have left.

At the end of September, I plan to drive with him from New York to Los Angeles to help him get setup in his new apartment and to leave him the family car. Then I’ll fly home and he will begin his next chapter. Gulp.

Cooking.

We spent last Spring having our kitchen renovated and we love the results. Jenny and I have a beautiful, sunswept place to cook now and we are making the most of it, visiting the farmer’s market, ordering mystery boxes of artisanal veggies from Fresh Direct, and having an excuse to buy even more cookbooks. Our kitchen is so big and well designed that all three of us can work in it together, without knife fights or saucepan jousts.

Exercise.

Maybe it’s my demographic, but more and more of my friends and relatives are getting decrepit. They’re spending time in the hospital, struggling to reach their shoe laces, filling drawers with pill bottles. I want to avoid that. My shingles experience last Spring really brought that home. I have been ever more dedicated to working out with my trainer Keith, to avoiding french fries, double dip cones, and the sun’s rays. I am also realizing that I am not meant to be thin but that doesn’t mean I am meant to be fat. I am, however, meant to be baldish, it would seem.

Ideas.

This summer I began a new habit: I start each morning by writing down a bunch of ideas. Each day I concoct a different assignment and write down whatever occurs to me. It pumps my brain with blood, clears the cobwebs, and is a nice habit. Most of the ideas are worthless but the occasional one is worth developing and that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll share some of those lists with you here, in time.

Workbook.

I have a new book. It just came out at the end of August. It’s called Art Before Breakfast – the Workbook. It is designed to help you develop a creative habit, of drawing and seeing the world around you every day. If you have read Art Before Breakfast, you will recognize some of the content but it has been redesigned and expanded and printed on high quality sketchbook paper so you can not only carry it around with your for inspiration but also draw and write and even paint right in its pages. I hope you like it.

And if you prefer Frühstück to Breakfast, you will be glad to know that the original Art Before Breakfast is soon to come out in German. That will be the sixth edition foreign language, including Spanish, Russian, Korean, Mandarin and I forget the other one. Aussie?

The fall.

Well, I hope you had a great summer too. Do tell me about it.

School’s back in session, I have my new shoes, fresh haircut and sharpened pencils and will be at my workstation, posting semiregularly again. So get used to coming back to this same batchannel in future for more ruminations on all things creative.

56

Today I am 56.
That probably seems old, if you’re forty. Really old, if you’re twenty. Ancient, if you’re ten. Young, if you’re seventy. A mere kid, if you’re ninety.
Hitler killed himself at 56.
Lincoln was assassinated at 56.
Steve Jobs died at 56.
Beethoven too.
They’d all done more than me by now. But that’s okay.
When I was five, my grandfather turned 56. To me, he seemed oldish, grandfatherly, white-haired, bearded, but then he went on and on living for another forty-two years.
56 feels more or less the right age for me to me. I’ve done a bunch of stuff in these years. Got scars, wrinkles. Lost some hairs, no teeth. Lived. But I’m not done yet. Not by a long stretch.
Happy 56th to me. I’ve had three slices of birthday cake already today. I plan to have some more.

Let’s get rid of Art Education in schools.

Art, they say, is great for kids. Art and music programs help keep them in school, make them more committed, enhance collaboration, strengthen ties to the community and to peers, improve motor and spatial and language skills. A study by the College Board showed that students who took four years of art scored 91 points better on the SAT exams. At-risk students who take art are significantly more likely to stay in school and ultimately to get college degrees.

Awesome.

Nonetheless, arts education has been gutted in American public schools. A decade ago, the No Child Left Behind and Common Core programs prioritized science and math over other subjects. In LA County alone, 1/3 of the arts teachers were let go between 2008 and 2012 and, for half of K-5 students, art was cut all together.

After the recession of 2008, 80% of schools had their budget cut further. Arts programs were the first victims. And, predictably, lower income and minority students were the most likely to lose their art programs. Only 26.2% of African-American students have access to art classes. As the economy has improved, there is some discussion about reversing some of these cuts. But it is not enough.

