What is a genius anyway?

Listen to me discuss creative genius (not that I’m an expert!), sketchbook keeping, creative habits, SketchKon,  and much more on Art Opening(s)a wonderful podcast, from the Artists Network. Listen here.

Also:

  • The four genius archetypes of art history…
  • Who can be a genius–and who can’t…
  • How creative habits are the antidote or leveler of the genius myth…
  • What drawing and sketching can show about the nature of genius…
  • Drawing’s ability to make us all geniuses–and dunces…
  • Suitable eulogies for the artistic genius…

You are not alone

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.

Authors: Ivan Doig

In December, after months in my desk chair, I reseated myself in a saddle on a brown quarter horse. Jenny and I went back to a guest ranch in Southern Arizona and rode horses twice every day for a week. My phone didn’t work. My laptop was 2500 miles away. For hours on end, I looked at cacti, rocks, birds, clouds and horses’ tails. And my brain uncramped and stretched out to the horizons, not thinking about anything particular, unfettered by time and space.

When I wasn’t riding or eating or playing cards, I was reading. I’d packed my Kindle with ranch appropriate materials; two disappointing Elmore Leonard Westerns, the Assassination of Jesse James By Ron Hansen and English Creek by Ivan Doig.

I’d never read Doig before. I’d noticed his name on the shelves of Three Lives in the West Village but always dismissed him, thinking he was Russian (I think I confused him with Gogol or Gorky or some such). Amazon insisted that I might like English Creek. And, boy, did I.

English Creek is not about an English creek. Or a Russian one either. It takes place in the 1930s in a small town in Montana, the story of one summer in the life of a 14-year-old boy whose dad is in the forestry service and whose brother has just fallen in love with the wrong girl and left home to work on a big ranch. But this description, like the fly leaf blurb, does it scant justice.

The books is really about the fleeting nature of time, how a single summer can reshuffle the deck of one’s life, how people a century ago lived the same dramas we do, how a single mistake can rewrite the future. Sure, it’s also about the grueling work of a rancher, about the scary loneliness of sheep farmers high in the mountains, about the brutal indifference of nature, about rodeos, piles of sheep corpses, and forest fires. So, on one hand, it’s about a world and people that are living lives so unfamiliar, and on the other, like all great literature, it’s about the essential dramas all humans live through, regardless of time and place.

After English Creek, I read Dancing at the Rascal Fair, the next volume in a trilogy but which actually takes place two generations earlier, when the first settlers came from Scotland. It’s an even more grueling story of making something from nothing, a seemingly impossible task that the characters manage to muddle through, and features another central character distracted by an ill-advised romance. Covering decades, it’s much more epic than Creek but ultimately less satisfying.

It’s the language of English Creek that enticed me most. It’s not stylized to fit the time or genre like Leonard and it’s not baroque in describing the terrible beauty of nature. It’s human, timeless, and true. Doig isn’t perverse like say, Cormac McCarthy, but he’s not afraid to describe terrible things when they are a part of a raw and essential life. His people speak and behave like real people, individual, relatable. I had the deep sense of being in their lives, of being transported. As I sat astride my own steed, I’d mentally page back through what I’d read the night before, feeling rooted to the earth, to my horse, to the past, to America, to a wonderful author who, fortunately, left behind many more books for me to read.

Authors: Min Jin Lee

For most of my reading life, I loved to slowly graze through bookshelves. At least once a week, I’d spend a good couple of hours just browsing, usually in a used bookstore, not discriminating between genres, prices, pub. dates, or authors’ backlists. I would stand and stare at spines, then hinge out one book after another, reading jacket copy, flyleaves and a paragraph or two plucked at random. Sometimes I’d emerge with an armful, sometimes empty-handed. The hunt was the fun.

Things have changed a lot as bookstores have been increasingly usurped by websites. Now I am forced to hopscotch on a course based on others’ opinions and algorithmic recommendations. I am a difficult read, I imagine. — I consume history, pulp fiction, thrillers, classics, science, nature guides, how-to, how-not-to. Genre is an unreliable guide of what will strike my fancy. But Amazon thinks it knows me and serves up minor variations on the themes and authors I’ve already exhausted.

I used to judge a book by its cover. But now books appear on my Kindle as tiny greyscale icons. I can barely read their titles. Looking for any sort of guidance, I read a lot more newly published books and best sellers than I ever have. And I find I abandon many books mid-course, a practice I would never have permitted when I was younger and much more loyal or maybe just forgiving.  Now I know time is growing shorter and the options seemingly infinite. Lose me in the first hundred pages and I’ll find another book on the fishes in the sea.

Certain books keep appearing in my recommendation list. Years ago, I read Free Food for Millionaires.  I barely remember much more about it than I liked it.  But Amazon wants me to read Pachinko, also by Min Jin Lee. It’s a National Book Award finalist. I tend to be attracted to award nominees, just because they blink brighter in the endless sea of books, appearing to ensure quality in the bottomless fathoms of self-published crap and mystery novels with “Girl” in the title.