IMG_2467
IMG_2467 They don’t need to be taught to be creative!

I’m no expert on education but I have spent a lot of time in school art programs over the past year.

In the lower grades, kids just have fun drawing and painting. They don’t really need much encouragement or instruction. In middle school, the majority start to lose their passion for making stuff and instead learn the price of making mistakes. Art class is all too often a gut, an opportunity for adolescents to screw around. By high school, they have been divided into a handful who are ‘artsy’ and may go onto art school and a vast majority who have no interest in art at all.

In short, every child starts out with a natural interest in art which is slowly drained — until all that’s left is a handful of teens in eyeliner and black clothing whose parents worry they’ll never move out of the basement.

Here’s a modest proposal: Let’s take the “art” out of “art education.”

“Art” is not respected in this country. It’s seen as frivolity, an indulgence, a way to keep kids busy with scissors and paste. “Art” is an elitist luxury that hard-nosed bureaucrats know they can cut with impunity. And so they do, making math and science the priority to fill the  ranks of future bean-counters and pencil pushers.

So I propose we get rid of art education and replace it with something that is crucial to the future of our world: creativity.

We need to all be creative in ways that we never could be before. We have so many wonderful tools that put the power of creation in our hands and we use them every day. Solving problems, using tools, collaborating, expressing our ideas clearly, being entrepreneurial and resourceful, these are the skills that will mattering the 21-century, post-corporate, labor market. Instead of being defensive about art, instead of talking about culture and self-expression, we have to focus on the power of creativity and the skills required to develop it. A great artist is also a problem solver, a presenter, an entrepreneur, a fabricator, and more.

Imagine if Creativity became a part of our core education…

IMG_5102
High schoolers develop a creative solution together.

Instead of teaching kids to paint bowls of fruit with tempera, we’d show them how to communicate a concept through a sketch, how to explore the world in a sketchbook, how to generate ideas, how to solve real problems. Theatre would be all about collaboration, presentation and problem solving. Music classes would emphasize creative habit, teamwork, honing skills, composition, improvisation.

We’d teach creative process, how to come up with ideas, how to find inspiration, how to steal from the greats. We’d teach kids to work effectively with others to improve and test their ideas. We’d teach them how to realize their ideas, get them executed through a supply chain, how to present and market and share them.

IMG_4138
Middle schoolers discussing a story through sketches.

We’d also emphasize digital creativity, focussing on cutting edge (and cheap) technology, removing the artificial divide between arts and science, showing how engineering and sculpture are related, how drawing and User Experience (UX) Design are facets of the same sort of skills, how music and math mirror each other. We’d teach kids how to use Photoshop to communicate concepts, to shoot and cut videos, to design presentations, to use social media intelligently, to write clearly because it is key to survival. We’d give kids destined for minimum wage jobs a chance to be entrepreneurial, to create true economic power for themselves, by developing their creativity and seeing opportunity in a  whole new way.

IMG_3485
IMG_3485 Here’s what 100 8th graders collaborating looks like.

Yes, I know that there are high-school video classes and art computer labs, but they need to be turned into engines for creativity and usefulness, not abstract, high falutin’ artsiness based on some 1970s concepts of self-expression. Don’t make black and white films about leaves reflected in puddles, make a video to promote adoption at the local animal shelter. Don’t do laborious charcoal drawings of pop stars, generate ideas on paper. Fill 100 post-its with 100 doodles of ways to raise consciousness about the environment or income inequality or saving water. Stop making pinch pots and build a 3-D printer and turn out artificial hands for homeless amputees.

(And, by the way,  if we teach kids loads of math and science but don’t encourage their creativity, they aren’t going to grow up to be great engineers and scientists and inventors and discoverers — just drones and dorks.)

Creativity is not a ghetto, not a clique, not something to be exercised alone in a garret. It’s also not a freakshow of self-indulgent divas and losers.

Creativity is about helping to solve the world’s many problems. We need to make sure that the kids of today (who will need to be the creative problem solvers of tomorrow) realize their creative potential and have the tools to use them. That matters far more than football team and standardized test scores.

What do you think?


Related Post: How to make anything

Why men don’t take art classes.

For a while, I have been wondering why the art conferences at which I speak are filled with women. Why most of the commenters on this blog are women. Why Jack’s class at RISD is predominantly female. Why the students of Sketchbook Skool are about 85% women.

Where are the men?

Certainly men seem to like to make art as much as women do. Half of the SBS fakulty are male. The museums and galleries I visit are full of work by men. In fact, women have long complained that the art world seems biased against them.

So what is it about art education that seems more interesting to women than men?I searched the web for answers. There weren’t many categorical ones but here are some of the clues I picked up.

In 2007, the NY Times had an article about why adult classes of all sorts seem much more popular with women. Tennis classes. Writer’s classes. Triathlon classes. All were 65-95% women. Here’s what a man who teaches wine tasting said of his students: “It’s argued that women are better tasters of wine than men. A higher percentage of women have more taste-bud receptors.” So maybe they are getting more out of the class. But, echoing others who lead classes, he added: “It may also come down to the fact that men think they know more about wine anyway, so they don’t need to learn more about it.”

In other words, men know more. Or think they do. No need to take classes. Why admit you are ignorant?

Is it that simple? Men go to golf pros. They read business books. They take coding classes. Maybe art classes teach skills that don’t seem concrete or finite enough for men? Do men just need more goal- rather than process- oriented activities?

I have also been following a heated debate on Reddit (where all debates are heated) about why there are so many more successful male artists than females. Here’s are some highlights.

One theory is about marketing, that male artists are more into promoting themselves than women.

“In my experience the successful artists are the ones who concentrate their time about half on the art and half on the selling of the art. …That is selling paintings, building relationships with patrons of the arts, raising money for their dance/theater/etc. company, writing grant proposals to non-profits etc. 

“…perhaps men are more drawn to the concrete and the rational and less to the expressive and emotional. This keeps them away from art statistically but those who do get into art spend more of their time with the rational part of marketing art and less with the expressive side or art. This may actually be the more important part of becoming a successful artist.”

And self-promotion is not encouraged in women:

“When you look at hugely successful female artists they are generally the ones that market themselves well and are obsessive about selling their art. However, women who promote themselves and their work intensely are often seen as ruthless social climbers.”

Another argument: Art is less practical so women can afford to indulge in it more than men.

“At the university level, women are more free to pursue educational interests without as much criticism. When a guy takes an art class, he’s usually expected to come up with a practical application of it as a justification. Anytime a show wants to make a joke about a father worried about a grown son’s directionlessness, they’ll say the son is studying some art/humanities degree, like dance, or theater, or English.

(But as you can see in the chart above, there are loads of men in ‘impractical’ fields like philosophy and classics too).

“when a woman cooks, it is her duty. When a man cooks, he is an artist.”

Or is it just that women aren’t valued for what they do — and so neither is their art? In fact, as Richard Florida’s research on creative professionals has shown, women earn about 40% less than men do in creative class employment. I’m not sure if the situation is as imbalanced in all skill professions.

A poster on Reddit says: “Women’s work isn’t valued on a ‘profound’ level in the same way that men’s is. The perfect example is cooking. Cooking is seen as a woman’s task, but the vast majority of celebrity chefs are men. Of the female celebrity chefs, how many are really valued for their ‘greatness’ vs. how many are famous for showing you quick and convenient ways to cook at home? In other words, how often do we talk about women’s Michelin stars?”

“….I always think of the quote, “when a woman cooks, it is her duty. When a man cooks, he is an artist.”

Another says that women’s art tends to be ghettoized:

“I don’t know enough about the art or cooking world to judge whether it’s because the stuff that women are creating doesn’t push creative limits enough to warrant that kind of recognition. What I do know is that in the fiction and poetry industries, women are expected to write in certain niches. Maybe a small portion of their work will transcend those niches, but they are rarely able to make an entire career out of writing the same stuff men write about, even if the quality is comparable. ….”

What do you think is behind the disparity? Why don’t men take art classes? And why, despite all those workshops and classes and conferences, aren’t women equally represented in the contemporary art world?