Finally, I give in and click over to read the description. A book about Christian Koreans in Japan in the 1930s? Uh, no. None of that is interesting. But Amazon insists and Pachinko shows up again and again, “Inspired by your purchases”. Inspired!

I give in again and download the sample. It begins in a boarding house for Impoverished fisherman. Again, not something I care about. But slowly I do start to care. The sample hooks me and begins to reel in. I start to care about these people. Their fastidiousness.  Their morality. The strangeness of the situation. The unfamiliarity contains the familiar.  The language is as crisp and clean as sun-dried bed sheets.

And even though it’s foreign and historical, it’s honest. Discussion of bodily functions, of sexuality, of wavering morals are all modern and not wrapped in pious bullshit. People speak and act like people. They are very different from me and yet the same.

The book is longish, something I tend to forget on my Kindle which holds so many books of so many lengths. But it contains so much. It follows one generation then another, interweaving stories, throwing characters into impossible situations and then fishing them out, dripping with regret or discovery, forgiveness or shame, setting them back on their pins to struggle forward. It’s epic and yet so personal.

The whole mystery of Korea, of what it is, where it comes for, how it has been shaped by history, where it fits into my world, all become clearer with each page. Not in a didactic way but through story, through the way global conflict inflicts itself on little lives, how they groan under its weight, how they struggle on.  I learn but also feel how poverty inevitably creates criminality, how religion provides succor and delusion, how nuanced and brutal racism is in every society.

One of the characters in the book manipulates the pins in his Pachinko machines so customers’ balls are guided to certain outcomes.  That’s how I felt reading the book, pinging between events and people, bouncing across the story, on a long and surprising journey crafted by a master of physics, story, and the human mind. I don’t mean Amazon (though that too) but Min Jin Lee, whose next books I will immediately download when it appears on my recommendation list.

Authors: Karl Ove Knaussgaard

Life is a relentless bombardment of experiences. Each day is the same yet different. I am writing this on an airport terminal, one like so many I’ve sat in before, but just now a sparrow flew past and landed on the luggage scanner, a reminder that the humdrum of modern flight is still a miracle. Life is amazing but you need to pay attention.

Karl Ove Knaussgaard takes the minutia of his life and zooms in more and more to reveal the miracles that lie within all those gray moments we all take for granted. He recalls the ambitions and delusions of adolescence so sharply that they force me to dust off my own memories, to look beyond the familiar packaging and remember how it really felt to be fifteen, horny, dreamy, arrogant, and afraid, vivid reminders that force me to also shake off my torpor of this moment and come a little more awake. He recreates the anxieties and chaos of parenting small children and the lurking fear of mortality our parents come to embody as we age.

Knaussgaard, whether filling pages with the experience of eating an apple, cramming on a rubber boot, changing a diaper, or losing a parent, delivers such particularity that it becomes universal. Last weekend, his NY Times Magazine cover story revealed simple truths about how Russians view themselves that demystified and humanized them in a way I’ve never experienced before.

The candor, intensity, banality, and epic scale of his books can be an ordeal and no one has ever taken me up on my Knaussgaard recommendations. But I love sharing space in my brain with his, seeing through his eyes, inhaling his second-hand smoke and familiar human fragility.

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?

Someone’s been monkeying with my sketchbooks.

Yesterday I had to pick out a few representative watercolors from my sketchbooks to share with a magazine editor who asked to include my work in an upcoming issue. I didn’t have a scan that was high enough resolution, so I decided to go through my sketchbook archive and shoot some new ones.

But something odd happened.

After going through the first few books, I started to wonder why they all looked so dull. The colors were washed out. I turned on more lights in my darkened living room but they still looked lifeless. But there was more to it than just the vibrancy.  The brush work seemed primitive and half-finished.  And the lines were dreadful and crude. Page after page, the drawings I knew so well looked just, well, bad.

How could I send any of these things to a magazine devoted to watercolor art? It was laughable. How had I ever had them published in books? How had I dared share them on the Internet? Had I ever done a single drawing that was any good at all?

I flipped through more books. Nope. They were all dreadful. Every last one.

Maybe they had faded over time? Nope. They were all stored, closed, in a light-proof cabinet, closed. Maybe the iPad was affecting my ability to look at analog colors? I looked through my Instagram page. Nope, they were all dreadful too. I clearly do not know how to draw and have been pulling off some massive con on the universe and myself. This magazine editor was clearly deluded in thinking she should include me in her publication and would soon lose her job.  Hmmm.

Today, Something has happened to them again.

I went back, looked through the images I’d picked, then flipped through a few of the books on the shelf, then looked at my Instagram. Not so bad. In fact, I liked quite a lot of them. Wonky, sure, but with style and a POV. I’m glad I made them. Whew.

A cautionary tale. Maybe it’s because it’s so stupidly cold. Or because I haven’t been sleeping terribly well. Or because, well, I’m me. But I can’t always rely on my judgement of the given moment. I need to trust myself, and others over the long run, and meanwhile just keep my head down and keep making stuff. It doesn’t matter if it sucks. Especially if I’m going to think it sucks so much I stop making anything altogether.

Does this ever happen to you?