Update:  it’s not just America. 

The Resolution Solution

As the last pages are plucked off the calendar, it’s time to feel the pleasure of accomplishment and the pressure of regret. Regret at the things one intended to do over the year past but lacked the stick-to-it-iveness to, well, stick to it.

The waning days of December are a time of familiar patterns. Chestnuts, figgy pudding, wrapping paper cuts, family squabbles, and vows to launch the New Year with fresh and transforming habits. Gym owners rub their hands with glee at all the self-deceivers stuffed with goose fat renewing their dusty memberships, full of the great and ephemeral intentions. Would-be artists line up at the art supply store, baskets loaded with sketchbooks and palettes and workshop catalogs. Blog keepers vow, once again, to truly stick to their publicly announced pledges to post five times weekly.

Let’s zoom down from the heights of generalization to survey this particular oath breaker. Why is it so hard for me to adhere to my own intentions? Why do I still steal the occasional late-night tablespoon of Ben and Jerry’s? Why do days, weeks even, pass without my cracking the cover of my sketchbook? Why do I still gnaw my cuticles in the darkness of the movie theatre?

Let’s get more specific still. Rather than a blanket condemnation of my many shortcomings, let’s focus on my blog keeping and try to extract some lessons from its intermittence that might apply to other habit breaking.

  1. Time and place. When I am successful at regular writing, it’s because I get up early, pee, then sit right down at my desk. Before breakfast, I am done and posted. I don’t allow myself time to question whether or not I should bother to write today. I just get up, pee and write. I’ve said this here before — habits are easier to establish by tying them to a ‘sparking event’. In my case, peeing.

  2. Inventory. To lubricate this dry start, I think about what I want to write days in advance, then jot down a word or two that might be the basis for a post. When I sit down, bleary eyed, I have a grain of sand to drop in the oyster.

  3. Structure. I have a loose agenda for each weeks’ post. On Monday I write about things that have inspired me from the previous week, Tuesday and Thursday I freeform things like this, Wednesday I find or make a video, Friday is some sort of instruction. It’s not a rigid structure but it gives my ideas a trellis.

  4. Temperance. Certainly not drinking too much is a good idea, but what I mean here is that if I temper my ambitions, I am more likely to keep producing. For instance, I had a vague notion about what to write here today, but soon my ambitions swelled and I imagined writing a really long posts with scores of ideas, research, quotes… and the thought of all that work made me want to just crawl back in bed. Instead I said to myself, just write a paragraph or two and try to encapsulate the idea. Even though now it appears I am writing much more than that, I couldn’t have started with such a hike in mind. Just planning a slow jog to the curb to pick up the paper is a more fruitful place to start. Underpromise, overdeliver.

(Incidentally, long bits of writing are not an indication of industry. I find it a lot easier to go on and on than take the time to go back and prune. By now, you’re probably feeling the consequences of my editorial laziness.)

Before I commit myself to any new regimes in early 2016, I will think about how to help myself stay true.

  1. What are the sparks that I can connect to the habit to reinforce it? For example, if I want to draw every day, I should put a sketchbook by the coffeepot and draw the view out the kitchen window each morning as it perks.
  2. What sort of preparation can I make to make the new pattern easier to adhere to? If I want to avoid eating carbs, maybe I should start by clearing the pantry of cookies and the freezer of Chunky Monkey.

  3. What sort of structure can I give my habit so it isn’t just open-ended? If I want to go to the gym several times weekly, I can put a recurring appointment in my calendar and make sure nothing else gets booked at that time. And I can add details to those appointments, thinking through what sorts of exercises I want to do on any given day.

  4. How can I set realistic expectations? I can come up with reasonable goals that won’t be a barrier to my getting going — like drawing for ten minutes or walking for twenty minutes or not drinking caffeine after ten a.m. — goals that can then be inched forward over time as I adjust to the idea of the privation or activity.

In sum, I can be like a good parent. I can provide reasonable goals, set myself up with clear and achievable markers of success, be supportive and understanding without being either a wimp or a tyrant, and remind myself that failure is not catastrophic but just a detour from a path one I still return to.

Let’s do great things in 2016 but in a reasonable, supportive, human way. And let’s start by giving up regret.

Inspiration Monday: Filling the well.

Several experiences topped up my well of inspiration. Maybe they’ll feed you too.

I’ve been reading Brian Grazer’s book, A Curious Mind. Grazer is a mega-successful movie producer (Splash, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, etc) and he identifies curiosity as the key to his success, his creativity and a happy and engaged life. By having an open and enquiring mind, he has been comfortable with risk taking and exploration. Curiosity is the spark that kindles new creative explorations.

If you can look at learning a new skill, like, say, drawing, as a thing to learn about and explore, rather than an grim evaluation of yourself and your skills, you will make eager progress. If you are genuinely curious to learn about people, you will search out new connections and ask questions without preconceptions. If you are curious, you will not let the past hold you back. If you live a curious life, you will fill your head with a rich soup of influences, ideas and inspiration. You will make new connections which will lead to new ideas and creations.

As Glazer puts it, “Life isn’t about finding the answers. It’s about asking the questions.”

Last week, Jenny and I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Refuse the Hour, William Kentridge’s multimedia chamber opera. We went with zero knowledge about what the piece was about (Jenny impulsively bought the tickets on craigslist at the last minute). I vaguely knew of Kentridge as an artist but was surprised to think he had made a stage work. Turns out he has a rich resumé in many forms and has even staged operas at La Scala, the mecca of grand opera.

Refuse the Hour is about his lifelong fascination with time, its plasticity and relativity, and the piece brimmed with fresh insights. It combines a poetic script, incredible vocal performances enhanced with audio processing, mechanical musical sculptures, dance, an orchestra playing modified instruments and film projections that layer drawings over performances

What I took away from the evening was the incredible act of creative collaboration between a score of enormously talented people. The program fairly bulged with accomplishment. Each person — the dramaturg, the choreographer, each musician, the singers — had paragraph after paragraph of accomplishments. Honestly, any one of them could have been the headliner, but they all worked together in a joyous harmony. There were so many unusual intersections between the forms, it couldn’t possibly have come from a single creative mind.

One singer took a refrain from the script Kentridge read, and turned it into a aria running up and down the scales. Another singer then sang the same aria backwards into a megaphone, perfectly mimicking all of the reversed breaths and shifts. Then an artist played an array of airpumps venting through brass horns. Next a tuba and a modified trombone took over. Meanwhile, a flickering projection of Kentridge’s hand turning the pages of a sketchbook was layered on top of a couple fighting in a stark painted kitchen set in gorgeously coordinated graphic costumes. I could go on and I would never approximate the tapestry of ideas and skills on display.

Above all, the experience urged me to think of new ways I can collaborate with others in such an open and generous way. The power of Ours over Mine is immense and exciting.

BigMagicFinalI am also reading Elizabeth Gilberts’ latest book: Big Magic. The author of Eat Pray Love has become somewhat of a self-help guru and is now focussed on thinking about the creative process and how to overcome fear.

I really like the book. Liz has a wonderful, chatty writing style, confessional and inspiring. I was particularly caught up with one notion: that ideas are a life form that inhabit the world just like dogs and walruses and have a single purpose — to be made manifest. They appear to us creators and it is up to us to shun them or to adopt them.

If we do take them on, we now have a responsibility to show up and do the work to make them come to life. If we fail in holding up our end, the ideas will wither and then slip away. Ultimately it will then appear to someone else. Drag your feet if you must, but don’t be surprised if ‘your’ idea eventually blossoms attached to another artist’s name.

I love this idea. It takes away the pressure of judgment, of self-evaluation, and replaces it with a spark which it is up to us to kindle. We don’t own the idea. We are simply its collaborator. Liz’s perspective turns the wasteful drama of self flagellation into a joyous, if sweaty, dance.

What have you read, seen, experienced, or thought of recently that could inspire me and others? Please share your discoveries and help fill my well with inspiration.

The writer’s guide to essential gear.

I started writing when I was about six. Within a year or two, I had migrated to my mother’s manual typewriter and when I was seventeen, I finally bought the first typewriter of my own, an Olivetti Lexikon 82. I acquired my first word processor, a RadioShack TRS 80 Model 100, in 1983, then an Apple IIC, and then a long line of Macintoshes stretching all the way to the present.

olivettiBut my computer is just one of many tools I use to write with these days. When I was in college, writing my senior thesis about the social dynamics of 1960s political activists, I used yellow legal pads, index cards and Black Wing pencils to write the 400 pages of my first real book-like object.

trs80I do most of the spade work for all my writing in incremental chunks. Every book, every blog post, began as a series of little scraps, notions, inspirations that struck me often when I was far from my writing desk. I used to jot down thoughts on bits of paper, envelope backs, and receipts. Now I say them to my iPhone.

macAfter I’ve assembled all the scraps a mountain of these scraps, I begin to shuffle them around and pile them into chapters then sections and ultimately a book. And when I write, I rewrite. I go back over each sentence and rethink it, tighten it, replacing a sprawl of adjectives with a single taut verb.

IDEAS: Here are the tools that I use to glean my raw materials, and then shape them into something that deserves to sit on a shelf.

Evernote: My life revolves around this app. It’s a huge database of notes, links, pictures, scans, boarding passes, receipts, quotes that I have assembled over the past few years, all assembled into digital notebooks and tagged with labels. I access it on my laptop, my phone and my iPad. I’m writing this blogpost in Evernote because it’s so convenient.

evernoteIf I am walking down the street and a thought hits me, I whip out my phone and put it in Evernote. Many times I don’t even type it, I can record a note or even have it transcribe my words as I walk. If I am reading an article online, I highlight a quote for future reference, click on the Evernote plugin in my Chrome browser and, boom, it’s added to the data mountain. But unlike the cocktail napkins and matchbook covers of yore, these notes are all easily located and connected to other relevant bits and bobs. I even have photos of all my lightbulbs on it so when I’m at the hardware store I always know what size to buy for the spotlights in the living room. Evernote is a miraculously good thing and I couldn’t write or even function well without it.

Do Note: This is an app for the iPhone which provides shortcuts for the usual process of writing myself a note. In the past I would have to 1) open my email app, 2) put in my email address, 3) write a subject line, 4) write the note to myself, And then 5) send it to myself. With Do Note, I simply open the app, write the note, and push a button. My note now appears in my email, or goes directly into Evernote. Many of these notes are just one word, a clue that will jog my memory and help me reconstruct the thoughts later on.
do itBy making it so simple I can write with one hand, Do Note has made it much easier and more likely that I will record and later developed these little ideas. And we little bit of tweaking, I can write shortcuts to all sorts of other things, allowing me to make a tweet with just one hand or even Post to my blog with the push of a button.

I used to use a notebook and pen to record midnight flashes of inspiration but it would mean turning on the light and waking up fully. Do Note lets me remain half-asleep and still jot down my thoughts and sent to myself for later reference.kindle

Kindle app: I have a paperwhite Kindle and is a fantastic reading device. But I also use the Kindle app on my phone and on my iPad. This app allows me to hight and copy lines from books I’m reading and instantly save them to Evernote for later reference.

LONG-FORM WRITING: Once I’ve gathered all of these many bits and pieces, it’s time to sit down and write a longer piece like a presentation or a book. At this stage, organizing all this information is often half the battle. I generally create an outline of sorts, not the formal sort we learned in high school, but more of a mental map that will guide me to the finish line. I want to sort all of my little thoughts and references into buckets and then arrange those groupings into a larger structure. For this, I use two apps for the Macintosh.

Mind Node: this app has replaced the hand-drawn diagrams I used to make in my sketch book. I usually create a sort of tree with branches connecting different thoughts and expand them into their component parts. But doing it on paper made it much harder to rearrange that structure as I work. I’d have to completely redraw all of the elements to make a change and things tended to get messy and harder to follow. Mind Node allows me to simply drag these branches around into different relationships. And it makes them into pretty colors as well.

mind nodeI also use Mind Node to create to do lists as well, because it allows me to empty my brain of all of the projects I am working on and create a single List that give me an overview of everything that’s on my plate. I create a higher level category and then break it down into its component parts. When I’m done I can see everything I have to do laid out for me in actionable pieces.

Scrivener: this is a heavy-duty professional writing tool. It allows me to create structure, to write in a clean and uninterrupted environment, to build in small bites, and then to format to various industry standards. Scrivener is a complex application and it took me months to understand most of its capabilities but it makes it possible to write a long presentation or a complete manuscript for book in a way that a regular wordprocessing application never can. I can put all of my research into it and I can break down my long piece of writing into manageable small parts, almost like writing on index cards that then weave them together to form one unbroken manuscript.

scrivenerIt also makes it easy to see the forest and then the trees, zooming in and out all of the structure of the book so that I feel in control of an otherwise unwieldy mass of tens of thousands of words.

I used to have to print out my entire book and shuffle hundreds of pages around on the floor. No more — I can save trees and proceed with confidence. Scrivener has helped me to take risks and gain clarity. I used it to write Art before Breakfast and Shut Your Monkey and to keep track of dozens of blog posts over the last couple of years.

Dictation: Writing and drawing are physical activities and they take a toll on my body. I’ve long been plagued with headaches that come from hunching over my keyboard and using a self-taught method of hunt and peck typing. After a long and uninterrupted binge of writing or, even worse, editing a film, all of that unnatural pressure on my thumbs and wrists causes tension in my shoulders and neck resulting in headaches that can last for four or five days. I’ve used various mechanical aids to get around this problem, but the best solution is to be more moderate in my output.

laptopOne way around this problem is to dictate my words rather than pound them out on the keyboard. Over the last decade or so I’ve watched this technology get better and better, and it is reached near perfection with the dictation function of my Macbook Pro. This is built right into the system and it works really well. In fact I’m using it to write this blog post today.

Now, dictating tends to create writing that is different in tone than writing that is, well, written. I can’t quite put my finger on it, as it were, but writing via dictation tends to make things a little more formal and less fun. Somehow dictation puts me in the mood of ordering some robotic slave around, and I tend to be a little more imperious and commanding than I do when I have keys under my fingers or a pen in my hand. Nonetheless it is an effective tool for getting my thoughts down and on I can polish things up with the keyboard and lighten things up afterwards.

InDesign: I’ve not only written and illustrated most of my books, I’ve also designed them. That means ultimately creating final files that I can send to my publisher and they can send to the printer. It’s a lot of work but it allows me to make books that reflect my style and vision.

I use InDesign CC not because I love it but because Adobe forces me too. I’m not a big fan of having applications that are so strongly tied to the cloud because they make it more difficult to work off-line and seem to be updating themselves a couple of times a week just as I want to get to work, but this is the most up-to-date form of this indispensable application. I’ve used it, and a now pretty-much defunct program called Quark Express, for 30 years and it is pretty much second nature at this point.

Canon MX922: In the last century, when I designed my first books, getting a production-worthy scan of a piece of art meant sending it to a service bureau to have a drum scan. That could cost a fair amount of money and slow down the process. But scanner technology has advanced so far and become so cheap that I’ve been able to make three books in a row using a $75 multi-function Canon scanner. It’s a bit limited in size but I tend work small so it’s rarely a problem.iphone

I even found that my new iPhone 6S Plus takes really clear photos from my sketchbook that, with a bit of tweaking in Photoshop, can work as final art. It really makes the workflow move along and allows me to experiment without hesitation.

BLOGGING: It may not seem like it but this blog takes a fair amount of work. It’s not just a matter of coming up with ideas, but also writing posts, editing images, and designing overall look of each page and the blog itself. I’ve developed a toolkit just to cope with this because I know that if the process is cumbersome, my monkey will have many excuses to procrastinate. The smoother I can make the process, the more likely I am to get my thoughts out to you.

Draft: I hate Word. For decades, this Microsoft dinosaur has been sprouting claws and additional tails and horns and useless, complicating features that make a simple writing tool feel like the cockpit of a Space Shuttle. These features were designed by marketing people, to give the illusion that this application is progressing, rather than trying to be a useful tool for writers.
I told you above about how Scrivener is really useful for longform writing. But when it comes to writing a blog post, I want a clean empty environment. No bells, No whistles, no formatting options even, just a blank screen the blinking cursor. That’s why I use Draft.

draftIt’s a website, not even an application. And it simply provides me with a clean page on which to write my thoughts. Draft even has a ‘Hemingway mode’ that remove all distractions, even the delete key so you can just concentrate on getting the idea onto the screen without worrying about rewrite — you can always fine-tune it later. Draft is not the final stop on my creative journey, it’s simply the place to write something fairly short like a blog post. And then I can copy and paste those characters into another place, like WordPress, in order to do the final tweaking and formatting to express my intentions most clearly.

wpWordPress: I use WordPress.com because, after trying many other options over the past twelve years, I have my blog where I like it: clean, distinctive and with just enough features to make it useful. Tumblr and blogger are too barebones while WordPress.org is the opposite, super customizable, allowing you to host your site anywhere and add lots of plugins with cool features. However I know from also managing the sketchbookskool.com blog that it can be a drag to keep updated. WordPress.com just takes care of all the action under the hood and leaves me to blogging. Plus, I have a special custom theme that makes it look pretty distinctive.

bucketImageBucket: Each of my blog posts has at least one image, many of which begin as fairly large Photoshop files. I can save them as smaller files in Photoshop but I like to use image bucket, a Macintosh app, to down-res batches of images or to quickly knock out a 72 dpi version of a large tiff file. It works quickly and mindlessly it is therefore a regular part of my toolkit.

VIDEOS: I love making films and, in many ways, the process is like writing so I’ll share my filmmaking process with you too.

My kit now has fourcameras:

camera 3– At the top of the heap is my Canon 7D which I generally use with a 50 mm lens. I also use a wide-angle (16-35 2.8 L II), a macro (100 2.8 LI1.8), and an all-purpose zoom (24-70 2.8 LII).
– My favorite camera these days is the small, gorgeous Canon G7X. It is infinitely customizable, has a display that flips up so I can frame myself in a shot, and fits in my pocket. It’s a pretty miraculous bit of gear.
– I also have a butt-simple Canon Vixia HFR40 camcorder which I originally bought to take along on our cross-country trip. The images and sound are pretty great and it’s a basic point-and-shoot, perfect for those moments when I don’t want to monkey around with technical considerations.
– My new iPhone 6S Plus shoots 12 Megapixel stills and 4K video — which is insane for a cel phone. It will definitely become indispensable as a camera too.

fcpxFinal Cut Pro X: I think FCPX is, despite the derision of many of my professional editor friends, an incredible cutting platform, especially at $300. We cut all of the Sketchbook Skool videos on it and it works like a dream. If you wonder how good it is, sign up for a kourse at SBS and see for yourself.

vimeoVimeo: We host all of our videos on Vimeo because it has real respect for the art of filmmaking. There’s no advertising and full control over the appearance of embedded videos, including making them private and passworded. I’ll often copy videos over to YouTube as well, just to stay on Google’s good side, but there’s just no comparison. Vimeo’s also a great place to browse and be inspired.

AND FINALLY: I have a lousy desk chair. I’ve tried an Aeron, a yoga ball, standing, and now I have given up and just use a chair from the dining table. They all leave me feeling tight and achy and lead to the headache situation I described above.

pomodoroThat’s where Pomodoro Pro come in. It’s a really simple idea, a timer on my computer and phone that divides my day into 25-minute work increments, followed by 5 minutes of rest. It is intended to keep your nose to the grindstone, your attention undivided and focussed on the task at hand. For me it does the opposite, reminding me to stop, stretch and take a breather. The timer just went off so I’ll stop now.

I hope this has been useful. If so, why not sign up for future updates from my blog. Just drop your email in the box at the top of the column on the right.